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How Climate Change Denial Gets Traction

June 9, 2017

A recent NYTimes article described the skepticism of some students regarding climate change in Wellstone, OH, a skepticism I could appreciate given this recent essay I wrote describing my father’s attitudes toward freon’s impact on the atmosphere:

I Understand Those Who Deny Climate Change

Over the past several weeks I’ve read scores of articles on the appointees President Trump has recommended for cabinet posts, including many “climate change deniers” nominated for key positions that oversee environmental policy. While I am dismayed that some prominent political figures and corporate leaders disregard the findings of scientists, my personal experience helps me understand those who deny climate change. I gained this understanding from debates around the dinner table when I visited my parents in the 1970s.

Some background: My father worked for DuPont for over thirty years. After earning a Mechanical Engineering degree and serving briefly in the Navy at the end of World War II, he was hired by DuPont and began working up the organization ladder. His initial assignment was in the field, cleaning storage tanks for DuPont’s customers in a sales territory that ranged from Montreal to West Virginia and included Western Pennsylvania and Western New York. He then worked in petro-chemical sales in Utah and Oklahoma, in the sales and management training offices in Wilmington Delaware. After a short stint selling chemical products in Michigan, he returned to DuPont headquarters in Wilmington in the early 1970s where he became a district manager for a division that sold one of DuPont’s signature products: Freon.

Those familiar with environmental issues of that time recall that there was a difference of opinion between atmospheric scientists and chemical corporations like DuPont who manufactured chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—like Freon. In 1973 a team of scientists determined that there was a hole in the ozone layer surrounding the earth, postulated that the hole was expanding, and contended the cause of the hole was the emission of CFCs. When these findings were initially reported, the nascent environmental movement championed the cause of banning CFCs. In response, the chemical corporations issued studies that contradicted these independent scientific studies. Among those corporations skeptical of the environmentalists findings was DuPont, whose Board Chairman characterized ozone depletion theory as “a science fiction tale…a load of rubbish…utter nonsense.” My father, who was loyal to his company, concurred with that line of thinking and believed any government regulations or limitations on the sale of CFCs were unnecessary. I believed the scientists and thought regulations were needed. We debated the issue for a few years but eventually agreed to disagree.

Ultimately, years after my father retired, a scientific and political consensus emerged: CFCs did contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer and our government and corporations signed international agreements to limit their use. By 1993 DuPont stopped the production of Freon entirely.

Apart from his adherence to DuPont’s “company line” regarding CFCs, my father was a bright, open-minded, and scientifically inclined individual. And while it may seem that his unwillingness to accept scientific findings was due to blind loyalty or greed, I think another factor might have come into play— a factor that underlies climate denial today: a fear of change. I believe that deep down my father feared that if DuPont abandoned the manufacture of CFCs he might end with a new assignment in a different part of the country, and possibly in a lower paying job. It was also possible the value of his DuPont stocks might plummet, or his pension or benefits might be compromised. Moreover, if it WAS true that CFCs were creating a potentially devastating impact on the climate, he realized on some level that he might be complicit in the destruction of the eco-system. Those unarticulated deep-seated fears caused him to reject the science that proved that one of the products his division was marketing was damaging to humankind.

I understand his denial because I find that I have the same visceral feelings about the science surrounding climate change as my father had toward the science of CFCs: I want to wish it away! Given the scientific evidence linking the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of the planet and my behavior as a consumer, it is clear I need to make some changes… and I am fearful of how those changes I need to make will make my life less convenient, less comfortable, and more costly.

My wife and I live in a three-bedroom house in the country. We have two cars. We burn wood and use fuel oil to heat our house. The energy source of the electricity we use is fossil fuel. We enjoy travelling, especially this time of year when we typically spend a few weeks in the Southwest to get away from mud season. While we’ve adopted a plan-based diet, there are other changes we’d need to make to address our contribution to man-made climate change. We’d need to get a smaller, energy efficient and solar powered home closer to town. We’d need to give up one of our cars, ideally the 4-wheel drive SUV that is roomier but far less fuel-efficient than our small sedan. We’d have to forego airline travel entirely. Alternatively, if we want to stay in the house where we are now and continue our current levels of energy consumption we would need to install expensive solar panels in our backyard and be willing to pay a carbon tax for the fossil fuel we consume driving and travelling. It is likely that the result of these additional costs for energy would mean fewer meals in restaurants, smaller gifts for grandchildren on their birthdays and holidays, less money available for movies and theater performances, three-day weekends, or vacations much closer to home. We would need to sacrifice some comforts and pleasures.

On some level, everyone in the country realizes that reducing their carbon footprint requires the kinds of sacrifices I listed above… and if those kinds of changes occurred across an entire country, the entire economy would change. It would rely on more local products and activities, rely less on consumption, and, as a result, in all probability grow at a slower rate than we are accustomed to. And on some level, I expect that anyone who senses that we will have to make sacrifices feels a sense of foreboding. And because we are making these sacrifices based on the “scientific fact“ that WE are contributing to global warming, we might be inclined to challenge the “scientific fact”.

And now, as I plan for my annual trip to the Southwest to get away from the endless winter, I understand those who deny climate change. Like them I, too, want to wish away the scientific evidence and not make any changes.

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