Climate Change, Denialism, and History’s Judgment: With a Prediction

I love Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Dish, since he gathers comments about many topics as well as responses to them, and is willing to post long reader comments that challenge earlier posts. (Sullivan is gay, but he’s also a self-described conservative, and Catholic, so his blog’s content does not align along any simple left/right divide.) A recent thread about “science, climate, and skepticism” included this batch of reader responses, with some comments I’m inclined to quote. (Emphases mine; I think I’ll start doing this.)

From an unnamed reader:

I have to say that I was a bit miffed by your statement, “I favor maximal skepticism toward scientific theories that might prompt us to change our lives.” Of course you should be skeptical! It goes without saying. That’s the scientific method! So many deniers say, “Scientists disagree.” Of course we do! It’s our job! We are always challenging each other; it’s a service we provide to each other, as a way to keep us from slipping up. Knowing that my community will be skeptical, that they will challenge me as soon as I open my mouth at a conference, forces me to be as accurate and careful as possible.

But there are also a lot of things we do not disagree about. We all accept Newtonian mechanics as a means to describe dynamics in the physical world. That “theory” is used all the time: to design the suspension on your car, to keep the office you sit in from plummeting to the ground, and so on. The Navier Stokes equations of fluid mechanics are used to design better airplanes. We all fly around in planes and trust the Navier Stokes equations to describe lift and drag. Anybody who visits a doctor is accepting scientific knowledge.

What we disagree about are the smaller things at the very leading edge. No computer is powerful enough to predict climate, so researchers are forced to make simplifying assumptions. They argue about that – which assumptions are least inaccurate and so on. The fundamentals are not in question; it’s the details.

You wrote, “And of course there’s always a chance that we’ll stumble upon some new evidence or theory that would throw this entire edifice into doubt (it happens).” Umm, no. Not like that. The basics are too solid.

Other reader comments go after Republicans in general –

These people make a mockery of thought. They are 21st-century Luddites motivated by stupidity and greed.

–and George Will and Charles Krauthammer in particular.

If there’s any issue that everyone left, right, and center should be fighting to address, it’s climate change, and the tagging of the science as a liberal plot by such undoubtedly intelligent men is far too tragic to be even darkly funny.

Here’s my perspective: David McRaney, and many other psychologists, have identified numerous psychological biases that all humans are prone to. For example: it’s difficult for humans to take long-term changes personally; it’s easy to think that bad things won’t happen to you; and it’s too easy to align your opinions to your social groups’, for the sake of social cohesion, which is one reason (aside from the obvious) why politicians are motivated to appeal to their base.

Climate change is a perfect storm of a relatively imminent threat to human existence that is so (relatively) gradual, the humans, as a society, are apparently unable to recognize the threat in time to do anything about it, but will suffer the consequences within the lifetimes of those now living. (As some have remarked, it’s not the *planet* that’s threatened – it has undergone massive changes over the past hundreds of millions of years, including several mass extinctions. It’s our *species* that’s threatened.)

Here’s a prediction: climate change will bring about catastrophic effects (including the flooding of several coastal US cities over the next century) before any mitigating measures will be taken against it. And people a century from now will look back at all those denied that anything was happening for so long, or privately realized something was happening but didn’t do anything about it for fear of losing their social privilege, and pass their historical judgment on them, and on us, as a society.

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