WHEN WILLIE SOON testified before Congress in 2003 as an expert witness on the issue of man-made climate change, it was no surprise to anyone listening that he would treat the matter as an unsettled question. Then, in 2009 he told The Harvard Crimson that Earth’s climate fluctuations could be explained by sunspots. And in 2002 he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Times arguing that sea levels aren’t rising. Soon, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, may have reached these conclusions by means of an open-minded pursuit of scientific truth, but it is tough to ignore the fact that during this decade he received a total of over $1 million from Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and other organizations with strong financial interests in the coal and oil industry. It’s an old story. Whether you believe that Soon’s denial of man-made climate change is the cause or effect of such murky financial transactions, it is a fact that many prominent climate change skeptics are financially supported, often with less than total transparency, by powerful fossil fuel interests.
But what about the rest of us? Skeptics like Soon make a good living from loudly disagreeing with the scientific consensus, but most of us don’t have any real financial or political stake in the debate. Still, surveys of public opinion show that more than half of the population is unconvinced that there is solid evidence of man-made climate change. Why? Are we to assume the professional climate skeptics are really that persuasive, and this despite their well-known conflicts of interest? Or is there perhaps something else going on? Something that is preventing the scientific consensus from translating into public opinion?
To answer that question, it is helpful to start with a less controversial example: fish. Explorers’ diaries and captains’ logbooks from past centuries tell tales of oceans teeming with millions of whales, schools of fish so vast and dense they halted merchant ships, and whole coastlines crowded with sea cows, sea otters, and giant turtles. Surely these are exaggerations, like the story grampa tells, or the guy at work? In fact, we so distrust fishermen’s tales that “fish story” is nowadays a synonym for “exaggeration.”
But it turns out that the explorers’ stories about fish are perhaps not fish stories. Masses of fish bones collected at archaeological sites also show that fish that would dwarf present-day records were commonplace only centuries ago. Genetic variation in current fish populations also tell of a time when the seas around Europe accommodated more than 20 times the fish that swim there now, and perhaps a thousand times the cod, skate, and other slow-growing fish. Our skepticism toward fish stories, it turns out, is above all an indictment of our own impoverished experience.
We do not petition to rehabilitate the former bounty of the oceans because we have no memory of it. Our baseline is different from our grandfather’s, and even more different than his grandfather’s before him, and so on. This shifting baseline, as Callum Roberts calls it, has the effect of making destruction almost invisible to us, so long as it’s gradual. We are reasonably good at noticing and reacting to changes that we encounter routinely in our lives — changes that happen on a very short timescale — but when the seas are emptied little by little over generations, our collective and individual memories are lost before we have a chance to notice the world changing dramatically. The same applies to, say, a slowly rising sea level, gradually intensifying storms, and temperatures that creep up over many decades. Because the climate is changing on a slightly longer timescale than we are used to thinking about, it becomes invisible to us. So what about all of those warnings we hear about climate change? If we make the mistake of comparing them to the baseline world of our daily lives, it becomes all too easy to assume the warnings are false or, at the very least, alarmist.
You might call this a fallacy, or perhaps a cognitive illusion. Cognitive illusions influence how we think and process information, and they affect how we interact with evidence in public discourse. Sometimes we ignore relevant evidence, and other times we accept faulty evidence; sometimes we underreact to new information, and other times we overreact. The shifting baseline fallacy is one example, leading us to systematically under-appreciate the magnitude of gradual change, but there are many more examples. How do these illusions affect the public understanding of climate change?
Perhaps you have heard about the Texan who let off a salvo at the side of a barn? He then holstered his gun, walked up to the barn, and drew a bull’s-eye around the biggest cluster of bullet holes, before taking a step back and admiring his formidable aim. It is obvious to the impartial observer, of course, that the trick is to draw the bull’s-eye before you shoot. But it’s not always so easy to catch ourselves when we commit the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
Temperatures fluctuate from year to year, and chance alone will eventually produce a cluster of hot years, a cluster of powerful storms, and so forth, just like a Texan firing wildly at a barn will eventually produce a cluster of bullet holes. But when we are hit with a spell of unusually hot years, we stop and ask ourselves: is the climate really changing after all? The alarmist will quickly proclaim impending doom. The skeptic will use the predictably colder years that follow — since unusually hot years tend to be followed by colder ones — to claim that climate change is a hoax. But is the baseline really shifting?
The trick is to realize that a cluster does not a sharpshooter make. Rather, a shifting climate baseline will eventually make clusters of hot years more frequent, and clusters of cold years will become less frequent. The public debate may oscillate between hoax and doom, but scientists are patiently accumulating evidence, and the scientific community has now shared their verdict with us — most recently with the publication of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). How do we know the scientists aren’t just crying wolf like everyone who came before? Perhaps they, too, are Texas sharpshooters?
It’s tricky to tell the climate science apart from the climate change debate. The debate has been around for centuries. Colonists in 18th-century North America, patriotically defending the virtues of their new homeland against European skeptics, were eager to notice improving climatic conditions, and so they did. Many influential colonists, from Cotton Mather and Samuel Williamson right up to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, noticed that the winters were getting milder and that the snow would melt more quickly in spring, and believed that human activities were changing the climate. Modern climate reconstructions do indeed show a short-lived warming trend in New England in the 1760s and 1770s, but these patriots had jumped the gun. By the turn of the century, skeptics like Noah Webster and Samuel Forry were arguing that those earlier claims had been exaggerated. In the next few decades, the existence of prehistoric ice ages was discovered, and the predominant concern became the next ice age.
The first scientific contribution to the debate came at the beginning of the 20th century. Two Swedish scientists began voicing concern about the scale of industrial greenhouse gas emissions and its potential effect on the climate. But it was too early to tell for sure, so the theory soon fell out of favor.
Scientists like Guy Stewart Callendar continued to make careful observations, however, and by the 1940s he had assembled enough data to detect for the first time a gradual rise of global temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Newspapers also took note of the temperature peak of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but their worries quickly transmuted into Cold War paranoia about the USSR’s weather modification schemes. The (predictably) colder decades that followed were not met with calm, either, but instead as another global cooling scare.
As all this went on, though, the evidence for global warming continued to accumulate, and gained wide acceptance in the scientific community — even as the ozone-depleting and cooling effects of aerosol emissions were fully appreciated in the 1970s, which in popular debate morphed into another cooling scare. In 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen summarized the scientific consensus to the US Congress that “global warming has begun,” but it was more likely the record-breaking temperatures that summer that propelled Bill McKibben’s popular book on climate change, The End of Nature, onto the bestseller lists in 1989.
The public debate has recently swung back toward skepticism, after a few colder winters and the absence of an atmospheric warming trend over the last decade have once again opened the newsrooms to climate change skeptics. But while the climate change debate has oscillated back and forth since at least the 18th century, the climate science — from Guy Stewart Callendar to James Hansen and right through to the IPCC’s most recent assessment — has not. The debate continues to oscillate, but the science has progressed gradually toward conclusions. This telling difference helps distinguish the skeptics from the scientists. The periodic swings back toward skepticism, since the 1950s at least, have been a feature of the climate change debate only, not of the climate science.
Most of us don’t have time to make this distinction, though. Many just notice the most recent cluster (after the fact) and side with one or other of the professional skeptics that take turns returning salvos in the national press. That they have no problem speaking with absolute certainty, whether justified or not, undoubtedly helps to persuade the so inclined. Others notice the oscillations and conclude that no one can be trusted. The fact that scientists are careful to communicate that they work in probabilities, patterns, and correlations undoubtedly helps to convince the disillusioned that nothing is certain. Either way, our collective tendency to commit the Texas sharpshooter fallacy impairs our ability to recognize genuine warnings about climate change.
