How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Turning the Tide on Skepticism About Global Climate Change - Overcoming the problems of belief with solutions for policy action

Please find below the write up of my research for the course I took at Harvard this summer on global climate change. For those of you who participated in the survey, I offer many thanks. Your input was invaluable. Be forewarned, the following is quite lengthy.

1.0       Introduction
 “The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies, and in the end, isn’t that the real truth? The answer is no.”
-Leonard Nimoy in Simpsons episode “The Springfield Files” (Harrison, 1997).

When the first Polynesian settlers arrived at Easter Island around 900 C.E., they found a tropical paradise, lush with giant palms (Paschalococos disperta) and abundant hardwoods. Land areas teemed with birds, and nearshore waters were crowded with fish and marine mammals. When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen came upon the island on Easter Sunday in 1722, however, he found a landscape devoid of mature vegetation, dotted by massive stone statues, with an emaciated population of humans subsisting on a diet of meager crops and rats.  As their natural environment collapsed, rather than conserving the precious natural resources that sustained them, Easter Islanders cut down more trees to build ever more elaborate statues to their gods, thus hastening their own demise (Diamond, 2005). The entire human community now finds itself at a similar crossroads.
Science and reason are losing ground in the global climate change discussion. A recent Harris Poll indicated that only 51% of Americans believe that anthropogenic (effects resulting from human activities) greenhouse gas emissions including carbon dioxide are causing global climate change (Harris, 2009a). This figure is down from a high of 75% in 2001 in spite of mounting scientific evidence and the prevalence of extreme weather events that seem to confirm the hypothesis. Other polls point to similar trends (Leiserowitz, Maibach & Roser-Renouf, 2010; Saad, 2009).
The contemporary discussion of global climate change is no mere ideological exercise. A mounting consensus of extensive data, scientific associations of every major country on earth, and the vast majority of climate research scientists concur that earth’s climate is heating at a rate unprecedented in observable history as a result of anthropogenic activities (Oreskes, 2004). This contemporary alteration of earth’s environment perpetrated at the hands of human beings has the potential to result in the greatest ecological and sociological disturbance in the history of our species’ existence.
Humanity is at a pivotal juncture, and the magnitude of the problem requires unprecedented, concerted cooperation. While it may be too late to undo the climate shift humanity has precipitated, comprehensive public policy measures and global participation for mitigation and adaptation purposes could lessen the impacts. Unfortunately, an increasingly skeptical and polarized public is thwarting efforts to achieve such much-needed policy.
The problem of skepticism is multifaceted. In a 2010 article, public policy academic Jonathon Boston identifies three primary skeptical types, including those who have a personal or economic interest in skepticism, those who are distrustful of the science, and those who have ideological or theological objections (Boston, 2010). While the first type makes a deliberate and perhaps deceitful decision to support a particular opinion, the latter two groups actively reject the findings of science, based on personal beliefs. An issue whose merits should be decided based solely on scientific evidence has become an issue of self-interest and/or subjective belief.

Just as science has established that the earth is not flat and that it orbits the sun, the anthropogenic nature of global climate change (AGCC) is a scientific truth and is not an appropriate object of belief (Weiskel, 2011). Nevertheless, it has become so in the realm of public opinion. By inhibiting policy action on AGCC, scientifically inaccurate beliefs, based on personal biases and fostered by those who profit from manipulating public opinion, threaten to undermine life on earth as it currently exists.

The evolutionary and biological mechanisms of human beliefs and how they are formed and reinforced are a primary cause of the skepticism problem and are explored below. From this biological foundation, the diversity of actual beliefs about AGCC, determined from the opinions of 46 volunteers who agreed to be interviewed for this study, are analyzed. Finally, strategies are outlined for reframing the discussion of global climate change to reduce skepticism and foster cooperation among currently disparate ideological groups.

