Our Culture of Denial
I was on a date. It was a good date, a date filled with sparkling conversation over micro-brewed beer with a brilliant engineer my scientific father would be pleased to call "son." Things were going swimmingly as we swam in the depths of the other's eyes and bonded over a shared love of all things wonderfully nerdy, until... he asked me if I "believed in" global warming. I laughed. "It's not like it's Santa Claus or something." But as I raised my eyes to his cooling expression, I knew immediately that he was one of those–a denier. And he knew I was one them–the climate change believers. The magic dissipated, and my sky that moments ago was alight with possibility, now only held the smoky contrails of where fireworks once had been. Once, he may have thought I was bright, but now I wore the deeply challenged visage of what could only be a near-drooling believer.
I walked home that night thinking of my father. My father, who had studied earth science all his life, held an advanced degree in geochemistry, and had been published in a number of peer-reviewed scientific journals. My father, who said with some conviction, "The earth is warming." Honestly, I had never doubted it. But then, maybe I was suffering from a case of daughter-bias, for I had never investigated it further. My father's word as my father (and a scientist) was enough. I dismissed the denier books out of hand as their covers screamed at me: "Hoax!" Perhaps it was time for a deeper examination.
Long, long ago, in 1859, John Tyndall found that carbon dioxide (CO2) could trap heat. Almost 60 years later, in 1917, Alexander Graham Bell wrote a paper on the depletion of natural resources where he postulated that the unbridled burning of fossil fuels would lead to a "sort of greenhouse effect." Though Bell was not the earliest scientist to theorize a future of global warming, he is one of the most famous. Then, in 1975, a geoscientist by the name of Wally Broecker modeled CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere over the next 35 years and consequent changes in temperature, which was published in a little journal called Science under the title "Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?" His numbers have been dead on.
Since then global warming has become a divisive issue with people like Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) authoring books like The Greatest Hoax with hundreds of pages of denial sandwiched between its front and back covers. James Inhofe, who graduated with a BA degree from the University of Tulsa and went on to work in aviation, real estate development, insurance, and finally politics ironically writes a book that screams "Hoax!" while pocketing $1.3 million in campaign donations from the oil and gas lobby.
According to an article by Riley Dunlap and Peter Jacques printed in the American Behavioral Scientist "at least 90% of denial books do not undergo peer review, allowing authors or editors to recycle scientifically unfounded claims that are then amplified by the conservative movement, media and political elites." They also found that a majority of these books are funded by Conservative Think Tanks.
In fact, according to James Powell of Science Progress 13,926 peer-reviewed scientific articles that represent 33,690 authors from countries across the globe confirm global warming, while only 24 (yes, two dozen) deny it's man-made. Notice: these 24 don't deny global warming, just the cause. That means 100% of papers published in scientific peer-reviewed journals agree that global warming is happening. Consensus.
Forget that there really is no debate on if global warming is happening within the scientific community and move on to a bigger question: If thousands of scientists were paid off to create consensus, what would be the goal of this massive hoax perpetrated on the American people? Scientists all over the globe, nearly 34,000 of them, have been paid off to convince the American people that global warming is coming to...accomplish what? To kill the oil industry? To vault alternative energy technology into the upper stratosphere of the stock exchange and make themselves rich in the process? Did the hoax start more than 100 years ago, and was Alexander Graham Bell privy to it? Is it really possible that 34,000 scientists are just wrong, while only 24 are right, and the conservative think tanks that are funding denial literature are fighting the good fight?
If it sounds absurd, you're not the only one. In fact, across the pond, the UK is making fun of us. In an article printed on September 23, 2012, in The Guardian's Anna M. Clark asks why Americans are so disengaged from climate change, "Even as evidence for climate change mounts and the consequences of the phenomenon become more severe." Her answer: Americans are in denial. In fact, it may be "embedded into America's cultural DNA."
It seems that for 60% of us it could be in the DNA. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication conducted a study in 2012 and found that 60% of Americans are "doubtful," "cautious," "disengaged" or "dismissive" of global warming. In other words, the majority of us aren't sure about global warming and/or don't care much.