Fallacies like this make it more difficult for us to recognize climate change, but that is not all they do. They also make it harder for us to take corrective action. Our tendency to procrastinate, to rationalize bad decisions, to seek further information even when it cannot affect action — most of these irrational behaviors are familiar to us, understandable even, and we need not labor very hard to imagine their impacts on climate change action. So let me instead focus on a subtler but ultimately more consequential problem.
If you haven’t read Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See (or listened to the BBC radio series of the same name, or seen the more recent television revival), you may very well never have heard of the Kakapo. Only 126 of these fat green flightless parrots remain today. Or perhaps it is more apposite to say that fully 126 of these fat green flightless parrots remain. Indeed, when you learn that the Kakapo is an incredibly fussy eater, rigorously adheres to a spectacularly convoluted and almost entirely ineffective mating ritual, and wobbles through the valleys of New Zealand dangerously unafraid of its predators, one is surprised that there are so many Kakapo left. Their behavior might seem odd, but fussiness, sexlessness, and flightlessness are all wonderfully successful adaptations to a fertile, predatorless environment. And before humans arrived (along with our dogs and cats and rats), there were hundreds of thousands of Kakapo waddling around New Zealand’s rolling valleys. And then, as Adams puts it, “there were thousands, then hundreds.” At one point there were only 18 known to exist, but the population is now slowly recovering thanks to conservation efforts.
It is perfectly obvious to us where the Kakapo has been going wrong. It hasn’t realized that it would do better to relax its cibarious standards, to streamline its mating ritual, and to run away from approaching predators. The world has changed around it, but the Kakapo keeps on doing what made it successful in the first place. We might even imagine, if you’ll bear with me, that the Kakapo recognizes the existential threat it is facing, but doesn’t know how to respond. Naturally, it studies Kakapo history to learn the secrets to what made its ancestors so successful — it discovers the keys to success were to be a really fussy eater, a really ineffective procreator, and really friendly to all strangers that approach it in the forest.
This bit of anthropomorphizing may seem silly and far-fetched, but as always, it tells us more about humans than it does about other animals. The Kakapo’s fallacy is actually one that we are prone to commit — our abiding trust that newfangled inventions will solve our problems is one example of it. When our ancestors found it too cumbersome to rely on lightning strikes for fire, they invented methods of starting their own fires. When forests were cleared and it was too onerous to gather enough firewood, they started extracting oil from fish and whales. When fisheries and whaling operations began to collapse, they invented drills and machinery that allowed us to use coal and petroleum instead. Their legacy to us — apart from deforestation, overfishing, and global warming — is a deeply ingrained technological optimism. Our natural reaction to the threat of climate change is to trust that technology will save us again. We have set about substituting oil with ethanol from corn, potato, and sugarcane, and investing in converting a fossil fuel–based electricity system to run on wind and solar energy. And if we cannot stop climate change by switching out the machinery, perhaps we can spray sulfates into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption, or launch mirrors into space.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply that none of these technologies can help, nor indeed that there won’t be some new technology that comes along and solves all of our problems. I, too, hope we will be saved by technology. But I also recognize that the chlorofluorocarbons we invented burned a hole in the ozone layer earlier in the 20th century, that the lead additives we put into gasoline created a serious public health hazard, and that our technology is what gave us global warming in the first place. Yet many now seem willing to start spraying sulfates into the upper atmosphere and see how it goes. When Steven Levitt argued in favor of this strategy in his book SuperFreakonomics, it was only a recent and high-profile example of this enduring optimism that technology can “fix the sky.” Indeed, such ideas date back at least to the 1840s, when James Espy, the first meteorologist in US government service, proposed lighting large fires to stimulate updrafts that would cool at altitude and create rain clouds. Despite many failures in the intervening century and a half, we are still optimistic about the potential of technology to solve our problems. We still trust that the strategy that has brought us prosperity in the first place will be the strategy that sustains it.
