Appealing to Hearts and Minds on the Subject of Global Warming

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.

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  1. The invocation of the pseudo fact “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree…” is more an obfuscation than a literal truth. Michael Mann’s ‘hockey stick’ is based on fudged data. It magically ignores The Medieval Climate Optimum (950-1250) when Vikings grew crops in Greenland, and it eliminates the Little Ice Age (1645-1759) when the Thames regularly froze over to demonstrate the temperature rise from 1930 to 2000. The hysteria of Apocalyptic Environmentalism is a plausible excuse to justify anti-capitalist third world agendas and post-modernist self loathing. In the end, CO2 is a marginal (0.4%) greenhouse gas… the Sun (our star) however drives climate on earth and throughout the solar system. The New Horizons Satellite has demonstrated this fact all the way out to Uranus, Pluto and most recently Ultima Thule. Climate is very likely, based on clearly recurrent solar cycles, and, if so, this planet may well be headed for another Little Ice Age. We will know the answer to this by the late 2020’s. I’m willing to give mother earth and humanity a “timeout”. “Settled science” are things like F = ma (except under relativistic conditions). The hubris of reducing unbelievably complex, self correcting systems like planetary climate to neophyte algorithms strains to credulity of honest inquiry and curious thinkers.


  2. Ms. Dangerfield, I applaud your effort to make the kind of call you make to advance the urgency of our need to recognize the existential threat posed by climate change. As I was progressing through your thoughtful and compassionate piece, I was thinking about certain conflict resolution models, especially inter-personal models, that I thought I might identify in a comment, for they seem quite relevant to the kind of discursive approach you advocate, one that starts with the premise that progress toward resolution of conflict must be predicated on recognizing the rationality and fears of opposing sides in a conflict. That is, taking each side’s concerns seriously. But after reading the comments here, and the comment strings on so many of the other articles I’ve read here at Areo in the last week or so, I realize this is not at all the forum I thought it was, or professes to be. I was first attracted to Areo by the Grievance Studies project. I posted it on my facebook page, and called on my colleagues to consider seriously its implications — and I’m a political scientist that has directed an interdisciplinary peace and conflict studies program, I’ve been an associate member of an African Studies program (my area of expertise is Africa) and an associate member of a Women’s Studies program, where I teach a course on Gender & World Politics. I say that, because I believed the Grievance Studies project raised important questions about cutting edge interdisciplinary research that are important, even if it I thought the project was legitimately subject to ethical criticisms for abusing the assumption of good faith most academic reviewers and editors make when reviewing submissions. But what i’ve seen in this thread of comments and so many others, makes it clear to me that Areo is not the bastion of rational, reasoned, dispassionate inquiry it professes to be. I see as much or more indulging in partisan and ideological resentments and as much prejudicial disdain for those working for the goals a more just and equitable society and word order, as I get on Fox News, or at least the discussions of Fox News I encounter in sources that are not so singularly bent of demonizing those who hold liberal/progressive views. To cite just one, I see the term “Social Justice” used as frequently and exclusively as a pejorative here, as I see among the right-wing populist zealots out there whose rising clamor pose existential threats our liberal democracy. So again, I applaud your effort. My work in conflict studies gives me empathy for those who dare speak to the deaf. But I shall continue, to no one’s chagrin here, I am certain, that I shall look for an alternative forum that is truly committed to rational, reasoned, open-minded and empathetic discourse among participants who make the presumption of good faith among disputants.

  3. I think you do a good job of driving home the severity of the measures serious advocates of mitigating efforts prescribe. But I’m still lost as to why we should tank our prosperity in the face of climate change.

    I don’t understand the automatic assumption that the prosperity of possible future people should be the priority, when current actual people would have to make such drastic sacrifices.

    You went through many permutations of denialism, etc. But You didn’t address those of us who more of less believe the science and see no reason to make changes in light of it.

    1. Since it’s wealthier, capitalist countties which are the cleanest and can afford the eye-watering sums of money for al these, largely futile and ineffective measures it’s a given that we should enact poicies which build a better economy.

