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.