A Climate Change Skeptic, Elon Musk and Leonardo DiCaprio Walk into a Bar…Why Do People Disagree on Climate Change?

By Andrew Eliot Binder, a GoPeer Tutor and sophomore student at Dartmouth College

The terms “climate change” and “global warming” have become buzzwords in national politics, the media, and even everyday conversation. It’s such a big topic that it’s sometimes overwhelming to talk about. Some people call human-caused climate change the world’s greatest problem. Others deny its existence. Why is that? I examine different perspectives on human caused climate change to help answer this question. Ultimately, I aim to ask and answer a different, more important question: “What am I to do?”

Two years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio addressed the United Nations on the urgency of climate change. He voiced a call for action, “A massive change is required right nowThe world is now watching. You’ll either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them. You are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it, or we, and all living things we cherish, are history.” Prior to delivering this speech, DiCaprio had traveled the globe for three years documenting the devastating effects of anthropogenic climate change, from the disappearance of Arctic ice to deforestation in Indonesia. He recognized that the effort to reverse climate change could not stand any more delays. So, he presented a choice to the world’s leaders: act now or nudge humankind one day closer to extinction.

Fast forward two years. I’m a second year student at Dartmouth College and it’s a sunny Tuesday in Hanover, New Hampshire. I bike to the local market to purchase groceries. I’ve recently been studying anthropogenic climate in several of my courses, so the topic is on my mind. Business is slow at the market. I look at the cashier, a middle-aged woman named Lisa, and ask her if she’ll speak to me about her thoughts on modern climate change. She says yes. I ask, “Do you think humans are the main cause?” Lisa responds: “No I don’t think they’re the main cause, I also think that it’s just the way that the world is changing, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. You know, it is what it is.”

What’s the real story? Here are the perspectives of both climate change deniers and activists. Try to hear them out. Decide which you find most compelling.

The Climate Change Skeptics

‘It Just Doesn’t Matter.’

In his 1992 HBO special “Jammin’ in New York,” late comedian George Carlin criticized the core of environmentalism by saying that its attempt to “save the planet” is entirely useless (George).

“Did you ever think about the arithmetic?” The Earth has existed for 4.6 billion years, and has weathered countless planet-shaking natural “disasters” such as meteor bombardments, plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions, worldwide floods, ice ages, and reversals of the magnetic poles. Humankind evolved 20,000 years ago and we have only been engaged in heavy industry for two hundred.

“And we have the CONCEIT to think that somehow we’re a threat? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE ARE! Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”

Carlin frames anthropogenic climate change in the context of geological history, reducing humankind to one small moment in the natural progression of life on Earth. Thus, it is arrogant and futile to believe that humans must “save the planet.” According to Carlin, after humankind brings about its own demise, “The air and the water will recover; the earth will be renewed; and, if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the Earth plus plastic!” Though he passed away in 2008, Carlin’s famous “Save the Planet” monologue has gained him prestige among climate deniers, who cite his argument as justification for undermining environmentalism (George).

‘It’s not a priority.’

Bjørn Lomborg is a Danish political scientist, economist, and President of a think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center. Lomborg’s fame as a top climate denier is due to his controversial work of global problem prioritization. In 2004, he invited thirty of the world’s leading economists, including three Nobel Laureates, to Copenhagen to perform triage on the world’s greatest problems. Lomborg describes the project, “In an ideal world, we would solve them all, but we don’t. We don’t actually solve all problems. So… the point is to prioritize solutions to problems.” Such problems include disease, conflict, education, economic instability, governmental instability, poverty, malnutrition, migration, water sanitation, and trade barriers (Lomborg). His team compared consequentialist cost-benefit analyses of each solution to create a hierarchical list ranked between bad projects, fair projects, good projects, and very good projects. According to Lomborg, climate change is at the bottom of the list of bad projects “simply because it’s very inefficient… what we can do about it is very little, at a very high cost.” During a Ted Talk in 2005, he told the audience, “It’s not to say that if we had all the money in the world, we wouldn’t want to do it. But it’s to say, when we don’t, it’s just simply not our first priority.” Instead, Lomborg suggests that the United Nations focus first on solving HIV/AIDS, second on malnutrition, third on free trade, and fourth on malaria (Lomborg).

‘It’s scientifically unclear.’

