Post by Category : Climate change denialism

There Is No Future Filled with Reparations

I have plucked three paragraphs from the n+1 Winter Edition editorial “The Best of a Bad Situation” The link is here. It is a long read but worth it.

In our age of Republican minority despotism, attempts to grapple with anthropogenic climate destruction have been warped to encourage several varieties of despair, rendered acute by the ticking-time-bomb nature of the problem. The losses suffered by Earth and its populations — plant and animal — are neither reversible nor remediable. There is no future filled with reparations. There is no long moral arc. Ten or fifteen years ago it was possible to think of the polar bear and the white rhinoceros as martyrs, dying off to shame us into better harmony with the natural world. Not ruined archaic torsos but videos of extinct creatures would say, “You must change your life.”

So much of our daily behavior is confused and uncertain. We can’t seem to lead the lives we have and acknowledge the future simultaneously, even as we must. We keep our eyes on the middle distance — our hopes for the country (universal healthcare!) and for ourselves — and only feel the shadows on the horizon across our peripheral vision. We are everyday climate deniers the way we are everyday death deniers: we write our articles, save for “retirement,” canvass for causes that give us the most hope. We go to bars and ask our friends whether they plan to have kids.

Truly, we have fucked it up in so many ways! Yet while climate change increasingly feels like an inescapable doom upon humanity, our only means of recourse remains political. Even under the heavy weather of present and near-future conditions, there’s an imperative to imagine that we aren’t facing the death of everyone, or the end of existence. No matter what the worst-case models using the most advanced forecasting of feedback loops may predict, we have to act as if we can assume some degree of human continuity. What happens in the next decades is instead, as the climate reporter Kate Aronoff has said, about who gets to live in the 21st century. And the question of who gets to live, and how, has always been the realm of politics.

The Climate in Wyoming

Image Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Image Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Wyoming has politely served itself up as a “model” of climate change denialism. The Wyoming legislature blocked the adoption of national science standards because they involved teaching about the anthropogenesis of climate change. Directly from the Casper Star Tribune:

One of lawmakers’ big concerns with the Next Generation Science Standards is an expectation that students will understand humans have significantly altered the Earth’s biosphere. In other words, the standards say global warming is real. That’s a problem for some Wyoming lawmakers. “[The standards] handle global warming as settled science,” said Rep. Matt Teeters, a Republican from Lingle who was one of the footnote’s authors. “There’s all kind of social implications involved in that that I don’t think would be good for Wyoming.” Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the nation’s largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications.


The chairman of the Wyoming Board of Education provides us with even clearer insight:

And last month, the State Board of Education ordered the committee of science educators to come up with a new set of standards. Mr. Micheli, the chairman and a cattle rancher from Fort Bridger, said he was concerned about any teaching on climate change that did not consider “the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the expenditure of the effort to bring under control global warming.”

Simply stated, capitulating and admitting to the “fact” of climate change might force us to deal with its consequences so let’s bury our heads in the tar sands and keep those pesky facts out of Wyoming.

The wellspring from which this denialism flows is an ideology that so profoundly mistrusts government that it has now come to mistrust any political or scientific discourse that governance may require.

An American Loon

We all know something about climate change (unless we live under a rock with no reception ). Since I wrote my first posts, a Guardian poll came out indicating that most americans do believe in climate change (even in Red States). Apparently, some pundits and politicians haven’t caught up with mainstream Oklahoma.

If we believe in climate change (and believe it might be fixed or mitigated), we all recognize -explicitly or tacitly – that our moral calculus about how we live our lives will have to change. George Will has recently trotted out a shift in his denialist stance. “Yes”, he says, the climate is changing because climate is naturally capricious and is “always changing”. The question is, then, how “much wealth we will have to forego” to mitigate the effects of climate change. We can call George Will an “anti-climate science loon” as Jonathan Chait does. We can assign him to the scrapheap of zombies. Or we can recognize that Will is mining the rich vein of American distrust of government.

In his great book, “A Necessary Evil” Gary Wills points out that Americans’ view of government oscillates between pairs of opposing values: provincial/cosmopolitan, amateur/expert, spontaneous/authoritative, traditional/instrumental, populist/elite, organic/mechanical, religious/secular and participatory/regulatory. The second of the two terms is generally viewed as a threat to the first term except when we want something out of government. George Will as a Republican supporter of business appreciates the efficient rule of law that ensures the mechanics of business get done in the widest cosmopolitan arenas. But as Garry Wills notes, business supporters do not hesitate to attach business to other values as they inveigh against regulation because it stifles organic innovation. These supporters like to talk about business “as if it is local and provincial when it is in fact cosmopolitan and will in fact go wherever profits take it”.