2.0       The Problem of Belief
In Western democracies, everyone has the right to his or her thoughts, beliefs and ideas and the right to voice them without fear of reprisal. This does not mean that all thoughts, beliefs and ideas are equal, however. Every story does not necessarily have two equal sides, and some ideas represent reality while others do not. One of the great conundrums in Western culture is that many confuse a right to believe with belief’s validity, while in reality there is no correlation between the two.
The propensity for developing beliefs is hardwired into humans (and other animals) by evolution. The human brain develops beliefs based on observations and stimuli in the environment, including those emanating from other humans. As our primordial ancestors traipsed across the African savannah, the environment was littered with threats. A shadow could be a cloud, or a predator. A cloud misidentified as a predator would be a benign false positive. On the other hand, false negatives in such situations often removed one from the gene pool. Thus via natural selection, Homo sapiens evolved with a predisposition for anecdotal associations, often based upon false assumptions (Shermer, 2010).
In The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, Michael Shermer describes the mechanisms of belief development as twofold. “Patternicity” describes “the tendency of humans to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data” (Shermer, 2010, pp. 166-67). “Agenticity” is “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency” (Shermer, 2010, p. 168). Once a belief is established, the mind seeks out evidence to support it, discounting or ignoring evidence that disproves the predetermined belief.
Because of these mechanisms, belief is a phenomenon of the human psyche that, once instilled, proves difficult to mutate. Belief frequently ignores reason, and this has proven to be stubbornly problematic for a scientific community intent on conveying the facts of AGCC to a public mired in competing beliefs that defy all reasonable scientific evidence.
This predicament is not unique. A 2009 Harris Poll found that 82% of Americans “believe in God” and only 45% think that Darwin’s theory of evolution is viable (Harris, 2009b). In other words, a large majority of the American public believe in a deity for which there is no substantial evidence, but for a theory for which there is abundant scientific proof and consensus, a majority remains skeptical.
If poll numbers and neuroscience are correct, there is little chance of changing people’s firmly established beliefs, no matter how misguided they may be. Another strategy will be required in order to realize desperately needed policy action on climate change.

3.0       Interview Results and Analysis
To get a grasp on the diversity of beliefs in the general population, the author interviewed 46 volunteers from various backgrounds. Volunteers responded to solicitations online via social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter) and a personal blog, and via friend-to-friend recommendations. All subjects volunteered to be interviewed; therefore, their numbers do not represent a random sample. Proportions of opinions also do not represent a scientific sample of public opinion in the general population. A majority of respondents supported the science behind AGCC. This is likely because this demographic group is more likely to volunteer for a study of this kind.
For the interview process, volunteers were asked several questions regarding their views on global climate change (Appendix A – Sample Questions). Questions were designed to determine the scope of the respondents’ opinions on a range of issues including politics, religion, climate change, alternative energy and environmentalism. Respondents were asked to provide age, level of education and preferred media sources. Volunteers were also asked to describe their familiarity with and opinion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Global Climate Change (IGCC). Finally, they were asked questions to determine the level of their conviction regarding their beliefs and whether they would be amenable to changing their minds if new information confirming global climate change were provided to them.
The brief and informal survey of volunteers revealed patterns of belief within various demographic groups and combinations of demographic groups. In general, age and level of education did not appear to affect beliefs about global climate change. People of all ages and levels of education subscribed to a wide variety of beliefs. In the interest of brevity, these factors are not elaborated upon here. The leading determinants of support or lack of support for AGCC, as determined by the informal survey, were religious beliefs and political views.

3.1       Religious Beliefs and Views on Climate Change
The religious beliefs of interview participants were highly varied and included self-described atheists and agnostics, “spiritual” individuals (those who believe in a higher power, but not the Biblical Judeo-Christian God), traditional Christians (Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics), evangelical Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Among various religious groups, opinions regarding AGCC varied greatly, with some respondents self-stating a correlation between their opinions about AGCC and their religious beliefs. By a large majority, self-described agnostics and atheists believed the global climate is changing and that the change can be largely attributed to human activity. Two agnostic/atheist respondents did not believe that climate change is caused by human activities, and one of those did not believe the climate is changing at all. Both individuals who refuted the science of AGCC were self-described Libertarians.
Those respondents claiming to be “spiritual” but not religious were vocal supporters of the science of AGCC by a margin of six to one.  One interviewee with spiritual religious beliefs believed that the earth’s climate is changing but that it is not caused by human activities. The same participant is a self-described Libertarian.
Jewish and Muslim respondents unanimously responded that climate change is real and that its origins are anthropogenic.