Dr. Richard Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and prominent “climate contrarian.” He is known for his criticism of the 97% scientific consensus on climate change and what he calls “the climate alarm movement.” According to Lindzen, there is no hard evidence that suggests modern climate change is a result of human civilization’s greenhouse emissions over the past two hundred years. Instead, he suggests that the Earth is behaving normally and climate change is an instance of “natural internal variability.”

This term describes how all natural systems, including geomagnetic fields, plate tectonics, atmospheric cycles, cloud patterns, and ocean currents, undergo changes without external forcing. According to Lindzen, climate change is no different. Just like the spontaneous flip of the Earth’s magnetic poles every half million years, modern climate change is a cyclical and natural turbulence with no one specific cause.

Lindzen believes that scientific predictions of the future effects of climate change are inaccurate. He argues that current climate models do not behave properly because they either do not account for natural variability or are based off of assumptions, called parameterizations. These assumptions are necessary, Lindzen describes, because “Earth’s climate system is governed by equations that we don’t have sufficiently powerful computers to solve.” Consequently, models place too much emphasis on levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and improperly assign causation to trends like global warming and rising sea levels. According to Lindzen, the climate system is a complex interaction of highly variable subsystems, including plate tectonics, oceanic cycles, cloud patterns, turbulence, and microturbulence, and to describe it by one number, such as carbon dioxide levels, is “nothing short of belief in magic.” This fallacy has led to an “unclear and over exaggerated narrative of catastrophic warming,” Lindzen claims.

The Climate Change Activists

‘It’s scientific fact.’

Professor Erich Osterberg is a climatologist who specializes in paleoclimatology, atmospheric pollution, and ice core analysis, and works in the Department of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth College. His research centers around humankind’s effect on the climate and what that effect means for our future. He describes, “To me, a key part of that is teasing apart what is natural change versus human caused change… The problem is everything we see right now is some sort of mixture of human and natural, so if we want to see the pure natural signal we have to look further back in time.” To do this, Osterberg travels to remote corners of the cryosphere, from Antarctica to Greenland, to collect ice samples which are then analyzed in a lab at Dartmouth. He records melt and freeze patterns from the ice’s chemistry to determine past climate trends, which are then compared to modern climate trends. Osterberg’s recent research indicates that Greenland is melting at a faster rate than anytime in the past four centuries, and that Alaska is the warmest that it has ever been in the same timescale (Winski). Data from both studies have helped solidify consensus among the scientific community that since 1960, the Earth’s unprecedented warming has been entirely due to human activity, such as the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to Osterberg, anthropogenic climate change is past the point of debate; the evidence is incontrovertible and is backed by 97% of the scientific community.

‘It does matter and it is a priority.’

Naomi Ages is the United States Climate Liability Project Lead at Greenpeace, an international organization whose mission is to use “peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.” Previously a corporate lawyer in New York City, Ages now focuses on establishing accountability for the major perpetrators of climate change and achieving justice for its victims. She affirms with conviction that climate change matters because it is an issue of human rights. While the right to a stable climate is not in the traditional human rights framework, Ages argues that the effects of climate change will cause traditional human rights injustices, “People lose their homes, people lose their livelihoods, less food, less clean water.”

Climate change is a global problem of equality, and poor countries will inevitably face natural disaster, forced migration, refugee issues, poverty, and conflict.

Mitigating climate change must be a global priority, Ages attests. She notes, “We’re stuck in a climate definition of climate change, but we need to change our mindset to how climate change is affecting people.” The United States and other wealthy countries are the largest contributors to climate change, and yet the harshest consequences are felt by developing nations who contribute the least. In the Philippines, ocean acidification and decreasing fish populations will likely wipe out an entire economic sector. In Bangladesh, sea level rise is predicted to submerge more than twenty percent of the country by 2100 (Glennon). In small Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati, leaders are struggling with the question, “When our island disappears, where will we go and who will we be citizens of?” Climate change is a global problem of equality, and poor countries will inevitably face natural disaster, forced migration, refugee issues, poverty, and conflict. Ages affirms, “The effects of climate change are here now and people need to feel a sense of responsibility and tell their leaders to do something about it.”

Learn more by visiting the website for Before the Flood, a clLeonardo DiCaprio’s climate change film Before the Flood

Moving Forward — What Can I Do?

