Global Warming Isn’t All Science: The Emotional Side to Earth’s Climb In Temperature

In the debate on climate change, we get to claim 99% of climate science is on our side, but this NPR article reminds us that science and emotional reactions can be mutually independent. The graveness Earth’s future due to climate change stirs extremely distressing feelings to some, but others — some believers and others deniers — remain passive. A climate change fact sheet might work for some, but it’s going to take more than that to motivate the majority of Americans.


Read the full article from NPR below.


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

by Alva Noë


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. (Source: 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.


No Responses to “Global Warming Isn’t All Science: The Emotional Side to Earth’s Climb In Temperature”

  1. I really like the way that you explained and illustrated your thinking to get your point across but, with regret, I must disagree. It may be that I am picking on one particular sentence and taking it out of context but, I think scientists now have good reason to argue that climate change is potentially “terrible“.

    The problem is that the more “alarmist” scientists become the more prone they are to being dismissed as such. However, arguing with “sceptic” is a Herculean task (pick your own analogy – Aegean stables or multi-headed Hydra with amazing regenerative properties, etc). If it were not for this fact – and that people tend to get very emotional when their entire socio-political world view is challenged – I believe it ought to be able to logically demonstrate that (4) does follow from (1), (2), and (3)…

    In the second edition of The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson has summarised what he calls the “climate change contrarian” position in the following way:
    The atmosphere may not be warming; but if it is, this is probably due to natural variation; but if it isn’t, the amount of warming is probably not significant; but if it is, the benefits should outweigh the disadvantages; but if they don’t, technology should be able to solve problems as they arise; but if it can’t, we shouldn’t wreck the economy to fix the problem.” (after Henson 2008: 257)

    In isolation, this has the appearance of a so-called “straw man” argument. However, not only does Henson admit that no single “contrarian” believes all of these things (ibid: 258), he then goes on to spend several pages summarising the scientific consensus view that negates each proposition in turn (ibid: 258-66).

    Unfortunately, by the time you get to the end, some other objection will be found because, for all the reasons cited by Clive Hamilton in Requiem for a Species, people do not want climate change to be real.

    Furthermore, despite the fact that China is now the world’s largest economy and biggest polluter, the Communist Party of China (CPC) recognises climate change and/or disruption as an existential threat to its own long-term existence and, therefore, even if only acting in the interests of self-preservation, it is now making strenuous efforts to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions (i.e. CO2/GDP). As such, the CPC considers climate change to be terrible.

    Other reasons for taking this view would be that, having got a “sceptic” to accept (1) to (3) I do not see why it should not be possible to get them to accept that CO2 is a pollutant (i.e. it is “bad“), and what is happening is unprecedented and could result in mass extinctions of other species and drastic reductions in the size of the human population Earth can support (which I for one would no hesitation in describing this as “terrible“).

    In the final analysis, the reason people are getting so upset (scientists and “sceptics” alike) is that those on both sides have invested so much effort in finding evidence to validate their position and, the closer we get to the cliff edge the more uncomfortable the losing party will get. Leon Festinger (1957) described the discomfort people feel when they continue to smoke despite knowing it will probably hasten their own death as “cognitive dissonance“. I think this – along with the challenge to laissez-faire global Capitalism – are the only explanations for high emotions that you need.

  2. Martin,

    First I should clarify that I did not write this entire article. I wrote the introduction to Alva Noë’s piece, but the majority of the content is a cross-post from her article originally posted on NPR. I posted this article was because I found her thoughts to be intriguing, and thought her thinking was important to share with the ecoAffect audience. Eco-climate professionals should be thinking about the emotional response audiences have in conservations about the environment and climate.

    What I believe Noë was getting at in her article was not that climate change isn’t terrible, but that describing climate change as terrible is an emotional response, not a fact based on science. Although it might seem obvious that the effects of climate change are terrible, the word is a subjective, emotional descriptor. I don’t necessarily think it is the wrong argument to use, but I do believe it’s important for us to acknowledge that in using that word in our communication, we are opening the door to emotional reactions.

    To think people aren’t going have an emotional response is unrealistic. The beauty and demise of humans is our emotional response that like it or not, can mask the facts and profoundly influence our behavior.


  3. Thanks for taking the time to reply (and explain the provenance of the article). I understand the point that you and Alva are making but I believe people are right to get emotionally-involved in this issue: If we do not get angry and passionate about this, why should we get so aroused by any other subject? None has the potential to affect us all so much as this does. In the end, it depends on whom you are taling to… Those advising governments clearly need to stay cool but, amongst the general public, and to try and wake people from their apathetic, swithced-off, slumber… that surely is a different case entirely?

  4. I actually agree with you, Martin. Emotions can play a role, and we need to prepare for that being part of the debate on climate. I believe there is a balance between emotions supporting the facts and emotions allowing people to trail from the facts. Meaning emotions can enhance our argument, but we can’t allow the discussion to get derailed into a debate on who is more passionate about their opinions.

  5. Very true, Celina.
    Hence Bob’s subsequent post (I guess).
    Keep up the good work (all of you).


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