How to deal with people saying “Climate is always changing, don’t worry about it”

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This is a typical statement that many of us may be very familiar with, so I was thinking about what the best way to deal with it might look like.

Even though this is not the main point of this blog post, I feel obliged to say why I think this argument is stupid. Yes, the climate is always changing, but you are mistaken if you draw from it that we should not act about the climate crisis we are facing now.

  • The climate has changed in the past, but these changes have been relatively slow, which gave the life-supporting ecosystems time to adapt. It is the rate of change that concerns scientists.
  • Secondly: Yes, changing climate is something normal, but that does not mean it is something most of us are fine with. 99% of species that ever existed are extinct by now. Many of these extinctions occurred during mass-extinctions. And most if not all of these mass extinctions were related to climate and/or the atmosphere. That’s normal, just like climate change is normal. Maybe some very enlightened monks are ok with going extinct. I am not. And I doubt people who say “Don’t worry about climate change, the climate is always changing” are ok with that.
Causes of mass extinctions:
  • Thirdly, yes, climate has been changing for the last millions of years. And yes, it has been very hot and very cold. But humans have not been around for most of that time. Of course, nature as a whole has survived all these periods. But this does not guarantee that specific species survive these changes. And I do not think homo sapiens will go extinct even in a worst-case scenario. But the lives of billions of people and our society are at stake. We simply rely on the ecosystems of our planet. And we really do not want to put them to the test on how they perform in other conditions, and how fast they can adapt. Especially if we keep in mind that we are not asking peanuts from our planet. We are expected to be around 10 billion people by 2100 (peak), and all of them deserve a certain level of lifestyle that comes with environmental costs. Obviously, providing for all these humans is hard enough with favourable conditions, so we should not make the challenge harder than it needs to be.
  • Another point is that we are heavily invested in the current climatic conditions. For example, our cities are located in accordance with the climatic conditions we had when they evolved. According to the UN,” 600 million people (around 10 per cent of the world’s population) live in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters above sea level”.

Why people might say that

Now we have some good reasoning for why we have the opinion we had in the first place, we can now pat ourself on the shoulder for being on the side of the argumentation that the vast majority of scientists would agree on. But I am not really convinced we really made a difference yet. My aim is not the be “right” in a discussion, my aim is to avoid human suffering.

I think people deny the climate crisis because it is very overwhelming to accept it. If you already have enough trouble in your personal life, the last thing you need is a scientifically-backed doomsday scenario.

I will write another blog post on the discussion about responsibility for climate action on the personal/societal level versus on the economic and governmental level. But one thing is clear here: People denying the climate crisis are not the ones willing to take personal responsibility, or they perceive it as too complicated. No matter how we think about these viewpoints, we have to deal with them.

So I think a first valuable step is to reinterpret what people are actually saying when they deny climate change. I do not think they are saying:

“The scientific evidence for climate change is not convincing enough, and I will change my mind if we have even more evidence”.

I think what they actually saying might be :

“I want to be more sustainable, but it is too damn complicated. I demand my government, my surroundings and businesses providing me with my everyday needs to make it easier, cheaper and more joyful to make the right decision. Eco-friendliness should not be a luxury, accessible only to people with more money, more time and more knowledge. I don’t want to feel like a fool when I take an extra effort to make a sustainable decision and my peers are not”.

Or: “I will be a laggard in this transformation because I think I will not be affected. To make me change my behaviour, the hurdle must be much lower. But at the same time, I do not want to be a bad person, so I will just deny we have a problem.”

Or maybe they are saying “I am super scared of this and I currently do not have the emotional capacity to accept these facts”.

How to deal with it:

I think we can divide effective reactions into these categories:

We can work on changing our system to reduce or diminish the gap between a sustainable decision and a decision driven by convenience, financial interests or short-sightedness.

Examples for that would be governments doing their best to make sure prices reflect true costs, going for a circular economy, making plant-based meat tastier, cheaper and more readily available than animal-based meat, making sure power-supply comes entirely from renewables, making sustainable fashion better looking than regular fashion, making cities bike-friendly, making public transport faster and cheaper etc. You get the point.

By being a pioneer in living a more sustainable life, it becomes easier for others to join. I grew up in Germany and tried to become vegetarian a few times as a child but could not make it stick. Over the years, it became so much easier to be vegetarian or even vegan. And that’s thanks to the veggie-pioneers who ultimately influenced what restaurants and supermarkets offer now, thereby making it easier for less dedicated people to join in.

So leading by example helps to create change. But we also influence each other in different ways. If many of your peers fly all around the world for their vacations, you feel like you are missing out. This is a terrible feeling. On the other hand, it is a natural human thing to control our group behaviour by shame. If you make a rude, sexist statement today the chances are high you will receive a reaction that will make you feel very uncomfortable. Those social mechanisms can play an essential role in forming our society for the better or for worse.

Make more, to make up for the ones doing too little. Not everybody has the willingness, resources or emotional strength to look at the problem in the eyes and make sustainable decisions. So if you have what it takes, walk the extra mile. Especially if you are in a privileged situation. Maybe become carbon negative by offsetting emissions or donating to other valuable organizations.

Student of "Global Sustainability Science" at Utrecht University. Formerly founded