Monday, December 7, 2009

Climate deniers should be understood

The Ecological Society of America listserv has been discussing climate deniers. I share a recent contributor's concern that climate deniers have “stopped thinking.” I believe that this is the crux of the issue and that it’s rooted in their discomfort with ambiguity. The contributor also described climate deniers as “angry.” I believe that this is their quite rational response to the threats they feel. I'm glad that the contributor reminded us that we need to understand WHY climate deniers act as they do. I agree that we need to understand their apparent intransigence in order to meet them in the middle to solve the serious challenges facing us.

Climate denying tends to be linked with opposition to health care reform and both are seen more frequently in conservatives than in progressives. Conservatives are more reluctant to change than are progressives, who conservatives see as indecisive creatures without clear value systems: after all, they change their minds whenever better data are available!

Conservatives are conservative because they prefer things the way they are, good or bad, to unknowable change. But I believe that the even larger boogey man in the climate debate is the possibility that the government will tell them what to do (but it had better not touch their Medicare).

Progressives are progressives because they envision a better world and want to move toward it. This means that they modify their approach as they learn more, which compounds the poor conservatives’ fears: they were just getting comfortable with the first approach and now everything has changed again!

Both progressives and conservatives change, they just make decisions in different ways. For example, compare the Republican Party’s current role as the champion of Medicare with Ronald Regan’s 1961 speech that described Medicare as the first step down the slippery slope to Socialism. Conservatives simply needed more concrete evidence than those flighty progressives, who rushed headlong into government health care before all the facts were in.

I believe that conservatism stems from discomfort with ambiguity, apprehension over change, and fear of government intervention. Further, I believe that the conflict between these values and progressives’ acceptance of ambiguity, enthusiasm for change they believe is for the better, and vision of a compassionate government caring for its citizens are the basis of conflict over climate, health care, and other issues.

When someone is uncomfortable with ambiguity they look for solid, unambiguous answers that are part of a cohesive framework that will answer a range of questions. They would rather hear, “It’s not true, don’t believe any of it” than a mealy-mouthed mish mash of, “Well, some things we’re very sure of, other things we’re sort of sure about, and then there’s a bunch of stuff we’re still scratching our heads over.” Unambiguous, far ranging answers provide comfort and reduce the amount of thought required to understand complex issues. Thinking is hard work: when is writing the Discussion section of a manuscript easy?

Ecologists can help ease fears over climate change by clearly stating what we know, painting vivid scenarios of expected future conditions, and listing concrete actions that we can take now to deal with climate change and its consequences. Climate change will still be very frightening because there WILL be tremendous change and the government may need to place limits on both industry and citizens. But neither anger at the idea of climate change nor anger at people’s refusal to recognize the process will slow the pace of climate change.

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