The Real Reasons Why People Don’t Accept Global Warming

Before any discussion of global warming (or climate change if you prefer) can begin, one unfortunately is expected to state up front if they accept it or are a skeptic. So my disclosure is that I currently accept anthropogenic (i.e. human caused) Global Warming (AGW) as a scientific fact, despite considering myself a ‘skeptic’ in general. I wasn’t born believing that AGW is real though. When I first heard of AGW years ago, it was through the mainstream media. I got the impression from the media that there was a strong legitimate debate about the veracity of AGW. At first I did not know what to believe, but suspected that humans weren’t the cause of global warming, if it was happening at all. I never much liked the environmentalism movement and was therefore skeptical of all their claims, whether they made sense or were hyperbolic. As I got more involved with the skeptical community, I learned which sources were trustworthy and which were less so on various scientific issues. I also learned about the non-rational psychological processes that can lead people to believe or not believe certain ideas. But honestly, I do not know exactly when, how, or why my views changed, but it’s interesting to briefly look back and examine why I did not accept AGW, and perhaps it can give us some clues as to why others still don’t.

I find that most people that are skeptical of global warming do not have good rational reasons for their skepticism. According to a recent article in my local paper (originally from Agence France-Presse), people do not accept global warming because it would negatively impact their desire to consume. I think this theory may help explain some AGW doubt. People do not want to feel guilty about their habits. In order to assuage guilt, we either attempt to fix the cause of the guilt, which takes effort, or we deny that the problem exists, which is much easier. This denial is not done purposefully, it is done subconsciously. Through psychological factors such as cognitive dissonance, our brain decides for us what we should believe, on an instinctual level. We don’t actively choose what to believe, we are influenced in many ways and our beliefs are then formed. Rational judgement of scientific evidence is only one of these influences on our beliefs. In fact, for the case of AGW, I’d even argue that the scientific evidence plays an even smaller part in someone’s acceptance. The more complex a topic is, the harder it is to rationally judge the scientific evidence, therefore we use other methods to subconsciously decide what to believe. Before someone can confidently say they accept or don’t accept AGW for rational reasons, they must first honestly admit that they have seen, and understand, the relevant scientific evidence. But most people, myself included, can be intimidated by all the climate models, core samples, and temperature charts that are tossed around. Because of this intimidation, we turn to other non-rational belief influences.

I have not yet seen Al Gore’s Nobel prize winning film “An Inconvenient Truth”. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was a AGW skeptic when it came out and now that I accept AGW I don’t feel the need to go rent it. Regardless, I think the title is brilliant. It perfectly sums up why I think people have trouble accepting AGW. AGW truly is an inconvenience. If it were true, not only would we have to consume less, but more importantly it can shake our very core beliefs. The sorts of beliefs that AGW would trouble include political/economic and religious beliefs. I won’t judge these core beliefs that people have, but they are key to understanding why AGW is doubted. Just as a religious world view could cause someone to not accept evolution, it too can make them less likely to accept AGW. One of these religious views holds that nature exists for humanity’s benefit, and therefore, is at our whim and cannot pose danger to us.

AGW poses a direct threat to some forms of libertarianism and right-wing capitalism. I think that this may have played a strong role in my personal AGW skepticism, and perhaps in other libertarians. As I discussed in a previous blog post, values can determine whether someone considers themselves a libertarian, liberal, conservative, etc. One important value of libertarianism is the desire for smaller government. This rubs up against the problem of AGW. If the problem of AGW is real, and if we have any hope of solving it, we would most likely require development of gross regulations from governments. This is exactly what is going on right now in Copenhagen. Those who find regulations unpalatable, when faced with AGW, will have strong psychological pressure to find themselves in what I call the AGW skeptic spectrum: denying the existence of rising global temperatures, doubting the fact that it is man made, skeptical that cutting back emissions can help, and finally, questioning the idea that cutting emissions can help or is economically feasible. It is for this reason that I think that the issue of AGW has unfortunately been split down the house between the political left-wing and right-wing. Once a topic has become left-wing vs right-wing, the argument is no longer scientific, it is political. Points are scored not by evidence but by embarrassing ‘gotchas’ like the recent climategate scandal and by rhetoric. Another problem is that people will have the additional incentive of falling in line with their political party of choice, which for some people is their primary social group. Anecdotally, when someone tells me that they accept AGW, or do not, I can usually guess where their political allegiances lie.

As someone with libertarian/right-wing values, I’ve learned to accommodate the inconvenient truth of AGW. I think the turning point may have been learning about arch-skeptic (and libertarian) Michael Shermer’s about face on the issue. The fact that the founder of Skeptic Magazine could not remain an AGW skeptic made me re-examine my personal AGW skepticism. It made me take a fresh look at an issue that I realized may have been clouded by subconscious influences. After reading debunking after debunking of poor AGW skeptic arguments, I had no more excuses. Just as some religious people find ways to accommodate the fact of evolution, I found ways to accommodate global warming despite my political views. As the president of a local skeptic organization I’m often asked if I’ve ever changed my mind due to scientific evidence, I’m proud to say that in this case I did. But I didn’t write this post to pat myself on the back. This has taught me that one should be skeptical of their beliefs, especially if they fit with one’s world view. Hopefully, this will encourage others to be take an honest second look at AGW science.

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  • Jonathan Abrams

    Jonathan Abrams is the latest founder and president of the Ottawa Skeptics. He organizes local events, makes media appearances as the token skeptic, and is one of the website maintainers. He is the host of the skepticism podcast The Reality Check. When he’s not thinking about science and skepticism, he’s working as a computer engineer, playing pinball, or doing the dishes.