Understanding Climate Skeptics

Basic Argument

Let’s start with three types of skeptics:

  1. Not sure that there’s climate change at all.
  2. Not sure that humans cause any climate change.
  3. Not sure how much climate change humans cause.

To get it out of the way, the type-1 skeptics probably just need to take a hard look at the temperature data.  If they don’t understand trends, that’s something to teach them, but it isn’t a skeptical point, it’s simple ignorance.

Now here’s a basic argument (not for climate change itself):

  1. The atmosphere exists as gas on the earth’s surface.
  2. The atmosphere’s behavior is called the climate.
  3. A change in the composition of the atmosphere could cause its behavior to change.
  4. Humans could provide [2].
  5. Therefore, it’s possible for humans to cause Climate Change (ie, the actual, described phenomena formerly known as Global Warming).

I’m guessing that people won’t really argue with the first two.

The third premise, it shouldn’t take very long to concede.  If, for example, a massive meteor hit the earth, the dust kicked up would change the climate.

The fourth premise is all that’s really at issue.  Some amount of the skeptics of types [2] believe that the fourth premise is false.

I believe that’s simply a lack of imagination on their part.  For example, nuclear winter is a climate change that humans could certainly cause.  That’s a scenario where large amounts of smoke and soot would cause the earth to cool due to sunlight being blocked.

Similarly, the depletion of atmospheric ozone is attributable to humans, and companies were able to cope with abandoning ozone-depleting chemicals.

So, for the type-2 skeptics, a question:  How much human climate activity does it take for humans to produce a mid-to-long term change in the climate of the earth?

In the second section, though, I’m going to examine why this section may have no real point to it, and why the question to type-2 skeptics may be misplaced.

Belief or Feeling

Often the skeptical behavior has nothing to do with belief.  The position of the skeptic is thus cleaved from the position of the denier.  The denier says not that they are unsure, but rather that they are sure.

Let’s say we’re having lunch and I bring my lunch from home.  I bring in soup every day, but today I brought in not-soup.  I open my vacuum flask and pour myself a cup of not-soup.  It’s not that I’m skeptical that it’s soup.  I’m denying it’s soup at all.

You say it’s soup, and you argue, “look it’s liquid broth with flavor and it’s got some noodles and chunks of vegetables,” but I am not skeptical, I’m just denying it.

Worse, I say, “you’ve watched me bring soup every day for the past ten years.  I know soup, and this is not-soup.”

The best thing at that point, is to let it go.  I’m probably pissed off about the fact that ten years went by and I didn’t know and at home I’ve got all those damn spices and bullion and ladles and I’ve committed myself to a horrible soup world now, even the smug shape of the soup cans taunt me, the soft bubbling in the pot is a funeral dirge.

But I digress.

Point is, if you want to reach those people, maybe the best tack isn’t to come at them head-on, but to try some flanking maneuvers.

Flanking the Deniers

The first way to flank them would be to let them save face.  Half the battle in most negative behavioral situations is accepting the problem exists.  That’s true for most substance abuse and addiction treatment: the person needs to actually recognize they need to change.  But it’s true for most things, anyway.  Until you notice your soup is… until you notice that your shoelace is untied, you won’t tie it.

But it’s important that people not feel trapped by their past.  It’s respectable and proper to update their positions along with their OS and web browser, for security reasons.

How do you let them feel comfortable in the change?  That’s tricky.  Often the reason they started eating soup was because their friends and family believed that way.  If they showed up for a meal carrying a sandwich, they worry they will insult their people.  But the alternative, creating a special soup bowl with a false bottom to hide their belief in global warming sandwiches won’t help either.

What will help is that people around them, not necessarily close, but close enough, are more vocal about their belief in climate change.

Another way to flank denial is the small taste.  That is, let them take the soup for a spin without committing to it.

In the test drive, someone else holds the belief and asks for input.  Something like, “I’ve been thinking about sandwiches lately, and I’m trying to figure out how to keep the toast from getting soggy from the tomato.”  The denier doesn’t have to like sandwiches to think about this problem.  They can just consider the problem in absence of needing to identify with the position.

Well, I’m off to lunch.

  • I say: let it warm!

    What now?

    • You haven’t taken a skeptical position.  You’re making a completely separate argument, namely that trying to manage our impact of the climate is unworkable and that our best bet is to simply deal with the changes as they come. 

      In the form you have presented it, that’s not particularly compelling.  You haven’t, for example, made any suggestions for how to deal with massive population displacement, rise in virulent diseases associated with warmer climates, destruction of arable lands and crops, and so on.

      These things all pose massive threats to the economy, far more massive than the prospect of internalizing the externalities that currently contribute to climate change.  It seems clear that the short-term, industry-specific gains are not comparable to the long-term systemic losses.

      That said, if you care to make a stronger argument, I am certainly open to hearing it.  I don’t think it’s been discussed much, purely because the majority that might make that argument are busy making the skeptical arguments I covered in this post.

      I look forward to you expanding on your argument.