June 13, 2019

Even Worse Forms of Climate Change Denial

cows grazing

When most of us think of climate change denial, we naturally think about those who deny that it is happening. That's how we tend to define climate change denial. We imagine the many Republican politicians who either deny it altogether or insist that has nothing to do with our use of fossil fuels. The fact that we continue to elect climate deniers is an important barrier to progress. I don't think there is any question about that; however, I suspect that we may be making a mistake to focus on such a narrow view of climate change denial. I think there may be at least two other types that could be even more serious obstacles.

The "End Times" Climate Deniers

Most atheists are familiar with this crowd. They are Christian extremists who believe that climate change is happening but welcome it because they think it indicates the "end times" (i.e., the fulfillment of biblical prophecy). Instead of denying that climate change is taking place or that human activity is involved, they deny that we should try to do anything about it. Whatever happens is what their preferred god has in store for us. And yes, some of them seem to be happy that the end of the world may soon be upon us.

It might not be much of a coincidence that members of this crowd are among the most likely to vote for Republicans. As strange at it sounds to the rational among us that someone would vote against his or her self-interest, these Christian extremists are going several steps beyond that. They are voting for people who will hasten their demise through deliberate inaction. As long as it means that Jesus will return sooner, they are perfectly willing to opt for what amounts to a suicide pact. And what's worse, it doesn't bother them in the least if they ruin it for the rest of us.

The Nihilists

I am starting to think that this group, even if I agree with them about more than I might like to admit, could pose an even bigger threat than the traditional climate change deniers or the Christian extremists. What I have in mind here are the people who may or may not accept the reality of climate change but who are convinced that we are so far past the point-of-no-return that nothing we do now will make a difference. In essence, they have decided to embrace their fate. Some will focus on enjoying what little time they figure they have left, and that means they will not be willing to make any of the changes experts are saying we all need to start making immediately.

As a chronic pessimist, I do fear that they may be right. We have known that this was coming for several decades and have opted to do little. When I look at how much gun violence we now have in the U.S., how we have habituated to it, and how little we have been willing to do about it, I can't help but think that the prospects of us adequately addressing climate change are far worse. You have seen how well sensible gun control has gone over. Can you imagine how much worse it is going to be when the government inevitably tries to ban gasoline-powered pickups?

The Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is a simple concept that refers to the scenario that can be expected to play out when resources are limited and individuals acting in their self-interest spoil it for everyone else. You buy electric cars and start doing your part to minimize fossil fuel consumption. But as a nihilist, I buy one of the least fuel-efficient sports cars I can find because I want one (and nothing I do is going to help anyway). But I am not alone; others do the same thing.

We have waited so long to act on climate change that the only kind of action that now has a chance of accomplishing anything is going to be drastic. We are all going to have to make major changes in how we live that will be perceived as major sacrifices. We'll need to give up our gasoline, our meat, and many other things lots of us don't want to give up, and we'll need to do it quickly. Unless our government steps in and imposes all these changes upon us (which may happen eventually), the "honor system" will be tried. We will be encouraged to act for the collective good. Of course, we won't do so.

You'll certainly do your part to make some of these changes until you observe someone else making none of them. At that point, you'll get mad. It won't seem fair. Why are you sacrificing so much when others aren't doing so? And that's where things begin to unravel.

This is a bad example because I have never had the slightest interest in owning a pickup truck, but let's suppose I was a "real American" who wasn't happy unless I had an F-150 with a V8 in my driveway. Driven by fear for my (nonexistent) children's future and public pressure, I get rid of my (nonexistent) truck. I replace it with some horrible electric car, which is almost certain to be an import, and do my best to move on. After a few months, I notice that my next door neighbor still has his truck. What the hell? He tells me he has no plans to get rid of it because... 'Merica. He thinks it is far too late for any of the sacrifices we're being asked to make to change anything. How much harder is it going to be now for me not to ditch the electric monstrosity and get my truck back?

Lots of us are preoccupied with fairness. If all of us need to sacrifice to reduce the impact of climate change and some refuse to do so without consequence, that strikes those of us who have sacrificed as unfair. Why should we have to give up so much for the collective good while others give up nothing? Before long, we decide that we are done sacrificing.