The Riddle of Climate Science Deniers

The latest figures compiled by the Pew Research Center show that 90% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans (2/3 of Americans overall) think the government is doing too little to combat climate change.  When I read this figure my immediate reaction was to be amazed that there could be such a wide disagreement about scientific evidence.  How can I be so alarmed (scared might be a better word) while so very many disagree or ignore the issue altogether? 

As a trial lawyer who often has to depend upon experts to testify to juries about issues that are beyond the common knowledge of laymen, it is as if all of the most educated, knowledgeable, accomplished, respected, and experienced climate experts in the entire world came together to testify to a jury and then the jury, despite the overwhelming evidence, was deadlocked 8 to 4.  In my hypothetical trial, I can imagine being devastated by the deadlocked jury and asking the jurors as they left the courtroom, why?  How could you ignore this mountain of evidence from the world’s leading experts and ignore what you can see with your own eyes?  The jurors will probably be very angry with each other and the 4 jurors who disagree will adamantly say they have a good faith basis for their disagreement.  They will probably say the evidence just wasn’t quite strong enough.  But, the evidence can’t be stronger.  There has to be another explanation.  What’s really going on here?

Among lawyers and judges there is a concept known as jury nullification.  This term describes, for example, a criminal case wherein all of the credible evidence points to the defendant’s guilt, but the jury returns a verdict of not guilty.  This is rare, but it happens.  The jury goes through whatever mental gymnastics it takes to reach the verdict they want rather than the verdict required by the evidence, the law and their oaths.  I think we have a form of jury nullification going on here.    

It seems to me that these facts are true beyond a reasonable doubt:

1.     An overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion exists that global warming is real, it is happening now, it is getting worse and we are causing it;

2.     The underlying factual basis for the scientific opinion is reliable and the physical facts (measurements and observations) have been gathered by scientists over many years in places all over the world;

3.     The scientists who share the opinion(s) and who gathered the physical facts are the best the world has to offer, have no motive to lie, are credible and agree among themselves to a high degree;

4.     The underlying scientific theories are not new or novel.  They have been tested and they can be tested again and again.

5.     What scientists are saying today is not new.  Predictions and warnings were given decades ago about what would happen if we continued to pollute the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  We are literally eyewitnesses to the predictions coming true.  We are present at the scene of the crime and the crime is still in progress. 

6.     The consequences of not doing enough to combat global warming are so bad that the word “catastrophic” won’t do them justice.  On the other hand, doing what is required may be painful and require major changes in the world’s economies and our behavior, but seen in the proper context, it will require comparatively little sacrifice.  After all, we’re talking about changing our sources of power and our behavior, not going around in the dark for eternity.  Simply put, we can’t afford to make a mistake on this one. 

To continue with my analogy to a trial, at this point I would have to feel pretty good about my chances with the jury.  After all, I’ve brought before the jury the world’s best scientists and they agree; the underlying scientific principles the experts rely upon are not hypothetical, new, novel, untested or controversial; and, best of all, the jurors can see the evidence for themselves. 

Yet, there are things at work here I am not taking into account that make me worry.

Campaign slogans notwithstanding, human beings don’t like change.  We crave stability, predictability, safety, comfort and ease, and we detest fear, anxiety, pain and loss.  We like doing things the way we have always done them.  Human beings don’t like having things taken away from them, particularly those things that we believe are ours because we earned them or because we feel we are entitled to or deserve them.  People will literally fight you to the death to keep what they believe is “theirs”.  People hate to admit they are wrong. 

If a decision or a verdict conflicts with human nature or self-interest, people will find a way, virtually any way, to avoid making that decision or reaching that verdict regardless of the evidence, regardless of their oath, and regardless of the truth.  They will find fault with the witnesses when objectively there is none.  They will rearrange the evidence to suit their preconceived narrative, notions, opinions and desired outcome.  They will seize upon any, and I do mean any, reason not to make the decision or render the verdict required by the evidence. 

Global warming is something none of us wants to be true.  It means change at the very least and may soon mean doom.  There is a powerful incentive to hope, wish and believe it is not real. We want to continue to behave as we always have.  We want someone to tell us everything will be okay, even though our intellect tells us otherwise.  This creates a state of mind which is ripe for a jury nullification type verdict. 

