Believing in magic can be fun. One can believe in the power of positive thinking, in faith-healing, in getting rich by imagining piles of gold. One can believe that the motions of the planets dictate our fates, and that we can curse one another with evil spirits. All these things could be true. But each of them is a bold enough claim about cause-and-effect reality that they should leave behind some evidence of their validity. Nearly any time we make an assertion (or express a belief) regarding the way real things in the real world work, we are inviting scrutiny of our assertion about reality compared to independent observations and the evidence reality provides. There is only one reality, and by investigating it, we find it to be an excellent arbiter of our assertions about how it behaves. I can assert that a dropped stone rockets skyward, but the evidence consistently and universally gainsays my claim.
Knowledge comprises a set of validated and evidence-supported cause-and-effect models maintained within our minds, regarding how the world works. Unfortunately, the human mind is a flexible general-purpose information processing machine. The same mind that possesses factual knowledge, might also be laden with unrealistic ideas and misconceptions. Fortunately, we have science to help us winnow fact from fiction. A possible definition of science is that it is the social practice whereby we separate realistic knowledge from speculation and fantasy.
When links between causes and effects become more extended in time, and more complex, people tend not to directly relate what they see and experience with what causes precipitated them. Previously, I discussed the origin of uranium from colliding neutron stars. The meticulous work needed to trace that origin back to rare and extraordinary cosmological events is a wonderful but circuitous tale. Merely looking at a chunk of uranium is insufficient to uncover its origin and the causes that created it. Many cause-and-effect sequences in nature are similarly subtle. They do not lend themselves to direct or brief scrutiny.
The link between human activity and global warming is one such subtlety. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, nobody imagined that the burning of fossil fuels might disrupt our planet’s climate. However, throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, meticulously gathered evidence showed a clear and dangerous link.
The subtleties of global warming and its effects are easy to ignore, day-to-day and even year-to-year. If a torrential flood devastates a community, it’s difficult to find the link between the flood and pollution emitted many miles away, and years removed in time. It’s easy to fail to recognize the connection. It’s also easy for non-specialists to deny that connection, even if science has proved it.
Often, there are few penalties for disbelief of facts and rejection of knowledge. Whether or not you “believe” in colliding neutron stars, there will be no tangible and material consequences to your life. You can disbelieve all manner of distant things without ramification. Many people, for instance, disbelieve evolution by natural selection, even though it is proven by an overwhelming amount of evidence. For the unbelievers, there are very few, if any, consequences of their rejection. Unless one is a biologist, a physician, a teacher, an ecologist, or some other sort of specialist, disbelief in evolution costs you nothing, except perhaps the derision of your peers (or, more likely, some group that is decidedly not your peers, since we all tend to form social-groups with others who share our beliefs or disbeliefs).
We disbelieve anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) global warming at our peril, though. The consequence will eventually disrupt all our lives. Agricultural lands will become arid and dry. Some dry regions will be beset by torrential rains. Hurricanes and cyclones will become more frequent and more damaging, since there will be more heat in the world to drive their primal engines of fury. Perhaps permafrost will melt and sub-ocean methane hydrates will thaw, releasing gigatons of climate-altering methane into the atmosphere. Perhaps we will live to see the failure of the great thermohaline circulation that pulls warm water from equatorial regions to warm northern Europe. Invasive species may alter and disrupt regional ecosystems, including agricultural systems humanity relies upon for food and materials. Many species may go extinct. Coastal regions will likely be drowned by rising seas, forcing catastrophic migrations of humans across a globe facing too many systemic shocks to accommodate legions of strangers.
Recently, 15,000 scientists, including large numbers of ecologists and climate experts from around the world, penned an open letter to anybody who would listen to their cries of danger and warning. The letter, published in the journal BioScience, calls attention to the stark and dangerous consequences likely to befall us as the Earth’s climate swings catastrophically toward a new, and disruptive normal. Many of us are frightened and sobered by the warning, while many others continue to ignore the warnings provided by the specialists and experts who are trying to help us all stay safe and prepared.
There’s something even more dangerous than widespread social skepticism (or rejection) of scientific knowledge. The most sobering danger is that our political and social leaders reject reality. Too many world leaders, especially in the United States, choose to disbelieve the facts of human-caused climate disruption. It is a near-treasonous dereliction of duty for our government “leaders” to ignore facts and likelihoods inimical to our way of life and the health of our nation. These government representatives are, however, elected by a populace that lacks sufficient grounding in science and critical thinking. A populace inclined to vote for officials who make them feel good, who tell them not to worry, who promise that their safe and steady way of life will be conserved.
It’s hard to listen to bad news. It’s hard to believe it. It’s hard to take action to mitigate disasters that are insidious, creeping, non-specific, and often happening “somewhere else” to people who don’t look like us or go to our churches or community meetings. Part of being good adults and competent stewards of our world, its resources, and future generations, is to deal with pragmatic realism as soon as and as effectively as we’re able. Right now, collectively, we’re doing a terrible job of being adults and caretakers of our world. Climate change is real. The experts are earnestly trying to tell us all the truth, while the naysayers are besotted by fantasy and denial. As a society, we can continue the denial. But we do so at our peril, and the peril of the world as we know it.