Are We All Climate Change Deniers?

Last month, I discussed the work of an ex-student of mine, Caitlin Heppner, who recently defended a very interesting thesis on the epistemological dimensions of climate science. Caitlin explored both the question of why some people might be skeptical about the validity of the science and the motives of the climate scientists, and considered how those of us who trust both the science and the scientists might respond.

Caitlin herself is not a skeptic, and neither am I – however, she made one very interesting claim about climate change denial in her presentation which I want to explore this month. In her introduction, she noted that:

When I have been explaining my graduate project to people, they have been responding with one question: Are you a climate change denier? And at first, I would say, absolutely not. What do you think I am? A nutter? But as I began to think about it, and the way that I live my life, the passivity with which I think about the environment, including driving to and from Ottawa, taking flights across the country, or eating a medium rare steak… Beyond simply blaming the evil oil industry, I think if I really did take seriously the mounting threat of environmental chaos that is predicted to be coming our way, I have to re-assess my answer. I am not out working to preserve the environment, or dramatically changing the way that I am living my life. Could this make me a climate change denier?

I think Caitlin’s question is a good one for all of us to consider, no matter how strongly we personally believe that climate change is occurring. While I, too, believe that the science is correct, that the consequences of climate change are likely to be dire, and that we may soon be reaching a point of no return, I don’t live my life as though this is actually the case – and, I imagine, most readers of this column are probably in the same boat.

London graffiti. Photo by Matt Brown CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I drive my car to work because public transportation in Sudbury is terrible and I live too far away from the university to walk, I buy imported foodstuffs at the grocery store which must be transported long distances and I live in a house which is much bigger than I need. Moreover, the temperature at work is set so high in winter that we often need to open the windows; almost everything I buy comes in too much packaging; even my cat contributes to climate change because she eats vet-recommended food that comes in tins.


The question of whether many of us, whatever our personal beliefs, actually live as though we are climate change deniers has a deep moral dimension: if we believe that climate change is occurring and that its effects will be pernicious for everyone, we ought not to live as though what we fear is not actually happening. But the problem seems so immense, and our individual actions so minuscule, that it is hard, I think, for any of us to know what we ought to do.

Try as I might, I have been unable to think of any measures that I, as one individual, can take that would make a significant contribution to slowing climate change. Were I to give up my house and move into one room, exchange my car for a bicycle and eat only locally-grown produce, it would not slow the rate of climate change one iota. And while the things I already do – recycling everything I can, lowering my thermostat, avoiding plastic water bottles – might make me feel good, that is essentially the only benefit these measures produce.

As I have struggled with this question, I have concluded that the only way forward is through intense, sustained and co-operative political action. While, as I noted last month, it is a dangerous thing when the science gets politicized, it is equally important that our politicians do what needs to be done in light of the evidence presented by the climate scientists. Why not, for example, ban all plastic bottles in Canada? Or invest heavily in rapid and efficient public transportation, even in smaller cities?

Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot, Fridays for Future march, Toronto. Photo by Dina Dong – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What might such sustained political action look like? I’m not sure, but, so far, it’s very hard not to think that our politicians, with our willing connivance, have abjectly failed to do what needs to be done. Instead, politicians of all political stripes (and I am including the Green party in this) have pretended that, with a new tax here and a wind farm there, we can all pretty much go on living in the comfortable way that we already do.

How many of us would really be willing to vote for a politician who told us that the threat of climate change is so serious that we need to radically alter our expectations and reduce our standard of living to deal with it? I’m not sure, but no one, in my experience (and I am again including the Green party in this) has really offered voters a new, clear and different way forward; until someone does, we will not know whether or not we are really making the choice to live as climate change deniers – or whether we are living as though we are because we’re not sure how to live differently.


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.