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Climate change deniers and our human nature

Anyone who has been following the news on climate change recently already knows about the release of hacked emails of British climate scientists. The emails were used by so-called skeptics--most of whom get their funding from fossil fuel interests--to claim that there was something rotten in climate science. As far as I can tell, there isn't much to the so-called skeptics' claims about the emails. But even if their claims were to involve legitimate questions about some aspects of climate science, this would be nothing new.

That's because there is nothing that is absolutely settled in science. It is a process of ongoing inquiry fostered by disagreements between researchers of good faith who try to resolve their differences by looking for more conclusive evidence. It is important to note that so far fossil fuel companies and their supporters have yet to fund truly independent scientific inquiry into climate change. That's because they do not want truly independent inquiry since they would not be able to control the outcome. So, they are not part of the search for the truth since they offer no original physical observations or measurements to further our understanding of climate. But, then it is far easier to throw darts at others from a safe distance than engage in genuine scientific inquiry.

(The one time the fossil fuel interests did try to have some scientific rigor infused into their thinking, they didn't like the results. A primer on climate science prepared in 1995 by the industry-funded Global Climate Coalition's Science and Technical Advisory Committee confirmed key elements of the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The primer was never released and only surfaced a decade later, several years after the coalition had disbanded. You can read it here.)

The reason such sloppy critiques of climate science have gained so much traction with the public has less to do with their scientific logic--which is almost nonexistent--and more to do with human psychology. Humans tend to be heavily influenced by recent events and by their social milieu. For example, they tend to give more credence to something they heard last week at a party with friends than something published in a scientific journal last year even if it was given broad media play. Hence the effect on the public mind of the not-so-coincidental release of the above mentioned hacked emails right before the Copenhagen climate summit--and the ongoing viral campaign on the Internet, perfect for getting people to transmit disinformation person to person: "I read on the net that..."

Humans also tend to take their cues from their immediate surroundings. That's no surprise. It's really cold and snowy this winter here in the northern United States, ergo some people conclude that global warming must not be that big a deal. Yes, it's absolutely dry as a bone in Australia where it is currently summer and a severe drought has been in progress for years with devastating results. But if you don't live in Australia, you don't think about it much even if you hear something about it on the news.

Finally, humans greatly discount possible future events. This is an understandable evolutionary feature. Humans evolved to concentrate on their current surroundings, not some hypothetical future. They seek their food, status, safety and other satisfactions in the here and now. Is there really any time other than now if you are dealing with your immediate needs?

Climate denial public relations pros know all this about humans, and they count on it to make their strategies successful.

Despite all this it is a testament to humans as planning animals that most people in the world continue to believe that climate change is an important issue that needs to be addressed. But, this may not be enough. It is in the nature of humans to pay attention to the most vocal elements of society, and the so-called skeptics are quite vocal. They are constantly squawking to the media and obtaining coverage (unwarranted, in my view, since they offer mostly misinformation).

But, the fossil fuel interests do not need to defeat climate change regulations. They only need to delay or dilute them in order to achieve their goals. Delay gives those interests one more day, one more week, one more year, maybe even one more decade to sell their in-ground inventories of fossil fuels in an unrestricted manner. Every moment's delay means more money. And, diluting the regulations when they eventually arrive means opportunities for loopholes and even sanctioned delays that will allow them to continue to evade responsibility for their role in climate change.

The members of the climate change denial club are against efforts to control emissions not only because of the threat to profits, but also because they believe that climate change legislation will mean greater government intrusion into their lives. Ironically, when the crises associated with climate change emerge--declines in water and food supplies, mass migrations from areas affected negatively by climate change, threats to coastal areas due to rising seas--we will almost certainly see government intervention in ways that are far more intrusive than those needed to prevent these crises in the first place.

Editorial Notes: Kurt's comments also apply to peak oil deniers. -BA

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