The Dangers of Climate Change Groupthink

by | Nov 5, 2022

While the climate is a complex system and much of the scientific analysis is technical, acquiring first-hand knowledge of climate change and forming an independent view of it is essential.

Climate catastrophizing is everywhere. The media tell us that our industrial production, heating of homes, farming, driving, and other consumption increase carbon emissions that cause global warming, which in turn causes extreme weather (droughts, floods, and wildfires) and makes the planet uninhabitable. This message comes from the UN Environment Program and the IPCC climate models that have predicted environmental apocalypse unless we abandon CO2-emitting fossil fuels by 2050.

Many governments are on board with climate catastrophizing and have pledged to achieve “net zero 2050” by throttling fossil fuel production through taxation and bans and by subsidizing transition to renewable “clean” energy.

Businesses have also joined the catastrophizing program and committed to net-zero 2050 goals by substituting (or claiming to substitute) fossil fuels with renewable energy sources (such as Apple and other tech companies), divesting from fossil fuels (the world’s major banks and insurance companies) and investing in (BlackRock and other investment management companies) or developing (cleantech companies) technologies to decarbonize the world’s economy.

In the mainstream view, we are hurtling towards a climate disaster unless we rapidly abandon fossil fuels and substitute them with “clean” renewable energy. Few have questioned the consensus. This is groupthink: individuals giving up first-handed adherence to reality and independent thinking, accepting the majority’s view as the truth, and trusting it to be based on facts.

If we are facing an existential threat, it is undoubtedly reassuring that others share the same view about its severity and urgency and the proper course of action. This applies equally to business leaders who want to align with their customers,’ employees,’ and investors’ views. In the consensus view, the planet is in peril and therefore we must take drastic measures to save it.

But what if the majority is wrong?

While we know from Earth’s history that the climate is always changing and that human use of fossil fuels has contributed to global warming, is it true that warming is catastrophic and has led to an increase in extreme weather events? Is it true that net-zero carbon emissions will improve human well-being, as one ethicist has argued?

If we accept these claims as true, shouldn’t we be confident that they are backed by solid data, given how serious the perceived threat is and how drastic the impact of decarbonizing would be?

The few that have consistently questioned the dominant climate models and prescriptions (such as climate scientists Judith Curry and Patrick Michaels, economist Ross McKitrick, ecologist Patrick Moore, and philosopher Alex Epstein) have established facts through their research that disprove the catastrophizing claims:

  • Both the atmospheric CO2 and the global temperature are near their historic lows and have increased very gradually.
  • There is no linear causal relationship between CO2 levels and the global temperature, nor between global temperature and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.
  • Deaths from extreme weather have declined 98% in the last 100 years (thanks to increased wealth, availability of fossil fuel energy, and human ability to adapt through innovation and technology).
  • Fossil fuels produce 80% of the world’s energy today and there are no scalable, reliable alternatives yet.

These facts point to important conclusions. Instead of saving the planet, rapid worldwide decarbonization would be destructive. Without cost-effective alternative energy sources (such as nuclear) it would severely undermine human well-being by jeopardizing farming, manufacturing, transportation, health care, and other fields that sustain our lives.

These facts and conclusions have reached general audiences through books such as Apocalypse Never by environmentalist Michael Shellenberger, False Alarm by scientist Bjorn Lomborg, Unsettled by theoretical physicist Steve Koonin, and Fossil Future by Alex Epstein.

These books, the research that has informed them, and the acknowledgment by the IPCC that the climate models have significantly overestimated global warming and its relationship to extreme weather have started to shake the groupthink on climate change. This is reflected in recent mainstream articles (a hat tip to Judith Curry):

NYT Magazine, David Wallace-Wells: Beyond catastrophe: A new climate reality is coming into view.

WSJ: Good climate change news is fit to print

NYT, Bret Stephens: Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting but …

Businesses have also started to question the catastrophizing. Oil company leaders have pushed back and defended their industry, and major banks are continuing to finance fossil fuel companies.

If you find climate groupthink persuasive and reassuring, any of the above readings might help raise questions about the “wisdom of the crowds.” While the climate is a complex system and much of the scientific analysis is technical, acquiring first-hand knowledge of climate change and forming an independent view of it is essential.

We need independent, reality-oriented thinking to face facts about climate change and fossil fuels squarely. Instead of demonizing fossil fuels as culprits in catastrophic climate change, we should recognize their many benefits and life-sustaining value that would be lost with rapid decarbonization, as Alex Epstein argues in Fossil Future.

Independent, reality-oriented thinking is also the only way that we can adapt to changing climate and develop low- or no-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels in the future.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

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