Essay: Americans Are Skeptical of Global Warming Out of ‘Selfishness’ and ‘Hypocrisy’

The United Nations is to vote later this week for a climate treaty "on steroids" - stronger, more all-encompassing and more legally binding than the ailing Paris accord.
AP/Francois Mori

A recent essay declares that Americans are much more skeptical of “global warming” than citizens of other countries, a phenomenon the author attributes to “selfishness” and “hypocrisy.”

In an essay appearing in, Firmin DeBrabander asserts that among industrialized democracies, the U.S. has “a higher proportion of climate change deniers” and “only Americans” struggle so much to embrace climate orthodoxy.

Since America is not “a nation of cave dwellers, who suspect science and eschew technology in favor of some bare-bones premodern existence,” Mr. DeBrabander suggests that some other explanation must be sought.

Unable to come up with any rational reason why people might question global warming orthodoxy, DeBrabander makes the intriguing proposal that the underlying causes of American’s climate skepticism are “selfishness” and “hypocrisy.”

Because of Americans’ selfishness, DeBrabander declares, we “are simply unwilling to make the requisite sacrifices that climate change action implies, such as curtailing individual energy use.” While selfishness isn’t the only cause of climate skepticism, he argues, it is part of the problem.

Regarding hypocrisy, on the other hand, DeBrabander suggests that millions of Americans “happily doubt the scientific consensus behind climate change then avail themselves of the fruits of science, which are, one might argue, worthy of suspicion or doubt.” In other words, Americans are selectively skeptical, when it suits them.

Along with selfishness and hypocrisy, DeBrabander also seems to suggest that Americans are slow to believe what isn’t right before their eyes. Since everything “looks and feels fine, for the most part,” few Americans connect extreme weather events with “the larger global changes.”

Because of this, many find the notion that climate change “could render vast portions of the planet uninhabitable and spark widespread wars between suffering populations” somewhat far-fetched, he says.

Yet accusing more than half the nation of such moral turpitude seems remarkably unjust, as well as unconvincing. A more persuasive explanation is to be found in Americans’ proverbial love for independent thought.

When asked to define the “American way of thinking,” respondents almost invariably include among the first characteristics something akin to “question accepted truths,” or “Americans value independent thinking.”

Whereas citizens of other nations may tend not to question the reigning orthodoxy presented to them, preferring to trust in the “experts,” Americans generally want to know why people think what they do. They want to know what thought process led to a given conclusion, and then evaluate it on their own to determine whether it is ultimately convincing.

This is evidently the case with climate change, whose capacious umbrella covers everything from the natural variations in the climate to apocalyptic scenarios of mass destruction, cataclysmic disasters and the decimation of the human race.

When Americans are told that “climate change is not a matter of opinion but of scientific fact,” they rightly wonder how fantastic, unverifiable speculation regarding future events can possibly be a matter of “scientific fact.”

A core component of the scientific method is replication. Modern science poses empirically testable and refutable hypotheses, seeks to verify or refute competing counterhypotheses, uses observational methods that enable other scientists to verify their accuracy, and recognizes the importance of both independent replication and generalization.

According to Dr. Moshe Pritsker, a former researcher at Harvard Medical School and CEO of JoVE, the “reproducibility of published experiments is the foundation of science. No reproducibility – no science.”

This key element of the scientific method is notoriously absent in the case of climate science. Observations are made and patterns are discovered, but the astronomical number of variables involved in the climate stymie scientists’ attempts to make predictions beyond a very short period of time—usually around ten days. There is no replication here, and no way to limit the variables down to a manageable number.

If climate scientists could reliably predict weather events a month or a year in advance, Americans would be more inclined to listen when these same scientists offer forecasts for ten, twenty, or a hundred years down the road.

For now, a majority of Americans are skeptical about disastrous, anthropogenic climate change and are unwilling to radically modify their behavior to possibly reduce the possibly damaging effects of possible ongoing global warming.

Fortunately, they have science on their side. Skepticism, after all, is one of the principles that makes the scientific method possible.

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