A social science approach to global warming denialism--Part 1

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 12:30


On Dec 29, Daniel wrote a diary, "Why the right denies anthropogenic climate change", in which he said:

What's really happening is that anthropogenic climate change is a fundamental assault on right wing ideology and the solution requires a worldwide implementation of liberal policies that will undercut right wing ideas at every level well into the future.  Right wingers maybe do not grasp this fear consciously, but intuitively everything about this issue stinks for them.  Denial is the only way to save their worldview.

At the time, I responded with a comment stressing conservative identity over ideology:

You're Too Logical

All the above would be true if conservatives really understood it, but they do not.  Most importantly, the "instinctively feel" version, which you present, doesn't really improve the argument.  It only creates our own "just so" story.  (Or a "rational reconstruction" of irrational attitudes, if you will.)

I think the answer is much simpler: conservatives deny global warming because (a) liberals talk about it and (b) conservative blowhards have been demonizing liberals for talking about it for about 20 years now.  In short, global warming denial has become an integral part of conservative identity politics...

It was an off-the-cuff remark (even though I went on to quote from a 2006 MyDD diary) that made an important point, I think. But simply stressing a broad-brush picture of how the conservative base came to assimilate global warming denialism into conservative identity gives a very incomplete picture.  After all, there are reasons why liberals talk about global warming, and why this is a particularly fertile ground for demonization by conservative blowhards.

This weekend, I want to discuss a social science approach to risk-perception that can shed a good deal of light on identity and ideology, and how they figure into the case of global warming denialism.  It's going to take three diaries to do this properly.  First, this diary will introduce the broad outlines of the approach, known as "Cultural Cognition", whose work is centered at The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.  Cultural Cognition is an interpretation of the Cultural Theory of Risk (CTR), first articulated by anthropologist Mary Douglas and political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in their 1982 book, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers.  In this diary, I'll discuss the broad outlines of CTR, and how Cultural Cognition differs from earlier articulations of CTR.  One of those differences is the specific mechanisms of culture cognition.  I will desrbie several of them in this diary.  Diary number two will then deal those specific mechanisms in some detail,illustrating how they work. Diary number three will then look specifically at global warming, as well as some unresolved issues of more general importance.

Discussion begins on the flip.

Paul Rosenberg :: A social science approach to global warming denialism--Part 1
Cultural Theory of Risk

In discussing the basic structure of CTR, Wikipedia says:

Risk and blame, group and grid

Two features of Douglas's work inform the basic structure of Cultural Theory. The first of these is a general account of the social function of individual perceptions of societal dangers. Individuals, Douglas maintained, tend to associate societal harms--from sickness to famine to natural catastrophes--with conduct that transgresses societal norms. This tendency, she argued, plays an indispensable role in promoting certain social structures, both by imbuing a society's members with aversions to subversive behavior and by focusing resentment and blame on those who defy such institutions.[1][2

The first feature described above was developed by Douglas in her 1966 classic, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  Heuristically, the association of social harms with taboo-breaking makes a great deal of sense, since rules of conduct are an efficient way of transmitting danger warnings.  Yet, while this process may make practical sense on an item-by-item basis, it may prove counterproductive in a variety of ways, particularly since the reasons for initial identifications of social harms may never be clearly understood.  This will not be a foreground consideration in most of the discussion that follows, but it's an important point, nonetheless, that should not be forgotten.

Wikipedia continues:

The second important feature of Douglas's work is a particular account of the forms that competing structures of social organization assume. Douglas maintained that cultural ways of life and affiliated outlooks can be characterized (within and across all societies at all times) along two dimensions, which she called "group" and "grid."[3] A "high group" way of life exhibits a high degree of collective control, whereas a "low group" one exhibits a much lower one and a resulting emphasis on individual self-sufficiency. A "high grid" way of life is characterized by conspicuous and durable forms of stratification in roles and authority, whereas a "low grid" one reflects a more egalitarian ordering.[4]

Thus, cultural space can be represented in terms of two intersecting axes, creating four distinct quadrants:

Later works in Cultural Theory systematized this argument. In these accounts, group-grid gives rise to either four or five discrete ways of life, each of which is associated with a view of nature (as robust, as fragile, as capricious, and so forth) that is congenial to its advancement in competition with the others.[5][6]

The difference here may seem subtle, but it's actually profound.  In the diagram above, a given the difference between any two positions is no more significant than the same difference between two other positions.  It doesn't matter if both points are in the same quadrant or not.  But once you start drawing group boundaries, all bets are off:

The designation of the upper-left quadrant as "fatalism" seems particularly problematic, but I want to keep the focus on the broad features of the theory.  Once the idea of four distinct cultural groups developed, it seemed logical to try to define those groups and develop empirical tests to see who belonged to which group.  This was the approach developed by Karl Dake, a graduate student working under Aaron Wildavsky.  You can find his four scales, plus a critique of his approach in the static diary I've created, "Karl Dake's Cultural Worldview Measures".  The critique comes from Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan, one of the primary arcthitects of Cultural Cognition, to which we now turn.


