The Truth about Climate Change: The Planet is in No Danger at all

If you google on terms such as “Saving Mother Earth” or “Protecting God’s Creation” you will find countless websites exhorting you to recycle, reduce emissions, oppose rainforest destruction etc., for the sake of the planet. But the planet will be just fine whether you do any of these things or not.

If humankind succeeds in raising carbon concentrations in the air and the oceans to the point that we kill ourselves off, the planet would not mind a bit. Indeed, if it had an opinion, it would probably be delighted that such a damaging species has gone the way of the Dodo. It may take 10,000 years to undo the atmospheric damage, but that is but a heartbeat to a 4.5 Billion year old planet. Selling environmentalism as a kindness we are doing “Mother Earth” is inaccurate: It’s actually an effort to save our own hide.

Why does this matter? Human beings will often do altruistic things, like for example give to charity, donate blood and so forth. But very few members of our species prioritize altruistic acts over acts that preserve themselves and their children. I wonder therefore if we wouldn’t make more environmental progress if we stopped pretending that battling climate change was a nice favor we might choose to do an anthropomorphized planet and instead appealled more directly to people’s self-interest in themselves and their descendents surviving into the future.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

12 thoughts on “The Truth about Climate Change: The Planet is in No Danger at all”

  1. I think this is mostly semantics. Certainly, if you zoom out far enough there’s a ball of rock spinning through space that’s

  2. I don’t believe that appealing more directly to people’s self-interest in themselves and their descendants’ surviving into the future will make much difference unless the dangers are imminent. Only if global warming were causing people to get sick now would significant numbers take it seriously.

  3. Sorry about the premature posting above. As I was saying–from far enough away and with a long enough time scale, nothing we do can damage the earth. But if your hypothetical teenage kids spilled beer on the couch, broke half the china, knocked the pictures off the walls and left cans and bottles scattered everywhere, you could say with some justice that they’d wrecked the house, even if they’d done no structural damage. Likewise if we care about particular ecosystems that presently exist, it’s not wrong to say we’re wrecking the planet.

    I argue the point because I think you’re wrong on the politics, too. For well-off people in a well-off country, the dangers they face from climate change are too far off and fuzzy to register. As Mark so often writes, people are bad at responding to far-in-the-future, hard-to-estimate risks, even if the consequences attached to those risks are large. Self-interest won’t get us to choose a present, certain carbon tax over a hundred-year-off possible collapse of civilization: we’re not rational enough. Better to highlight the damage climate change is doing to real places and ecosystems right now, even if that means appealing to some altruism.

  4. People respond to different arguments. Drowning baby polar bears for some, flash floods washing away Third World slums for others, the prospect of wars over diminishing fossil fuel resources for yet a third group. Since all three lines of argument – and there are others – are true, I don’t think it matters a bit whether the coalition for doing something now is ideologically coherent or not.

  5. The issue is, as Henry gets at above, that humans aren’t galvanized to action unless there is a direct or imminent perceived threat. IMHO our sensory apparati are inadequate to move us to action based on how we frame an issue for different groups.

  6. You want to convince right wingers? Just tell them global warming is caused by liberals and minorities. Neither altruism nor self-interest appeals to these psychotic imbeciles. The only thing they understand is that they should hate anyone different from them.

  7. This post describes how I actually feel about the issue, but I agree with Ben that it doesn’t make a good political argument. It’s a philosophical stance, and one that is too cold and harsh for most people to latch on to. But I find comfort in it. If people are so short sighted they can’t even acknowledge the coming energy crises, how can they possibly address a problem this big? It soothes me to think that no matter what we do, life continues on on Earth, with or without us.

  8. “But very few members of our species prioritize altruistic acts over acts that preserve themselves and their children.”

    This is far too abstract a view. People have a gut reaction to saving themselves and their (existing) kids and grandkids from immediate danger.

    Going beyond that, to the idea of saving “descendants” becomes a lot more vague — the sort of thing people agree to because it’s motherhood and apple pie, but not a gut reaction. Saving “humanity” is even more abstract, I assume because few people really believe that humanity will die out. (And they’re correct, humanity will not die out from climate change, what will die out is civilization and learning.)
    Then, of course, there is the whole “immediate danger” thing. Look at vaccines to see how foolishly people think of protecting their kids in the face of non-immediate danger.

    So I’m sorry, but I don’t see anything useful to latch onto here.
    The truth about this is that
    – there won’t be enough stuff to live a good life in the future BUT
    – there’s always the possibility that you and yours can do OK by making damn sure that you don’t let them and theirs get stuff
    In other words tribalism and nationalism, the usual suspects at moments of shortage will once again raise their heads. The answer to climate change is to make sure that those damn Chinese and Indians don’t go taking “our” oil and titanium and tungsten and whatever other good stuff is out there — if necessary with aircraft carriers and nuclear-tipped missiles.

  9. Me loves me some George Carlin. But that bit is arguing from several false premises. This is not to say that I think we are going to destroy the earth.

  10. Actually, a large majority in Europe and many other countries is convinced about the need for action to combat climate change. Denialism and a preference for inaction are largely American phenomena. Since people in Europe are no less (or more) human, explanations of such attitudes must presumably be based on US specific factors, rather than universal human nature.

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