After the fire, a big picture, and climate change denialism

by Rob Tiller


Bee at work in Raulston Arboretum

As usual, Gabe and I got out for some golf this weekend, and it was hot and humid.  We’ve both been getting some better, but there’s still plenty of disappointment and frustration.  My five and six foot putts would not go in the hole. As Gabe said, after an errant shot, “I hate golf.”  But it’s good to have some father and son time. And we are hitting more good shots than we used to, and every now and again a wonderful one.       


Speaking of burning up, this past week one of my photos was on the side of the Raleigh Convention Center:  a shot of the huge construction site fire of last March. A few weeks ago, I got an email from the fire and rescue association asking for my permission to use the shot, which I gave happily.  I assumed it was going to be one of many little pictures, rather than becoming a giant. They kindly included a prominent credit line in the lower right corner, even though I’d forgotten to ask for one. It may not be my best picture, but it’s the biggest.  

Watching the fire from our balcony, we were close enough to feel the heat, and we’ve had a ringside seat to the reconstruction.  It’s going to be an apartment building called the Metropolitan. Lately they’ve been putting in the outer layer and glass. It’s looking like it will be an attractive addition to the neighborhood.  

It saddened me to learn this week that a neighbor of ours is a climate change denialist.  He doesn’t think humans are responsible for rising temperatures and associated problems, and he doesn’t buy that the scientific consensus that says otherwise is reliable.  He is a well-educated, intelligent person, and in other regards quite sensible, decent, and kind. His rejection of reality on climate change came as a shock.

There’s been a lot of news about extreme weather recently:  massive wildfires in California, violent storms, deadly heat waves in Japan and Europe, droughts in the Middle East, famines in Africa, disappearing polar ice caps, Pacific islands swallowed by rising seas — and so on.  Not long ago, it seemed like climate disaster would be very bad, but not until the distant future. Now it’s here.

Bad ideas are not all equally concerning.  None of us is free of bias, and we all have our unfounded assumptions, fantasies, and delusions.  But climate change denialism is different from wacky conspiracy theories, groundless superstitions, or any number of wrong-but-usually-harmless ideas.  It has consequences.

Our failure to address climate change has already caused enormous destruction, and the window for our preventing catastrophe is closing rapidly.  Practically all of us in the first world are complicit in some degree, since we almost all use electricity, run internal combustion engines, and eat food that’s produced on factory farms.  Our carbon footprints are big, and to be oblivious to the harm we’re doing is bad. But it’s worse to take the position that we’re doing no harm, and that there’s nothing to worry about.

If my house is burning down, I might understand if my neighbor wouldn’t help me fight the fire.  There could be reasonable explanations. Perhaps she’s ill, or frightened. But if my neighbor is telling others that there’s not really a serious danger that needs addressing, that’s a problem.   

Although it is hard to understand climate change denialism, it is important to try, because there are some denialists who are our neighbors, and we’ve got to live together.  My working theory is that denialism is not the result of reasoning, good or bad, but rather a badge of belonging to a certain community. It signals that you belong to a certain political/cultural group.  It’s tribal.

Staying with the tribe is important.  When our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors were hunting and gathering, they needed the tribe.  Without the tribe, all alone, you would die. It seems likely that our evolutionary success depended in part on brain wiring that made us stay with the group, and we’ve still got that wiring.  In any case, without some degree of conformity, social life, which humans cannot live without for long, would not be possible. So probably most of us are willing to go along with some dubious ideas to maintain the community.  

I heard an interesting podcast interview last week with Lilliana Mason, and immediately bought her book, Uncivil Agreement.  She’s a political science professor who has been working on understanding political polarization, and one of her ideas struck me powerfully.  Mason contends that our political opinions are essentially products of our political groups, rather than our own reasoning. That is, we don’t decide to become a Democrat, Republican, or Other based on our own political positions.  Instead, we learn what our positions are after we identify with a party. What generally determines our views there is a community, rather than reasoning.

Looked at this way, my neighbor’s denialism seems a little more understandable and forgivable, though still disturbing.  It’s unlikely that I or any single person could talk him out of his view. Still, we should keep talking. There’s always a possibility that view could change.  That’s happened with other widely accepted terrible ideas before, like slavery, whaling, child labor, and smoking. We can’t give up hope.