This kind of thinking is very old. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is replete with examples of ancient civilizations that ended because of similar thinking — Easter Islanders, for instance, that kept building fishing boats until the forest was gone, or Mayan Indians that invested more and more of their resources in an elaborate priesthood in the hopes of ending persistent droughts. This fallacy has deep roots within us, something we should perhaps have guessed from the fact that we share this behavior with the Kakapo, an animal with which we share no ancestor for at least 300 million years. Perhaps all life is prone to commit the same fallacy. We are here because our ancestors found successful survival strategies (the ones that didn’t aren’t our ancestors), and because their strategies haven’t failed yet. Every species and every civilization becomes successful in a world where its strategy is adapted to its environment, by definition, but instead assumes the environment is adapted to its strategy. We are predisposed to believe that out of all the lifeless planets in the cosmos, we happen to live on the Goldilocks Planet, to use Zalasiewicz and Williams’s phrase.
Of course, successful strategies can fail. And they do fail, most of the time. Over 99 percent of all species and most human civilizations have died out because their strategies stopped working. The problem, for Kakapo and human alike, is that we are bad at recognizing when we are facing a new kind of problem that requires a new kind of solution. At a fundamental level climate change is very simple and well understood — the temperature is stable as long as the climate system radiates as much energy as it absorbs, and when we put stuff in the way that stops the energy leaving, the temperature begins to rise. It is certainly more convenient for us to keep putting stuff in the way and hope that a technology will come along that ingeniously fixes the sky, but it’s not clear that this is more convenient for our descendants.
It is difficult and time-consuming to peel away all of our biases, and that’s why we ask the scientific community to sort fact from fiction on our behalf. We try to listen to what they tell us, but ultimately we are forced to rely on mental shortcuts to make snap judgments about complicated issues like man-made climate change. Unfortunately, most of the shortcuts tend to reinforce climate change skepticism, whatever the evidence. So when it comes to understanding why so many of us are skeptical about it, or so at ease about political inaction, the small but loud contingent of professional skeptics seem mostly beside the point. Most people have never even heard of the Willie Soons of the world, and the ones that have are more likely to also know about their egregious conflicts of interest. Perhaps professional skeptics persuade a few people around the margins, but they hardly deserve credit (or blame) for creating a popular majority of climate change skeptics — there is a legion of fallacies and cognitive illusions doing this work for them.
So where does this leave us?Every year Hollywood film studios remind us that our way of life is threatened by pandemics, asteroids, alien invasions, zombies, and vampires. These threats occupy our imagination; there isn’t a whole lot we can do about the real ones, and nothing we need to do about the imaginary ones. Climate change, though, is among a small set of major issues that we can really do something about. We have both the foresight and ability to take concerted action, at least in principle. We are in a privileged position among species, in that we can learn from the experience of others. The Kakapo may never change its habits, but we are not destined to repeat the Kakapo’s fallacy. We can recognize the shifting baselines fallacy, and remind each other not to let them shift any further. We can catch on to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, and begin to separate science from skepticism. The problem is that climate change plays to our weaknesses, whipping up a “perfect storm” of cognitive illusions. It remains to be seen if we will recognize our biases in time, and transcend them before it’s too late.
The title of this essay was inspired by Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. His book, along with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, and others of this genre, explores the ways in which mental shortcuts or rules of thumb can create cognitive illusions that often bias our deductions and decisions. These books provided the impetus for thinking about climate change in these terms, and contain many more examples of biases that haven’t been explored here.
On the history of fishing and shifting baselines, read Callum Roberts’s The Unnatural History of the Sea.
The history of the climate change debate, from the early North American settlers to the present day, is recounted in James Rodger Fleming’s Historical Perspectives on Climate Change. His more recent book, Fixing the Sky, tells the history of geoengineering.
The tale of the Kakapo, along with many other profound and wonderful anthropomorphisms, is told in Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See.
Jared Diamond’s Collapse contains a series of in-depth discussions of what brought ancient civilizations to the brink, and then allowed some to survive while others collapsed.
For a geological, and occasionally cosmic, view of life on Earth, read Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams’s The Goldilocks Planet.