The Logic and Illogic of Climate Change Denial

The news that a large ice shelf in Antarctica has begun to collapse may not be as important as Karl Rove's opinion of Hillary Clinton's glasses, or Timothy Geithner's descriptions of the early years of Barack Obama's presidency, but it should still not be ignored entirely. Although there are still some, including unfortunately powerful government officials like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl), who do not recognize the import, or indeed reality, of global climate change, and the role of human activity in that, climate change can no longer be ignored.

Sadly, if the recent past is any indication, that is precisely what is going to happen. It is only a slight overstatement to say that while the election of somebody like Rubio to the presidency would mean that the country would be led by a president who does not recognize and is unwilling to do anything about climate change, the election of a Democrat would mean that the president recognizes, and is unwilling to do anything about, climate change.

The temptation to do nothing about climate change is strong because it is not sufficient to do something. Instead, we must do everything, meaning we need a holistic approach to addressing the problems and challenges associated with climate change. A holistic approach includes exploring scientific solutions, incentivizing different economic behavior, injecting discussions of climate change into almost every foreign policy question and bilateral relationship and perhaps most critically changing the fundamental ways ordinary citizens behave, consume and use resources.

Addressing the impact of climate change is additionally difficult because it is not easy to recognize either the primary or secondary effects of climate change. For example, while the extremely cold winter that just concluded is consistent with the extreme weather conditions that are part of climate change, many saw the cold as evidence that the climate is not warming. Additionally, the economic effects of the cold winters are not at all obvious, but a few more cold winters like that will begin to effect a range of things including residential patterns, energy costs for ordinary Americans, demands on local government and the like in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Similarly, although some conservative politicians seeking to win votes in Republican primaries continue to deny climate change, many of the wealthy business and real estate people who have to make good financial decisions recognize climate change and the need to act accordingly. It is not hard to imagine that some of these people will begin to relocate their businesses or sell property near vulnerable coastal areas. If major real estate owners, for example, begin to sell coastal properties in big numbers due to the inevitability of rising waters, it could set off a panic that would make the crash of 2008 seem like a walk in the park.

This speculation about the indirect consequences of climate change is still minor compared to the direct impact climate change will have on things like water supply, agricultural output, food security and migration. These problems are not only enormous, but addressing them requires a degree of international cooperation that is unfathomable in this, or almost any other, era. In this context denial may well be a healthy psychological reaction to the dauntingly bad news of global climate change. It is not, however, a politically useful reaction. Nor is it one that is likely to help solve the problem.

The problem of sufficiently responding to climate change will also not be resolved by passing a few pieces of major legislation, crafting market based solutions that make large producers of carbon pay more, or by a brilliant young person who made a fortune in some internet start-up before deciding to give his or her money away to help the planet. The causes of climate change are deeper than that and require a deeper solution.

Climate change was not solely caused by evil polluters, but by a species that, in large part, has for centuries been deeply committed to making, buying and selling things. For much of the time we did those things, nobody thought about long-term environmental impact. Instead, regardless of the ideology, involved producing more was, and continues to be, encouraged by most governments. Contemporary US society may be more extreme in its consumerism, but this is largely a difference of degree, not of kind. Therefore climate change can only be effectively addressed both by investing in infrastructure to adapt to rising sea levels, more flooding and the like, but also by changing behavior in a very profound and difficult way. This means changing how we consume, how much we consume, how we produce goods including foods and how we divide up resources. The "we" in that sentence refers not to Americans, but humanity in general. However, there is no precedent for this kind of global cooperation or problem solving. Given that the proposals for addressing global climate change seem either insufficient, seemingly impossible or both, it is not surprising that denial is so appealing.