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The Dangers of Skepticism Regarding Climate Change

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One cause of climate change skepticism is a lack of willingness to research and scientific illiteracy amongst many segments of the population.

One way this can occur is climate change skeptics seizing on language such as ‘theory’, proclaiming it to mean just one of many potential explanations, instead of its true meaning in this context, meaning the scientific consensus, such as can be seen in other indisputable theories, such as the theory of evolution.

Another way this can be caused is by senior figures in society, for example politicians, who are typically held as being in positions of trust by the general public, either refuting, misrepresenting or misinterpreting scientific reports or consensus. For example, Donald Trump, the President of America, is granted godlike infallibility by vast swathes of the American populace, and when he says, for example, ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive’, this is picked up by media, including social media, where 49% of Brits received news from, according to Ofcom. As social media is drastically less regulated than conventional forms of media (be that newspapers, television, or radio), these lies are allowed to spread unchecked, and uncorrected, whereas (almost) all mainstream news sources provide facts that are accurate, even if they are manipulated for a political standpoint.

This is more pronounced in the US than in the UK, as only three fifths of Americans say they are concerned about climate change (Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2018), as opposed to 69% of Brits (Gallup 2007-2008).

However, one could see these figures and remain unconvinced that a lack of awareness is not a major issue, as, after all, there are many scientific ideas that the general public do not have ideas, opinions or knowledge on.

The reason climate change is incredibly important for the public to be accurately informed about is the major effect climate change could have on the way humanity lives.

As an example, if sea levels rose 3ft, Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville, and San Francisco would be fully or partially submerged, Seattle, New York, and Boston would be under threat, and New Orleans would be an island.

Closer to home, parts of cities including Brighton, Liverpool, and even London could be threatened by rising sea levels caused by the melting of the polar ice caps caused by global warming.

The World Bank estimate that potentially as many as 140 million people will be forced to emigrate by 2050, both from river deltas in, for example, China, India, or Egypt, as well as coastal zones all over the world, and low islands, including Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Maldives, all of whom would have to leave owing to rising sea levels, but many are also threatened by rising temperatures and desertification, as is happening in previously semi-arid areas around the Gobi in China and Mongolia, and the Sahara, most notably in the Sahel region, including countries such as Mali and Niger, where desertification will prevent subsistence farming, thereby forcing people to leave these regions.

This is an issue both as it will force further construction to support these people, further damaging the environment and preventing plants that could have removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (via photosynthesis) from growing, further increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and contributing to global warming (like other greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide absorbs infrared, or heat, radiation that is emitted by the Earth, and re-emits it, with some heading back towards Earth, thereby causing the Earth to become even hotter, thus causing a vicious cycle whereby immigration causes construction and deforestation, leading to further global warming, which in turn causes more immigration, and as immigration in and of itself is a topic of political debate. Potentially, a situation could arise where a (most likely) right wing politician, by deregulating environmental protection, or encouraging unsustainable energy, creates a situation where many migrants ask the leader’s country for environmental refugee status, which the leader could then utilise to create anti-immigrant rhetoric or feeling, before riding a wave of populism to another term of leadership, all the while collecting money, either directly or indirectly, from fossil fuel companies, who obviously would rather deregulation of the energy industry than robust environmental protection law.

For example, Trump, who ‘won’ the 2016 election with a platform strongly based on anti-immigrant rhetoric, made proposals to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding from $8bn to just over $6bn, a drastic cut for an agency that should be perceived as incredibly vital for the future not just of the US, but of the world.

Furthermore, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is a self-avowed supporter of far-right policies, has proved to be environmentally hazardous, sanctioning removal of vast swathes of Amazon rainforest, primarily for logging, cattle farming, and bauxite mines, which deprives the Earth of an important carbon sink (a carbon sink being an area which removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it contributes to it, thereby helping to control the rapid increase of the greenhouse effect). One could conclude from this that the most important reason for ensuring proper education is achieved is that it prevents people falling into the traps of populism (In the 2016 US Presidential election, 57% of college (university) graduates voted for Hillary Clinton (Democratic), compared to just 36% for Trump (Republican/populist), according to the Pew Research Center. It would appear that the critical thinking and high research levels required to graduate ensure that a person is more cynical about what they are told, and are less likely to believe unsubstantiated claims.

In conclusion, the rise of populism and global warming form an uncomfortable vicious circle, where each, albeit indirectly, cause the other the become more prevalent and/or severe.

Furthermore, an important reason to learn about global warming is to assist and protect those who are not able to learn. For example, the areas that will most likely suffer worse from climate change, especially global warming, are areas that are poor and have poor education quality, from drought suffering in Sub-Saharan countries, and parts of the Indian subcontinent, most likely in Bangladesh, where mangrove trees which protected from flooding were cut down. However, typhoon weather patterns may intensify, and so flooding will be a very large issue, as the mangroves have been cut down to create farmland.

What appears to be the case is that the effects of climate change will most drastically affect those who have both less means with which to fight the issue, and also those countries that release drastically less emissions than highly industrialised countries, so awareness and prevention of climate change in the developed world is necessary to protect the rest of world from major damage.

The question that needs to be asked at this point is one of: How do we, as a society or collection of societies, fight climate change Skepticism.

One answer would appear to be mandatory education regarding climate change and its potential impacts on the Earth.

For example, in the UK, climate change is covered extensively in 3 subjects (Chemistry, Biology, and Geography). Unsurprisingly, the UK has a rate of 93% belief in climate change (BSA 35), whilst in the US, where climate change is not mandated nor are laws surrounding teaching it extremely stringent, the rate of climate change belief is just 69% (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication). Whilst this obviously does not prove causation, or even correlation, it would appear to establish a link between education on the facts of climate change and the belief that climate change is happening.

Another strategy that has been proposed is moderating social media accounts. Whilst, obviously, this would not be possible for every account on every platform, many social media sites use verification systems, and moderating just these verified accounts would probably be fairly effective in preventing the spread of misinformation, as many people get their news primarily from social media accounts, thereby making it easier to fall victim to a lie, as there is no editor or moderater to correct these lies and prevent these lies, especially when (in the case of many right wing American politicians) a cult of personality has built up around them, meaning even if the followers of said politician are informed that what they have said is untrue, they still may not believe it is, in fact, untrue.

So, for positive attitude changes in the long term, teaching the facts and effects, both potential and current, of climate change should help defeat climate change Skepticism.

In addition to this, if critical logic and reasoning were to be taught in schools, it would most likely make climate change denial less prevalent, and more likely to be dismissed with other baseless, disproven conspiracy theories. The existence of climate change should not be a debate, as there is a clear scientific consensus on the issue., for example, lists the consensus opinion as being held by 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists, the consensus obviously being that ‘Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’. This both acknowledges the existence of a rise in temperature, and the anthropological nature of said increase. Another potential solution to climate change Skepticism would be the use of legislation forbidding views denying the existence of climate change being expressed as fact, similar to Holocaust denial laws found, most notably in Germany, but also throughout Europe. One issue with this is that, especially in America, where it would have the greatest benefit, as that is one of the developed countries where climate change denialism and skepticism are most prevalent, it would be challenged as impinging on free speech, which is seen as a core part of the rights of an American. The US does not even have laws banning hate speech, as it would, according to the Supreme Court, violate a legally protected right under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

In other countries, however, this could be done, as most countries already have laws banning hate speech as it creates danger, normally for an ethnic or religious group, so why should speech that would harm the Earth and, therefore, everyone on it also not be criminalised. For example, if these rules and/or laws were in place, then if Donald Trump tweeted ‘Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee – I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax’, then he could be banned by Twitter, and face fines or stronger punishment from the US government. Whilst this approach would most likely assist in making sure new people are not exposed to dangerous and incorrect about climate change, it would likely make those who do believe climate change is false more resolute in their beliefs, as they would convince themselves that the government is deliberately trying to conceal something about climate change, and therefore they would believe themselves right. For this reason, I believe that educating people about the risks, facts, and causes of climate change would be the best way to reduce the numbers of new skeptics without creating a defined sub-culture where climate change Skepticism is a societal norm.

In conclusion, I believe that climate change skepticism is dangerous because it enables people who are climate change Skeptics to gain positions of policy-making power, thereby enabling them to pass laws which further damage the environment, which causes damage to LIC’s, thereby creating climate refugees, which typically causes populism to spread, thereby enabling more climate change skeptics into power.

I believe this should be combatted through mandatory education in schools, which will help people see the facts behind the climate change debate, not just the vitriol and rhetoric of the debate itself. This will also encourage climate change acceptance to become a social norm, and therefore more commonly accepted. The only downside is that these changes would happen over time, not immediately, but that is an issue that appears, like climate change itself, to be rather unavoidable. 

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