Cultural Cognition

In "Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk", Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan describes how Cultural Cognition differs from standard CTR in three major ways:

I am going to address cultural cognition as a conception of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky's cultural theory of risk.1 By describing cultural cognition as a "conception" of cultural theory, I mean to emphasize that it is one of a variety of approaches for interpreting and testing Douglas and Wildavsky's influential claims about the nature of risk perception.

In my view, there are three features of cultural cognition that are distinctive among the various conceptions of cultural theory. One is the way in which cultural cognition measures cultural worldviews, the primary explanatory variable in the Douglas-Wildavsky account of risk perceptions. Another is the attention that cultural cognition gives to the mechanisms--social and psychological--that explain how culture shapes individuals' beliefs about risk. And the third is the practical objective of cultural cognition to promote collective management of public perceptions of risk and the effect of policies for mitigating them.

In this diary, I'll deal with the first two features described.  Discussion of the third will be postponed to the third diary in this series.  As Kahan explains, there are two primary problems with Dake's approach to measuring worldviews.  The first is scale reliability:

In my view, this approach faces two difficulties. The first has to do with the psychometric properties of the various scales. Dake himself did not report any measures of scale reliability. But subsequent researchers have investigated this matter in depth, and they have often found that the separate scales used to measure the respective worldviews perform poorly, failing to display internal validity in tests such as Cronbach's alpha and factor analysis.7

While later scale reliability can always be improved empirically, by testing a large number of items, and discarding those that don't cohere, the second problem is more basic:

The second problem is conceptual in nature. When one uses separate scales to measure each group-grid worldview, it becomes theoretically possible for a single individual to exhibit multiple, competing orientations--for example, to be simultaneously both a hierarchist and an egalitarian. Indeed, most likely because the items associated with discrete scales do not reflect a high degree of coherence or internal consistency, it's not uncommon for subjects to have high scores on competing scales.8

Since the whole point of the theory was to describe people's risk perceptions in terms of competing and conflicting worldviews, reinforcing and promoting the ones they subscribe to, it makes no sense to end up assigning them to more than one such group.  Of course, it's to be expected that some people will have divided loyalties.  But one should be able to pick out subsets of people with the strongest coherent loyalties, and this was simply not possible using the 4 different scales in Dake's approach.

Instead, cultural cognition looks at each of the polarities--Group and Grid--in terms of a single scale, as follows:

Hierarchy-Egalitarianism

HCHEATS - It seems like the criminals and welfare cheats get all the breaks, while the average citizen picks up the tab.

HEQUAL - We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.

HFEMININ - Society as a whole has become too soft and feminine.

HREVDIS1 - Nowadays it seems like there is just as much discrimination against whites as there is against blacks.

HREVDIS2 - It seems like blacks, women, homosexuals and other groups don't want equal rights, they want special rights just for them.

HTRADFAM - A lot of problems in our society today come from the decline in the traditional family, where the man works and the woman stays home.

HWMNRTS - The women's rights movement has gone too far.

EDISCRIM - Discrimination against minorities is still a very serious problem in our society.

EDIVERS - It's old-fashioned and wrong to think that one culture's setof values is better than any other culture's way of seeing the world.

EGAYMAR - A gay or lesbian couple should have just as much right to marry as any other couple.

ERADEQ - We need to dramatically reduce inequalities between the rich and the poor, whites and people of color, and men and women.

EROUGH - Parents should encourage young boys to be more sensitive and less "rough and tough."

EWEALTH - Our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.

EXSEXIST - We live in a sexist society that is fundamentally set up to discriminate against women.

Individualism-Solidarism

IENJOY - People who are successful in business have a right to enjoy their wealth as they see fit.

IFIX - If the government spent less time trying to fix everyone's problems, we'd all be a lot better off.

IGOVWAST - Government regulations are almost always a waste of everyone's time and money.

IINTRFER - The government interferes far too much in our everyday lives.

