The facts are not enough. We are never going to be able to address global warming effectively if we don’t win the hearts of people, as well as their minds.
In the a movie A Few Good Men, a film about honor and integrity, one of the protagonists, when the truth is demanded of him in a heated exchange, responds, “You can’t handle the truth!” Many people, it seems, can’t handle the truth about global warming.
We have been telling people that truth for a long time now. As a humanist, I conceive of the truth as an explanation resulting from the best available evidence we have, based on a sound conceptual framework. I know that this sort of truth, because it is based on scientific processes, will evolve over time as we get to know more, but I prefer it to other types of beliefs about the truth which seem remarkably intransigent to evidence and reason.
Many of us, concerned that our continued pollution of our atmosphere is going to destroy life on Earth and, long before that, make human existence on this planet utterly miserable, have tried to use reason and facts to convince people to act before too late. We have used an abundance of evidence to argue that our planet is in danger. We have warned, we have cajoled, we have lobbied. We can counter the spurious arguments that deny climate change and its likely impact or that assure us that we need not panic yet.
We can quote a reputable organization such as NASA, who have shown that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely to be due to human activity. Most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. We can point out that NASA data shows that we have experienced rapid warming in the past few decades: that 2016 was the warmest year since 1880; and that the ten warmest years in the 138-year record have all occurred since 2000. The four recent years were the four warmest.
We can refer people to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the benefits, impacts and challenges of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels: a lengthy, thorough account, which cited over 6,000 references. The result of years of intensive research, it also took account of the latest information on climate change. The report was a collaborative effort involving 91 authors from 44 countries and 130 contributing authors. It was intensively scrutinized: it received a total of 42,001 expert and governmental review comments. Hundreds of scientists from diverse backgrounds were mobilized to produce this report.
However, the huge body of evidence about the extent of global warming seems to have little impact on the views of many people. Cold logic does not appear to be winning the day. Why is this so?
The Role of Human Nature in Damping down Support for Action on Global Warming
Many people—indeed most people—do not want to hear the message. Many of us are in a dilemma which we respond to in different ways. We don’t want global warming to happen, yet we don’t want to give up anything. We are simply unwilling to make the sacrifices required to save our planet.
The easiest way around this dilemma is to talk yourself into believing that there is a worldwide conspiracy, concocted by thousands of scientists and other otherwise rational people, to convince us that we should radically change our behavior, otherwise we are doomed. Obviously, this is a socialist* (*insert any group you are fearful of in this space) plot to gain power. Mind you, you can hardy blame people for believing this when it is touted by some sections of the media. This appeals to people who can’t accept that all those left-wing environmentalists might have been right. The pay-off of believing this is that you can go on living your life as normal.
Another approach is to deny that climate change is happening. As Mark Twain might say, reports of our impending doom have been greatly exaggerated. The climate is not really changing or, if it is, then that change is a natural process that has been going on for millennia. We will have plenty of time to adapt. A few geologists take this position. Books have been written to convince waverers that there is no need to panic. Again, some parts of the media are keen to use such arguments to debunk global warming—they appeal to people who want a good reason not to take global warming seriously. The pay-off, again, is that you can go on living your life as normal.
Another approach is to choose arguments that suit your position. To cherry pick the science. For example, global warming might be happening, but we really don’t have to change what we are doing in any radical way. We can have clean coal. Renewable energy is so limited that is it is not worth investing in. There is an easy way around the problem of global warming that doesn’t involve limiting fossil fuel use. These arguments, and more, have been comprehensively refuted, but they appeal because they give the illusion that there is a rational basis for not acting promptly to prevent catastrophic climate change. The pay-off? You’ve guessed it. You can go on living your life as normal.
Then there is the optimistic approach. Yes, global warming is happening, but scientists will come up with a solution before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Necessity is the mother of invention. Our children will find a way to deal with global warming. We will collect CO2 in massive amounts from the atmosphere. Hydrogen powered cars will save the day. The problem with global warming is that it is time critical and it could reach a point of no return. Why take the risk of being so optimistic that we delay action on climate change? Because, that way, we can put aside the inconvenient truth of global warming and go on living our lives as normal, enjoy having children and grandchildren and feel positive that a solution will be found.
