Climate change has been impacting the planet for quite a while now. In fact, Arrhenius published the first calculation of global warming from human CO2 emissions in 1896. For many people, it is easy to confirm that climate change is a real problem and escalating fast. However, there is a staggering division amongst opinions, especially in the United States. As of 2016, roughly 31% of Americans denied that climate change is due to humans, and 20% deny climate change altogether. So what’s with this gap in popular opinion?
How can people be so skeptical of the changes happening right in front of them?
To some, it’s hard to understand how our peers can be so skeptical of something that is happening right in front of them. The way we view information depends on how we interpret it as well as whether or not we want to take ALL the information into account. Interpreting climate change data can be difficult to anyone who is not familiar with scientific jargon. Some people are intimidated by graphs and charts. This can lead to ignoring information that is clearly displayed, all on the basis of disliking the format or way it was presented. Another issue, when interpreting facts, is how those facts directly impact the person looking at them. Obviously, someone who owns or manages a company which produces high levels of waste and emissions daily does not want to hear about how they are contributing to a “crisis.” In some cases, this is deliberate. Corporations with vested interests have funded a media campaign to cast doubt and nonprofits that have a slick anti-science propaganda. This is well documented in books like Erik Conway's "Merchants of Doubt", or Michael Mann's "Climate Wars." Not only are people misinterpreting, but the general public listens to these misinterpretations, especially when someone who holds a high profile position (ex: legislators, congressmen, actors, etc.) gives an opinion. However, it’s natural for people to interpret or selectively cherry-pick evidence and facts so that their own beliefs are confirmed. This is referred to as a ‘confirmation bias.’ Unfortunately, for many skeptics, climate change data is interpreted in order satisfy their confirmation bias.
“People are always clinging to what they want to hear, discarding the evidence that doesn’t fit with their beliefs, giving greater weight to evidence that does.”
Media and Politics only amplify denials
Media and politics play a large part in how people view climate change, and can also fuel their skepticism. Everyone knows that the media can twist words and choose what part of the story they want to tell in order to satisfy the public. Climate change is usually not the “juicy” story that people want to watch or read about because the media can over sensationalize the information or event. Major news networks choose to ignore mentioning climate change when extreme weather events take place. For instance, hurricane Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean, and while scientific data showed a correlation between climate change and extreme weather, many news networks neglected to present that information to the public. Also, media tends to cover politics and the views of different politicians more than it covers the views of scientists; and this can influence skeptic views. Scientists aren’t always inclined to engage with the media at times, but it is easier to listen to the opinion of a high profile politician than it is to researching the data that was collected and confirmed on the matter. When a popular politician makes a statement saying that “global warming is a hoax,” the public fails to remember that this is opinion-based only. It’s very unlikely that every politician who has denied climate change actually did their research in order to confirm this denial; and yet these opinions are exposed through the media over scientific findings.
“People put a lot less effort into picking apart evidence that confirms what they already believe.”
So how are we supposed to view climate change?
One thing that is not opinion based, or influenced by outside sources is the scientific data pertaining to climate change; over 97% of scientists and researchers are able to come to a consensus that climate change is a very real threat. So what have we learned so far about the changes occurring globally? Last year, we saw average global temperatures break records, and 2016 was the third record breaking year in a row. Along with these temperature rises, CO2 levels are twice as high as normal, threatening the pH balance in the oceans and contributing the diminishing coral reef. We are also seeing sea levels rise faster than ever before-3.4mm a year-threatening many coastal populations over time. This is only some of the information that we are certain about and that raises concern for our future. It’s not solely about “who” you should listen to; it is also about how you should act to help reduce the effects of climate change. We have moved beyond the argument of “right and wrong” because we already have the information to show that our climate is changing, and now it is time to tackle the threat at hand.
"Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start." –Pope Francis