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 extremely 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 responsible.
We are beginning to see the affects of global warming in weather phenomenon around the world in the form of disappearing arctic ice, warming temperatures, and even an increase of destructive weather systems. 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 many centuries) who don’t believe that climate change is real. Why are people still in denial 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, threaten their financial prosperity, and/or diminish their power, 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), intentionally published just before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus described the earth and the other planets as spheres revolving around the sun. Religious leaders, the conservatives of that time who were trying to maintain their power, 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 preordained views 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 bodies in our solar system relate to one another. However 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 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 has 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, then acceptance by other scientifically minded individuals, and then ultimately acceptance gradually works its way through the general population. It is always with those with 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 still 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 essentially the same time and that man was selected by God to be 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 in the scientific community 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 adapt their teachings on the creation to include the possibility of evolution. They no longer condemned a belief in evolution as long as one accepts that God used this methodology 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 this scientific theory which for all practical purposes has become an accepted scientific fact. Fundamentalist religious organizations which have long held that everything written in the bible should be accepted literally are still fighting tooth and nail against the universal acceptance of the science of evolution. 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 a fake alternative theory, in this case creationism. As expected, creationism 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 (and it is near overwhelming as I write this) I suspect that process will continue and that those organizations which now continue to deny that evolution as a scientific fact will eventually come to accept the inevitable or they will intellectually cease to exist. However, that may take another 100 years.
The concept of climate change, much more recently arrived on the scene, 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 at times warmed 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 years then it would normally be expected to warm over many thousands of years. In addition they observed that this warming is accelerating. They also reasoned that it was no coincidence that during this same period of time there has been huge increases of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide, cause by human activity,
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. 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 the necessary steps to reduce emissions sufficiently. This means the introduction of additional government regulations which those industries and their conservative politicians hate. They firmly believe that business should be unencumbered by government and should only be driven 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.
It is also no coincidence that those companies sell the fuels that produce greenhouse gases and those companies who use those fuels lead the fight against the belief in global warming and man’s complicity in that phenomenon.
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. Their 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 changes we are seeing are happening much too quickly to be caused by natural forces. However, the deniers 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.
It is easy to see the historical pattern repeating itself in the case of global warming. A new scientific discovery threatens those in power and their conservative allies. The new idea is fairly rapidly adopted by other scientists in the field. Then it is accepted by those who understand and respect the scientific processes of observation and how valid theories progress towards acceptance as scientific facts. Then members of the general public began to come on board. However conservatives and those with the most to lose mount a counter offensive aimed at discrediting the discovery, often offering alternate fake theories to explain the observed phenomenon.
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 of global warming 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 affect man’s philosophical understanding of his relationship with his environment. It didn’t much matter that it took several hundred years for consensus to be reached that the earth was not the center of the universe. Nor will it matter much how much longer it may take 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 deniers 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.
This commentary originally appeared at Cajunscomments.com and was republished with the permission of the author.