IMKT - Free markets--not government programs--are the bestway to supply people with the things they need.

INEEDS - Too many people today expect society to do things for them that they should be doing for themselves.

INEEDY - It's a mistake to ask society to help every person in need.

IPRIVACY - The government should stop telling people how to live their lives.

IPROFIT - Private profit is the main motive for hard work.

IPROTECT - It's not the government's business to try to protect people from themselves.

IRESPON - Society works best when it lets individuals take responsibility for their own lives without telling them what to do.

ITRIES - Our government tries to do too many things for too many people. We should just let people take care of themselves.

SHARM - Sometimes government needs to make laws that keep people from hurting themselves.

SLIMCHOI - Government should put limits on the choices individuals can make so they don't get in the way of what's good for society.

SNEEDS - It's society's responsibility to make sure everyone'sb asic needs are met.

This takes us back to the first of the two Grid/Group diagrams.  This approach doesn't preclude an analysis in terms of distinct and competing cultural worldviews. It simply doesn't require it.  One can look at either Group or Grid in isolation, look at both at once, combine either approach with other factors, such as age, gender, race, etc.  Because the theory is conceptually simpler, it's much more open to being driven by empirical findings, which is just as it should be.  There is a clear parallel between this improvement in scale reliability and simplicity and that accomplished by Robert Altemeyer in developing the rightwing authoritarian scale as an alternative to the F-Scale used in The Authoritarian Personality.

Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition

This brings us to the second main difference embodied in the Cultural Cognition approach--the role of psychological mechanisms.  Kahan explains:

The mechanisms hypothesis is that worldviews yield risk perceptions through a set of social and psychological processes. The processes are well established; they are the heart of the "psychometric paradigm" or psychometric theory of risk pioneered by my collaborator Paul Slovic.18 What hasn't been fully recognized until now, our research suggests, is how these social and psychological processes interact with cultural ways of life, generating individual differences in risk perception between people who subscribe to competing worldviews.19

The meaning of the above will become clearer as we look at specific examples, particularly in the next diary. For now, it's enough to introduce the mechanisms Kahan discusses in this paper, and give a feeling for how they operate.  Here Kahan discusses four mechanisms of cultural cognition: identity-protective cognition; biased assimilation and group polarization; cultural credibility; and cultural identity affirmation.  We deal briefly with each in turn.

Identity-Protective Cognition

    "I am what I am, and that's all what I am, I'm Popeye, The Sailor Man!"

The idea of this first mechanism is simplicity itself: It's very hard for anyone to see anything wrong with whatever they identify with most.  OTOH, it's surprisingly easy to think the worst of whatever one happens to despise.  Kahan elaborates:

First is identity-protective cognition. It is much less costly to one's sense of self to believe that behavior one thinks is noble is also societally beneficial, and behavior one things base is also societally harmful, than vice versa. This is particularly so where one's valuation of the behavior is connected to one's self-defining group commitments. Group membership supplies individuals not only with material benefits but a range of important nonmaterial ones, including opportunities to acquire status and self-esteem. Forming beliefs at odds with those held by mem-bers of an identity-defining group can thus undermine a person's well-being--either by threatening to drive a wedge between that person and other group members, by interfering with important practices within the group, or by impugning the social competence (and thus the esteem-conferring capacity) of a group generally. Accordingly, individuals are motivated, subconsciously, to conform their perceptions of risk to ones that are dominant within their self-defining reference groups.

Biased Assimilation and Group Polarization

    "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."

The second mechanism is also simple: we hear what we want, and pay little or no attention to whatever we don't want to hear.  As a result, a polarized audience listening to a balanced presentation will come away even more polarized, because each faction hears only that which reinforces their views.  Kahan explains:

Now let's consider biased assimilation and group polarization. This dynamic reflects the role of values on the processing of information. Because individuals are subconsciously motivated to persist in their beliefs, they attend to evidence and arguments in a selective fashion, crediting information that reinforces their beliefs and dismissing as noncredible information that undermines them. As a result, when individuals are exposed to balanced information supporting and challenging their existing beliefs, they become even more extremely committed to their priors. By same token, when groups of individuals holding opposing beliefs are exposed to balanced information, they don't converge in their views; they polarize.24 We hypothesized that individuals subscribing to competing ways of life would exhibit biased assimilation and polarization when exposed to balanced, competing arguments on a risk they were culturally predisposed to credit or discount.

Cultural Credibility Heuristic

    "Who are you going to believe?  Me, or your lying eyes?"

The third mechanism is also simple: people trust who they trust.  Not who is logical, rational or reasonable to trust.  Kahan explains:

Next is the cultural credibility heuristic. Most people (in fact, all, if one thinks about it) cannot determine for themselves just how large a disputed risk is, whether of environmental catastrophe from global warming, of human illness from consumption of genetically modified foods, of accidental shootings from gun ownership, etc. They must defer to those whom they find credible to tell them which risk claims and supporting evidence to believe and which to disbelieve. The cultural credibility heuristic refers to the hypothesized tendency of individuals to impute to experts whom they perceive as sharing their values the sorts of qualities--including knowledge, honesty, and shared interest--that make their positions on risk worthy of being credited.

Cultural-Identity Affirmation

    "Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

The fourth and final mechanism is also simple: Expanding on the precept that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you make people more receptive to potentially threatening information if you first boost their sense of self-worth, so that they are inherently more impervious to threat.  Kahan elaborates:

The next mechanism, cultural-identity affirmation, also can be seen as a type of "cultural debiasing" strategy. This one is based on self-affirmation, a mechanism which is essentially the mirror image of identity-protective cognition and which has been extensively documented by Geoff Cohen, one of the Cultural Cognition Project members.27 Identity-protective cognition posits that individuals react dismissively to information that is discordant with their values as a type of identity self-defense mechanism. With self-affirmation, individuals experience a stimulus--perhaps being told they scored high on a test, or being required to write a short essay on their best attributes--that makes a worthy trait of theirs salient to them. This affirming experience creates a boost in a person's self-worth and self-esteem that essentially buffers the sense of threat he or she would otherwise experience with confronted with information that challenges beliefs dominant within an important reference group. As a result, individuals react with in a more open-minded way to potentially identity-threatening information, and often experience a durable change in their prior beliefs.

Cultural-identity affirmation hypothesizes that you can get the same effect whey you communicate information about risk in a way that affirms rather than threatens their cultural worldview.28


In the second diary in this series, I'll provide a closer look at the four mechanisms just described, and the evidence for how they operate.  


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My brain hurts. . . (0.00 / 0)
Whew, this is one of your brain fryers, Paul, which I don't necessarily say as a critique.  I'm sure I don't have most of it downloaded that coherently.

Couple of comments.

First, I'd be interested in how what you are talking about relates to my diaries about lifestyle activism.  How do you communicate ideas like the bankruptsy of those kind of approaches to people who don't want to hear it?  

Second, this raises all kinds of interesting broader questions about how we get people to critique their own deeply held visions of "truth."  I'm thinking not surprisingly of my own questions about the limits of middle-class visions of egalitarianism, and the inability of middle-class people to understand that their visions of a good society are directly related to their privilege in our society.  The issue seems to be about how we get people to see their own perspective from the embodied perspective of those located elsewhere in society (which you've talked about) in ways that "stick" in terms of their future thinking and action.  

Actually, I read both of the Douglas books you referenced a few months ago, I think for some diary I was thinking about writing, and since I didn't write about them I can't remember a damn thing about them.  

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)


Getting People To Be Self-Critical Is A Challenge, All Right (4.00 / 2)
And it's one reason that students have always played an important role in social change.  Because they're both inquisitive enough to be open to questioning, and young enough to not be too deeply embedded in their social commitments.  Even so, students are never the prime movers.  They're amplifiers of movements preceding them--even the student anti-war movement of the 1960s.

This is the template for the only sort of answer I think can work for either of the questions you raise: there is no single answer, no particular group or force or idea that can be our salvation.  It has to be an interactive process that engages different sorts of forces and brings them into interaction with one another.

I know this is extremely vague, and therefore somewhat of a copout.  My only excuse is that (a) I'm still struggling to get over this holiday bug, so my energy is somewhat limited and (b) it really does seem to me that a lot of folks are thinking in terms of some one group, force or idea to save us, so much so that it's worthwhile to remind folks that that's not how things actually work historically.

To focus briefly just a little bit more on your first question, my sense is that life-style activism is perhaps best understood as a fall-back position once people have decided to check out on doing anything real... but really don't want to admit it.

Things only really get done when people are engaged, not because of what they do in and of themselves, but because of how that puts them into a process in which what they do and what other activists working at odd angles to them produces something bigger than the sum of the parts.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
This doesn't feel like a copout (4.00 / 1)
Some interesting ideas in here I'll need to think about.

The following point is well taken, something I'd not really conceptualized this way before:

Even so, students are never the prime movers.  They're amplifiers of movements preceding them--even the student anti-war movement of the 1960s.

