The climate change debate has now been waged both here in the US and around the world now for many years now. During that time scientists have uncovered more and more evidence that the earth is indeed warming and that the release of ever more greenhouse gases since the start of the industrial revolution is the primary cause. What was at first a well thought out theory has evolved a widely accepted scientific fact. It is normally very difficult to scientist to agree on anything, but a very high percentage of the of world’s climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring a rate far quicker then would normally be expected and that we (the humans on this planet) are largely responsible.
In May 2014, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the Third National Climate Assessment, the authoritative and comprehensive report on climate change and its impacts in the United States. It is the product of years of work by over two hundred climate scientists. At GlobalChange.gov you explore a summery or read their entire report. The report basically states that climate change is real, that it is happening now, it is happening faster than originally expected, and that no one will like the results. It concentrates specifically on the consequences expected in the United States then goes into the effects expected for the various sections of the country.
We begin to see these predictions borne out in the form of weather calamities on the TV news. However, polls show that there is still a large percentage of our population who are skeptical and many who flatly deny that the phenomenon has any basis in fact. There are even some weathermen (the guys who try to predict the weather over the next few days, not the climate scientists who study climate changes over much longer periods of time) who don’t believe that climate change is real. Why is this the case even in the face of ever mounting evidence to the contrary?
Actually if you look at history you will find the answer to that question is fairly simple – people have a tendency to not believe what they don’t want to believe. When new scientific discoveries conflict with people’s religious beliefs, or threaten their financial prosperity and/or they conflict with their views of the relationship of man and the physical world, denial is often an early response. This is particularly true of conservatives because it is they who have the greatest stake in preserving the status quo.
In his book, “De revelution Orbium Coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published just before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus described the earth and the other planets as spheres revolving around the sun. Religious leaders of the time viewed this notion as a direct attack the Christian belief that man was God’s ultimate creation and that the earth, the home which God created for man, was the center of the universe. For well over a century Catholic and Protestant scholars and theologians went to great lengths to try to discredit Copernicus’s theory and censure his writings.
Nearly 100 years later in 1633, Galileo Galilei, the most famous mathematician, scientist, engineer, and artist of his time, confirmed the theories of Copernicus using a new invention called the telescope. However when Galileo published his findings Catholic Church officials convicted him of heresy. Galileo was forced to publicly repudiate his writings and spent the rest of his life under house arrest until he died in 1647.
Copernicus and Galileo did not start with a preordained view of the nature of the universe. Instead, they used the scientific method of making many observations and then relied on logic to develop an understanding of how the celestial spheres related to one another. On the contrary, those who sought to dispute their findings began with a preordained belief and then sought out arguments which supported that belief. They fought the new idea because it threatened their long established belief system and ultimately their power. They would not believe what they don’t want to believe.
Ultimately, of course, the theories of Copernicus and Galileo were proven to be accurate beyond a reasonable doubt. However, it took hundreds of years for the religious leaders and the general population to accept that they were right all along. When science uncovers unpleasant truths, people who have selfish reasons for disbelief will continue to disbelieve until every excuse for doubt had been swept away by wave after wave of revelations of indisputable facts.
The movement towards acceptance of new controversial scientific evidence generally follows a process which can take many years to complete. It always starts with the buy in by the scientists who work in the field and then acceptance gradually works its way through the general population. It always with those the strongest investment in the previous competing belief, those with the most to lose if and when the new belief is well established, who will be the last to accept the new paragon.
We are now in the process of working through that process with the theory of evolution. When Charles Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection his in 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species”, it was a radical idea. It challenged the long held and biblically documented belief that all of the species were created at the same time and that man was created personally by God as his greatest creation. However, by 1870 much of the scientific community accepted evolution as a fact though there were still disputes as to whether natural selection was its driving force. By the 1950’s a broad consensus developed that natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution and the general public also began to come on board. Eventually some of the major religious organizations began to tactilely adapting their teachings on the creation to include the possibility of evolution. They no longer condemn a belief in evolution as long as one accepts that God used this mythology to create the earth’s plants and creatures and ultimately man.
