by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
One of the things I spend a good deal of my time thinking about is how we win the philosophical and ideological battle of convincing people that climate change is real, human-caused, and that we can and must change our personal and collective behaviors in order to pursue a future conducive to human life. There are varying approaches to this problem, from willful ignorance to apathy to activism to distrust of the sources. I am intrigued by the reasons people believe in climate change or not, and the particular shape of trust that is required in order to take action to mitigate climate change.
In many ways, belief in climate change is similar to belief in any other philosophy or ideology. The first step of belief requires either personal experience, or trust of a particular source. Perhaps we grow up with parents who believe in it, or we live in a place where all the ice is melting or on an island that will soon be underwater due to rising ocean levels. Perhaps we are scientists ourselves, and we’ve reviewed all the facts and evidence, and we are convinced. Perhaps we know enough about science that we recognize that the people doing the research are smart and lay out a compelling case.
The other side, the side of disbelief, is harder for me to understand. I know people who do not believe in climate change. They are not unintelligent or willfully disbelieving. They are not necessarily anti-science. Many operate under a value system that leads them to believe that fate or a higher power is in control, that humanity cannot possibly change the course of history. (Some of this comes from religious belief, though I am not saying it is necessary for religious people to believe this. As a person of religious faith myself, I do not think that holding a religious faith and understanding the threat of climate change are mutually exclusive. There are religious people and atheists with this kind of fatalistic worldview, and it is that worldview I am pointing to here, rather than a particular religion.)
Even worse, in my opinion, are those who believe the science, and yet do nothing to change their behavior. How can we make sense of this kind of short-term thinking?
A science fiction book I read recently helped me understand the perspectives of disbelief and apathy a bit more clearly, and, as sci-fi often does, opened up a space to explore human nature in a way that often seems murky when looked at in strict “reality.” The book is called The Last Policeman, the first in a trilogy by Ben H. Winters. It chronicles the life of a police officer in the last months of the world as we know it, before a huge asteroid is scheduled to make impact. Through this and the other characters in the book, Winters explores various ways of coping with the knowledge of society’s last days. It struck me as an interesting and provocative metaphor for exploring the ways we all deal with the idea of climate change. In the world of The Last Policeman, there is an end date, a day and a time that is set in stone and cannot be changed, a moment when all systems we know will experience a phase shift beyond which is only the unknown, chaos.
The police officer believes in law and order, and in some ways he’s an example of just believing in fate: he recognizes that he can’t change the trajectory of the asteroid or, therefore, the future of the Earth, so he keeps doing his job, stoically facing into the end of the world while attempting to maintain the best possible human civilization. Since nothing can be changed, why would anyone live any differently?
His sister is a conspiracy theorist. The author describes her as a mystic. She always believes there is something bigger going on, something beyond the visible; as a child she believed in fairies, now she believes that the government is hiding an elaborate escape plan.
Others can’t handle the waiting and the knowing, and commit suicide. Still others “go Bucket List,” quitting jobs and leaving to enact their dreams before the end or going to live someplace tropical, or they descend into drug-induced amnesia. There are the religious fanatics who see the asteroid as the fulfillment of a particular prophecy. There are the do-ers, who frantically come up with schemes to blow up the asteroid or figure out some last-ditch way to solve the problem, though all the scientists and strategists have stated that every possibility has been explored and found unworkable. There are those who simply deny that there is an asteroid coming, and bury their heads in the sand. Everyone expresses his or her own particular brand of crazy.
Since the timeline is so short in this scenario, the craziness is acute, and can be seen for what it is and more easily examined. It provides apt metaphors for the responses of those in our own world. We have the suicidals, drinking up the last of the fossil fuels, all the while knowing it will lead to our demise, and the druggies and alcoholics who do the same thing on an individual scale. We have the Bucket Listers, going to visit the coral reefs or the African savannas or the glaciers before they disappear. We have the business-as-usuals, fatalistically just doing our jobs because what else could we do? We have the religious fanatics, calling it prophecy or fate, reveling in the end times, driving their SUVs into the apocalyptic fires of a warming planet. We have the climate change deniers, actively ignoring all evidence to counteract their own wishful belief that life will simply continue to go on as usual.
And where do the environmentalists fit in this potpourri of dysfunctional coping skills? We are the conspiracy theorists and the frantic problem-solvers. We refuse to take this one lying down; we’re going to do something about it. Seen from the perspective of the main character, the police officer, committed to the status quo, these are sad, sad individuals who will not simply accept the inevitable and live life normally as long as they can. They delusionally believe in something bigger, some grand plan that can change the impending disaster, some human ingenuity or the unveiling of a big cover-up that can solve the problem and set things back on a path that will spell the salvation of humanity.
Seen from this perspective, it is easier to understand why people would not jump on the climate change-believing bandwagon, at least not to the point of doing anything to change their lifestyle. If the end of the world is coming, why would we do anything different? Can we really expect that human ingenuity can solve a problem so huge, so complex? Or maybe it’s all a conspiracy: maybe climate change proponents are making it all up. Maybe it’s a big economic conspiracy against oil companies by people who want to shift the market toward their own gain.
We’re playing out all these coping strategies, just at a much more drawn-out pace. Seen from this perspective, it makes a good deal of sense that people would not believe climate change scientists, or would not act any differently even if they do believe the science.
The differences between the metaphor of the asteroid and our current situation are these: 1) we don’t have a specific end date when we know a phase shift will occur, after which it will be difficult for human life to continue, and 2) we DO have the ability to change the trajectory of the future. We have the technology to switch from using fossil fuels. We have the capability to change our food and manufacturing infrastructure to more sustainable models. All it requires is trust, and the willingness to do some hard work. It also requires a quality interestingly close to trust: hope.
Who do you trust? In what do you hope? What are you willing to do in order to bring that hope into reality?