On Climate Change Denial & Its Relation to Nationalism — 1

(This is the first in a two-part series)

Image by Bansky

Earlier this week, Scott Pruitt said that he does not believe human emission of carbon dioxide has much to do with rising global temperatures. A professional critic of the environmentalist movement, Pruitt has been a publicly vocal denier of climate change for a very long time. This new statement tells us nothing that we already don’t know on what he personally thinks of the whole issue.

Except, he is now the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and anything he says comes with a string of serious implications. Pruitt is no longer just a paid propagandist for fossil fuel interests, but a very important bureaucrat in the Trump administration and is its most important spokesperson on matters concerning the environment . With the mainstream media’s understandably myopic focus on the Trump oligarchy’s unending shenanigans, it is easy to overlook what this means for the future of human civilization.

In his official denial of climate change, Pruitt appears to have marked the beginning of translation into policy, the Republican Party’s (GOP) terrifyingly absurd position on what the previous occupant of the White House had termed with good reason, ‘the biggest threat facing humanity’. It is therefore with equally good reason that Noam Chomsky has recently described the Republican Party as ‘the most dangerous organisation in world history’.

The Trump administration is reportedly proposing to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, cut clean air and water regulations, and eventually eliminate all of the EPA’s programs. With a comprehensive hold over all wings of the government — executive, congress, the supreme court — there really isn’t much that a determined GOP cannot do.

The scientific consensus on climate change is internationally unequivocal; its devastating impact is already being felt in several parts of the globe, and the evidence clearly indicates that things are only going to get worse from here on. Many scientists tell us that it is already too late and the worst effects are perhaps irreversible.

Why then is the most consequential nation in the history of the world taking such a ludicrous approach to a problem many believe is the biggest threat to the survival of the human species?

The simplest answer, the one you will hear from people like Scott Pruitt and his fraternal colleague, the snowball-throwing scientific genius Sen. Jim Inhofe, goes something like this: There is no conclusive evidence that the planet is warming. Even if one does concede for the sake of argument that the earth is indeed warming, human beings have nothing to do with it, and there are no real impacts that necessitate action.

The arguments put forth in elaboration of these claims are usually empty in that they are not backed by fact and do nothing to explain away the sheer amount of verifiable evidence that proves climate change is real and is driven primarily by human emission of carbon dioxide. Alternative facts are relatively alright when they’re intended to pacify pathologically needy ‘man-toddlers’, but there are dangerous real-world consequence in the case of climate denialism.

It goes without saying that these deniers are not Galileo-like in their fight against the established scientific consensus. They are in fact anything but, considering that their methods mock the evidence-based framework of modern science that Galileo himself played a central role in founding.

What then, explains climate denialism?

Fossil fuels, the primary cause of carbon emissions, are key drivers of the global economy. The combined market capitalization of all listed fossil fuel companies in the world is reported to be a whopping $4.65 trillion. 4 of the 10 largest companies in the world (by revenue) are oil companies. More tellingly, nearly 80% of the world’s energy demand is met by fossil fuels.

In requiring a near-total halt to fossil fuel burning, climate action threatens to immediately upend the mighty influence oil companies have wielded over the global economy for nearly 150 years. In response, they have left no stone unturned in building large propaganda infrastructure tasked with manufacturing uncertainty over the science of climate change.

A research study published in 2013 analysed financial data from a sample of 91 organisations involved in climate misinformation. The findings indicate that from 2003 to 2010, these 91 organisations collectively received nearly $900 million every year in funding from fossil fuel interests.

Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, argued that socioeconomic well-being accrues for all when market participants act in their own self interests. This was in 1776, when the industrial revolution was in its infancy; wood was the primary source of energy, and electricity was something of an intellectual curiosity. Given these, it is very unlikely that Smith could have foreseen the exponential progress in technology that would lead to a complex, interconnected global economy only two centuries later; where market participants acting in their own self interest stand to threaten not just socioeconomic well being, but the earth’s biosphere in its entirety.

But why have a majority of Americans bought into the frivolous claims of fossil fuel interests, when every single credible scientific organisation in the United States thinks climate change is real and deserves immediate action?

