Why Do Some People Not Worry About Climate Change

22 Oct 2020
Climate Change


– formerly Global Warming – is as controversial as any topic in politics today. As wildfires rage, sea ice melts, droughts appear, storms batter the coasts, and temperatures climb, it is easy to see climate change as the controlling factor lurking behind it all. How then, can some people seemingly ignore climate change altogether, or not worry about the projected crises modelers and activists predict?

The answer is multifaceted, but not complicated. This explainer does not seek to persuade or convince readers to take climate change more or less seriously, only to answer a question many struggle with:

How do some people not worry about climate change?

First, it is useful to differentiate some concepts and define terms. There are many who adamantly believe in the reality of climate change, CO2 levels, and anthropogenic influence, while rejecting alarmism. Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Shellenburg, and even former Greenpeace president Patrick Moore are prominent examples. Some labeled skeptics or deniers may merely reject certain models and projections, or they believe too many variables are at play to peg climate change predominantly on human activity. But many highly educated, reasonable, and disciplined people simply do not worry about climate change, even as they accept its reality.

That is, not being alarmed is not the same as not accepting scientific data on the subject.

Next, we explore a few reasons that many who do believe in anthropogenic climate change nevertheless do not fear the worst. We highlight six categories: framework, assumptions, perspective, specialization, innovation, and resilience.

Framework: “Science” Does Not Speak

Approaching the concept of climate change is difficult, because many use blanket statements like “the science is settled” or “science tells us climate change is serious.” This is a problem because science is a process, or a discipline, not a spokesperson. Synecdoche aside, scientific findings or data points are positive concepts, which simply state a present or observable reality. They are not normative, which is a judgment based on that data.

Positive would be “Carbon dioxide levels are at their highest recorded level.” Normative would be “the carbon dioxide level is too high” or “this is a bad thing.”

Science is the way positive data is observed and presented, not the data itself. And science does not provide normative evaluations. Many get stuck here, because sloppy language shuts down meaningful dialogue. It is difficult to find solutions and work together when people shut others down, misuse words and arguments, employ narratives, or ultimately use ad hominem attacks at others.

More critically than clarifying ‘science’ is defining which science is relevant. Certainly climate sciences ranks high – climatology, oceanography, biology, meteorology, and many more – but many use “science” as a blunt weapon. When discussing climate change, some seamlessly transition from the positive statements of climate scientists describing a present observable reality to normative economic or sociological conclusions.

There are very real, compelling, and necessary arguments and positions based in economics, political science, sociology, and other liberal sciences needed to understand and combat climate change. Many of those who do not worry about climate change accept the positive data and scientific findings of atmospheric scientists. They merely believe that a different economic approach leads to more efficient allocation of resources and means of achieving innovative solutions. They may also favor certain political approaches like federalism, where individual states rather than the federal government dictate how political bodies should pursue solutions.

Neither the economic nor political differences in approach necessarily mean a person disregards the science or denies factual reality, it means they rely on other sciences to take it from there in how to proceed. Because ultimately, that is what environmental activists do as well. They take positive scientific findings and move straight into economic, political, and sociological solutions – just different ones and with different emphasis than those who do not worry.

Science does not tell us we only have 12 years left. It tells us what observational data exists to establish a trend, which we can project forward. From there, statements like “12 years left” are built on hosts of beliefs and assumptions.

Assumptions: Unsaid Views Behind Arguments

A second reason that many do not worry about climate change is that they have a different set of assumptions underlying their worldview than alarmists do. Assumptions undergird every framework and worldview, but they are often unspoken.

The statement that “we only have 12 years left to combat climate change” (normative as such a conclusion is) relies on a host of assumptions including a constant or increasing rate of emissions, a level and efficiency of technology, standard of living, type and status of infrastructure, ecological factors, and more.

Even statements like “the effects of climate change will become irreversible” coming from bonafide scientists rely on many assumptions. Baked into that statement necessarily includes multiple analyses – with their own assumptions – about trees, oceans, the sun, and other enormously complicated systems and interactions.

Needless to say, many of these assumptions are not held, or are even challenged, by skeptics. Some assumptions are scientific, while others are political. In order to understand if a person accepts or rejects climate change or its severity, it is important to clearly discern what assumptions are on both sides of the argument.