Belief in Climate Change

Traditional Christian
Evangelical Christian
Figure II - Religious Demographics and Beliefs on GCC
While Christian religious groups have often been tagged as skeptical to science, the interviews revealed other trends. Eleven (11) respondents with “traditional” Christian beliefs including Presbyterians and Methodists were supporters of AGCC theory. The two remaining “traditional” Christians were of Catholic faith, and while they believed the climate is changing, they did not believe the change is anthropogenic. These two respondents were self-described conservative Republicans.
Eight interviewees described themselves as “evangelical Christian,” a group often associated with AGCC skepticism, but support of the theory of AGCC was surprisingly varied within this group and depended entirely on political affiliations. Self-described liberal evangelical Christians supported the science and did not feel that it interfered with their religious views. On the contrary, this demographic group felt a strong sense of stewardship towards the natural environment, with one respondent stating, “I believe our duty to God is to care for His Creation.” On the other hand, self-described conservative evangelicals were skeptical of both climate change and its anthropogenic causes. Many in this latter group cited Genesis 8.22 as their justification for their opinions, with one stating, “God promised he would never again punish man with the climate.”
Contrary to the intentions of America's founding fathers, religion and politics now enjoy a comingling in the United States, and this trend is supported by the results of the personal interviews in this study. A 2006 Pew Research Poll found that two thirds of Americans think the United States is a “Christian nation” (Pew, 2006). This sentiment has increased over time. In the mid 1990s only 60% thought of the United States similarly. The prevalence of this view is actually increasing in inverse proportion to reality. Although the United States has become increasingly religiously diversified, those who view it as a “Christian” entity are on the increase.
In a 2010 article, sociologists Jeremy Straughn and Scott Feld of Purdue University note that the reality of religious diversity, coupled with the view of national Christian identity of one demographic group, is a dynamic that is inherently divisive (Straughn & Feld, 2010, pp. 281-282). If the United States is “Christian” then by extension Christians are “true” Americans, while all others are ideological, if not actual “outsiders.”
Such a schism would not be significant if it were simply the sentiment of a fringe minority but becomes problematic when promoted by an entire political party.  The Republican Party is now an outspoken advocate of this viewpoint. Such polarizing viewpoints have resulted in impacts on public policy (or lack thereof), including policy regarding global climate change (Schecter, 2002).

3.2       Political Views and Climate Change
“…reality has a well-known liberal bias” (Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner, April 29th, 2006).

The results of the informal survey for this report support the contention that when it comes to global climate change, reality does indeed have a liberal bias. Political opinion was the only factor that consistently predicted a volunteer’s opinion regarding AGCC. All respondents describing themselves as either liberal or moderate expressed complete support for AGCC theory, while those subscribing to conservative or Libertarian views unanimously disbelieved in AGCC, with some admitting the climate is changing, but denying human complicity in the change.
Lending further credence to the hypothesis that political bias informs opinions about AGCC, interviewees were asked about their familiarity with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Global Climate Change (IGCC) (the most extensively peer-reviewed scientific body in history). Only seven of the 46 respondents had more than a vague familiarity with the group (three liberals, one conservative and the three Libertarians). The three liberal respondents were employed in scientific, legal and economic fields, respectively and were familiar with the IPCC as part of their day-to-day employment activities. Liberal opinions of the IPCC were enthusiastic and positive. The conservative and Libertarian volunteers were exclusively informed about the IPCC by conservative media sources, and their opinions regarding the IPCC were unanimously unfavorable.

Belief in Climate Change

Political View
Figure IV - Political Views and Belief in Climate Change

The three Libertarians interviewed for the study were very well versed in the arguments of skepticism, getting much of their information from Fox News, conservative sources on the Internet and other right-leaning media. The two who believed that the climate is indeed changing, believed the changes represent a natural cycle and that the human burning of fossil fuels is not contributing. The individual who expressed disbelief that the climate is changing cited obscure data that the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are growing rather than melting (source not available). In general, the Libertarian skeptics had an innate distrust of institutional groups. They were non-religious and suspicious of information from governmental and intergovernmental sources.
Conservatives (Republicans), on the other hand, unanimously described themselves as “Christians.” Many of them believed that the Judeo-Christian Bible is “the literal word of God.” This group was divided as to whether climate change was taking place at all, with all conservative participants disputing the validity of AGCC. The single self-described conservative that was familiar with the IPCC described the group as “a liberal mouth-piece.”

4.0       Results
The science of AGCC has been brushed aside in the fray of partisan politics. In this regard, while Vice President Al Gore was instrumental in raising public awareness, his advocacy for AGCC also has given false credence to the skeptics' argument that the issue is a political conspiracy.
The fossil fuel industry stands to profit by maintaining the status quo and has taken advantage of the polarization of the public, spending millions of dollars on a deliberate campaign to accentuate divisions and manufacture doubt (Hoggan, 2009). One could hypothesize that the campaign of manufacturing doubt has been largely successful because it plays off pre-existing tendencies in human nature based on the evolutionary and behavioral predispositions of the human animal.
            As the informal interviews indicate, individuals whose political and religious views are conservative are more likely to resist the mounting scientific evidence for AGCC. In a 2003 study, compiling data from over 50 years of varied research, psychologists Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski and Sulloway found evidence explaining this phenomenon. The primary attribute of political conservatism is the desire to preserve traditional societal values and structure, including established hierarchies. Jost and associates link this primary conservative value to underlying stress factors, including but not limited to the fear of one’s own mortality. Conservatism, they conclude, arises in part as an attempt to manage anxieties over lack of control. In this regard, political conservatism correlates with religiosity. Several other studies have confirmed this.
In a study of Trobriand Islanders in the South Pacific, Bronislaw Malinowski discovered that increases in environmental uncertainty resulted in an increase of superstitious behavior (Malinowski, 1948). Mark Regnerus and Christian Smith confirmed Malinowski’s hypothesis within the American Christian culture, finding that during times of crisis, Americans tended to become more entrenched in religious ideology (Regnerus & Smith,1998).
When confronted with the reality of mortality, people will gravitate towards ideologies that offer a sense of orderliness and security. In one study, subjects who were first exposed to reminders of mortality were more apt to embrace the scientifically dubious theory of intelligent design as opposed to the scientific consensus theory of Darwinian evolution (Tracy & Hart, 2011, p. 2).
The mainstream media conveys examples of this phenomenon regularly. As unprecedented tornado activity decimated parts of Alabama, survivors standing in front of their ruined homes praised Jesus as the television cameras rolled. Resistant to change by nature, conservatives are threatened by scientific advancements, which in themselves may precipitate landslide paradigm shifts. They will likely resist the science of climate change until it can no longer be ignored. At that point, the uncertainty wrought by the rapidly changing reality will likely push them even closer to conservatism, rather than away from it (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski & Sulloway, 2003).

