Given the overwhelming evidence proving that climate change exists and is the product of human activity, why do so many people continue to argue against the facts? Bill Nye told Scientific American one problem is that climate change is a relatively slow process that lacks a single “catastrophic moment.” Astronomer and science communicator Phil Plait has a similar perspective; he thinks that the massive scale of climate change and its global nature make it difficult to contextualize.
The political climate change countermovement is an even bigger obstacle. A Drexel University study revealed that organizations and individuals have invested $560 million in climate change denial in the form of lobbying and political donations. This funding and a persistent demand for “equal time for opposing viewpoints” has catapulted climate change deniers into the political spotlight. Unfortunately, these players are motivated not by any genuine scientific interests, but by economic interests in industries tied to carbon emissions.
The tired old conflict between religion and science also rears its ugly head in the context of climate change. For example, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma believes that humans cannot alter nature, which is created by God, in significant ways: “God’s still up there, and the arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what he is doing in the climate, is to me, outrageous.”
Finally, Americans are generally ignorant when it comes to science. Various polls and studies have shown that Americans are not well-educated in the sciences and often reject scientific facts. This ignorance exists among many of our policymakers too, and leads to snowball fights in the Capital Building—as if the mere presence of a winter storm and snow negate all climate change science. This science ignorance is also why deniers seize upon the fact that the climate’s temperature has changed before, as if that fact means there is no reason to be concerned now.
Combating Climate Change Denial
Randall Munroe, the physics degree-wielding artist behind the webcomic xckd, created this climate change comic to illustrate why past changes in Earth’s climate shouldn’t make any of us feel better about global warming. Munroe tackles difficult scientific topics by turning them into lucid, amusing infographics and comics, and this one is no exception.
The comic depicts Earth’s recent climate history—just the last 22,000 years—and focuses on the “who cares” part of the denier’s mantra: “The climate has always changed, so who cares if it’s changing now?” Munroe illustrates that the temperature of the Earth has indeed fluctuated since 20,000 BCE, due to changes in solar activity, orbital wobbles, rock weathering, and volcanic activity. However, he also shows that our climate was remarkably stable starting 12,000 years ago, which allowed humans to develop agriculture and permanent civilizations.
That stable climate is now on its way out as the Earth warms at the fastest rate seen in millions of years, thanks to changes in land use and the burning of fossil fuels. This is a pace that may be difficult or impossible for us to adapt to. In fact, many of our habitats and much of our infrastructure may be rendered obsolete by droughts, floods, heat waves, and sea level rise. So, yes, the planet itself will survive it, and perhaps cockroaches, tardigrades, and many other creatures. However, it’s not entirely clear that we humans will—and the mere fact that dinosaurs enjoyed a much hotter Earth really doesn’t have anything to do with it.
In 2015, a Yale University study revealed that about 63 percent of Americans accept that climate change is real but only about 48 percent accept that humans are causing it. 56 percent of republicans in congress denied that climate change was an issue in that same year. Furthermore, President Trump has stated repeatedly that climate change “is a hoax.” This kind of resistance makes progress difficult, whether measured by legislative change or smaller day-to-day differences in our lives.
Science communicators like Nye believe that starting small, person-to-person, is the best way to change minds and grow community engagement. Sharing illustrative comics like Munroe’s and engaging in meaningful conversations with deniers may be the only way that lasting change happens.