Take a good look at those pairs of opposing values. If we, as a polity are going to do anything to mitigate climate change, it will require our government to rely on all those values which are somehow threatening. Scientists and elite technocratic experts from the world over will be the primary architects of plans that will require a central government to be regulatory, mechanical, authoritative and instrumental. But what if the motivation to unleash government to do what it is good at doing is more religious (moral) than it is secular?

This “what if” is behind George Will’s furious rearguard action. By denying any scientific validity to the anthropogenic roots of climate change, he hopes to deny science the moral high ground in a debate that he feels should be restricted to the consideration of the morality of reducing his potential wealth. Any proposed responses to climate change are simply clever liberal ruses to pick his pocket.

George Will is not a zombie or a loon but he is an authentically fearful, provincial and amateur American climate scientist.

What’s the point?

Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

When the topic of climate change comes up, I think a lot of people hear an interior monologue something like this:

(Okay, Okay, it’s true…) But Jesus Christ, what the f**k you expect me to do about it? I give money to the good guys, I recycle, I’m thinking about buying a Prius (when they get a little more HP). I don’t mind paying taxes. I can embrace the concept of putting the brakes on our national gluttony but…just how much are we talking here? I know it’s not all about me but I gotta ask… I mean I have obligations; a mortgage; kids that need private school so they won’t be (forced to be) baristas. Yeah, yeah climate change is a bad thing. Check. Text me when you’ve got a plan that other people will buy. In the meantime, it gives me a headache.

What do I feel I “know”? I feel that I know that our ancestors began changing our collective carbon footprint 125,000 years ago when they began using fire and that the archaeological record is replete with examples of localized environmental collapses. I owe this to having read books (most notably Jared Diamond). I have seen pictures of the “New Northwest Passage” but I have never been to the Arctic. I have seen “before” and “after” pictures of disappearing glaciers I have never visited. In years past I noted that coral reefs closer to large concentrations of people (as off much of the Hawaiian Islands) are dull and lifeless compared to the more remote reefs of Fiji. I read the climate statistics. I find them compelling as statistics but I honestly cannot connect them to my own bodily experiences. Weather is variable. I know that we are a species capable of fouling our own nest because I remember when the 34 square miles of Lake Washington in Seattle was a toilet bowl. I remember when the city taxed itself to clean the lake that I swim in now.

What I feel I “know” is a combination of my limited personal experience and what I have accepted from authority. People who deny climate change come to their “knowledge” the same way I do. They marry their own experience with other information they take from (some other) authority. So what’s my point with all this?

My point is that in deconstructing my own “knowledge” about climate change I can recognize that the people with whom I might disagree have arrived at their “knowledge” just as I have. They are not stupid, venal and/or immoral. If there is to be discourse on this topic, invective will not get us there.

I believe in less invective. More later.

Breath, Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Breath, Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Do we all deny climate change? continued

Papoose  Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Papoose Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

We have all heard variations on these responses to the notion of global warming.

(If it’s true…) It’s not MY fault.
We didn’t ask to be born into this modern world. While we’re just trying to live our lives we’re told that with every breath we take (much less every mile we drive) we are causing a disaster.

(If it’s true…) It’s not JUST my fault.
Hey, we can’t be the only guilty parties. All human beings who have preceded us and all those humans who currently live other lives elsewhere are also agents of destruction. These ancestral and geographical “others”, do they dilute our own sense of agency (and urgency)? Hey, my daddy did it and look at what the Chinese are doing! These indicted co-conspirators do not lessen our own culpability but they do make the problem seem more intractable and the solution more complex; more time and resource consuming than we are able think about.

(If it’s true…) It’s hard to believe. Climate change is not affecting me. I don’t feel like a victim of climate change, I don’t know any victims of climate change now and I won’t be here to know any future victims (if there are any). Some people (scientists) are merely telling us what they think will happen. These scientists are mercurial to say the least. Fifty years ago, the atom was the smallest particle. Maybe some property of the Earth’s systems we don’t yet fully understand will kick in and mitigate the situation. If we can’t really perceive any change, what do we (you and I living in this time and place) gain by perseverating over the future and denying ourselves the creature comforts. I should change my lifestyle so a few rich assholes don’t lose their beach front property?

We don’t really feel the nasty point of the climate knife sawing away at us. The disaster is still largely imagined. Weather is, after all, variable. Are we really the frogs in the pot oblivious to the incremental rise in temperature?