A very common approach to global warming is just to ignore it. We can believe it is happening and be worried about the increasing occurrence of droughts, out-of-season wildfires, record maximum temperatures, the lack of formerly reliable rain and the increased frequency of wild weather, but it is hard to be alarmed for too long when life is so full and demanding. We hope that other people will solve the problem, and in the meantime we live our lives as normal.
Then there are the believers. We accept that global warming is a real threat to our existence and that it is already having a big impact on the Earth. Without immediate action, future generations will live in a very hostile world and life on Earth may not survive. So we do what we can. We try to use more renewable sources of energy, recycle things and support environmental groups advocating for action on global warming. We may even attend demonstrations or write to the newspapers or to our political representatives. But do we really sacrifice very much, or do we live our lives pretty much as normal?
A dedicated group of people put a lot of time and effort into trying to convince governments and other influential people, as well as the general public, that we need to take global warming seriously and implement far reaching changes as soon as possible. They point out the undeniable facts of global warming and the catastrophic impact it will have if we don’t act now in a concerted, coordinated and co-operative way. This is a painstaking and frustrating process, as people seem quite capable of denying the undeniable. Rationalization is a human specialty. It masks the fact that our views on global warming may be more influenced by our emotions than our reason. Activists need to take this into account if they want to shift people from their comfort zones to a commitment to addressing climate change even if it requires significant sacrifices.
Are you prepared to make the sacrifices needed to keep global warming to 1.5°C?
How would you feel if governments were to say that from the year 2020 all fossil fuel cars would be totally banned from cities, and the price of petrol doubled to pay for the development of renewable energy sources. What if we could only use petrol-driven cars at weekends and then only if they had two or more passengers? What if all coal mining were to cease immediately and other fossil fuels were banned within the next ten years? What if we were required to have solar panels on our roofs and install rainwater tanks to supply our drinking water? What if a limit were set on consumption and a very high tax placed on luxury goods, cars, clothing and travel? What if 50% of our taxes were to be spent on addressing global warming and plastics were totally banned? And not only that: what if we had to take in ten times the refugees we presently accept and provide triple the amount we now give in foreign aid to help poorer countries cope with global warming? What if our average standard of living dropped to what it was in the 1950s?
Would you rejoice because this would be better than a global meltdown and because future generations are worth the self-sacrifice? Or would you bitterly oppose such changes as unfair, draconian and unnecessary?
I think it is a mistake to gloss over the sacrifices required to overcome the challenge of global warming. We will all have to move out of our comfort zones and things will change quite drastically. Fear of change leads people to deny and ignore global warming.
It is our nature that has caused us to end up with a global warming disaster that will soon be beyond our influence. Because we ignored the warning signs; because we are not very good at thinking and acting for the long-term future; because many of us don’t have a good grasp of science, probability and risk assessment; because action on global warming conflicts with the self-interests of powerful people; because effective action requires too many sacrifices; because it is politically undesirable; and because when it comes to trying to understand complex problems many of us take the easy way out and rely on our prejudices or the media to tell us what to think.
A humanist approach can help because it seeks to move us along the spectrum of human nature to where actions are based on reason and evidence and a recognition of our common humanity. It acknowledges we are on our own and must solve the problems that confront us. It advocates that we should treat people as we would be treated—not just those people alive now, or the people we personally care about, or the people in our own countries—but especially those vulnerable people—both here and now and in the future—who will be most impacted by global warming and the transformative changes needed to address it.
Instead of cajoling and blaming people for not acting to mitigate global warming, we could have non- judgmental conversations with people from all walks of life. We could listen. We could accept people’s fears and resistance to change and acknowledge that addressing global warming will come at a price. We can talk about the facts and the various options and present the alternatives. And we can appeal to people’s courage, altruism and compassion. We need everyone on board, we need consensus and we need a mass movement if we are to have any hope of preventing catastrophic global warming.
Can we do this? Yes. We have done it before. In the past, people have sacrificed everything for a worthy cause. Think of the sacrifices of those who ended slavery, the suffragettes who gave women the vote, the unionists who stood up for the working man, the intellectuals and scientists who stood up for freedom of thought. Think of the extraordinary effort that ordinary people made during the Second World War, to fight absolute tyranny. People can unite to fight a common threat for a just cause. There has never been a cause more just or more pressing than saving life on Earth from annihilation.