Sunday, February 8, 2015

Bottoms Up!

“It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to a normal madness.” ― John Nicholas GrayStraw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution. Many people advocating for action on climate change take top down approach. They appeal to those of us concerned about climate change to write letters to their politicians to persuade them to take action. I'm all for letters. I've written my share, but I don't expect much from them. Even if the leaders we are appealing to enthusiastically take  up our cause, the people we need to convince won't be moved. President Obama can come out forcefully in favor of putting in place policies that help us deal with climate change, but his initiatives will go nowhere unless the majority of the population jumps on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, the climate change doubters are even less likely to take up the fight against climate change if Obama appeals to them than if he does nothing at all. Those who don't believe that humans have anything to do with climate change tend not to like people like President Obama or Al Gore, James Hansen, or me. There is plenty of research that shows that appealing to people to change their beliefs (in this case, the belief that climate change is a hoax or at best a purely cyclical natural phenomenon) merely makes them hold on to their beliefs more stubbornly.

We need to approach this problem from below, not above. Better science education will help. Children who understand the science behind climate change will be more likely to see the sense of anti-carbon policies. Of course this will take at least a generation. In the mean time, we need to appeal to people's emotions more than to their sense of reason. Those who can be convinced by reason already have been, those who haven't yet been swayed by rational arguments probably can't be. The fight against climate change has to be turned into something like a religious movement. We need to speak of climate change as an evil that must be defeated. We need to "declare a holy war" on carbon. We have to speak of wasteful use of natural resources as a sin and conservation of resources as a blessed virtue. Discussions of climate change must be couched in the language of religion. The Pope speaking about climate change, as he has, probably can do more, at least among Catholics, to curb the human drive to destroy the world than all the world's politicians put together.

I'm a physicist, so the approach I am advocating is anathema to me, but my views of how to appeal to the public have evolved very gradually over many years. Read books like "Straw Dogs" by the philosopher John Gray. Most people are fundamentally irrational, and the few centuries of humanist-dominated thinking that have passed since the Enlightenment haven't changed that in the slightest. By all means, we should teach our children about greenhouse gases and climate modeling before irrational beliefs are too firmly held, but speak to the present day adult climate skeptics in terms of evil, sin, virtue, and the Earth spirit. If we can cite biblical phrases that support caring for our environment, all the better! Maybe we should start a dialog with theologians and religious leaders and hope that politicians will "see the light" once appeals to the hearts and souls of their constituents have begun to have a transfigurative effect.