In this part I wish to consider personal spirituality and psychology as to why people won’t believe that climate change is happening.

One interesting remark I overheard at work recently was someone saying that humans are too insignificant to cause climate change. Sure, we are only one species, but since Hiroshima there should be no doubt that humans have the power for massive destruction – nuclear winter anyone? From a biblical perspective we hear many times that creation is groaning due to the sins of mankind, so this view shouldn’t be surprising to Christians. The view that humans couldn’t possible cause so much harm is naive but at a deeper level it displays perhaps a paradoxical view of humanity. On the one hand people are insignificant and not powerful enough to achieve much. As individuals this may be the case, but together (especially in the form of the state) we form a large and powerful species with the ability to radically transform the landscape and climate (such as through deforestation). On the other hand, such an assessment of humanity, claims to know that we cannot cause so much harm – why so sure? That is not humble but very arrogant.

The opposite view to that above could be that we are too little to change the climate for the better. We can make no difference as individuals; it is much easier to believe that there is no climate change, so we don’t have to do anything. Doing something also challenges us and our lifestyle – at least that is the common refrain from critics of denial.

George Marshall, in asking Why was The Great Global Warming Swindle so persuasive?, wrote the following:

So ultimately the success of any lie does not depend on how well it is packaged or how many experts are wheeled out but whether people want to believe it, whether it reinforces or validates their world view, or whether it makes them feel better. White supremacists want to believe that other races are less intelligent. Muslim extremists want to believe in an international Jewish conspiracy- which is why every Islamic bookshop in the middle east has copies of the odious 100 year old forgery “the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.

And many many intelligent people want to believe that climate change is a myth. Maybe they find it too threatening to their world view. Maybe they are scared by the predictions. Maybe they find the solutions too challenging to the lifestyle they believe they have earned.

The reasons for denial are complex and probably different in each case. In the next paragraph he writes:

There is no doubt in my mind that the key reason why Swindle worked was because it spoke to a very powerful hope that climate change doesn’t actually exist. This is a perilous time for belief- after years of ignoring climate change and hoping it will go away British society is on the end of edge of actually taking it seriously.

What struck me here was the word “hope”. This is essentially a theological word, which expresses one’s longings and greatest commitments. But I would vary the claim made here to be that people hope life continues as it has been. This is an anti-eschatological perspective, where we want life to continue to be as we used to and for history to serve our desires, rather than move toward the kingdom of God – something that will require great revolutionary change.

That people may find addressing climate change threatening is a little surprising since most fixes that politicians are considering don’t really impact on life style of the economy. For example, planting trees out the back and using nuclear energy and energy efficient light bulbs doesn’t challenge our lifestyle, it merely gives it a green tint.

The economic cost is also small according to IPPC comments reported in the New Scientist:

“NEGLIGIBLE”. That’s what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the cost of limiting long-term global warming would be. “We won’t notice it,” says Simon Retallack, head of climate change at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a UK-based think tank.

The IPCC’s latest report, released on 4 May, says that if stringent measures are taken now to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at between 445 and 535 parts per million (ppm) by 2030, global economic growth will slow by only 0.12 per cent per year. This would mean a total cost of 3 per cent of global GDP. However, James Connaughton of President Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality said this would result in a global recession.

So why don’t we do anything about it? Perhaps because to take action requires and, indeed, demonstrates an acknowledgement that climate change is caused by humans. Perhaps the human desire to avoid guilt and responsibility helps to explain why it is that the more evidence there is to show that humans cause climate change the more it is denied, and the more people are willing to believe another explanation.

Further reading: