The debate over climate change is usually seen as a conflict between “believers” and “deniers.” Belief in human-driven global warming can be natural since much evidence supports the hypothesis that humans are changing the planet’s climate. However, there is also an element of fairness: it seems like common sense to say that people should not suffer because of their beliefs.
The belief versus denial framing oversimplifies the situation, which has led to unfortunate consequences for both sides. Believing in climate change implies tremendous faith in our ability to accurately perceive and predict future phenomena. Denial implies that we must give up on analysis and accept our ignorance–an unacceptable conclusion for many people who believe in science. The better way to frame the discussion is between “realists” and “deniers.” Realists are the scientists who believe in global warming. They are not always right, but they are open to evidence that could change their minds by letting them see when they were wrong about things that had seemed settled. Deniers are people whose power depends on ignoring or denying climate science, either for economic reasons or because of religious beliefs which paint humans as insignificant in the context of nature. When deniers do acknowledge human-driven climate change, they tend to deny its severity–for example by saying it will be good for plants and crops.
The crucial difference between realists and deniers is that there is no evidence supporting the latter position. The only way to dismiss the conclusions of climate scientists would be for science itself to collapse, which would also negate all scientific understanding of Earth’s history–an unlikely proposition given insights gained from fields like paleontology, geology, astronomy, biology, and archaeology.
Realists understand that humans are changing the planet’s climate in harmful ways; they just disagree about how big an effect humans have on global temperatures compared with natural variation. We can still look at the available evidence and judge whether human-driven climate change is a reality or not. If we accept this judgment when it comes to fracking (a method for extracting oil), nuclear power, or GMOs, then we should accept it for climate change.
Fear of deniers may lead some people to avoid looking at all the evidence on global warming–even though a few pieces of evidence might be enough to reach a conclusion. We can understand how this happens by considering another commonly accepted belief: vaccines are good and necessary for children, while homeopathy is bad and harmful. In both cases, there is an element of faith that must be overcome in order to recognize the difference between these substantially different claims. However, only one side of this debate gets labeled as “believers” or “antiscience,” while the other gets seen as “deniers” who reject scientific reality. Given the damage caused by measles outbreaks in communities where some parents have refused to vaccinate their children, it is time for this unfair framing of the vaccine debate to end.