How can you use this information? Why does this matter?

Many of us are inundated with information about climate change. The very title itself — as well as the phrases “global warming,” “the greenhouse effect,” “carbon footprint,” “climate mitigation,” “sustainable energy,” and “recycling” — have become buzzwords. Here are concrete ways for people to consider their own roles in dealing with climate change.

First, understand the problem of Manufactured Doubt

Learn more about climate deniers, the industry of denial, and how climate change relates to Big Tobacco.

Mitigating climate change will require a massive collective action effort, in which different political parties must place their beliefs in climate science. A major obstacle stands in the way: the industry of climate doubt. Over the past two decades, fossil fuel interests such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and BP, have funded research, lobbying, and spread of disinformation with an effort to diffuse doubt about climate science, and delay new environmental restrictions on industry. Several well known climate contrarians, such as physicists Fred Seitz and Fred Singer, have received numerous grants from private corporations and conservative think tanks to abuse their status as scientists to promote confusion about climate change science (Demelle). Ages compares this dilemma to the tobacco industry in the mid twentieth century and its strategies to deny the harmful effects of cigarettes. Just as powerful tobacco corporations contested the science backed fact that nicotine was addictive and smoking caused lung cancer, current fossil fuel corporations know that greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming but continue to manufacture doubt. According to Professor Osterberg, the current industry of denial is worse than that of big tobacco because of the Internet, noting, “the Internet magnifies the minority voice.” In the context of climate change, one corporate-sponsored climate denier can invoke doubt in thousands of people.

Second, understand these options for judicial, legislative, industrial, and personal action

The Courtroom. The effort to remove doubt will begin in the courtroom. Litigators must establish accountability for fossil fuel corporations for three main reasons. Firstly, fossil fuel corporations are a major part of the reason for why the United States is one of the only developed countries without a federal climate policy. Some states have more progressive policies than others, but the nation as a whole has no regulation on emissions. According to Ages, fossil fuel interests over the past twenty to forty years have tried to block new climate legislation and, “so it is important to expose how far back these corporations have set us back in terms of policy.” Secondly, recent advances in attribution science have made it easier for investigators to quantify the effect that a particular corporation’s carbon emissions have had on climate change. As a result, litigators can appeal to a fair share argument in which corporations are held financially responsible for the contribution to climate change. Lastly, fossil fuel corporations have known that climate change is real and caused by greenhouse gas emissions for over two decades, but continued to push their product into the market. Ages argues that, as a result, the younger generation “never had the choice of renewables or any other type of energy because fossil fuel corporations locked us into using carbon products, and at the same time lied to us by saying, ‘we don’t know climate change is real.’” An increase in the amount of lawsuits and fraud investigations into these three crimes committed by the fossil fuel industry will not only help spread awareness for the source of climate skepticism, but will also accelerate the shift towards renewable energy.

The Ballots. Change in national climate policy will come from the ballots. The current White House administration denies the science of climate change and has dismantled many federal climate change regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan. President Trump has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has rolled back environmental regulations, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has sold off several national monuments to oil and gas interests. In light of this nonexistent climate policy, Ages says, “one of the most important things to do in the short term is to vote in the 2018 election for candidates that have some semblance of climate policy.” The current backslide in climate policy will be greatly slowed if the 2018 election flips the house and the senate to Democrats.

Musk’s technology could feasibly lead the final transition toward sustainable energy for not just the United States but the entire planet.

The Sustainable Energy Technology. Progress towards climate change mitigation will require technological advancements in sustainable energies. According to Dean of the Thayer School for Engineering and environmental engineer Joseph Helble, the shift towards a sustainable energy grid will not occur immediately and will include transition phases which lower, but do not eradicate, fossil fuels. A first step in this transition phase, Helble says, will be “cost-effective carbon capture and storage technology (CCS).” CCS is a technological method that collects burned carbon and sequesters it underground. This waste carbon can eventually be burned again to produce new energy. The technology exists and meets both environmental and financial concerns as a transition energy source, but is not a final energy solution because it still relies on fossil fuels. Similar preliminary steps, Helble argues, must include an increase in both “renewable fuel standards,” which require transportation fuel, heating oil, and jet fuel to contain a minimum level of renewable sources such as biomass, and “energy efficiency standards,” which set goals for state or federal energy reductions (Joseph). After a transition stage, The United States will need to revolutionize its energy infrastructure to become sustainable and will also need to incorporate geoengineering technology. Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of Tesla, Inc., proposes a solution modeled off of the Tesla Gigafactory, a current project with a footprint of 15 million square feet, which will make it the largest building in the world. When completed, the Gigafactory will produce low-cost, lithium-ion batteries for Tesla vehicles at a rate of 5,000 per week. According to Musk, “We actually did the calculations to figure out what it would take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy. You’d need 100 Gigafactories.” Though the first Gigafactory has yet to be completed, Musk’s technology could feasibly lead the final transition toward sustainable energy for not just the United States but the entire planet.

