Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth and the Environment

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Is there such a thing as a universal and fixed truth? People's different opinions and values shape their understanding of what they believe to be the truth. But if everyone claims with certainty that their truth is absolute, who is right?

Today, the environment is a polarising subject as people's contradictory views of the truth generate heated discussions. People have different truths and understandings of the world. Some people perceive climate change as a real issue, which is "a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years" [1]. They are worried about the planet, claiming that mass extinction will occur, that resources will not be able to cope with our needs, that we are experiencing global warming as ice caps are melting in the coldest parts of the world and temperatures are booming. Scientific evidence appears to prove the accuracy of these claims, but do we know for a fact that it is true?

The Facts[edit]

When looking at the facts, we see that the average temperature on the earth's surface has risen by 0.9 degrees Celsius since the 19th Century, and most of this increase has resulted from carbon dioxide emissions along with other greenhouse gases.[2] Oceans have also experienced a substantial increase in temperature, leading to the shrinkage of ice sheets at the poles and decreased snow cover, which has resulted in a rise of sea levels,[3] the alteration of the ocean's pH balance and an increase in its acidity by 30%. [4]

Despite accurate models and evidence provided, facts are not always a sufficient evidence of truth due to 'myths' surrounding the topic. [5] Knowledge about climate change leads to existential questions, such as "how can we combat these issues to avoid catastrophic risks for future generations?". Individuals may reject climate change in order to avoid facing responsibility, ultimately leaving the facts powerless. [6]

Manipulation Of Evidence Can Distort The Truth[edit]

Statistical reliability is vital whenever any data is being analysed. Numbers can't lie, but they can be used to lead someone towards a particular belief.

Misleading statistics[edit]

Misleading statistics is the wrongful exploitation of numerical evidence: the reader receives deceptive information and believes something false. [7] The evidence concerning the truth and occurrence of global warming is often speculated to have been manipulated, with scientific results being taken out of context in order to reduce the effects of global warming. According to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the global mean temperature was 58.3 and 58.2 degrees Fahrenheit in 1998 and 2012 respectively. It can be logically deduced that, as there was a decrease in the global mean temperature, global warming is disproved. However, they used the results of the global air warming on a non-relevant time-frame: 1998 was one of the hottest years on record because of the El Niño wind and temperatures are typically measured with at least a 30-year cycle. When looking at the long-term data from 1900 to 2017, it paints a clear picture of gradual warming.[8]

Correlation vs causation[edit]

Another factor that leads people to have opposing beliefs is the problem of correlation versus causation; the occurrence of one is not necessarily linked to the occurrence of the other[9]. There is, however, a correlation between rising CO2 levels and the rising global temperatures. Even though there is a high degree of correlation between them, it might just be a coincidence of the numbers. This is what some sceptics choose to see. But those who do believe in climate change choose to see the evidence differently. They believe that the attribution studies have become so strong that there is no question that CO2 is the main driver of global warming.[10]

The occasional lack of clear causation accounts for the different truths that opponents and proponents of climate change claim.

Scepticism[edit]

The psychology of climate change denial[edit]

The human brain is not made to accept climate change because the consequences and rewards seem distant and the ability to act on an individual scale seems microscopic. For these reasons, it is a miracle that only 8% of the population does not believe in climate change.[11] So what motivates these individuals and why are sceptics so influential?

Why deny?[edit]

Economic causes[edit]

Scepticism[12] can be linked to the importance of fossil fuel industries for the economy and workers. Big companies that pollute a lot usually oppose climate change.[13] One of their main argument is a lack of evidence on the existence of global warming, claiming that the range of time we have been able to observe a rise of in temperatures is not long enough to draw conclusions. For example, Gina Rinehart, a large Australian mining company's CEO made a donation of 4,5 million dollars to the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian think tank promoting climate change scepticism.[14] Media and politicians are often accused of being bribed to confuse the public’s perception on scientific evidences and promote false advertisements.[15] It can be hard to implement environmentally-friendly policies even when the population is receptive to climate change. One example is the 'Gilets Jaunes' movement taking place in France. As President Macron tries to increase taxes on diesel in an attempt to reduce greenhouse gases, he is being met by massive public demonstrations. For the public, the truth is that the government is reducing their consumer surplus by increasing taxes in order to balance the economy. As the Financial Times explained, the President is attempting "to reconcile the climate issues that 'evoke the end of the world' with the social needs of those who 'talk about the end of the month'" [16], an example of temporal discounting. Perhaps some people know the truth but keep it to themselves, choosing to conform because they are afraid, as shown in the Asch Conformity experiment [17].

