Thursday, September 16, 2021

Climate Sceptics

With so much evidence showing that climate change is real, Frank Armstrong wonders why some people are still in denial.

A recent encounter with a self-identifying ‘scientist’ who revealed himself to be a climate change-sceptic left me troubled. I challenged him that the vast majority of climate scientists assert that humans are responsible but he claimed this had been exaggerated and began to quote from studies to prove his point leaving me, without contrary data committed to memory, slightly stumped. He also attributed the increased temperatures compared to those of the past to the proximity of weather stations to warmer urban environments. This was a crank with well-rehearsed arguments. At least I could put the increased concentration of atmospheric CO2 to him as an objective reality attributable to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

I also made an argument that if indeed a ‘Big Green’ conspiracy succeeds in persuading governments and individuals to make adjustments then the result in the long term will be cheaper and almost infinite energy sources, a healthier population through increased levels of exercise from dropping cars and better diets with reduced consumption of animal products. All this with only a short-term diminution in material prosperity. Of course he had stopped listening by the time I posed the alternative scenario of him being wrong and of climate change being in fact man-made and potentially catastrophic.

There will always be eccentrics who have opinions inconsistent with the mainstream. This is necessary and healthy as it can prompt intellectual progress. Critical thinking requires outliers, rebels who will challenge dominant views. Ideally there is a dialectical relationship between ideas on the margins and prevailing ones which over time come into a balance that extends our intellectual horizons.

There is a distinction between value-based political opinions and the rigours of the scientific method, but both share the requirement that conclusions are drawn on the basis of verifiable evidence. Unfortunately, in recent times science has departed from best practice; serious flaws have been revealed in the system of peer review and the pharmaceutical industry have marshalled studies to achieve misleading results, but the methodological tools remain impressive and the insights are wholly apparent. There are also usually clear reasons for any corruptions but in the case of climate science, a researcher would find far greater reward by offering arguments that run contrary to the overwhelmingly prevalent view.

It really becomes dangerous when the outlier becomes dominant without being subjected to the rigorous interrogation of the dialectical process. This occurs where a political or economic faction derives benefit from the propagation of a myth. An obvious example is that of Jews being scapegoated for Germany’s loss of World War I which provided political capital for the Nazi party. Within totalitarian confines this view, and other delusional ones, attained a dominance.

It seems this process is occurring in the U.S. where all but one of the Republican Party’s candidates for the presidential nomination are climate change-sceptics. The obvious connection is to the fossil fuels industry but also a swathe of corporate America that wishes to preserve the status quo. At least not all of corporate America is so blinkered but the division between sceptics and followers of mainstream science has descended into a cultural war that often departs from the meaningful interrogation of a dialectical process. The delayed manifestation and amorphous nature of climate change means doubt is easily sown making it easy for people to turn away from examining the impact of their lifestyle choices. There is no incoming asteroid visible in the sky.

As advocates, perhaps we should place less emphasis on the overarching arguments about climate change which often mystify the lay person. Moreover, idiosyncratic experts often confuse the public. A case in point is a recent article in the Irish Times by Ray Bates (July 1st) which, while acknowledging human responsibility for climate change, proceeds to argue that this should not compel us to do anything that would damage the Irish livestock sector as the pace of anthropogenic climate change had been exaggerated. He states: “a degree of caution is needed from those proclaiming we face a planetary emergency”; this is a view at odds with the International Panel on Climate Change whose last report prompted the UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon to say: “Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message … Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”

One subtle shift in the climate change debate has been away from the term “global warming” which might have seemed welcome to people at a northern latitude. The term “climate change” at least accounts for the distortions in climate that are occurring. But while there are solid scientific projections it remains a concept difficult to grasp. Perhaps there are other ways of addressing the issue that will lead to more engagement?

One of the issues that has troubled me for the past few years has been the extent to which the role of animal agriculture in climate change has been ignored, especially in Ireland where there is an obvious economic advantage for doing so (at least in the short term). But over time I reached the conclusion that environmental arguments favouring a plant-based diet are insufficiently apparent for most people to change their behaviour. I believe that only the extension of compassion to all sentient creatures is sufficient for widespread behavioural change to occur. This has been the foundation for most dietary taboos.

I now feel I have reached the limits of what may be described as the vegan argument which can sometimes have a narrow focus by not taking into account the broader natural world. In my opinion, and probably this is a view shared by many vegans, all of this and not only animals deserve to be protected.  The unique era of the Anthropocene creates new responsibilities. Of course I still argue that a plant-based diet is one of the best ways of reducing the human impact on biodiversity, but there may perhaps be exceptions such as people living in dire poverty or frayed boundaries.

Sustainability embraces more than merely reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Protecting the natural world entails focus on deforestation and the effects of mining and drilling. It involves drawing attention to the appalling speed of species extinctions primarily due to their loss of habitat. Perhaps naively, I sense that when people start to identify with these more visible issues that other challenges will become less pressing. If the disturbing nature of the life cycle of a steak or a chicken fillet is recognised in terms of direct loss of life as well as the consequential destruction of habitat required to feed the animal then it surely becomes less palatable.

Also, if the direct damage wrought by fossil fuels is more widely acknowledged then the purchase of a fossil-fuel guzzling car might seem less desirable. This might seem more apparent where fracking is concerned but the human cost, especially in the Middle East in which corrupt regimes including the Islamic State are reliant on oil revenues, should form part of our reckoning.

We might start to identify the direct effect of choices and show their effect on our natural environments. Perhaps our spiritual traditions can offer guidance in how we make a form of ‘heart connection’. The religions of the East seem to have the necessary philosophy of inter-connectedness, but Abrahamic faiths lag behind.

At least it would appear that the Catholic Church is moving in the right direction with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si which has so angered U.S. conservatives. Francis draws on the legacy of his namesake St. Francis saying: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.””

Pope Francis’s latest encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ laments environmental degradation and global warming.
Pope Francis’s latest encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ laments environmental degradation and global warming.

The recollection of these sentiments is encouraging, but the relationship that the encyclical envisions between humans and nature at large remains essentially hierarchical with humans atop the food chain—a view St. Francis might well have disagreed with. The merit of mass conversion to plant-based diets is given no consideration, and there is no mention of the impact of livestock save for the limp statement as to the origins of climate change that: “Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.” The omerta continues but at least there is acknowledgement that: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

Is it fair to compare the climate change sceptic to a Nazi fellow traveller in 1930s Germany? Hesitantly, I believe it is as the consequences of their views have the potential to cause similar loss of life, and their convictions appear to have the intellectual credibility of the racial sciences that validated Nazism which also had a veneer of objective data. There are obvious reasons why climate change scepticism appeals to certain interest groups but there are also many people, like ordinary Germans in the 1930s, swept by a tide of misinformation that affirms their prejudices and lifestyle choices, and then there are ideologue cranks. As Pope Francis seems to understand, it behoves the righteous to carry the fight for the sake of the natural world and future generations of human beings. I resolved to be better prepared next time I encountered the dangerously contrarian views of a climate change sceptic.

St. Francis feeding the birds
St. Francis feeding the birds

Frank Armstrong is the editor of Cassandra Voices.


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