As usual it is those with the most to lose that continue to reject the new scientific theory which for all practical purposes has become an accepted scientific fact. Fundaments religious organizations which have long held that everything written in the bible should be accepted literally are still fighting tooth and nail against its universal acceptance. That is understandable. How can the biblical story of Genesis be taken literally if evolution is thrown into the mix. Like the early detractors of Copernicus and Galileo, they have countered with an alternative theory, in this case Creationism. It too is not derived from scientific observation, but was born fully hatched seeking supporting arguments. Over the coming years as scientific evidence supporting evolution continues to mount, I suspect that process will continue and that those organizations which now continue to deny that evolution is a scientific fact will eventually come to accept the inevitable or they will intellectually cease to exist.
The concept of climate change has followed the pattern of other unpopular scientific discoveries. Climatologists made unbiased observations of the records in nature of climate change throughout the earth’s long history. Using those records they also sought to understand why the earth over millions of years sometimes cooled and sometimes heated up. They found that in the past there was a very strong correlation between periods of rising levels of green house gases and periods of global warming. Then the climatologists noted that at a time that the earth should getting cooler, it had actually warmed more in the last 100 then would normally be expected in many thousands of years and that this warming is accelerating. They knew it was no coincidence during this same period of time that there has been substantial increases of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide cause by human activity, and those increases are accelerating.
Following the long established pattern, it was the vast majority of the scientists working in the field, the climatologists, who were the first to accept that global warming is happening now and that man’s activities are primarily responsible. Also following the normal pattern, the general population is slowly beginning to get on board. Again it is the conservatives, those with the most to lose who are still in denial. However, this time they don’t see this new scientific concept as a threat to their religious beliefs; they see it as a treat to their political beliefs and their ability to derive maximum profits from their businesses. Ultimately, like the deniers of the past, conservatives view the concept of global warming as a threat to their power.
They can’t be objective because they understand that if global warming become generally accepted, the public will push hard to greatly reduce the green house gas emissions produced by vehicles and industry. They also understand that many companies which produce those vehicles and own those plants cannot be relied upon to voluntarily take necessary steps to reduce emissions sufficiently. This means the introduction of additional government regulations which they hate. They firmly believe that business should be unencumbered by government and should only be governed by the profit motive. Since the profit motive alone won’t stop companies from continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, conservatives are left with only one option, deny that that global warming is real.
Their problem is that in the face of ever mounting evidence that the earth is indeed warming and with growing public acceptance of that fact, their strategy of “deny, deny, deny!” is beginning to appear ever more illogical. So like conservatives before them they are starting to adopt a counter theory to explain what is becoming obvious. They are starting to admit, grudgingly, that global warming is real, but now insist it being caused by natural cycles in the earth’s climate, not by man’s activity. The logic is that if man’s activity is not the cause of global warming, efforts to regulate that activity won’t be productive. Now anyone who understands how natural climate changes occur knows that the climate changes we are seeing are happening much to quickly to be caused by natural forces. However, they don’t need to convince climatologists and other knowledgeable people. Their strategy is to keep a consensus about global warming and man’s complicity from forming by sowing doubts in the minds of the relatively unsophisticated public.
However, like others who throughout history who sought to prevent the acceptance of scientific facts for their own selfish reasons, I believe that the modern deniers are ultimately destined to lose their battle. The vital question is how long can they prevent consensus from being reached and real corrective action from being taken.
While the questions concerning the true nature of the universe and the origins of man and other species were important, they mostly affected man’s philosophical understanding of his relationship with his environment. It didn’t much matter if it took several hundred years for consensus to be reached that the earth was not the center of the universe or how much longer it takes for evolution to be universally accepted. However, the human race is facing dire consequences if the people of the world cannot reach general agreement to do what is necessary to reverse the release of green house gases into our atmosphere. For you see the denier don’t have to ultimately win for all of us to lose. All they have to do is delay the reaching of a consensus to take corrective action until it is too late.