Do we all deny climate change? pt. 3

Another more nuanced rejection of climate change goes a little like this:
Why should I believe it’s true ?Why should we trust “climate scientists” any more than we can trust “nutrition scientists” who have a different “consensus” on cholesterol every ten years? Scientists tell us that everything we like is carcinogenic and that can’t be true. Scientists tell us that the Earth is billions of years old and that humans have evolved from simpler creatures but the person at the pulpit of my church says that the Bible has the right answer on these issues. And, guess who is going to tell each of us what we have to do to fix this climate “problem”? Scientists and people who think all the answers are found in science.

This is a rejection of the message and the messengers.

I don’t think climate change denialists are stupid and I don’t think they have closed their ears to truth. I think that they apperceive the consequences of NOT denying climate change.

To accept the idea of anthropogenic climate change is to accept the notion that each and every one of us are the agents causing planet wide trauma. Our lives as we are now living them are (at the very least) degrading the world our grandchildren and their children will experience. Most daily activities we undertake as Americans add to our “carbon footprint” and thereby contribute to the unfolding disaster. If we believe in climate change, that belief opens the door for all of us to be more moral than we ever imagined because every action we take will ramify and affect billions of other human beings.

When Congressman Steve King recently remarked that “It (climate change) is not proven, it’s not science. It’s more of a religion than a science,” his subtext says it all. King knows that belief in global warming entails a new morality that will change the moral calculus of everyday living. It feels to him, not incorrectly, like a new religion. This new “religion” is not issuing from a sacred text or the pulpit but from the heart of the secular order from scientists whose values he believes differ from his own.

Denialists do apprehend the moral implications of climate change and I think they are highly sensitive to the political implications. More on that next time.

Do we all deny climate change? pt.2

More on Science & Epistemic Closure
Philosophers can argue about the ontological status of what scientists study; i.e. what is reality? You can’t see a quark any more than you can see a thought. Is one more “real” than the other? I subscribe to Thomas Kuhn’s ontological punt that – roughly rendered – science is the human enterprise that allows us to ask better and better questions of the world we experience. Since Anton van Leeuvenhoek first saw little critters swimming under his microscope, science has asked better and better questions about the microbial world. We have modern medicine as a result.

Science is a social activity. Scientists are humans who understand that it is the synergy of all their collective work that expands our species’ knowledge base. This collective work proceeds because scientists endeavor to abide by (socially constructed) standards of intellectual rigor, transparency and replicability. As a social activity they provide the best example of why human beings hold dominion on this planet; we are social, cooperative beings who, together, create meaning.

I try not to feel morally superior to people who make earlier stops on the epistemological trail, but I place a high value on the social process we call “science” and what it has brought humanity.

I do accept what science is telling us now; we are warming the planet.But I am not sure my own response to this “knowledge” is morally much different than a denialist’s response might be.

More to follow.

Do we all deny climate change? pt. 1

Why do conservative, (and particularly Christian) Republican Americans feel a need to deny climate change? From where does this (to my way of thinking) willful denial of reality spring?

I personally believe that climate change is a big problem but I am not sure my own personal stance differs in any great degree from that of many Americans who are more skeptical than I am.

There are really only a few types of responses to the idea of man-made climate change. Here is one: “It’s not true because God made us in his image and gave us Nature as our realm to rule.” There is sliver of the population that might have a response like this. There are a number of members of Congress who have expressed such views. There is probably no amount of fact-wielding that would change this response.  But, a word here about “epistemic closure”: Julian Sanchez has used the term to describe the fact that many conservatives seem to dwell in a world that is defined by belief systems and that they seem to be impervious to empirical evidence that does not confirm their a priori beliefs. Now, the one thing that most philosophers would agree upon is that none of us sits “on high” and wields the scalpel of Objective Truth. What any of us “knows” is an overdetermined product of our personal, cultural and social experience. Epistemology has its devotees but for most of us it’s a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion of passageways to infinite regressions (What do you know, how do you know it? Is there a single piece of absolute “knowledge” that does not depend upon another piece of arguably unreliable knowledge or a belief system?) You can think long and hard about theses issues, and you can not think about them. William James’ pragmatic answer gets to the heart of the matter:

The philosopher’s logical tranquility is thus in essence no other than the boors’. They differ only as to the point at which each refuses to let further considerations upset the absoluteness of the data he assumes.

In other words, each of us will find the place of comfort where skepticism stops and confirmation bias takes over.

Whitsitt 11-25-12

Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt