The world is complicated. Rarely is there a straight line between cause and effect. This is true for climate change, both in terms of extreme weather and in terms of the politics of climate change. Why some opt for simple explanations for both phenomena, we are best served by acknowledging complexity.
Take the intense wildfires burning up the west. There is a clear connection between higher temperatures and more destructive wildfires. Longer stretches of warm, dry conditions have left plants desiccated, lending more fuel to wildfires. But climate change isn’t the only factor. Often, wildfires begin as acts of arson. Poor land management practices also makes more fuel available for fires. Climate change takes a bad problem and makes it worse.
It similarly difficult to find a single explanation for our lack of action on climate change. The August edition of The New York Times Magazine is dedicated to a single article about our failure to deal with climate change 30 years ago. While the story was well reported, the author places the blame on human nature and absolves the fossil fuel companies who funded climate denial. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of pushback.
As many writers have pointed out, we might have solved climate change by now had Exxon or Shell taken action decades ago when their own researchers found their core product was heating the planet. But it’s hard to say. Their efforts to forestall regulations haven’t made things any easier, but it’s impossible to know how history might have been different. There are just too many factors at play when it comes to the social and political aspects of climate change.
Writing in CleanTechnica, clean energy consultant Michael Barnard identified six broad that shape climate change denial. All too often these factors are presented as being mutually exclusive. Which area of research best explains climate denial? Is it Daniel Kahan’s cultural cognition theory, which posits that tribalism prevents Republicans from accepting the scientific reality? Is it Stephan Lewandowsky’s work on conspiracy ideation, which suggests that climate denial is the product of conspiratorial thinking? Or is it the result of industry-funded misinformation campaigns intended to make the public doubt the scientific consensus?
The answer is “yes” to all of them.
Barnard presents these factors as an overlapping set of conditions instead of as separate phenomena. These six conditions are:
- Confirmation bias — the tendency to consume information that reinforces what we already think.
- Conspiracy ideation — the willingness to believe conspiracy theories.
- Ideology — deeply held ideas about the role of government.
- The Dunning-Kruger effect — the tendency of those who know very little about a subject to overestimate their understanding of it.
- Tribal partisanship — loyalty to one’s political party.
- Disinformation campaigns — efforts by fossil fuel companies to sew doubt about climate change.
Narratives that seek to explain climate inaction fall short when they don’t acknowledge the numerous factors contributing to climate denial, particularly the disinformation campaigns that amplify existing doubts. The history of organized denial is an important part of stories about climate policy.
The same goes for the discussion around extreme weather. Climate change makes heat waves, floods and powerful storms more frequent and severe, but even in the absence of climate change, we would still occasionally suffer through sweltering weather and heavy rainfall.
In both cases, it is difficult to tease cause from effect. A warmer climate has altered the flavor of all weather, just as disinformation campaigns have tainted the well of public understanding. To talk about extreme weather and climate politics without acknowledging their complexity misses an important part of the story.
Phil Newell writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.