Environment | OUR PLANET EARTH

Climate change versus solution aversion

by Stephen Hesse

Special To The Japan Times

No doubt you are relieved to hear that climate change is no longer a concern. At least that’s the consensus of powerful Republicans who will lead the newly elected majority soon to take control of both houses of the U.S. Congress.

This doesn’t mean climate change is any less real or any less of a threat to the United States. It simply means that an influential coterie of politicians, backed by wealthy business leaders who all adamantly deny the overwhelming consensus of scientists, will soon take positions of influence in the U.S. government.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn that these deniers are correct? But they are not.

We don’t know with certainty how climate change will play out locally, regionally and globally, but we do know it is happening and we do know the changes will greatly impact human society in ways that will affect the health and livelihood of humans worldwide.

Heather Goldstone explained in this column in April that 89 percent of scientists as a whole and 99 percent of climatologists accept that human-driven climate change is occurring.

Admittedly, no good scientist can claim they know with 100 percent certainty what will happen, since only in hindsight can we know. But as Goldstone pointed out, there is “strong consensus about the fundamental points that climate change is happening, is largely caused by humans, and poses a real and present danger.”

As she noted, the only legitimate discussion ought to be about what will happen and where.

Goldstone is a radio and print journalist who holds a Ph.D. in ocean science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Incredibly, however, the new Republican majority refuses to believe 89 percent of scientists and 99 percent of climatologists.

As one Salon.com blogger has noted: “A Senate GOP majority can have an extremely destructive effect. It will put a cohort of science deniers into positions of authority over the very science they want to trample.”

Like many others, you probably wonder how nonscientists can deny a scientific consensus they don’t even understand.

Fortunately, social scientists have the answer and we’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, for those who missed the latest update from scientists, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fifth and latest report last month, confirming what reasonable people already understood.

“Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems,” the report says. “In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Evidence of climate-change impacts is strongest and most comprehensive for natural systems.”

The report includes input from more than 300 authors and review authors, 436 contributing authors and 1,729 expert reviewers from 84 countries.

So why, when confronted with an overwhelming scientific consensus, do nonscientists (often politicians) insist that they know better than scientists? And why do politics seem to influence what people believe?

Duke University researchers recently took a look at why U.S. conservatives and liberals disagree so strongly over issues such as climate change. What they found is eye opening.

Their study reveals that, “people will evaluate scientific evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as politically desirable. If they don’t, then they tend to deny the problem even exists,” reported Duke Today online at today.duke.edu.

“Logically, the proposed solution to a problem, such as an increase in government regulation or an extension of the free market, should not influence one’s belief in the problem. However, we find it does,” said co-author Troy Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “The cure can be more immediately threatening than the problem.

“The goal was to test, in a scientifically controled manner, the question: Does the desirability of a solution affect beliefs in the existence of the associated problem? In other words, does what we call ‘solution aversion’ exist?” Campbell said.

The researchers found that solution aversion most certainly does exist, and it occurs in response to common solutions to commonly disputed problems.

“We argue that the political divide over many issues is just that, it’s political,” Campbell said. “These divides are not explained by just one party being more anti-science, but the fact that in general people deny facts that threaten their ideologies, left, right or center.”

Of course, climate change is too urgent a concern to let politics sway reason, but many of those who deny science attempt to take the high ground by insisting that they are simply being skeptical.

However, as David Robert Grimes recently noted on The Guardian website, self-professed skeptics are not.

“True sceptics test a hypothesis against the evidence,” Grimes wrote, “but climate sceptics refuse to accept anything that contradicts their beliefs.”

Grimes’ article is titled “Denying climate change isn’t scepticism — it’s motivated reasoning.”

“The naysayers insist loudly that they’re ‘climate sceptics,’ but this is a calculated misnomer — scientific scepticism is the method of investigating whether a particular hypothesis is supported by the evidence. Climate sceptics, by contrast, persist in ignoring empirical evidence that renders their position untenable. This isn’t skepticism, it’s unadulterated denialism, the very antithesis on critical thought,” explained Grimes.

As the Duke researchers found, what we choose to believe is often more about who we are than how we reason.

Similarly, Grimes cited a 2011 study that found “conservative white males in the U.S. were far more likely than other Americans to deny climate change. Another study found denialism in the U.K. was more common among politically conservative individuals with traditional values.”

He also recalled psychologist Leon Festinger’s observation that “a man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

American author Mark Twain framed it rather more simply: “Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.”

But what can be done? There is no denying that climate change is too urgent a matter to let political and mental gridlock hold us hostage. Nevertheless, the incoming Republican majority in the U.S. Congress is overwhelmingly conservative white males, leaving one to wonder if and when the U.S. might come to its senses.

Meanwhile, as U.S. politicians languish in solution aversion, our planet will take several more steps toward the tipping points from which there is no return, denial will continue to trump the wisdom of our scientists and politics will continue to tread on our reason.

Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and associate director of Chuo International Center. He can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com.