Photos of polar bears stranded on ice caps, horrors films of ‘2012’-proportions, and prolific media sensation around gargantuan carbon footprints epitomize our keen sensibility and simultaneous ignorance towards the hot-button debate of climate change. At the latest UN Climate Summit in late September, heads of states, business magnates, and lifelong activists convened in New York City to formulate strategies for calming global warming. Yet, as former president of Ireland Mary Robinson summed it during her guest lecture at Princeton University, while many countries readily expressed worries about the detriments of a changing climate, not a lot commented on taking initiatives or responsibility for mitigation. This defines the crux of climate change denial—rather than refuting the idea of climbing temperatures in our environment, the real tension derives from whether to recognize it as a consequence of human actions. If the latter is indeed true, many countries, ours included, will find it harder to dismiss climate change remediation from their list of obligations.
The case of climate change denial is an example of disproportionate media coverage and manipulative business complexes at work. In an informatics study done by the Consensus Project, 97% of climate scientists believe in human-caused climate change. However, outside the scientific community the opinions are much more divided. Perhaps a quick glance through Wall Street Journal articles and some scrutiny into funding machines fueling climate change denial would provide answers to the perplexing neglect of crystal-clear scientific evidence. From 2003 to 2010, 140 foundations funneled $558 million to almost 100 climate denial organizations. According to the Scientific American, through organizations like Donors Trust, large corporations like Exxon Mobile have made heavy contributions to research against climate change.
Advocates against climate change claim that this period of warming is just a natural point in a cycle of temperature fluctuations. In addition, carbon dioxide levels have also oscillated with time. Indeed, there have been epochs in human history when temperatures are much higher than today’s. Even then, life on Earth ran on as always. The two degrees Celsius above average-temperature is trivial compared to the ages when we were five degrees too high, and humans, still living in barbaric, primitive societies then, probably had little contribution to nature’s capriciousness. While these claims may seem plausible to the general public, the essence of the science is that the rate of change, not the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is dauntingly high. The accelerating increase is largely due to overwhelming greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized nations.
Sadly, utilitarianism has fueled a flagrant disrespect for science. The emission of greenhouse gases damages others at no cost to the agent responsible. This doesn’t just apply to power plants and the automobile industry. The average American, well-supplied by clean water and air conditioning, rarely has to think twice about the implicit costs of comforting lives. Replete with the benefits of first-world technology, the most politically vocal communities will likely never experience or speak about the harms of man-driven climate change. Those who would be vocal are often the most marginalized and powerless.
While unanimously deemed an indicator of climate change by scientists, the escalating number of extreme weather conditions like Sandy, Katrina, and the handful of polar vortexes have had mixed impacts on the general public. With every severe storm, the media delivers prophecies about it either being a rock-solid evidence for climate change or the testament that all scientists are wrong. In a recent interview, Kirsten Peters, author of the influential book The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change, stated that “The temptation to attribute any specific weather event to global warming distracts us from considering and adopting adaptive strategies” In reality, those suffering constantly from extreme weather, typically underdeveloped nations, are too preoccupied with reviving their agricultural sector to say much on the political stage.
Ultimately, what underlies the denial is a subconscious fear for change. Were we to recognize ourselves as at the center of climate change, we must forgo some of our privileges (heating, dinkies, lavish dining halls) for mitigation. Naturally, not everyone will gladly take a step back.
This post first appeared in the Princeton Innovation
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