The think tanks and media outlets at the heart of climate denialism might very well be mere cogs in the machinations of the fossil fuel industry, but that is besides the point. Obfuscating the science has only been a means to a larger end. The denialist movement has deliberately and very successfully sought to frame climate change as an issue of identity and belonging. By doing so, it has rendered the science irrelevant.

Psychologist Dan Kahan writes in Nature:

For members of the public, being right or wrong about climate- change science will have no impact. Nothing they do as individual consumers or as individual voters will meaningfully affect the risks posed by climate change. Yet the impact of taking a position that conflicts with their cultural group could be disastrous.
Positions on climate change have come to signify the kind of person one is. People whose beliefs are at odds with those of the people with whom they share their basic cultural commitments risk being labelled as weird and obnoxious in the eyes of those on whom they depend for social and financial support.
So, if the cost of having a view of climate change that does not conform with the scientific consensus is zero, and the cost of having a view that is at odds with members of one’s cultural community can be high, what is a rational person to do? In that situation, it is perfectly sensible for individuals to be guided by modes of reasoning that connect their beliefs to ones that predominate in their group.

This is confirmed by a new study by Pew Research that found political ideology to be a better predictor of climate change opinion than scientific literacy. Well educated Republicans are just as likely as poorly educated Republicans to express some degree of disbelief in the science of climate change.

Interestingly, the same study found that a majority of Americans across the ideological spectrum believe future technology will solve the problems of climate change, if and when they arise. Evidently, this has been the biggest success of the denialist movement. By the undermining of the complexity of the problem, even those who believe climate change is real have been lulled into a false feeling of complacency. In this sense, it wouldn’t be incorrect to think of climate denialism as a massive undertaking in social engineering.

All of this is very fascinating, but it is only proximal in that it does nothing to address the question we started out with.

Private industry attempting to safeguard its interests by manufacturing uncertainty is not without precedent. Its success in ushering in mass climate denialism is also not very surpising, considering what we now know about the psychology of it. Even a single exposure to a denial message has been shown to significantly reduce subjects’ belief in and concern about climate change.

But for the world’s most powerful nation to adopt it as official state policy, knowing fully that the consequences could be devastating, is quite extraordinary and beggars all belief.

In the very first paragraph of his ambitious book of world history, ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’, Jared Diamond emphasizes on needing to push back the chain of historical causation as far as possible to look for ultimate explanations. Proximal explanations are important, but one mustn’t stop there.

While it is indeed true that fossil fuel interests have given millions of dollars to Republican campaigns, I strongly suspect that this too is only a proximal explanation. Considering what is potentially at stake, it is far too simplistic to qualify as an ultimate explanation.

As anybody with a basic background in statistics will tell you, correlation does not imply causation. This is a fundamental guiding principle in several fields of human endeavor, from scientific research to philosophical inquiry to sensible screenwriting. Yet, in the search for causation, one would be well advised to start off by looking for correlation. Correlation is in fact a necessary starting condition for causation.

There are difficulties though, that one will inevitably encounter in the process, like the fundamental problem of causal inference: For instance, suppose I have a headache and I take a pill. The headache goes away, and there is ostensibly some correlation between the two. But how do I know for sure? How do I establish causation? Logically, the only infallible way would be to go back in time, and not take the pill, and compare the results. Since we cannot go back in time, it is impossible to infer causality from a single event. One has to compare multiple events of several similar units receiving different sets of action to discern causation in a logically consistent manner. But even this is slightly problematic, as there are inherent baseline differences in most cases, that could affect the outcome.

And when the matter at hand is a complex 21st century political phenomenon, the difficulty is exponentially compounded. The data that needs to be taken into consideration, both quantitative and qualitative, is too vast. It is virtually impossible therefore, to establish ultimate causation with any degree of certainty in the case of climate denialism.

So then, we will have to make do with finding strong correlation, and speculate on its proximity to the real ultimate explanation. The speculation that follows in the next part might eventually prove to be just that; but I am confident that it is at the very least, more solidly grounded in reason and evidence than climate change denial in all its tragicomic variants.

(To be continued)