      Unfortunately, the whole ‘climate change’ movement is very attractive to all those left-leaning, political types who see it as a way to reduce economic growth because they don’t like it, or capitalism.

  4. “The facts are not enough.” It’s so hard for me to get past this. There is an apparently tiny (unfortunately) minority in our world for whom facts *are* enough. That we should have to go through the machinations you suggest here is just so disheartening. Not that I don’t admire your intent …

  5. Respectfully, I have some passing familiarity with climate models and they overpredict future outcomes. Implicit in your argument is that there have been several consecutive warm years __and__ that trend will continue unabated. Climate is effectively a random process, so assuming that the trend continues unabated is unwarranted (it’s also a periodic process, so that makes the assumption doubly silly.) The “… and will continue unchanged into the future” bias is also implicit in climate model software.

    Also, the evidence suggests that the atmosphere is pretty tolerant to CO2. After all, humanity has been putting exponential amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and there’s only a linear increase in global average temperature. If CO2 were so dominant, there would be an exponential-exponential relationship. Vulcanism has done much more climate and atmospheric damage in the last 10K years than humanity has — civilizations have been destroyed by volcanic climate change.

    Can we better optimize our resource usage? Absolutely. Should we prioritize cleaning up the Pacific trash swirl? Absolutely. (BTW: This is how you go about appealing to the conservatives and skeptics — rephrase in terms of a positive, metric goal.)

    Can we really rely on so-called renewables? Not really, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Look at the number of birds killed by wind farms and solar collectors (Ivanpah in California has a significant problem with bird kills.) Ivanpah is an interesting case in and of itself: lacking heat storage, it has to turn to gas generation when the sun goes down and has to purchase CO2 credits. Supposedly, Ivanpah will upgrade to molten salts for heat storage… but still doesn’t have a way to prevent bird kills.

    Can we replace every car on the planet with electric? No, because there’s not enough lithium.

    And then there’s the ultimate environmentalist bogeyman: Nuclear energy. By far the most “green” (no CO2 emissions), but fear mongering and general scientific illiteracy prevents nuclear technology progress.

  6. Considering that the science behind climate change is supposed to be ‘settled’ there seems to be quite a number of well qualified scientists in the field who disagree. I don’t see how the likes of Lindzen, Curry, Morner, Dyson et al can be considered as ideologically biased ‘deniers’ either. I would urge everyone to get a balanced approach to this subject by reading what they have to say first. if you’re scientifically minded why would you not?

    Also, talking of ‘cherry picking’ data, this is done as much on the so-called ‘alarmist’ side of the argument as any other. Data quoted from carefully chosen start dates for example. Data with no explanation that it comes from computer models only, or has been ‘adjusted’ etc. etc. Has anyone here read the so-called ‘climategate’ emails? I have and believe some of what these guys do isn’t science – it’s activism. Maybe you’re fine with that. I am not.

    So the whole subject of climate chnage has become highly politicized. Make no mistake, climate scientists have political views too and since there have been many articles and surveys lately about the extent of liberal academic bias in universities, It wouldn’t be at all surprising to find that a liberal bais exists in this field too. Would it?

    But maybe the most troubling aspect of this whole debtate (and yes, there is still a debate) is the blithe ignorance regarding the use and implementation of ‘renewable’ energy. In most cases wind and solar have been a disaster, destabilzing energy grids because of the intermittancy of the energy they provide for example. Then there’s the hubris surrounding ‘carbon capture’ technology and battery storage which is supposed to work alongside wind and solar farms or twisiting the cost argument to conflate subsidies for renewables with tax breaks for conventional energy. And of course, the wholesale industrialization of remote landscapes with windfarms which have a much lower energy density than conveintional sources, not to mention the seemingly unmentionable massacre of wildlife such as birds and bats.

    So to me it’s not a questionn of whether human-caused climate change is happening, or how quickly it’s happening, or the extent to which it is caused by human activity, or even if it’s going to be uniformly a bad thing. The problem I have is with our almost hysterical rush to ‘combat’ clmiate change by spending huge amounts of money on measures which will not and are not controlling climate change in any meaningful way. Around a trillion dollars a year. How much would that help developing coountries pull themselve out of poverty? How many people would stop dying of pollution related causes becaus they’re not allowed to have cheap and abundant energy?

    And since the US has lowered ‘carbon’ emissions more than most other countries by simply fracking for more gas, one wonders even more whether these measures are anywhere near sensible and logical, let alone ‘urgently’ necessary.

    So yes, call me a ‘denier’ if you like but ask me what I’ denying first will you?

    Because I most certainly am denying, wholeheartedly, that any of the measures we’re supposed to be taking, or the sacrifices we’re supposed to make, will work in the way we’ve been told they will – at all.

    Controlling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (let’s call it by it’s proper name shall we?) is NOT like turning a thermostat knob and don’t let any politician or activst eager for a simple solution or slogan to push their favourite ideology tell you otherwise.

  7. The problem is of course that the amazing consensus among climate scientists of AWG does not say anything about what will happen in the future. We’re as species very bad in predicting because it is about the future. Computer models about chaotic systems are notoriously bad. We are even worse in government driven actions. Look at how Germany (arguably one of the most efficient and incorruptible countries in the world) spent €500 billion euros but will not achieve their goals and likely will increase their CO2 levels. Along the way they wreaked havoc on their once beautiful landscapes that are now littered with windmills. How much chance do lesser countries have? We need to be realistic, asking populations to give up their welfare for a clearly unachievable path is foolish. It is the same naive level as wanting people to be nice to each other so we have world peace.
    We’ve come this far in history so far because humans are incredibly adaptive. When your country floods, build dykes.

  8. «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.» – That’s exactly the reason I never believed in global warming. The way you try to prove its existence

    1. The amount of pollution on the earth AND in the skies now (see the mess up in space!) is not helpful. However, whether all the pollution created does or does not contribute to any global warming or is entirely or majority caused by humans is, in a sense, irrelevant.

      Pollution is messy and should not happen.

      So let us find solutions to alternative energy to maintain our current lifestyles and to improve on them.

      Let us NOT have governments and lobby groups being all “holier-than-thou” and treating most of us as nasty horrid people who don’t care. It will not help. It will instead hinder.

      Encourage recycling by making it EASY. Local councils/Governments need to stop using sticks to force people to “recycle” by following complicated long lists of what can and cannot be recycled. Then threatening with huge fines if the wrong item is in the recycle box. EVERYTHING can be recycled.

      Provide financial incentives to businesses to recycle. Incentives can be given to businesses who identify who actually NEEDS to be in an office (commute = pollution) and who does not. Who needs to travel for meetings? Modern technology which is in ones very hand can have meetings of people from all around the world without any of them being in the same place. Encourage that use. Less commuting occurs.

      Find ways for individual houses to use solar power etc without it causing a nasty eyesore or damaging historical buildings. And so on.

      Persuasion does not work. The phrase “The lady doth protest too much” comes to mind. Either the evidence is self evident or it is not – and most people will view it as not if it has to be constantly explained (and it doesn’t help when people also see leading science groups clearly fiddling figures).

      Instad, take the stance that making a mess of the world is in itself a bad thing (who allows their home to be a mess?). Find good alternatives as mentioned above. Make it easy for people to make changes which does not cost them money, does not affect their current lifestyle, improves that lifestyle and doesn’t impact adversely on those who can’t afford to make changes (3rd world countries).

      Then we may see real changes.

      1. I’d have probably rephrased what you articulated as, “Let’s optimize our resource usage”. That’s likely to appeal to more people than “sustainability”, because even the knuckle dragging inner Londoner (and Los Angelinos) knows that farms are inherently “sustainable” (you plant crops, you add water and food grows year after year.)

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