The Trouble With Climate Change and Truths We Don’t Like

How does one reconcile the overwhelming evidence that the world’s atmosphere is being disrupted with the perception of the 30 percent of Americans who do not believe in climate change?

Here’s a thought experiment: If there are 10 M&Ms in a bowl, and then you count the 10 M&Ms, you would have to “believe,” right? Many scientists aim to persuade climate skeptics by counting M&Ms — graphs of CO2 concentration, temperature records, and other scientifically observable measurements.

So let’s count: The United States Geological Survey has been measuring Alaska’s Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers for 50 years — the longest continuous glacier research program in North America. Both show the kind of retreat emblematic of significant regional climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing roughly 75 billion tons of ice annually. That’s a lot of M&Ms.

If the current preponderance of evidence fails to convince skeptics of climate change, then the issue we face is not about facts or evidence, but rather about values — about our call to heal the world.

Nearly 300 years ago, the philosopher David Hume warned in his influential work, A Treatise on Human Nature, against making claims about how the world should be strictly from statements about how the world is. Philosophers call this the “is-ought” problem.

Reactions to climate change like alarmism or blame don’t necessarily follow from climate science. Even if predictions are worrisome — floods, drought, extreme weather — they merely describe the world. Climate activists can commit the is-ought sin by demanding massive behavioral changes like cutting fossil fuels, without equally discussing fairness or wrongdoing. By introducing value-laden rhetoric into the discussion of facts, we open up the facts for debate. So when a climate skeptic doesn’t want to believe that people can influence the climate, he or she might respond by constructing a different description of the world.

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