Society

Why Does The Global-Warming Debate Provoke So Much Anger?

Passions often run hot when talk turns to global warming, as they did at a climate-change protest outside the United States embassy in Jakarta in December 2009. i i

Passions often run hot when talk turns to global warming, as they did at a climate-change protest outside the United States embassy in Jakarta in December 2009. ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
Passions often run hot when talk turns to global warming, as they did at a climate-change protest outside the United States embassy in Jakarta in December 2009.

Passions often run hot when talk turns to global warming, as they did at a climate-change protest outside the United States embassy in Jakarta in December 2009.

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

My topic today is not global warming. My topic, rather, is our attitudes, thoughts and feelings about global warming.

It is a striking fact that many people get very worked up over this topic. People get hot under the collar. Why is this? Ursula Goodenough took up this issue here at 13.7 a few months ago. She asked: What motivates climate change deniers? Robert Krulwich, just this past week over on his blog, wonders: Why does the climate change topic make people angry?

This is a tractable metacognitive question. I'd like to venture an answer to it.

Let me first begin with some preliminaries.

First, the question — Why do people have such strong feelings on this topic? — is an empirical question. My proposal is merely speculative. I may be wrong.

Second, the question is not merely empirical. Suppose I am locked in conflict with my significant other. I might pose the empirical question: What best explains why she is so angry with me? I might speculate as to possible causes; I might take up the standpoint of the empirical scientist bent on understanding the causes of her feeling state. Could it be hormonal? Did something happen to her at work today? Did she forget to take her medications?

But I hope you will agree that, very often, there is something strikingly inappropriate about this sort of detached, inquiring attitude. After all, more likely than not, she's angry with me because of something I did, or didn't do, or because of the way I did something, or failed to do it; more often than not she is responding to something in me, to my feeling state, or my anger or irritation or tactlessness or whatever. I am a participant in the process of her feelings.

The appropriate response in such a case is not to step out of the relationship and study the psychological dynamics, but to step up within the relationship and deal with a situation which is of both our making. It takes two to tango; and neither dancer is likely to be justified in viewing his or her partner as an object for empirical investigation.

And — I'd like to suggest — it is so for the question of the emotions raised by the global warming issue. Let's take seriously the possibility that we — whatever our opinions happen to be — are party to a conflict. And let us step up and ask what is it about the way we are conducting the conversation that leads to so much emotion, indeed, to so much emotion on both sides of the debate?

Third, I'm going to stipulate, for the purposes of this discussion, that there is no reason to think that either side of the debate is stupid, uninformed or dishonest. Again, think of your domestic conflicts here. Why are the two of you fighting? Probably not because one or both of your are deluded, ignorant or willfully deceptive.

So much for preliminaries.

Now to my hypothesis. Discussions about global warming turn on four claims:

1) The Earth is getting warmer.

2) We understand the mechanism whereby the Earth is getting warmer. The greenhouse effect. In effect, human action is causing the globe's warming.

3) Global warming is causing extreme weather phenomena.

4) It is terrible that the Earth is getting warmer.

The first three claims are distinct and they are usually clearly treated as such in public debates about the phenomenon. The greenhouse effect might accurately describe a mechanism whereby human action could lead to rising average temperatures without its in fact being the case that the Earth is warming. And the Earth could be warming in fact, but as a result of some other mechanism. Likewise, the exact cause of weather phenomena — and the range of possible explanations of extreme weather events — is a matter that needs to be decided independently. Most scientists, I gather, think (1) and (2) have been established, and that (3) is a strong possibility.

It's when we get to the fourth claim that things get tricky. Like the others, (4) is a distinct claim that does not follow logically from the truth of any or all of the others. However, this independence is rarely acknowledged openly. Let's consider (4) more closely.

The first thing to notice about it is that it is not a scientific claim. It is a value claim. Now, I don't subscribe to the general thesis that we can sharply distinguish facts and values, or that science is only legitimate if it eschews all talk of value.

Take the concept of disease. Around the globe over 500,000 women die each year (according to WHO estimates) of a preventable and easily treatable medical condition and yet we don't call that condition a disease; we call it pregnancy. We don't call it a disease because it's part of our medical concept of a disease that diseases are bad and we don't tend to think of pregnancy as bad. The notion of disease is value laden.

Nevertheless it should be clear that it just isn't the mandate of climate science to tell us whether climate changes are good or bad. And simply because, relative to the mandate of climate science, the question just isn't well defined. Good or bad for whom? And relative to what baseline? How is the Earth supposed to be? How can we decide? Who should decide? These are deep questions that must challenge policy makers and philosophers and indeed every thoughtful person.

Value questions of this sort arise frequently in discussions about the environment. For example, what counts as an invasive species? Aren't we all migrants if you go back far enough? This sort of question about invasive species matters to us, and it would be crazy to treat it as merely theoretical. New species can radically upset the balance of an ecosystem. But whether that is a bad thing depends on our view point, on our interests, wants, needs, etc. Changing, indeed, destroying ecosystems — whether humans, or beavers, or viruses are the agents in question — seems to be a natural, indeed an inevitable, life process.

I'm not saying we shouldn't take stands on issues like this. We should, and we do! But we need to open about the kind of stand we are taking. My view is that in a case such as this we are taking social, moral, political, or perhaps merely prudential stands. Critically, the stand we take isn't fixed for us by a third-personal, natural scientific dispassionate description of the facts.

Back to global warming.

We come to the heart of my hypothesis. It strikes me that the interesting thing about the fourth claim is not that it is difficult to decide whether it is true. (I am convinced it is true, but that's beside the point.) No, what's telling, it seems to me, as I mentioned above, is that we tend not to articulate the fourth claim about values as a distinct and logically independent claim, even though it is. So it can seem as if claims are being made on behalf of science that are, well, unsupported not just by the data, but by any possible data, no matter how good. Or rather, the claim is supported by data, but not the same data that supports the first three claims.

Things are really even more complicated. For what is claimed in (4) is not only that global warming is bad, but that it is terrible, that it threatening and frightening and terrifying. But do the facts about global warming entail that we ought to be terrified? Can any argument, can any facts, necessitate an emotional response?

So let's go back to the battle in the kitchen between me and my significant other. We may be arguing about the dishes, but it isn't really the dishes that matter. It isn't the facts on the ground about who washed what when, or who failed to wash, that really matter. It's the way the facts are embedded in a context of feeling, trust, communication, mutual expectation, etc, that are causing the tension.

My hypothesis — is this naive? — is that something comparable is going on when it comes to global warming.

Our failure to distinguish the evaluative claim about the badness of global warming from the data that support claims about the reality of human-activity produced global warming, and so our failure to notice that so often advocates for action on global warming are urging fear, urging that we take up a certain felt response, that causes the conflict.

I can no more persuade you to be afraid than I can persuade you to be happy.

So we have a recipe for conflict. Strong emotions of fear, and resentment that others don't feel our fear, or resentment that others are demanding a certain emotional response from us and pretending that the facts alone justify the response, and a general unwillingness to acknowledge that all this emotional stuff is going on, create a situation of pain and conflict, of anger and despair on both sides of the debate.


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