Why Stephen Harper is probably incapable of recognizing the reality of climate change

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is fond of declaring that Canada is an “emerging energy superpower”. We heard it again this week on his trade trip to China.

In his eagerness to export Canadian oil and gas, Harper seems remarkably blasé to the reality of climate change.

For many years, this has puzzled me. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence should recognize that ramping up the use of fossil fuels will cause more rapid global warming because burning oil and gas increases levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

This year, approximately 30 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases will be released.

As anyone who's seen Al Gore's movie knows, these molecules, including carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat on earth. A warmer planet shrinks glaciers, which reduces river flows, and creates the possibility of massive food shortages in China, India, and other countries. Anyone with an ability to do some routine arithmetic should realize that we’re facing a looming international emergency.

You need look no further than the monstrously large forest fires that have scorched Russia, Greece, Spain, and Australia. Meanwhile, farmers in Afghanistan have switched to growing poppies, which are used in heroin production, because an ongoing drought makes wheat cultivation next to impossible in some areas. And climate-induced migration is leading to enormous bloodshed in parts of Africa, including the Darfur area of Sudan.

Here in B.C., we're also seeing the effects. The mountain pine beetle has wreaked economic havoc by chewing through pine forests because warmer winters couldn’t kill these pests. Salmon runs are threatened. Snowpack levels will decline, which will undermine electricity production.

And through it all, Harper dithers on dealing with climate change and promotes more exports of oil and gas.

Recently, I came across a neurological and psychological explanation why seemingly intelligent people like the prime minister don’t want to wrap their minds around climate change.

Keep in mind that Harper is the son of an accountant who worked for Imperial Oil. He probably grew up in a home with a high regard for the fossil-fuel industry.

Author William Marsden explains in his recent book Fools Rule: Inside the failed politics of climate change (Alfred A. Knopf Canada) that the when the brain is confronted with tiny changes to familiar patterns, it “quickly emits fear signals that can disrupt attempts at rational thought”.

Quoting McGill University neurologist Lesley Fellows, Marsden notes that there are parts of the brain that enjoy learning new things, but other areas summon anxiety when familiar habits are disrupted.

“Climate change poses a complexity of stressful challenges with which few people know how to deal,” Marsden writes.

Fellows explained to Marsden that “nebulous” threats, such as climate change, are not handled nearly as well by the brain as are immediate threats.

Next, the author describes the research of Yale law school professor Dan Kahan. He has demonstrated that people seek out expert views that conform to their world view, regardless of what scientists may have reached a consensus on.

“Kahan’s work helps explain why the deniers of man-made climate change have been so effective,” Marsden states in . “It doesn’t take an expert to persuade many people that the experts are wrong. The deniers need only toss out a few pseudo-experts and a crowd gathers.”

In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Risk Research, Kahan explored why this is the case. According to Marsden’s book, “people who believe strongly in hierarchy, authority and, oddly, individualism are predisposed not to believe the scientific consensus that human activity is causing dangerous changes in the earth’s climate systems, because man-made climate change poses a threat to their vision of absolute freedom.”

That’s not all. Marsden then highlights a predicament that we’ve all encountered from time to time.

“We are also faced with the problem of stupidly confident people,” he writes. “These are the ones who always believe they are the smartest guys in the room and there is no telling them anything.”

It turns out that David Dunning of Cornell University has studied these people. Marsden quotes him saying that much of it “has to do with the fact that stupidity tends to breed unbridled confidence”.

Fools Rule includes this passage, which should be posted in offices across the country: “Their incompetence ‘deprives them of the skills needed to recognize their deficits.’ In other words, they are just too dumb to know how bad they are. Conversely, smarter people tend to have less confidence in their skills because they are smart enough to understand their weaknesses.”

So what does this have to do with climate change? Those with “an overly positive view of yourself as a sort of self-made genius” are extremely threatened by any evidence that counters this self-assessment. Dunning told Marsden that climate-change deniers “desperately and repeatedly cling to small but often meaningless discrepancies in the science as proof that they’re right”.

“Dunning says that people who regard themselves as a work in progress—in other words, they are trained in critical thinking—are far more likely to respond positively to new ideas and criticism,” Marsden writes.

To sum up, Fools Rule shows that people’s brains have trouble processing new information that disrupts established behaviour patterns. This leads to anxiety, which can be alleviated by ignoring the new information. People also have a tendency to seek out experts whose opinions conform to their world view.

Those of a more hierarchical and individualistic bent are less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change.

