By David Wallace-Wells
You, too, are in denial.
We all are, nearly every single one of us as individuals, even those of us who are following the bad news that suggests “the climate change problem is starting to look too big to solve”; every nation, almost none of them meeting their climate commitments, and most (not just the United States) publicly downplaying the threat; and even many of the alliances and organizations, like the IPCC, endeavoring to solve the crisis. At the moment, negotiations at the organization’s COP24 conference, meant to formalize the commitments made in the Paris accords two years ago, are “a huge mess,” perhaps poised to collapse. Last month, scientists warned that we had only about 12 years to cut global emissions in half and that doing so would require a worldwide mobilization on the scale of that for World War II. The U.N. secretary general has warned that we have only about a year to get started. Instead, on Election Day, voters in deep-blue Washington rejected a modest carbon tax and those in crunchy Colorado rejected a slowdown of oil and gas projects. In France — conservative America’s cartoon of unchecked left-wing-ism — the worst protests in 50 years were provoked by a proposal to increase the gasoline tax. If communities like these won’t take action on climate, who, in the next dozen years, will?
But perhaps it should not be surprising that, even in many of the world’s most progressive places, even in the moment of acknowledged environmental crisis, a sort of climate NIMBYism prevails. The cost of inaction is sort of unthinkable — annual deadly heat waves and widespread famine, tens of millions of climate refugees, global coastal flooding, and disasters that will cost double the world’s present-day wealth. And so we choose, most of the time, not to think about it. This is denial, too, whatever you check on a survey about whether you “believe” the climate is changing.
But denialism comes in many forms. The most florid, and morally grotesque, is that powered by profits — the oil companies pushing for rollback of emissions standards beyond even what car manufacturers want, the American politicians and lobbyists paid by them to cynically stall action and muddy our understanding of the science, as they did a few weeks ago, just after the release of the National Climate Assessment’s “Black Friday” report.
That hard-core, bought-and-paid-for denialism is pernicious for many reasons — in fact, it may help explain why so few Americans believe “most scientists think global warming is happening.” According to the most recent Yale Climate Opinion Survey, just 49 percent do. But that is a kind of meta-misperception — it reflects what Americans think scientists think, not what we think is actually going on with the climate. And what is perhaps most remarkable about that same study is that many more Americans believe climate change is happening than believe scientists believe it: 70 percent say global warming is real, and ongoing, versus just 14 percent who say it isn’t. Among other reasons, this is remarkable is that it suggests a significant number of respondents believe that climate change is real without thinking that most scientists agree. But 14 percent is also a very small number of true deniers — it is a considerably smaller number than Americans who believe the sun revolves around the Earth. There are some Americans who believe that warming is real but not caused by humans, but only 32 percent, according to Yale, disbelieve in anthropogenic warming. That is about as many Americans who believe in Bigfoot. (Though if the Kochs got behind him, it’s possible he could get to the White House, too.)
One way of looking at that data is to say that we are, despite what we hear in the media, overwhelmingly a nation of climate-change believers, not deniers — and, in fact, a nation genuinely concerned about it. In other words, as Osita Nwanevu put it a few weeks ago, “denial is mostly a distraction at this point.” (“Those still unconvinced mostly cannot or do not want to be convinced,” he added, meaning, “It’s time to stop framing persuasion as the primary task here.”)