Climate Change Vocabulary: Belief Versus Acceptance

When I’m not writing about climate change for Justmeans, I work with the public communicating the value of federal lands. The other day I had a conversation with a visitor who told me he had owned a ranch for 40 years. We were discussing climate and raising livestock. In the course of our conversation, he told me “I don’t believe in global warming.” It wasn’t the semantics of global warming versus climate change that struck me. Instead it was use of the word “belief.”

Some people will talk about climate change in terms of believing in it or not. However, belief doesn’t have a place in the context science. The New Oxford dictionary defines science as:

“The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

The Latin root of science is scire or “to know.” You can choose to believe in the Easter Bunny, ghosts, or God. Those are all things that may or may not exist depending on your experiences and philosophy. Belief allows some wiggle room. Perhaps most importantly, belief is not necessarily based on logic but on instincts.

Science is grounded in a logical exploration of the world. Nobody says they believe in gravity, the speed of light, or a nuclear reaction. All of these are accepted scientific theories and discoveries that play a part in our daily lives. A large majority of people accepts them as true because they don’t challenge our beliefs. Theories that challenge our beliefs are a bit stickier, though.

Look no further than the theory of evolution or the science of climate change to see how personal beliefs can color individuals’ takes on scientific theory. The battle over teaching evolution in schools stemmed from its challenge to deep held religious beliefs about how the world was made. In the case of climate change, it challenges our very way of life for since the Industrial Revolution.

Observation and experimentation have shown that our climate is changing and that we’re most likely the cause. While the theory of climate change may not be as robust as the theory of gravity, which has been studied for centuries, its still sound. To accept this means we have to completely upend the way we do business. It also means people and governments in the developing world must take at least some responsibility for the damages that will be inflicted beyond our borders. Clearly this is heady stuff.

Climate change deniers talk about disbelief, moving the narrative away from science and more in the direction of the “cult of climate change.” Unfortunately, media portrayals of people who accept the evidence of climate change have gotten caught in this narrative as well. It’s not uncommon to characterize people who accept the evidence and want action as evangelicals and not the rational people that they are.

It’s a sad state of affairs to acknowledge that our understanding of science is so far  from its goals. People who accept the evidence of climate change should look to rewrite the narrative of belief versus disbelief for what it really is. Our explorations of the climate around have yielded a strong theory that we’re altering it based on our actions. To deny this is to deny rational thought and sound science, which is exactly what climate skeptics are doing. Perhaps people who accept the science should point out what skeptics truly are.

The New Oxford dictionary defines a skeptic as someone “who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief.” Sounds about right. So why are we letting them get in the way or rational actions to reduce the risks of climate change?

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