Your Day to Day Life. Progress towards climate change mitigation and sustainable civilizations will necessitate that society gain a simple appreciation and respect for sustainability. This is a grand mission that, while ideal, is pretty impractical to strive for all in one push. Instead, we can break this mission down into smaller, achievable chunks. First, we need to create moral communities. A moral community can be any smaller group of people, such as a town, neighborhood, online forum, or college campus. Moral communities can work inwards to start boosting sustainable practices and engaging in constructive discussion.

One moral community is Dartmouth College. The university has an Office of Sustainability which works on campus to design student sustainability programming and to hold the college accountable for its carbon footprint. Jenna Musco and Joe Fairbanks are both employees at this office, and share an interesting perspective on how they work to help Dartmouth become a positive moral community in regards to climate change. Jenna describes:

“Sustainability is about equity, being mindful for the consequences of one’s actions, and seeing humans as part of the environment.”

She adds, “Dartmouth students disproportionately are going to be leaders when they leave here… and so our goal is to get you to care about climate change and sustainability and then to use that in future decision making”( Musco). The Sustainability Office, Joe explains, approaches this goal with a philosophy called “different levels of touch; light touch, medium touch, and deep touch.” Light touch events are casual social gatherings, medium touch events are relatively more involved, and the deep touch zone includes becoming a sustainability leader on campus. Jenna acknowledges that only a handful of students will seek out the deep touch zone.

“We want to move the rest of the bell curve close enough that when those ‘deep touch’ people graduate and are leading the change, there should be a vote-with group, a group that’s sympathetic towards these issues and understands that they’re important.”

By practicing this philosophy, the Office of Sustainability creates a moral community and culture of sustainability within the college. Each year, students graduate and carry these values with them into the professional world. Joe notes, “that’s the most impactful thing that we can do about climate change.”

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Work Cited

Binder, Andrew, and Naomi Ages. “Interview with Naomi Ages.” 26 May 2018.

Binder, Andrew, and Erich Osterberg. “Interview with Erich Osterberg.” 18 April 2018.

Binder, Andrew, and Joseph Helble. “Interview with Joseph Helble.” 28 May 2018.

Binder, Andrew, and Richard Lindzen “Interview with Richard Lindzen.” 22 May 2018.

Binder, Andrew, and Lisa. “Interview with Lisa at Coop.” 23 May 2018.

“George Carlin — Saving the Planet | Climate Dispatch.” Climate Change Dispatch, Climate Change Dispatch, 2 Jan. 2008, climatechangedispatch.com/george-carlin-saving-the-planet/.

Demelle, Brendan. “The Deniers.” Before the Flood, www.beforetheflood.com/.

DiCaprio, Leonardo. Before the Flood. Before the Flood, National Geographic.

Glennon, Robert. “The Unfolding Tragedy of Climate Change in Bangladesh.” Scientific American, 21 Apr. 2017, blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-unfolding-tragedy-of-climate-change-in-bangladesh/.

Lomborg, Bjorn. “Global Priorities Bigger than Climate Change.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, TED Conferences, 2005, www.ted.com/talks/bjorn_lomborg_sets_global_priorities/transcript#t-79351.

Musca, Jenna, et al. “Office of Sustainability Interview.” 25 May 2018.

“Naomi Ages.” Greenpeace, 15 Jan. 2008, www.greenpeace.org/usa/bios/naomi-ages/.

Winski, Dominic, et al. “A 400‐Year Ice Core Melt Layer Record of Summertime Warming in the Alaska Range.”

Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, Wiley-Blackwell, 13 Apr. 2018, agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2017JD027539.

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