Why people become climate change deniers, and the threat to America


Last night I found myself listening to 1210 on the way home -- I always find that having your blood boil helps prevent you from falling asleep late at night -- and the host was this guy Rich Zeoli, going off about climate change. Ironically, I totally agreed with one of his micro-points -- that Al Gore is way, way off base in comparing climate change deniers to racists -- and mostly agreed with the second, about global warming and hurricanes. That is, there's indeed no reason to believe that global warming causes more hurricanes, although unlike Zeoli I think it is possible that global warming makes the hurricanes that we do get more powerful; after all, one key factor in hurricane strength is ocean temperature, and ocean temperatures have been rising, quite likely from global warming. Still, it's hard to nail down because there are other factors that make hurricanes stronger or weaker.

This was written in 2005 but I think it's on the money:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international group of scientists produced its latest report in 2001. In the the first of three reports, Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, the scientists said that during the 21st century, hurricanes, typhoons, and Indian Ocean and South Pacific cyclones are likely to produce higher winds and heavier rain in some areas, but there's no way to tell whether the frequency and locations of these storms could change.

Nonetheless, what bothered me was how Zeoli -- just like almost every other right-wing yakker on the radio and most of the folks who avidly listen to them -- was using these micro points to somehow bolster his macro point, that manmade global warming is bunk.

This, I do not get.

Look, I'm not a climatologist. Neither is Rich Zeoli -- his specialty is public relations. When I want to know about a subject on which I'm not inherently an expert (which is...just about everything) I'm fairly impressed when there's a near unanimous agreement among the people who actually are experts. Let's say my kitchen sink was leaking, and for some crazy reason I decided I wanted five different plumbers to take a look at it. And let's say that four out of five plumbers recommended replacing the entire drain, etc., at a cost of several hundred dollars, and the fifth said it was just a 50-cent washer. Sure you'd be tempted to go with the 50-cent guy -- it would make life a lot easier in the short run -- but in the end I'd take more stock in the other four were in agreement, and I'd be more more worried about what could go wrong if I ignored their majority opinion.

So when radio guys like a Rich Zeoli or a Rush Limbaugh, or -- much more dangerously -- conservative politicians like Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann decide that the fifth guy is right and the other four (in reality I should have used nine out of 10, because that's the ratio of experts who believe that manmade global warming is a real and a significant problem) guys are wrong...well, why is that? Is it because some renegade scientist strikes a nerve with their own vast knowledge of climate science? Of course not. It's because they despise Al Gore (did you know he's fat, too) and the other granola-eating liberals they picture as the proponents of climate change, and so they'll jump on any opinion that tells them that Al Gore & Co. are full of it. Yet in denying such a strong consensus of the world's scientists, they are in essence denying science itself. And what could be more dangerous?

Paul Krugman (yeah, they hate him too) had a great column on this today. He makes a powerful case that the rejection of science by one of our two major political parties -- the one that may well control all of the federal government in 2013 -- isn't just a curiosity, but increasingly it is the issue of our time (and not gay marriage...sorry Archbishop Chaput).

 Krugman notes:

I could point out that Mr. Perry is buying into a truly crazy conspiracy theory, which asserts that thousands of scientists all around the world are on the take, with not one willing to break the code of silence. I could also point out that multiple investigations into charges of intellectual malpractice on the part of climate scientists have ended up exonerating the accused researchers of all accusations. But never mind: Mr. Perry and those who think like him know what they want to believe, and their response to anyone who contradicts them is to start a witch hunt.


Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.

Agreed, whole heartedly. And I want to be clear: I don't think that people who don't believe in climate change are like racists, and I also strongly believe they should not be muzzled, because there's nothing I believe in more than free speech. But I think this is a classic case where the majority of Americans who believe in the real dangers of climate change need to exercise our own right of free speech, and speak more loudly, and more powerfully. The alternative is indeed too frightening to contemplate.