Political causes[edit]

Climate change represents an economic threat. Many people in the current US government, including President Donald Trump [18], refute climate change. Conversely, prior US President Barack Obama was so concerned for the environmental impact of climate change that he participated in the documentary 'Before the Flood' stating that "if we keep pushing, there is no reason we can't solve this problem". Is it conceivable that the opposition to climate change is linked to politics? Could we speculate that Trump knows about the dangers of climate change but dismisses them because the US is a fossil addicted country and the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in history? A recent study shows a strong link between climate change denial and right wing nationalism.[19] On this matter, the philosopher Theodor Adorno states “The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power not only suppresses truth as with earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false.” [20]  

Conclusion[edit]

Climate change is largely proven to be true by scientific research. Yet, doubts still persist. Powerful narratives of climate change denial resonate with a fraction of the population. Such narratives promote scepticism around the topic and the scientific evidence provided. Scientists need to embrace the fact that truth is a set of beliefs supported by a powerful narrative and not just cold hard facts. Saving our planet requires it.


  1. Matt McGraph. BBC. Sir David Attenborough: Climate Change 'our greatest threat'. Available from : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46398057 [Accessed December 1st 2018]
  2. NOAA- National Centres for Environmental Information. Global Climate Change Indicators. Available from-https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/indicators.php [Accessed 5th December 2018]
  3. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Ramp-Up In Antarctic Ice Loss Speeds Sea Level Rise. June 13, 2018. Available from-https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7159 [Accessed December 4th 2018]
  4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change- Climate change: How do we know? Available from- https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ [Accessed 4th December 2018]
  5. Dr. Jan Dash, John Cook. Skeptical Science. Global Warming & Climate Change Myths. Available from- https://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php [Accessed 4th December 2018]
  6. Kieran Setiya - School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. MIT News. 3 Questions: How philosophy can address the problem of climate change. February 8th 2017. Available from- http://news.mit.edu/2017/3-questions-kieran-setiya-how-philosophy-can-address-problem-climate-change-0208
  7. Mona Lebied. Misleading Statistics & Data. Available from: https://www.datapine.com/blog/misleading-statistics-and-data/ [Accessed 4th December 2018]
  8. Matt McGraph. BBC. Sir Attenborough: Climate change 'our greatest threat'. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46398057[Accessed December 3rd 2018]
  9. Iperceptions. Causation vs Correlation - What's the difference ? Available from: https://www.iperceptions.com/blog/causation-vs-correlation [Accessed December 4th 2018]
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  11. Nicole Mortillaro. The psychology of climate change: while people deny the evidence. Available from:https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/climate-change-psychology-1.4920872 [Accessed December 8th 2018]
  12. Grist. How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic: Responses to the most common skeptical arguments on global warming. Available from:https://grist.org/series/skeptics/ [Accessed December 1st 2018]
  13. Jean-Daniel Collomb. The Ideology of Climate Change denial in the United States. European Journal of American Studies. 2014. Available from: https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/10305 [Accessed December 5th 2018]
  14. Graham Readfearn. The Guardian. Gina Rinehart company revealed as $4.5m donor to climate sceptic think tank. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/21/gina-rinehart-company-revealed-as-45m-donor-to-climate-sceptic-thinktank [Accessed December 5th 2018]
  15. Constance Lever-Tracy. Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society. Routledge international Handbooks. July 12th 2010. Available from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ahGUAgAAQBAJ&dq=who+denies+climate+change%3F&lr=&hl=fr&source=gbs_navlinks_s [Accessed December 5th 2018]
  16. Harriet Agnew. Macron promises consultation on green policies after fuel tax protests. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/3ef16ce4-f238-11e8-9623-d7f9881e729f [Accessed November 30th 2018]
  17. HeroicImaginationTV. Asch Conformity Experiment. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyDDyT1lDhA [Accessed December 7th 2018]
  18. Detlef F. Sprinz, Håkon Sælen, Arild Underdal & Jon Hovi. The effectiveness of climate clubs under Donald Trump. Climate Policy. 2017. Volume 18. Issue 7. 828-838. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14693062.2017.1410090 [Accessed December 4th 2018]
  19. Chalmers. Climate change denial strongly linked to right-wing nationalism. Available from:https://www.chalmers.se/en/departments/tme/news/Pages/Climate-change-denial-strongly-linked-to-right-wing-nationalism.aspx [Accessed December 8th 2018]
  20. Theodor W.Adorno. When the questions of truth become questions of Power. Minima Moralia.1946 Available from: https://harpers.org/blog/2008/01/adorno-when-questions-of-truth-become-questions-of-power/ [Accessed December 5th 2018]