Moreover, stupidly confident people can’t recognize their own shortcomings and lash out at anything that brings these personal deficits into the light. And those with more humility and critical-thinking skills are apt to adjust their views in light of new evidence about climate change.

So what does this have to do with the prime minister’s recent trip to China?

Most people wouldn’t consider Harper to be a particularly humble man. The prime minister is also a strong individualist—as demonstrated by his admiration for free-market economist Friedrich Hayek—with a hierarchical view of the world. And Harper has formed a close friendship with one of Canada’s leading skeptics of human-induced climate-change, University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper.

It’s fair to suggest that Cooper is an “expert” who has mentored Harper—perhaps because Cooper and Harper share a similar world view.

The prime minister is no dummy, but he certainly meets some of the measures in Marsden’s book for those who fail to recognize the seriousness of global warming.

It leads me to believe that Harper doesn’t appear to have the mental and psychological capacity to wrap his mind around the potential consequences of climate change, which could kill millions around the world.

Instead, Harper is a climate-change enabler who promotes greater and greater consumption of fossil fuels, both at home and abroad.

All this speaks to the need for more open-minded, humble people—and especially those who like to see themselves as "works in progress"—to get involved in federal party politics. It’s the only way Harper will be defeated in the next election.

Because as Marsden's book amply demonstrates, a new course on addressing climate change is essential if we're going to save more human lives in the future.


Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

Comments (66) Add New Comment
GOT
"stupidly confident" pretty much sums it up. If you want an even shorter answer, it would be just good old-fashioned "stupid", as in:

"Stupid Stevie
He da MAN!
Throw this country in da garbage can!
You don't like it? You gotta live with it!
Cuz Stupid Stevie don't give a shit!"
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Mor10
What we need is politicians who rely less on political and ideological dogma and more on common sense and the reality that the world is a changing place and what was correct yesterday may be wrong today. People fear politicians that "flip-flop", but I think they are the best kind of representatives: When they realize what they have based their decisions on is incorrect, they change their minds.
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Pat
The sooner Stephen Harper is gone, the better.
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Kim Collins
"It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary* depends upon his not understanding it." ~ Upton Sinclair

(* or ideology)
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ejo
To this we must add that the "fear centre" of the brain is more developed in Conservative voters (who tend to be less educated and believe in god also).

The right wing has elevated ignorance to a noble state of being, and we will all burn in their hell on Earth if we don't stop them quickly.

Here in B.C. I say publicly that I will vote for the party that promises to keep Northern Gateway out and will commit to banning tankers off out coast.
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robert may
More people support the actions and opinions of Mr. Harper than believe the biased left wing opinions in this article. It is unfortunate that the media does not reflect the opinions of people as well as the Prime Minister does. 2 things are certain, next election Canadians will elect him again with another majority and the credibility of the media will continue to decline.
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Johnjackson
I find it interesting that your entire "news" article is based on science that is constantly being debated as happening or not happening, yet you post as solid fact.

And then based on a book rather than any papers or published journals that i can see. One wonders how you are ever taken seriously as a journalist.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t love Harper but I find this article bordering so close to the line of one man’s opinion trying to be portrayed as fact to take it very seriously.
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Rea'l Istic
Climate CHANGE has been happening for millions of years- what was the cause, too many camp fires?
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Neo-Con Bots
Neo-Cons are stuck in their Ideology, God, Guns & Oil.

They claim to be Christian but want to leave the poor to fend for themselves...no government or universal healthcare or social safety net the very things the poor need and use the most,

They claim to worship God yet they destroy God's creation the Earth with Big Oil turning Alberta into a Moon like environment devoid of life - Oil Sands.

They claim to be great fiscal managers but go back to Cash Envelope Brian to present day = Record Deficits.

Neo-Cons are in fact are not Christian in their treatment of others and the poor, they support policies that destroy the Environment that "God" created and they worship $$$ Big Oil & Big Corporate Banks.

The very things Jesus in his Christian teachings was against!
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Ray Bradbury
The lack of clean water, food and cheap electricity kills more people that the pseudo-science of climate change. When it is cold people die and when it's warm people thrive.
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Todd
It's understandable and sympathetic to the human condition to realize why King Stephen can't reconcile with the reality of climate change. His highness, may he rule with an iron fist and many prisons, would have to acknowledge himself as Handmaiden of Planetary Destruction, a destroyer of humanity, a scourge on his race. What mind could come to terms with that? Who among us couldn't curl up under the razor wing of our oil overlords and smugly fend off their detractors by branding them terrorists. They are threats to the order of his mind. Fiddle while we burn, your highness!
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e.a.f.
climate change does happen whether people are on the earth or not.

However, if people do things which impact too much on the climate we will add to the climate change.

the other issue is air quality. We might want to think about air quality even if we don't believe in climate change. /When you see all the pollution streaming out of factories you do have to wonder how this is affecting our health.

I personally believe humans are negatively affecting the climate. If we don't modify our behaviour, future generations may well regret it. As it is there are already areas of the world where people are regretting climate change but they don't have much to say about it.

The world can simply not sustain our current use of natural resources, changes to the air quality, and increased human reproduction.

Now Harper, I don't think he can change because of more than how his brain is wired. If he admits there is a problem then being a fairly intelligent person he would have to do something about the problem. it is easier to believe god will provide and take care of things.
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Meme Mine
Climate change isn’t progressive anymore, it’s just brutal “neocon-like” fear mongering now and history is watching us as we call ourselves progressive and condemn our very own children to the greenhouse gas ovens with childish glee. Only a comet hit is worse than a climate crisis. Occupywallstreet's list of demands does NOT include climate change crisis because of Y2Kyoto's bank-funded and corporate-run "carbon trading stock markets" ruled by politicians and Obama never even mentioned any “crisis" in his last two state of the union addresses.
We don’t WANT climate change crisis to be real so here is proof of academic exaggeration: There are literally millions of people comprising the global world of science so if climate change crisis were true, we wouldn’t see the MILLIONS in the science world sitting on its thrones while dozens march against climate change in the streets. We don’t have to hold this spear of CO2 fear to our kids backs anymore but that doesn’t mean we ignore the planet. We just do it like real progressives, not fear mongering neocons. Pollution IS real. We get it. But death for our children or their children from a Human CO2 climate crisis was not real. Thank goodness. REAL planet lovers have moved on and are happy and relieved a crisis wasn’t real after all. Let’s face the future with courage, not fear.
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Trevor Klein
Whose to say that climate change isn't the result of the sun's intensity increase which in turn would heat the globe. Just like the courts I don't think co2 has proven to be beyond a doubt the culprit behind a heating globe. Why don't we have this discussion first.
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NoLeftNutter
To cite Gore's movie as the proof that there is a direct link between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and increasing termperatures is being careless with the truth. Instead of objectively questioning all of the data and the motives of the particpants Charlie just sucks up the Gore/Suzuki Kool aid. It's a good thing this article is free cause that's all it's worth.
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Meme Mine
Nothing changes in environmentalism with the CO2 factor removed from the entire equation. We just do stewardship without the fear of a coming climate crisis. NOTHING outside of a comet hit is worse than a climate crisis and we were fools to follow this consultant's wet dream for so long. I condemned my kids to a CO2 demise and I'm sorry for it now.
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Nellie Wilson
Al Gore? Don't make me laugh. Al Gore leaves one of the biggest individual carbon footprints on the planet. As to climate change - how about the last ice age 15,000 years ago that covered Canada in mile deep ice. The climate is always changing.
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Phillip Martin, PhD., MSc.
Must be a script for CBC Power and Politics.
Content is just as intelligent.
Canada and its Prime MInister were voted "best nation" and 'best leader" by the EU International Committee when I was at the London Conference in July I think that a Georgia Straight junior stringer taking shots at our Prime Minister is a stretch. Why not concentracte on Victorias pouring 7 million gallons of raw sewage daily into the ocean..OOOHHH thats not for discussion. Junk science column again,
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TrueConservative
CO2 levels have nearly doubled since the Industrial Revolution began....

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/history.html
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Richard3
I think the author lacks the ability to critically think.

"As anyone who's seen Al Gore's movie knows, these molecules, including carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat on earth."

If you look at the data plotting CO2 against temperature from 1895 to the present day,the correlation is zero. Most of the points that Al Gore spoke of in his movie have proven to be false. Too the degree that the film was labeled by the courts in England as propoganda and not scientifically valid.

"Meanwhile, farmers in Afghanistan have switched to growing poppies, which are used in heroin production, because an ongoing drought makes wheat cultivation next to impossible in some areas."

They grow poppies in Afghanistan because of climate change??? You got to be kidding.

All these comments about the psychological state of confident people who deny reality and lack critical thinking I think tells you more about the the state of the author then Stephen Harper.
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