5.0       Towards a Solution
The language and culture of science are often intellectually inaccessible to the public at large, and appeal to reason at the expense of alienating the evolutionary, tribal and emotional motivations of society. Rhetorical scholar Leah Ceccarelli argues that the adoption of new strategies of discourse could alleviate many of the problems of skepticism (Ceccarelli, 2011). In particular, the scientific community, frustrated by manufactured doubt and firm in its position of righteousness, is often dismissive of dissenting viewpoints. This blanket dismissiveness gives false credibility to the skeptics' argument that the IPCC is an exclusive, insular enclave that selectively removes dissent from within its ranks.
One consequence of democratic society is the societal embrace of the concept of equality. When it comes to climate change, this means that the media will give equal time to voices of dissent, even if those voices have no rational foundation, and the public at large will value this as “fair.” Dismissing skeptical arguments on the basis of lack of scientific validity while refusing to debate the issues in a public forum is essentially conceding the debate in the eyes of a public audience that is ignorant of the intricacies of the scientific peer-review process (Ceccarelli, 2011, p. 212). Ceccarelli suggests engaging in the debate by swiftly identifying falsehoods as “a political controversy over values masquerading as a scientific dispute" (Ceccarelli, 2011, p. 212), and then rapidly turning the discussion towards public policy.
In spite of broad political division on the topic, in terms of public policy, points of concurrence exist that almost everybody should be able to agree on. If the environmentally conscientious scientific community wants to preserve the biosphere, rather than just to be viewed as correct, then it would behoove environmental interests to reframe the AGCC discussion in such a way as to make it impermeable to polarization.
Even among skeptics, there is considerable agreement that the earth’s climate is warming (Schmidt, 2010, p. A538). Thus, a logical and much needed policy discussion should focus on reducing environmental impacts and adapting to the changing environmental reality.
For example, curbing fossil fuel emissions will be critical if the climate is to have any hope of future stabilization. Skeptics are suspicious and dismissive of this claim and having made up their minds, often refuse to negotiate on the subject. Nevertheless, there is broad consensus within the American population that society would benefit enormously from reducing dependence on these fuels for a variety of reasons. Discussions that focus on other practicalities of fossil fuel use reduction could gain wide acceptance.
From a purely practical standpoint, crude oil is rapidly becoming an uneconomic commodity. Peak production has probably already been realized, which means that greater and greater resources will need to be applied in order to extract rapidly diminishing reserves (Kerr, 2011). As the last drops become scarcer, military actions in areas such as  the Middle East are becoming more frequent, The trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars already spent on such endeavors in the attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya could have been spent much more efficiently elsewhere if the need to secure oil had not been of paramount national interest. A mandate to reduce oil consumption based on national security interests would appeal to conservative skeptics as well as advancing the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Many economists agree that a carbon tax, offset by income tax reductions, is a feasible way to reduce fossil fuel consumption (Kahn, 2007), and conservative Americans love tax cuts. Framing the discussion in terms of the economic and environmental pros and cons of fossil fuel use (i.e. fossil fuel use is costly in terms of military, public health and environmental impacts) will facilitate an atmosphere in which people might see it is in their personal interest to tax a commodity that has historically cost the taxpayer trillions of dollars to use.
While fossil fuel corporate interests will insist carbon tax will increase costs to the consumers, this argument must be countered with the reality that the consumer pays regardless. We can either pay a carbon tax that reduces emissions at the source (which is the most economically efficient method) or we can pay in public health and environmental costs, which will ultimately cost much more.
While some skeptics are blatantly hostile to values of environmental stewardship, few vocalize these sentiments publicly, as even the most conservative of voters usually maintains some concern for the environment. Public leaders who make derogatory statements regarding AGCC are often quick to follow them up with lip service for the environment. They should be held accountable to their own words:

“In our efforts to conserve the created world, we should not concentrate our efforts on CO2. We should instead focus on issues like damage to local landscapes and waterways by strip mining, inadequate cleanup, hazards to miners, and the release of real pollutants and poisons like mercury, other heavy metals, and organic carcinogens” (Harper, 2011).

The above statement is taken from a conservative website. Focusing on the factors Mr. Harper identifies as “real” pollutants would reduce carbon dioxide emissions as well.
The above strategy for targeting public policy discussion on carbon emissions can be applied across the spectrum of AGCC policy. Much of the impact of global climate change is exacerbated by an already devastated ecosystem. Deforestation, land clearance and sprawling development are considered negative feedbacks for climate change. Addressing this devastation on an issue-by-issue basis as part of a comprehensive AGCC policy could make policy action more palatable to skeptical groups.

6.0       Conclusion
For the most part, the evolutionary adaptations that allow humans to observe patterns in natural phenomena and render those patterns into beliefs have served the species well, with a few notable exceptions. At times when the environmental conditions have changed, civilizations and cultures that could not adapt to the changes have collapsed. The global population must now learn to distinguish between arbitrary, superstitious and imposed beliefs and reality in order to avoid a similar fate.
Divisions craftily imposed by the fossil fuel industry threaten to undermine the welfare of all, and policy makers and those in positions of power are distracted by misinformation and a debate about the credibility of science when attention must now focus on effective policies to mitigate and adapt to the looming global crisis of climate change. Politicians are encouraged in their inaction by a substantial proportion of the population with conservative values that are by nature resistant to change.
The results of the interviews conducted for this study are telling. Political polarization and entrenchment in fear-based conservative values are inhibiting action on global climate change policy. Like the Easter Islanders, people can continue to pay homage to the false gods of the status quo, scrapping it out in energy wars, while the planet burns and remaining human populations are reduced to scavenging for rats. But in the coming years, survival will increasingly depend on cooperation. Scientific discourse must be shaped to encourage partnership rather than divisions if we are to maintain “a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted” (Hansen, Sato, Kharecha, Beerling, Berner, Masson-Delmotte, Pagani, Raymo, Royer & Zachos, 2008).

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