Why Do Climate Skeptics Distrust the Science?

Last month, I argued that, when we think in Marxist terms about the contradictions of capitalism, perhaps the most striking and important contradiction of all is that to make the goods bought and sold to keep the capitalist machine running we are destroying the very planet we depend upon for survival.

It’s not only that we are using up scarce, non-renewable resources, that we are polluting our planet in ways both large and small, it is also that we seem, according to the experts, to be generating changes in the climate which will have short, medium and long-range implications for how, and even where, we can live. We can expect great waves of human migration across many parts of the globe as vast numbers of people leave places which have become uninhabitable in search of new homes. Arguably, these migrations have already begun.

Schematic illustration of key components and changes of the ocean and cryosphere, and their linkages in the Earth system through the global exchange of heat, water, and carbon (

Schematic illustration of the interconnection of Chapter 4 themes, including drivers of sea level rise (SLR) and (extreme) sea level hazards, exposure, vulnerability, impacts and risk related to SLR, and responses, associated governance challenges and practices and tools for enabling social choices and addressing governance challenges (Source: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, IPCC). Click to enlarge.

Given the dire consequences of climate change, and the mounting evidence presented by scientists who study climate trends, it is strange that so many people are willing to say that they doubt the science, distrust the motives of climate scientists, and are quick to pour scorn on any attempt to deal with the problem. As Rex Murphy (or T-Rex Murphy, as Frank magazine so amusingly and fittingly calls him) put it with respect to a proposal made by the Liberal government:

The Trudeau-McKenna church of latter-day environmentalists have a plan for reducing Canada’s ‘carbon emissions,’ as they call them… They are not putting a price on pollution; they are putting a tax on all energy fuels. CO2 is not a pollutant – ask a plant. Ask a tree. Ask a human being during an exhale. Sewage is a pollutant. It causes diseases. CO2 is a nature-produced, life-giving and life-enhancing part of our planet’s atmosphere.

I admit that I have found it very easy to dismiss Rex Murphy and others of his ilk, who make impassioned arguments against any and all measures proposed to reduce the speed at which climate change is occurring, and who often express doubts about both the validity of the science and the motives of those who present it, as, indeed, ignorant dinosaurs: T-Rex seems a fitting nickname indeed!

However, I recently attended a Master’s thesis defense presented by one of my ex-students, a young woman named Caitlin Heppner. Caitlin’s defense was fascinating, and her arguments have caused me to re-think my instinctive response to so-called “climate-change deniers” or “climate change-skeptics,” and to think differently about how we might engage in conversation with them. Caitlin very kindly shared her thesis with me, and gave me permission to share her thoughts with readers of the Cape Breton Spectator. In this month’s column, I want to explore the reasons for climate change skepticism. (Next month I will consider why many of us, even if we believe the science and trust the scientists and their predictions, live as though we don’t – and what we might do about that.)

 

Since Caitlin is a philosopher, what most interested her were the epistemic challenges which face those of us who are not ourselves climate scientists as we try to make sense of the information about climate change that these scientists present to us. She also explored the question of why those we might call “climate change deniers” or “climate change skeptics” are so reluctant to believe the scientific evidence, and so quick to question the motives of the scientists who present it to us. While Caitlin (and I, and I’m sure most readers of this column) trust both the evidence and those who publicize it, those who are not so convinced and not so trusting actually have good grounds for skepticism about the science and good reason to be distrustful of the experts.

Sea Level Rise (Source: IPCC)

Schematic illustration of the interconnection of Chapter 4 themes, including drivers of sea level rise (SLR) and (extreme) sea level hazards, exposure, vulnerability, impacts and risk related to SLR, and responses, associated governance challenges and practices and tools for enabling social choices and addressing governance challenges (Source: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, IPCC). Click to enlarge.

By identifying these grounds, Caitlin hopes (and I hope, as I quickly examine them in this column), that we might open up new pathways for dialogue between “believers” and “skeptics”: T-Rex Murphy will probably never change his mind, but other climate change skeptics might, if we treat them not as idiots, but as, at least in some cases, thoughtful individuals who have reached different conclusions about the evidence than we have. As Caitlin puts it:

There is something about the word denier that I have come to think of as a weaponized word. It is polemical…

Instead, she prefers to use the term “skeptic.” Caitlin states that she believes that climate change is occurring:

…because I believe that the scientists are both telling me the truth and are capable of knowing the truth. That is, I believe their testimony.

And I would say that the same is true for me: I have no way of doing the science myself, or even of scientifically evaluating the claims that the scientists present to me, so I, too, have chosen to trust their assertions about what the evidence means and their motives for making them. In short, I, too, trust their testimony.

It is here that we can start making sense of the positions of at least some of those who are climate change skeptics: they doubt either the scientific claims or the motives of those who make them, or both. They do not, that is to say, believe their testimony. And why not? While the grounds for skepticism are diverse, Caitlin identifies the following elements as being central.

 

First, some climate change skeptics distrust climate scientists, and so doubt the claims that they make: they point out that grant money and other funding might be a motivating factor in their making some of their most alarmist predictions. Second, most skeptics (like the rest of us) have no way of judging the science for themselves, and, instead of choosing to trust the testimony of the scientists as those of us who are not skeptics have chosen to do, they have, instead, chosen not to trust this testimony. Third, it is not always clear who counts as an expert, and, therefore, whose views should be trusted.

Heat Waves (IPCC)

Examples of recent marine heatwaves (MHWs) and their observed impacts. (a) Examples of documented MHWs over the last two decades and their impacts on natural, physical and socioeconomic systems. (Source: Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, IPCC). Click to enlarge.

Finally, many skeptics do not like the way in which the science has been politicized, or the way in which the divide between belief and skepticism has been used to demonize some people and morally applaud others. There is, indeed, a quasi-religious dimension to the language often used to characterize this divide, with the righteous and the saved falling on one side, and the evil and the damned falling on the other – and these judgments, of course, are normative (concerned with judgments of right and wrong, good and bad), rather than scientific (concerned with facts that can be discovered through the application of the scientific method). As a theorist, Roger A. Pielke Jr., whom Caitlin quotes puts it, scientists have themselves contributed to a rise in skepticism because they have allowed scientific debates to become political ones:

In many instances science, particularly environmental science, has become little more than a mechanism of marketing competing political agendas, and scientists have become leading members of advertising campaigns.

What I really liked about Caitlin’s thesis was not only that she offered me a new way to think about why some people are skeptical about claims which I believe to be true, but that her analysis offers us a way forward, a way for climate change believers and climate change skeptics to talk to one another. Even believers like myself can acknowledge that the politicization of science by scientists is not a good thing, since it leads to distrust in the claims that climate scientists make; even skeptics can acknowledge that non-politicized science does offer us valid information about the world we live in.

This means that climate scientists need to take seriously the possibility that their participation in the politicization of what they do has done more harm than good, and that they need to rebuild trust in the validity of the science – and in themselves, as those persons who possess an expertise that most of us lack. As Caitlin succinctly puts it,

To have effective action on climate change, the public must believe that scientists are not trying to trick them.

 

 

Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.