Specialization: Others Are Working On It

Perhaps the most simple reason that some believe in the reality of climate change but don’t lose sleep is that it is not in their field. Quite different from defeatism, where someone says they cannot impact the issue and gives up, people of this view hold that specialization means others are working on it. They simply leave it to them.

Why would a nurse worry about climate change when there are entire industries, fields of study, and markets dedicated solely to solving the problem. Maybe that nurse will recycle more, drive less, or donate to a climate-conscious organization, but still not fear or have anxiety about climate change.

Specialization means people can ignore certain things. Even utter necessities like food and water. Not because the person is ignorant but because someone else, further down the chain is taking care of it. Once, everyone had to hunt and scavenge for food, and survival was dependent on general skills. Then people pooled resources, some hunted, others gathered, still others worked at home. This concept, albeit in a much more complex and grand way, is why many currently do not fret about climate change.

The nurse goes about her day, providing care to those in need, as water treatment personnel guarantee she has water in her home, farmers, freight workers, and grocery markets guarantee fresh food for her to eat. And all the while, scientists, researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs are tackling elements of climate change piece by piece.

Perspective: Crisis Creates Bad Policy

Some people simply believe that adopting an alarmist, fatalist view of the climate actually diminishes the chance for meaningful, deliberate analysis and decisionmaking required to combat it. Perhaps the leading advocate for a calm, but proactive climate response is Bjorn Lomborg.

The way he puts it, “Climate alarm has real consequences. When we panic, we make bad decisions.”

This comes back to framework. Even accepting the scientific data on the state and trends of climate data, one still must implement public policy solutions – a fundamentally different discipline from climate science. This may be akin to the analogy that when you’re a hammer, all you see are nails. For those whose discipline is climate science, they are prone to viewing the world through that lens, to the neglect of important economic, political, and social considerations. If climate-alarmed scientists ran society, there would be no fossil fuels and society could shut down tomorrow – but the air would be cleaner and emissions would plummet. 

When one is alarmed about the climate, one begins to see fossil fuels as dirty and harmful. They produce emissions, which contribute to climate change, so alarm begins to make these resources into an evil. This, despite fossil fuels being responsible for building the modern world – it’s hospitals, medicines, research and development, food abundance and distribution, transportation, not to mention reduction in air pollution and even emissions (when shifting from coal to natural gas).

Thus, some policymakers heavily favor renewable energy like wind and solar over cheap, abundant, and practical sources like fossil fuels. They may even seek to eliminate fossil fuels altogether, which they view as the enemy. With climate change as one’s only or chief consideration, going all green is a victory. But the people who may lose power, have food spoil, cannot cook food, or meet other basic necessities would beg to differ. A comprehensive, balanced, and nuanced approach requires that we do not act as though there will be no tomorrow and factor in other considerations besides atmospheric gaseous composition.

The adherents to this view may also have policy ideas that environmentalists would view as woefully inadequate, but turning up the dial on alarm is not a solution to achieving better substantive policy.

Alarmist policy, taken more abruptly perhaps than deliberate compromise policy, can create unintended consequences. A small, but relevant example is the impulsive idea that an urban forest would help! Capture CO2 in urban areas, add to the beauty, and green up the city. But the outcome, at least in one instance was few residents besides mosquitoes. As the experts note, the idea itself is not necessarily bad, but has to be executed properly. Some argue panic inhibits proper planning.

Innovation: Disrupting The Status Quo

Some people have a truly lofty view of human potential. Putting a man on the moon, developing quantum computers, artificial intelligence – these were fiction before they became reality. Thanks in large part to specialization, there are people capable of creating things that we did not think possible a decade before.

Adherents to this view point to the advent of direct air capture of CO2, nuclear fusion advancements, and drone reforestation projects among many others.

One doesn’t have to look far to see this view articulated. The world is not static, and new start ups are always breaking the mold. Those who favor innovation as a solution simply put more faith in the creative potential of people than the destructive potential of climate change. They are more likely to believe that in 10 years there could be a technology that undoes 50 years of carbon emission.

