Climate Change: Why do some people not believe in it?
In our Zoom meeting on 21st September we discussed the dangers of climate change and possible solutions, and it was interesting and important but much like a million other such discussions. The more interesting question was why we believe what we do, and why some people take an opposite view to the mainstream positions.
I admit that I have made only a basic study of climate change science, and so I have essentially subscribed to the mainstream view, that it is happening and is caused largely by humans and is a threat to civilisation. I take this position mainly because I am inclined to trust mainstream science. Certainly I see no reason to trust contrarian theories more. But I do like to think of myself as an independent thinker, and so I feel very vulnerable to accusations of being a “sheep”, “following the herd”, or of being controlled by the Deep State (whatever that is). Presumably people who deny climate change are at least partly motivated by wanting to be seen as free-thinkers and rebels against state control.
It would be very convenient not to believe in human causation of climate change. Adapting to it will require a lot of change to my lifestyle. I have been a life-long petrol-head; internal and external combustion engines of all types and their applications have given my life colour and excitement. I own a classic car which does less than 30 mpg of E5 fuel. I rationalise this by saying that I only use it about once a week; historic vehicles make up less than 1 per cent of the cars on the road and an even smaller percentage of the mileage, and we do have a sensible car for normal use. There is no way that we will be able to afford an electric car any time soon. So in accepting mainstream climate change science, I can at least say that I believe something in which I do not have a vested interest. I am far more worried about the advent of heat pumps. As I get older I am less tolerant of cold, and I am very concerned about spending my old age in a cold house because heat pumps are, at present, less effective than gas central heating. This is especially a concern in a house like ours which is a typical 1920s semi: no cavity walls, very little scope for further insulation. I note that the Prime Minister is now scaling back the Net Zero targets for the motor industry and home insulation, due to these concerns. This can only be because he thinks that it will get him more votes in the up-coming General Election, because people are becoming resistant to being cajoled into accepting discomfort and inconvenience – whatever the long-term consequences of such an attitude.
Believing in what our consciences and Reason tell us is right, even it is unpopular and not mainstream, is good. Believing something that is not mainstream because we want to be different, is not. For some reason known only to the Facebook algorithms, a “Suggested Page” appeared on my feed advertising a University that teaches that the Earth is Flat. [https://flatearthuniversity.thinkific.com/]. If it is a spoof, it is a good one. It is leads to a very glossy, very respectable-looking website. It is bollocks of course, but it is quite frightening how something so anti-science can appear normalised. But it provoked two trains of thought in me.
The first was a realisation that I was actually drawn to this stuff. I can see the attraction of conspiracy theories. I think that is because I would like to be part of an elite group who knows something that most other people don’t, and because I would get a sense of purpose from challenging the government and the mainstream media. In a similar way, Russell Brand is thanking his loyal followers for “not accepting the facts that they have been presented with” – and he has a lot of followers, particularly men who react against what they see as the feminisation of society. Extremes are very seductive. Certainly when I was younger I was drawn to political extremes of both sides; now that I am older I am just a wishy-washy metropolitan liberal. Applied to climate change, this attraction drives people to the extremes of both sides: the climate change deniers, and the climate activists such as Just Stop Oil.
The other train of thought was the reminder that intelligent people can use their intelligence to find reasons to believe whatever they want. Some people are paid to argue in favour of things they know to be untrue: they are called Barristers. I endeavour to arrive at the truth of whatever I am thinking about using Reason and Logic. But equally sincere and intelligent people arrive at different conclusions in many types of discussion, whether about climate change, theology, politics or anything else. I still think that Reason and Logic are more reliable guides than our feelings. But we do not have the full set of data for everything. In mathematics, there can be only one right answer and there is no room for feelings at all. In much of science the same applies: but we do not know all that there is to know; science has not yet acquired all the data. So in climate change, and the flat earth discussion, and theology, people may pursue a belief that they have a vested interest in, or that enables them to be different from the “sheep”, or that they are genetically inclined to like, or that they just like because it stimulates their imagination. This is not the same as saying that all beliefs are equally valid – they are not - but the test of validity is not always rigid. In theology, both St.Paul and Kierkegaard (and many others since) followed logic until they could take it no further and then advocated a Leap of Faith. They didn’t see an alternative, but it does make their conclusions subjective. But in the end, we all leave logic at the door if doing so gives us pleasure in some way. Do I need to buy a doughnut just because I am passing Greggs, when I know it is bad for my health and I will be spending money unnecessarily? Reason tells me not to but I may do anyway. I previously mentioned my classic car. Using Reason, I do not believe that old cars are better than new ones in any respect; but I happen to like them. The negative consequences of this belief mainly affect me rather than the planet at least in the short term; I will only wish I had followed Reason if the thing breaks down, or if I hit something and there are no airbags. But in determining our actions with respect to Climate Change, believing the right things and acting on them matters a lot more.
23rd September 2023.