I'll have to think about it, though.  On one level this is always true--one is always working with what has come before.  To what extent student movements go beyond this. . . . not sure.

I'm currently trying to write a history of community organizing in America, integrating social movements, neighborhood organizing, and the emergence of the social work/service/nonprofit industrial complex. (It's supposed to be a short chapter, but I have 50 single spaced pages and more to do--much cutting in my near future.) So this issue of students is of course central to the story of the 1960s (although not as central as one might imagine).  

You'll see echoes of this focus on youth as possibility in the draft thought experiment diary I sent you.

I think you are right that an effective strategy would focus on specific groups.  Again, I hadn't really framed it this way.  You don't really need that many people to make change.  One organizer noted to me that you really would only need to tightly organize 1% of the population of a city to get pretty much whatever you wanted done, done.  I think he was probably pretty close to the mark.  

Perhaps one of the issues is figuring out how to slice up the middle-class and then target a specific set of slices intensively?  

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)


[ Parent ]
The Main Thing (0.00 / 0)
is outmaneuvering the Powers That Be as they work ceaselessly to disorganize potential forces of change.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
I'm surprised you aren't writing long-form journalism in a magazine. (0.00 / 0)
The Nation, Mother Jones, The American Prospect... a venue where the audience is expecting to spend 20 minutes digesting a long and developed argument.  The audience for that kind of writing certainly exists.  Is that audience finding your work here though?

Well, (0.00 / 0)
I've always been a better writer than a salesman.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Yes, brain teaser (0.00 / 0)
A few thoughts I had - FWIW

First I'll just say that I'm interested to read your other two promised diaries on this because I am interested to know how/why climate change deniers can even exist in the face of much evidence to the contrary. A cognitive theory on cultural risk taking, such as you present here, seems a plausible explanation, especially this part:

The fourth and final mechanism is also simple: Expanding on the precept that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you make people more receptive to potentially threatening information if you first boost their sense of self-worth, so that they are inherently more impervious to threat

But I don't understand why you want to write to an academic audience. That's not what this is. I'm willing to bet that people reading this site don't care about Dake's scales.

Although it's been a long while since I've read this sort of stuff, I have a background in social science and know a little bit about what you're talking about. I feel compelled to note that I think in this diary you could have done without the details about Dake's scales. You're saying the scales are flawed, so why bother cluttering up the cognitive landscape with them?

There is no peer review here that will take you to task for presenting only those aspects of a theory, and its accompanying evidence, that support your conclusions. You also say you want to discuss the theory in broad strokes. We would only need to know about the scales if you are going to present evidence gathered by the scales.

As I said, I'll be interested to read your other diaries on this subject.

This diary deals with "specific mechanisms of culture cognition."

Diary number two will then deal those specific mechanisms in some detail,illustrating how they work. Diary number three will then look specifically at global warming, as well as some unresolved issues of more general importance.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this cognitive approach you present helps progressives understand what we're up against trying to capture support in the electorate - in a cognitive sense, the general public's sympathies. It seems to me this theory could provide valuable insight to inform progressive organizers in their recruitment efforts.

Why don't you just say that?


I Guess I Just Don't Want To Spoonfeed Folks (0.00 / 0)
I want to provide enough information so that people have a decent change to intelligently challenge my conclusions, without having to read all the original source material themselves.

Of course, some folks won't be interested in that--or at least sufficiently interested to plow through all of this--but they can just tune into the third installment.

Plus, my dad was a college prof.  My brother and sister, both college profs.  I just can't help myself.  It's in my genes.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
A promising start! (4.00 / 1)
This debate definitely needs more sobriety and science of all sorts.

Well, actually, what I see as the real debate regarding climate change is not the confrontation with the denialists. Those guys just lost. Science settled that. The fact that they keep hanging around doesn't mean they're worth debating.

The real debate about global warming is: what should we do about it? And I hope that future posts take the advice of this one and seriously present the relevant issues on all sides of the question instead of just parroting popular preconceptions about how the answer should sound.

As depressing as it is, global anthropogenic climate change is one of several manifestations of the unsustainability of present human behavior. Unrelated to it is wilderness destruction, soil erosion, and many other inevitable results of unabated population growth. Now of course, global climate change will only make the latter problems worse. But they would be absolutely existential problems even if we didn't have global climate change.

It seems to me that we as a species have only the attention span to focus on one sustainability problem, and for some reason, we've fixated on the climate to the exclusion of the rest. You will never see a summit on global fertility attended by Obama, but if you stuff enough people on our land masses, they will break. Right now we are living on borrowed time because our lands are unnaturally and unustainably fertile thanks to cheap fertilizer made from fossil fuels. As the global population heads for 10 Billion we will be hitting peak oil and shit will seriously hit the fan in a catastrophic way. Take a look at the Easter Islands if you want a picture of what humans do to their environment as they try desperately to cling to life.

To believe that the mechanisms behind this "too many mouths" problem are somehow self-regulating is as naive as believing that atmospheric CO2 is magically self-regulating - as some people do, because they don't understand the science. And the thing is, there are many things we can do that make a huge difference, like working hard to educate (especially) girls in developing countries. We're stingy about doing this because the urgent need to do it is screened off by this debate about atmospheric CO2 PPM numbers. This happens is two ways: One is a matter of our attention, as we seemingly fixate on one thing. More troublingly, we foresee that our greatest investment in efforts at global sustainability will involve CO2. That's where we expect the greatest financial pain.

In a sober analysis of risk, we wouldn't let this happen. We wouldn't allow a herculean effort to prevent one undesirable outcome overshadow a looming but preventable catastrophe. We're not realizing that it's almost by (unsustainable) miracle that so many people on Earth have enough to eat. Most scientists agree that we are already more than what the earth can sustainably support. And yet the global population is expected to increase by 40% by 2050. If everyone lived like Americans, the earth could support only 1.3 Billion people - well short of the almost 7 Billion that are already here.

If we want to save any scraps of nature for future generations, this problem deserves all of our attention. And compared to it, global climate change looks like an unpleasant sideshow. Yes, it will exacerbate famines and economic migrations, but the root cause of these, as well as resource and land wars, stems from there being more people than the land can support.

Despite well-publicized disaster scenarios, the worst thing that can happen with CO2 is simply that we burn all of the extractable fossil fuels of the Earth. This would have terrible consequences, but they wouldn't be civilization-ending. After all, we are probably quite close to having burned half of all the recoverable oil of the planet. Of course it's worse with coal. Regarding CO2 levels, there is really only one question: How much of the earth's fossil fuels will we not burn? Will we leave any of that stuff in the ground, or will we belch it all into our atmosphere? And the answer to this is simply economic. It's about whether some cheaper alternative comes along that makes it not worth our while to dig up those dirty scraps. This is one place where I support a serious investment - funding research into non-carbon energy generation so that it becomes economical faster. No other mechanism to fight climate change will ever work in the long run.

But I'm one of the people who think: What if we prioritized the far more dangerous human problems when we invest in our future? If fossil fuels and CO2 were put on the back burner, in favor of an expensive global fight against illiteracy and poverty (the drivers of unsustainable fertility), how bad would things get?

Since we clearly can't do it all, as witnessed by the fact that we've resigned ourselves to the thought that global poverty is just too big and messy to tackle. We're clearly not even trying. No summits, no nothing. But hey, if we refuse to look at the root of our problems, let's at least address this peripheral one about CO2. This Titanic will go down with an impeccably mopped deck!

So that's my take on climate change. I'm certainly not a denier, but I think we have much bigger and more fundamental sustainability problems which actually have solutions, if we're willing to invest the money and effort. I suspect that this would leave little money to tackle climate change prevention, in which case it's rational to just not prevent it. Yes, it will suck, I have no doubt, but the wise civilization should choose the least sucky future available to it. Maybe that's a world with too much CO2 in the atmosphere.


Yes And No (0.00 / 0)
Yes, most certainly, to most of your points.  But no to the idea that global warming isn't really that big of a deal, comparatively.  I believe it definitely does threaten human civilization, not directly, perhaps, but through the massive disruptions and resulting escalation in conflicts that can be expected to ensue.

However, I'm not entirely as pessimistic as you are.  First of all, even though population is still rising, it's nothing like it once was, and indeed we do have summits on it---just not as high-profile as Copenhagen was.  Are we doing enough?  Of course not!  But there is at least the hope that global warming can help provide a teachable moment that can be generalized to the other problems we face.

IMHO, it's the underlying lesson that we need to focus on--the need for long-range, global, we're-all-in-this-together thinking.  If we can do that, then the other problems we face as a species will be much easier to tackle, and instead of a crowding out effect dominating, a connect-the-dots effect will lead to an increased coordination of effort.

Don't hold your breath, though.  It's going to take some real intense work over the next few years, but it is something that could be achieved.


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
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