It is also important to highlight a common critique, that “our culture’s most intoxicating narrative [is] the believe that technology is going to save us for the effects of our actions… Our faith in techno wizardry persists, embedded inside the superhero narrative that at the very last minute, our best and brightest are gong to save us from disaster.”

One problem with this critique is that those holding innovation up as the solution do not look to future unknown saviors – though they may hope for them – they instead look at the track record and currently mold-breaking innovations coming on scene in real time. They see solar and wind becoming more efficient, vehicles being less reliant on fossil fuels, greater use of natural gas over coal, better capture technology in industrial processes, better and more creative power storage options, and even potential for recycling styrofoam.

When they see these, they do what alarmists do – predict a trend forward based on current and previous data. Only for them, they’re tracking and predicting innovation, not carbon emissions. Why would they fear climate change when solutions to many of the climates problems are in development or in the field already, and improving day by day?

The U.S. has even seen decreases in carbon emissions over the last decade simply by voluntary actions, innovations, and a renewed emphasis on hydraulic fracturing to provide less carbon-intensive natural gas. If we continue on that path, and others are out there planting a trillion trees – and using drones and artificial intelligence to increase biodiversity in the right places – innovation may very well address or reverse greenhouse gas problems.

Finally, innovation is useful not only in making technology cleaner and greener, and not only important for neutralizing or reversing carbon emissions and other environmental issues, but innovation can improve our defenses against the worst climate change could throw at us even if our other actions prove insufficient.

Resilience: Living With Climate Change

Living with climate change is a mainstream view. Many people believe climate change is real, maybe even a threat, but that there is no reason to panic simply because we are resilient. Through better technology, improved infrastructure, and higher standards of living, even worse storms would not be an existential threat.

Marrying innovation to infrastructure, we can make ourselves impervious to the effects of climate change. If droughts arise, we can look to liquid nano clays or simply more advanced irrigation and water distribution infrastructure. If sea levels rise, we can reinforce and improve seawalls, levees, and bulkheads. If hurricanes strengthen, we can improve building codes, use more resilient building material, and strengthen homes, businesses, and urban infrastructure. All of these approaches mean that even when storms come, throwing all they have at us, we can be ready for them.

This view is one that we should adopt even if climate change is ultimately not our chief concern. We know hurricanes will continue to form in the Atlantic, whether gaining strength or remaining the same, and we know the damage a Category-5 storm is capable of. But that damage is largely a function of existing infrastructure. When a terrible storm comes in, we measure the costs (obviously human life is chief among them) including building damage, business losses, recovery time, delay, and more. But resilient infrastructure can shelter people to keep them safe, decrease the costs of damage to buildings and products, help divert water to reduce delays in rebuilding and returning to healthy normal life and economic activity.

What to make of it?

Climate change appears to be an observable reality unfolding before our eyes. Many genuinely believe in the positive data, and yet fail to engage in alarmism or activism. Those people are capable of taking the issue seriously, without joining the talking points and narrative of the media or environmental activists.

When it comes down to dealing with scientific issues, those derided as climate skeptics or science deniers, are often better described as policy skeptics. They are skeptical of, or reject outright, the economic and political policies promoted by their counterparts. They recognize that environmentalists are prone to a sleight of hand first putting up undeniable climate data, then switching to an economic or political plan and using the original climate data and its legitimacy and alarm as cover, arguing theirs is the only way to address the climate.

Those who disagree take those same climate numbers, and do the same switch from observable climate data to public policy, but make clear that they’re switching. Both sides must do this, because economic and political plans are required to deal with climate. But some are criticized for not taking climate seriously merely for disagreeing with one approach. Good faith disagreement over policy is not the same as rejecting the science.

Many of those who disagree with climate change alarmism do so on the basis of multiple grounds, described above and even some outside of those. Few reject alarmism on a single basis.

It is very possible that the more lax approaches to climate change – either those believing specialization and innovation will deal with it for them or those proposing different economic approaches to solve the issue – fail to result in enough progress. Where they do fail, it is important to encourage debate and solutions. It is also important not to alienate people who may be turned off from taking the matter seriously by criticizing them as anti-science, climate deniers, or skeptics of science, when in reality they are skeptics of the policy approaches that everyone must switch to after reviewing data of any kind.



Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy