Rolf Reber Ph.D.

Critical Feeling

Fighting Climate Change in a Post-Factual Age

How to convince citizens to fight climate change despite its denial.

Posted Nov 10, 2016

Donald Trump has been elected president, and brings with him an agenda to overhaul the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The most likely person to lead the transition of this agency will be Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate skeptic.

The Trump Administration on Climate Change

In a response to questions from Scientific American, the Trump campaign stated:

“There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of “climate change.” Perhaps the best use of our limited financial resources should be in dealing with making sure that every person in the world has clean water.  Perhaps we should focus on eliminating lingering diseases around the world like malaria. Perhaps we should focus on efforts to increase food production to keep pace with an ever-growing world population. Perhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels. We must decide on how best to proceed so that we can make lives better, safer and more prosperous."

This response shows that climate change will not be low priority; it will be no priority at all. This is understandable, given that the people in charge of the transition do not believe in climate change (or, according to the Trump campaign: “climate change,” with quotation marks). After all, why should we throw money on non-existing threats when there are so many real threats?

Source: JMW Turner The Fifth Plage of Egypt (Wikipedia, in the public domain)

This vision is a nightmare for those who trust the conclusions of the scientific study of climate change that global warming has human causes and will have negative consequences for life on Earth.

Why It Is Easy to Dismiss Climate Change

It is easy to dismiss these conclusions, for several reasons. First, climate change is something abstract. While people in some climates notice that there is less snow, there is little apparent change in other regions. Subtle increases in average temperature during the last decades are hardly noticed. The concentration of carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gases cannot be seen. Damage in the oceans is not in plain view, at least not for the majority of the citizens. In this regard, climate change is a warning sign like high blood pressure. There is no immediate and palpable experience, and it is easy to ignore it.

Another parallel to high blood pressure is the distance of the consequences. True, we may feel higher temperatures in some regions of the world but that is not sufficiently alarming to warrant action. As the results of high blood pressure will be felt in some years or even decades, the consequences of climate change will do harm in a few decades, for many of us after our lifetime. It is well known that people care less for distant events that have few consequences for them than for events that hit them in the near future.

Other arguments could be brought forward against the reality of climate change. One could dive into the data and make out some uncertainties or sources of error. However, only few climate change deniers take such care.

Another way to negate the facts is to doubt the motives of the scientists. Like all researchers, the story goes, climate scientists want to earn honors, influence, and grant money. They cannot get awards with half-baked messages. Only by painting a clear threat scenario can climate scientists get the funds they want. Although this argument does not tell us anything about the reality of the facts, it tends to seed doubts in scientific results. Such doubts are a crucial weapon used by populists in post-factual democracies.

Even if people agree that climate has changed or will change, they may doubt that the change is human-made. There are all those stories about eruptions of volcanoes that spewed much more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than cars and cows and other climate polluters ever could. It is this attribution to natural forces instead of human activity that undermines the call for action against climate change. The threat is real, yes, but we cannot do anything about it, the argument goes.

These are rough times for those who want to fight climate change. It is not only hard to convince citizens that the globe heats up but from now on there will be a lack of political consensus about the phenomenon.

This may initiate a vicious circle. If politicians no longer believe climate change is real, citizens may care less about it, and such indifference helps politicians who deny climate change to get elected.

How to Fight Against Climate Change in an Age of Climate Denial

In principle, there are two ways to convince citizens to fight climate change.

The first is the classical style of trying to convince people that it is real. This is falls short for two reasons.

On the one hand, as outlined above, it is easy to deny the reality of climate change or at least that humans cause the change.

On the other hand, there is ample empirical evidence that people often do not act in accordance with their attitudes. In other words, even if people think that climate change is real and caused by humans, their beliefs do not necessarily translate into action.

The second way to convince people to fight climate change in the age of climate denial exploits the fact that many causes of long-term climate change also have short-term impact on health and environment. I am not an expert on environmental pollution but some obvious candidates are: using fossil fuels to drive and heat, clearing of woodland, and eating red meat. Using fossil fuels, the most important source of greenhouse gases, pollutes our cities and affects health, especially for vulnerable people like children, sufferers from asthma, and senior citizens. Clearing of woodland—often through slash-and-burn methods—leads to short-term air pollution, loss of biodiversity, and erosion. Finally, eating red meat has health implications like high blood cholesterol, heart disease, and maybe even cancer.

In order to fight climate change in a time of denial, we should not simply try to persuade people that climate change exists (even though we might still talk about it) but inform them about the short-term consequences of polluters that also happen to produce the greenhouse gases. In other words, it may be more promising to curb greenhouse gases by telling people that cars pollute the air of our cities or that eating red meat may lead to heart disease. It may not please those who want to bring climate change to the fore but it is a pragmatic solution to do the best in this post-factual era. 

An interesting article about the truth in a post-factual age:

Lewandowsky, S.; Ecker, U. K. H.; Seifert, C.; Schwarz, N. & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest13, 106-131.

For more information about how people perceive the truth of statements:

Reber, R. (2016). Critical feeling. How to use feelings strategically. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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