But maybe The Guardian and Yale are in on the conspiracy too. And as long as we're making a list of conspirators, add the U.S. Navy, which deserves a place for their "Roadmap for Global Climate Change" that was released in 2010. Rear Admiral David Titley said, "The changes that are occurring [in the Arctic], from both an environmental and political standpoint, reflect changes that will occur in the rest of the world," adding that the Navy must plan for, "the timing, severity, and impact of the changing climate, based on the best available science."
But while the Navy is planning, the rest of us are twiddling our thumbs wondering if global warming deserves a reaction at all. Maybe we're suffering from battered believer syndrome caused by a real conspiratorial wrong perpetrated on the American people–the great tobacco conspiracy that spanned decades and pitted scientist against scientist in a massive debate over the deleterious effects of smoking. But according to Namoi Oreskes and Erik Conway, authors of Merchants of Doubt, that's not what happened at all.
Instead the tobacco industry exploited the scientific process to create consumer doubt. In the case of smoking, "The industry made its case in part by cherry-picking data and focusing on unexplained or anomalous details." In 1954, when the Tobacco Industry Research Committee was formed by four of the major cigarette peddlers in the U.S., no scientist would say that they knew everything there was to know about the connection between smoking and cancer. The tobacco industry "exploited this normal scientific honesty to spin unreasonable doubt." If cancer didn't occur in all smokers, maybe it wasn't smoking. If asbestos also caused lung cancer, maybe it wasn't cigarettes. If cigarettes caused cancer, then why didn't smokers suffer from mouth, lip and throat cancer? Even today, scientists don't have the answers to all those questions, but we are reasonably convinced that smoking is, in fact, bad for your health.
Just as was the case with tobacco, scientists cannot say definitively say if global warming is human caused, how long it will last, how bad it will be, or if the earth will recover. Scientists live in a gray area where there are no unquestionable conclusions. If this wasn't true, then no one would have bothered to question if the earth was really flat or if the sun revolved around the earth. It's by questioning conclusions that science advances. Science welcomes doubt. They're usually honest when they don't know something, and this is what's been exploited.
And as long as there's doubt and it looks pretty good outside, we're likely to shrug. Maybe there have been a few gigantic hurricanes, freakish blizzards and devastating droughts, but we survived. If this is global warming, it's not that bad. So, keep burning those fossil fuels. Nothing has to change. Though research suggests that crop yield will fall and food prices will increase, maybe we just don't see this as a big deal. And maybe for developed countries, it's not. But as this is a global issue, what of those poor people in Africa, those countries that don't have the resources or technology to simply buy their way out of potential catastrophes and simply move away from their dried up farm? Are we willing to roll the dice for them, gamble on the health and well-being of future generations, simply because we couldn't decide how seriously to react?
Really, there's enough consensus that global warming is happening and that it will change our lives and the way we live them that we can no longer dismiss global warming as a hoax. The real question is: What are we preserving by not seeking alternative energies, by not reducing CO2 emissions? Some convenience in the short term and the preservation of the oil and gas industry? That thinking is myopic at best and catastrophic to future life at worst. No wonder the world is disgusted with us.
Bell, Alexander Graham, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, 1921-1930 (Volume XV), University of Toronto and Universite Laval, 2000.
Clark, A. M. (2012) America's miasma of misinformation on climate change. The Guardian, September 23, 2012. * $1.3 million pocketed by Inhofe
Dunlap, R.E. & Jacques, P.J. (2013) Climate Change Denial Books and Conservative Think Tanks: Exploring the Connection. American Behavioral Scientist, XX(X) 1-33.
Freeman, B. (2010) Navy Releases Roadmap for Global Climate Change. America's Navy, May 24, 2010. * Titley quotes
Hanley, C. J. (2011) Global Warming: Why Americans Are in Denial. The Huffington Post, September 24, 2011. * Broecker information
Powell, James. (2012) The State of Climate Science: A Thorough Review of the Scientific Literature on Global Warming. Science Progress.
Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C. & Hmielowski, J. (2012) Global Warming's Six Americas, March 2012 & Nov. 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.