To use our instincts and weaknesses against us, special interest groups which benefit from the status quo have sponsored phony science and, when even their own scientists finally had to agree that global warming is real, they started using deceptive advertising that makes it sound like there is “clean coal”; that they are doing their part; and, that burning fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, is okay while we transition to renewables.  But, just to make sure things don’t change too much or too fast, they (the energy industry) spent $218 million on lobbying in 2018 and 2019 and they also have contributed $27 million thus far to Senate and House candidates in the 2020 election cycle.  This is just one industry and just the tip of the iceberg.  Special interests are doing everything within their considerable power to give us a reason, and virtually any reason will do, to ignore the evidence. 

Last, and I know I’ve gone on much too long, there is another and probably even more compelling reason that there is such a disparity in what Republicans and Democrats believe.  Democrats and Republicans are equally intelligent.  Therefore, how can the two sides see the same evidence so differently?  I don’t think the problem is the evidence.  The evidence is incredibly strong.  I believe that global warming, climate science and climate change are all just metaphors, symbols, and stand-ins for our political divide.  It seems to me that a Republican, to be considered a good Republican, cannot admit that global warming is real because their President and leaders deny it.  I am persuaded to believe that global warming has become just part of a whole collection of beliefs that identify a person politically and I would go so far as to say those who fervently support Trump as a person will never believe because to do so would be, in their minds, to betray and abandon Trump.  Unless and until Trump gives his base permission to believe, they won’t, no matter what the evidence says, and Trump cares far more about political science than climate science.    

My Republican friends (and, I have a few) might say Democrats are just as bad, that they have to believe in global warming to be Democrats, but on this issue the overwhelming body of proof and the horrible consequences of being wrong will not allow the usual equivalency argument to be made. 

To my Republican friends, to be for the environment doesn’t mean you are for anything else Democrats stand for, it just means you are for the environment and for self-preservation.  There is no shame in that.

To read more (if you can stand it) about the phenomenon of “alternative facts”, read the essay of Peter Baker in The New York Times of 12/10/19.

It would be nice to conclude any discussion of environmental issues on a note of hope and optimism.  Maybe someday that will be possible.  In reality, the bad news just keeps on coming as shown by these stories: 

On December 5, 2019, The New York Times ran a story (A World Speeding ‘Dangerously Close’ to a Tipping Point) which covered the findings of the annual state of the global climate report issued by the World Meteorological Organization.  The title of the New York Times article just about says it all.

Also on December 5, 2019, the Houston Chronicle’s front page story reports that funding cuts by Texas have crippled the enforcement work of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  Between 2008 and 2018, TCEQ’s budget was cut by 35% even though the state budget grew by 41%.  30 states cut funding from environmental agencies and 40 states reduced environmental staffing during that decade. 

***Article and images are property of the Houston Chronicle / HoustonChronicle.com ***

On December 6, 2019, an Associated Press story on flooding of coastal cities that is already occurring in North and South Carolina due to sea level rise caused by global warming contained a bit of information I had never heard about.  In 2012, North Carolina Republicans passed a law preventing the state from forming coastal policies based on sea rise predictions.  I suppose we could call that willful ignorance codified into law.  When the Mayor of Beaufort North Carolina, Rett Newton, was asked about planning for floods, he said:  “There will need to be political stressors to get people to understand the importance of climate change.”  Flooding of coastal cities occurring at high tide (like Venice, Italy), and estimates of sea level rise by another 2 or 4 feet in the next 50 years is definitely a “political stressor”. 

On December 6, 2019, the New York Times ran a 2 page story entitled Amazon Under Bolsonaro:  Completely Lawless.  Deforestation Soars as Brazil’s Leader Undercuts Conservation Efforts.”  Blaming Brazil’s citizens rather than himself for the debacle and trying to appear powerless, Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President, said:  “Deforestation and fires will never end.  It’s cultural.” 

Last, over the weekend we saw pictures of mighty Victoria Falls in Africa running dry due to catastrophic drought. 

Victoria Falls: Before the drought (top image) and during the current drought (bottom). Images property of Reuters / theguardian.com

We are not innocent, powerless bystanders.  We must reach a verdict.