Guest post by Craig Loehle, Ph.D.
We often hear this disconnect in the climate debate: sceptic Joe says “human impacts are small and likely not harmful”; alarmist Arthur says “humans are affecting the climate, therefore we must act now”. It is not possible to get the alarmist to answer the claim of the skeptic that the impacts are likely to be small. I believe the disconnect results because the alarmist is using categorical thinking. In this mode, if something is bad, it is bad. Water is either clean or not clean. Forest is either wilderness or it is defiled. This conversation cannot progress because the world views of the sceptic and the alarmist are incompatible. The words they use do not mean the same thing. If the sceptic admits we are having a small impact on climate, the alarmist says “aha! You see? We are doomed!” This is not a conversation.
Categorical thinking is common in life. It is a critical mental shortcut that brings order to the chaos of sensory input—I do not claim it to be a defect. If someone lies to us once, they are now in the category of liar. This may work for judging likely human behavior but one hurricane is not a trend. If a person is in the clergy, we classify them as good. If they exhibit some defect such as shoplifting, we throw them down to the pits. They are either a saint or not a saint. We don’t say that a politician in the other party is misguided or has different goals from us, we call them evil (and they call each other evil). If some small thing goes wrong on a date or at a wedding, the event is “ruined”. In religion you are either “saved” or not, there is evidently no in-between category of semi-saved or saved part of the time or improved.
This categorical thinking permeates the climate change debate. A premise in categorical thinking about the environment that goes back before the current debate is that natural is good and artificial is bad, where artificial means anything affected by humans. In the case of nature this means that wilderness is good and trees planted in rows are bad (though birds don’t necessarily mind the rows). The categorical mindset means that any touch by humans ruins the wilderness, so humans in the US are being progressively excluded from wilderness (roads closed, no snowmobiles, horses banned, etc.) from the wilderness that they are supposed to value so highly. In the climate debate, it goes like this: “There is no doubt that humans have caused warming over the past 50 years. Therefore we must act now.” The question is posed as whether the climate has change, a categorical question. And of course it has changed and of course humans have had some effect even if tiny. The fact that there is some influence of humans is taken to mean that all the bad things one can imagine will consequently follow. In real life no one imagines that if their stock portfolio is yielding 0.1% annually that they are making money and therefore they are going to become rich and therefore they are already rich, but this is how the climate debate plays out, perhaps because climate is not something anyone has direct experience of so it is an abstraction, a “thing” not a process or continuum. James Hansen says “if we burn all the fossil fuels the ice caps are going to melt eventually and so we are doomed” (my paraphrase). The fact that it will take 200 years to burn all the fossil fuels and then 2000 years for the ice caps to melt to give his hypothetical sea level rise is immaterial to Hansen. If he can foresee it then it is already happening. But how can we seriously be worried about something that will take 2000 years to happen? I just hope civilization holds together for the next 100 years—that would be a great victory. Likewise, we can view the “bad weather” meme as a categorical construct. If the IPCC models forecast some increase in future bad weather, as they do, then it is assumed that this is a categorical change of quality in the climate, and that bad weather will be sweeping over us in waves rather than getting worse very very slowly (and for the record I don’t think the climate models are even capable of forecasting bad weather). Never mind that the IPCC SREX report couldn’t find any trends in bad weather over the past 100 years, the fact that models forecast something vaguely bad in 100 years is a categorical change that means that bad stuff is already happening. This mindset was labeled “future present tense” by Ben Pile, IIRC. It is certainly not possible for any human to have sampled enough of the weather to be able to say they have personally experienced an accurate trend in tornados or hail storms, which are distributed in space and random in time, and yet “future present tense” makes people sure they are already personally experiencing the bad stuff that is forecast to happen sometime in the future.
Categorical thinking also leads to innumeracy. We become unable to distinguish between 3mm/yr sea level rise and disaster because rising sea level as a categorical event is bad. There is no such thing as positive impacts of a warmer and wetter world fertilized by CO2 because human interference with climate is a disruption and unnatural and these are bad. If arctic ice melts this could not possibly have any benefits and the mere fact that it is a change must necessarily be catastrophic. If polar bears are negatively affected we are not allowed to talk about 50 other species that might benefit, including humans. Permafrost melting is lamented as if permafrost was some treasure that we will miss in future generations instead of a darn nuisance to any human activity and not even useful to the biota. That is, arctic ice and permafrost are treated categorically as “natural” and their loss lamented as a human interference without even thinking quantitatively about what benefits might accrue from the change or how large the harm might actually be. Any attempt at accurate accounting of costs and benefits is resisted in this categorical world. This categorical and innumerate view is the origin of loony statements like 50% of all species on earth are doomed or soon only Antarctica will be habitable.
And this is where “denier” comes in, because if the effect of man is bad per se, if we have polluted and affected the climate with our fossil fuels, it does not matter how much we have affected it and anyone who can’t see that we have caused this categorical change from the natural state is denying reality. When you sceptics try to talk about amounts of warming and model error and solar influence, it simply shows that you “don’t get it” in a categorical sense, that the climate is no longer “natural” and it is our fault. It is irrelevant how much we have changed it, we have changed the state, like spitting into the swimming pool makes everyone get out. The climate is now broken. And with a broken, human-altered climate, anything is possible, even super storms (which we can conveniently create by naming them such). It doesn’t matter if we only changed it a trivial amount, we’ve ruined the Garden of Eden with our sinful ways. I think this is why everyone has jumped on climate disruption as a meme—it so much better captures the idea of a broken climate, rather than one merely getting hotter.
This style of thinking permeates other aspects of the debate as well as environmental issues in general. It generates symbolic action. If building windmills is “good” it does not matter how good it is. It is in the good category and that is that. To complain that they are killing birds or that they are unreliable or way too expensive to save the climate is then viewed as just a ploy to achieve political ends by people who “don’t get it”. Other actions also are wrapped in this untouchable cloak of symbolic goodness and are not to be debated (solar, electric cars). Only when the green energy starts causing blackouts in Germany and Spain (and soon England and California) is there protest, but somehow their lessons-learned do not apply here. In other areas of environmental activism I will simply note that categorical thinking also means that there is no safe level of air pollution or water pollution or radiation, because if it is not pristine it is “polluted”.
There is of course categorical thinking on all sides, with some sceptics claiming CO2 can’t affect temperature or that all alarmists are uniformly evil, but overall the sceptic movement is populated by people interested in questions like “how much warming”, “how much impact”, “how much influence by the sun” and “how good are the models”. Which is so strange, because that is where everyone should be. You don’t put your money in the bank simply because it will make money (a category), you want to know the interest rate. You don’t accept a job because they pay money, you want to know how much. And at the restaurant you really are happy if your $16 steak is huge and tasty. No one treats the key personal decisions in their life, or even the trivial ones, categorically. But people are pushing for huge fossil fuel taxes and other restrictions on life with seemingly no interest in either whether the problem is big enough to worry about or whether the proposed solutions will be helpful. I am unable to understand why people act this way, but at least now I can categorize it!