Why Climate Change Is Winning

Published by DonDavidson on

Several years ago, in chapter 11 of my first book, Beyond Blind Faith, entitled “Apocalypse Soon,” I wrote this:

People have been predicting the end of the world for thousands of years, and it hasn’t happened yet. But things may be different today. The prophets of doom this time are not religious fanatics, but scientists. They warn us that our world-wide addiction to fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—is heating up our air and oceans, generating problems that will one day prove difficult, or even catastrophic, for the human race if we don’t change our ways.

And so far, we aren’t changing our ways.

It is as true today as it was then, if not more so. When I wrote “Apocalypse Soon” in 2017, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was about 407 parts per million (ppm). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the level in 2020 had risen to 412.5 ppm.[1] (You can read “Apocalypse Soon” on this website, here.)

Why are we dragging our feet on a problem that climate scientists tell us will one day create catastrophic conditions that will threaten to destroy life as we know it and possibly lead to mankind’s extinction? Why do so many people refuse to accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real and that it is the result of our relentless burning of fossil fuels? A book[2] by George Marshall provides some answers, based on scientific research about the human psyche. This is my oversimplified summary. If you want the details, read Mr. Marshall’s book.

We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational creatures who make decisions only after honest assessment of the facts, and that we are willing to change our opinions and conclusions when presented with new information. That is how science works, but it is not how our brains work. Studies have shown that information about how climate change works, and the threat it poses, generally has no impact on people’s attitude toward it. This is because our decision making is more often driven by our emotions, our need for community, and our inherent biases.

Our brains are programed to assess risks on an emotional level, because this helps us make quick decisions. Thus, we respond to dangers that are immediate, clear, and indisputable—like a tiger charging us in the jungle, or a car approaching us on a collision course. Climate change is none of these. It is slow moving, impacting us only over the course of multiple decades. Its effects are hard to distinguish from normal, natural traumatic weather events. And while about 97% of climate scientists accept the reality of human-caused climate change, the remaining 3% give deniers a basis for their skepticism. So on an emotional level, climate change doesn’t feel threatening—and therefore our brains struggle to comprehend the danger.

In addition, we are masters of self-deception. When a weather disaster strikes, people crave a return to normalcy, so they convince themselves it was a rare phenomenon that is unlikely to recur, rather than a harbinger of more and worse disasters to come. This is why people often rebuild after a devastating hurricane or flood. Similarly, we deal with our fear of death by subconsciously denying or ignoring it, and we deal with the threat of climate change the same way.

Another factor contributing to climate change skepticism is our desire for community. From an emotional standpoint, it is often more important for us to fit in with our social group—our friends, our family, our church, our political party—than to be factually accurate. So we filter facts and information based on what we already believe—and what our social group(s) believes—while discounting or ignoring contrary information. I want to emphasize that this is rarely, if ever, a deliberate, conscious decision. Instead, we convince ourselves that we are “right” by giving undue weight to information that supports our convictions, while dismissing the rest as unreliable or untruthful—a phenomenon known as “confirmation bias.” (For example, many conservatives only trust conservative media, rejecting anything reported by the so-called “mainstream media” as inherently biased and unreliable.) Thus, if the group with which we identify regards climate change as a myth, we will view all information about climate change with a high degree of skepticism or outright disbelief.

This desire for community also leads us to surround ourselves with people who share our values and beliefs, creating an echo chamber that insulates us from contrary viewpoints and information. The advent of social media has greatly increased this tendency, for we can always find people and sources on the internet to reinforce our beliefs, no matter how factually inaccurate. We also have a natural inclination to overvalue the merits of our own group—for example, as more intelligent, better informed, and more sophisticated—and to denigrate or demonize opposing groups. For climate change deniers, this means that most climate change scientists are the enemy and therefore unworthy of belief.

Finally, we must frankly admit that the narrative of climate change is complex and unappealing. Who is to blame for it? How should any necessary sacrifices be allocated among developed, developing, and undeveloped countries? Blame creates resentment, and resentment inhibits understanding and cooperation.

As a result of these factors, and others, the world continues to speed toward an approaching apocalypse, which I believe to be a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. To learn more, read “Apocalypse Soon.”

[1] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide#:~:text=Based%20on%20preliminary%20analysis%2C%20the,to%20the%20COVID%2D19%20pandemic.

[2] Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2014)


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