Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 10, 2020

Opposition to climate change is rooted in partisan politics

By ALEX YAHANDA | October 2, 2014

If you go looking for arguments about climate change, you will typically find the same points made over and over again from both sides. Overall, the debate is somewhat unexciting, as is often the case when people choose to disagree with the scientific community. It is the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists that climate change is a reality. And, even if one is wary of scientific studies, nature appears to be indicating that warming is occurring: Plant and animal species are extending their territories further north, coral reefs are becoming bleached by rising ocean temperatures and certain plants are blooming earlier than normal. Despite all of this tangible evidence, climate change remains as controversial a topic as ever.

Mistrust of scientists, of course, is no new phenomenon among the general public. Scientific discoveries that are more solidly supported than climate change have diehard contrarians. Although the evidence for evolution is irrefutable, for instance, there are still those who refuse to acknowledge its existence. Similarly, much of the distrust in this country surrounding vaccinations is the result of one disproven article, which has somehow been able to turn people against the multitude of studies that point to vaccines’ efficacy.

Consequently, the climate change debate is unlikely to cause significant demographic shifts on either side. Supporters will more often than not fail to sway skeptics and vice-versa. It seems, then, that even massive demonstrations like the recent climate change march in New York City will have relatively muted effects. This will continue as long as the two sides are viewing climate change through entirely different realities.

I have long wondered why the climate change question makes nonbelievers so irritated. Deniers vehemently reject the notion that climate change could negatively affect us in the future and are quick to submit their own evidence to contradict findings that the global climate is shifting. But for what purpose do they seek to disparage climate change as a hoax? Why are they so hell-bent on ignoring so much scientific data? There is no religious principle or tenet that would be violated by the existence of climate change, nor does there seem to be particular moral beliefs attached to any climate change views. In other words, there is an extraordinary amount of ire by climate change refuters toward a subject to which they have no deep personal connections.

So, either climate change skeptics believe that most climate scientists are trying to somehow maliciously deceive the public, or their climate change cynicism is about more than the Earth’s average temperature trends. The latter looks to be the case. Ultimately, the climate change discussion as presented by skeptics is more a political than scientific one, and deniers are just following the stance that matches up with the rest of their political beliefs. A look at public climate change debates supports this idea. Those who vote Republican are more likely to question climate change than those who vote Democrat. Opposing viewpoints on climate change are thus approached in the same way as opposing viewpoints on taxes or gun control. What should be a conversation based on scientific evidence is instead being fueled by a conservative-versus-liberal mentality.

Major change is needed in the long run. And though it may sound counterintuitive, the best course of action may be that which is not directly concerned with the science behind the climate change debate. In the end, it does not matter whether climate change is occurring or to what degree humans are causing it — we should move forward as if climate change were an absolute fact. The rationale behind this is as follows: If we work harder to develop effective alternative energies, reduce pollution and take overall better care of the planet, then it will inevitably be to our long-term benefit no matter what. We’ve already seen comparable progress on a global scale with respect to the ozone layer that we had been steadily destroying. On the other hand, if we make no socio-economic changes and climate change ends up to be true, we will all pay the price.

Importantly, this approach is not just Pascal’s Wager applied to climate change. Whereas Pascal’s logic provides poor rationale for believing in God — hedging one's bets instead of looking for evidence — taking steps to limit mankind’s global carbon footprint is prudent regardless of how climate change may affect our future. Seeking to leave our children with a healthy planet ideally should not be a point of any political contention — it seems like common sense. After all, we don’t have any other laboratories in which we can watch global climate change unfold. This is something that skeptics apparently do not realize. Sure, there will be some perceived economic costs incurred by the fight against climate change. In the end, however, any costs will likely be remembered as a worthwhile investment in the longevity of the human race, even if climate change fails to have its projected impact.

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