Why Climate Change Deniers Might Want to Act Like True Believers

Let’s assume for the moment you are a climate change denier. I think there are some strong reasons why you still might want to support policies intended to stem climate change. As such you might find you share a lot of common ground with people who do believe in it. And let’s face it – these days we can use all the common ground we can find.


We protect ourselves against all sorts of things, even when we think they’re not likely to happen. Let’s say there is a twenty-five percent chance that in the next ten or twenty years you will face a catastrophic loss of property, perhaps through fire or flood. Might you be willing to take out an insurance policy to protect against it? Might you decide to invest in dikes, levees, or fire prevention measures around your property to protect your property? Probably.

Or alternatively, what if intelligence sources told the country that there were a ten percent chance that terrorists would inflict major damage on the country’s major cities within the next ten years. Would you vote for tax increases to protect against that possibility? I wouldn’t be surprised.

We often are willing to spend money to protect ourselves against improbable catastrophic events. Let’s face it, if there’s only a five percent probability of catastrophic loss, there’s a ninety-five percent probably that it won’t happen. However, most of us are willing to insure ourselves against such unlikely disasters.

It’s undeniable that the climate is changing. The most dissension seems to be around the question of the role that humans play in that change. In 2016 the large international group of climate scientists (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that has issued the most authoritative studies on the issue stated,

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century (Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers, p. 6).

The IPCC defines “extremely likely” as a probability between ninety-five and one hundred percent.

At the same time the IPCC warns,

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks (p. 8).

Given that we have a ninety-five percent probability of human-induced catastrophic impacts for people here and abroad and that we will pay to protect ourselves against far less likely disasters, it would seem reasonable to reduce emissions. The insurance industry and the US military take climate change seriously and are acting accordingly. Perhaps we should, too?

We Should Do It Anyway

Even if we don’t accept the above argument, the actions we take to limit greenhouse gas emissions can bring other benefits, such as decreased levels of cancers and respiratory illness. These actions are worth taking on their own account and, if they should (unlikely as it may seem!) reduce the risk of climate change, that’s just icing on an otherwise very tasty cake.

industry-611669_6401Finally, climate change deniers might want to act out of moral concerns. If I take the insurance argument seriously but still don’t think it’s worth the money to take out the policy, or at least not worth my doing it, most religions would say that we bear a moral obligation to incur this expense for the sake of those who would be most severely affected by climate change – typically the poorest, most marginalized people of the globe. They typically live in the most vulnerable regions and possess the least resources to adapt to such things as prolonged drought or floods. Out of concern for the poor we need to take action.

Similarly, out of concern for other creatures we also need to act. Most world religions believe that all of creation matters. Christianity certainly does. And, if creation in some way is sacred, then it matters to God whether or not we strive to protect God’s good Earth. For people of a religious, or spiritual, bent this may be the strongest motivator of all. We need to take steps to stop damaging the air and the creatures that breathe it regardless of whether or not they reduce climate change.

So, even if we don’t think it’s likely that humans are causing the increasingly erratic weather around us, we have good reason to act like we do. So,…let’s do it.

The University of the South’s Center for Religion and Environment

Author: Robert "Robin" Gottfried

Director, Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Sewanee. Contemplative Christian, musician, blogger for the Huffington Post on religion and environment, and hiker living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “Why Climate Change Deniers Might Want to Act Like True Believers”

  1. And, what is our first step as our Republican Senate has approved Rick Perry, a ‘climate denier’ and opponent of EPA regulations as Secretary of Energy.


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