Anti-Vaxxers, Climate Deniers, and Fear in the Age of Uncertainty
by Madeleine H. Burnside
The news about solving the earth’s climate issues is not heartening.
It’s not just that Trump has pulled us out of the Paris Agreement—a bigger blow to the climate fell this month in an apparently unrelated way. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that pharmaceutical companies producing vaccines may be sued by people who feel their health has been adversely affected by them, without the burden of having to provide clinical or epidemiological proof. It’s now up to these companies and their scientists to prove in court that their vaccines not only safely reduce global disease and mortality, but that they are not liable for adverse reactions to their product even in statistically inconsequential numbers of people. In other words, anyone with no more than personal anecdotal information can expect to be taken seriously in challenging centuries of established science in a court of law. [i]
This is highly significant because it empowers the whole science-denier movement—which unfortunately is not confined to the U.S.—and this law will soon be applied to other fields of science, of which climate change denial is the most important. If we allow deniers to hinder the progress and inspiration of science with random opinion or circumstantial evidence, then climate disruption will never be solved.
We are going to need science. Not the corporate-controlled kind in which money corrupts fossil-fuel and climate-change research in the same ways it once did for the tobacco and sugar industries. Not just engineers—although the contributions of the latter will be vital. We need Big Science. We need bold, visionary ideas to solve our climate issues. And, knowing what we know about climate denial, we also need carefully crafted messaging to make certain that negative fallout, such as the disinformation surrounding 2004’s “Climategate” controversy, never again distracts us from efforts to establish an agreed-upon set of universal scientific standards and measurements.
Right now, the predictions for the earth’s survival as we know it are dire. Only last week a Delaware-sized section of Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf broke off. 2016 was the hottest year on record, and before that, 2015 and 2014 were the second and third hottest respectively.[ii] Over the previous twenty years, there are some variations due to El Nino, but the numbers are persistently rising.
Yet people are misguided and torn about the climate, usually along ideological rather than fact-based lines. My Trump-voter friends harrumph about it all being a hoax, even though they often have the most grandchildren to lose. My other friends and I look at each other and, wide eyed, acknowledge we are the problem—we humans. We face not only our personal demise—which may be relatively comfortable—but drastic repercussions for our progeny. Under what circumstances can we imagine them surviving? Can we even wish them to?
We voice our fears: The American Constitution will be a quaint memory. Our grandchildren won’t need a safe abortion if they are starving to death. Privacy will be moot. Disasters in the Everglades, Germany’s Black Forest, or Beijing, will be dismissed as mere environmental depredation, while the powers that remain will struggle to keep their survivors alive. Conflicts and wars will break out over water and food that will take battles for hegemony to unimagined heights. Drugs, warlords, oh my!
These are unknowable possibilities but hysteria is not a solution. As we look around, we see the creep of a new reality in which polar bears drown just north of whole islands located in the Tropics. But we also see people moving to the more temperate bands of the globe that will be safer for a while and could remain so over the long term if we act now. Many climatologists whose work has provided the most alarming forecasts remain optimistic, believing that we will come up with a solution because we must.[iii]
Climate deniers, supposedly driven by consideration for the world’s economies, are focused on and funded by outmoded industries. Fossil fuels need to be phased out in conjunction with a parallel effort to replace them with practical forms of renewable clean energy. In this country, the Koch brothers and companies like Exxon Mobil have gone against their own scientists’ recommendations of forty years ago[iv] in order to consolidate their current market share. Instead of seeing themselves as “energy companies,” they have clung to being “oil companies.” Their PR efforts have been much too successful in making wind power seem ludicrous or damaging, minimizing our understanding of the potential of solar energy, or taking a NIMBY attitude towards oceanic hydro power.
Too bad: they could have provided brilliant and powerful leadership, but instead they’ve deferred to their own historic version of magical thinking—that they will always be what they always were. They won’t, and we can’t afford to indulge them.
How to avoid the actuality of doom and gloom? There’s more to the answer than just suggesting that we should prepare for the worst without too much Pollyanna-ism about the best. Research on the Y2K scare (don’t laugh—I know you had a cabinet full of canned ham) has some relevant insight to offer simply because we can’t predict everything we might need to know or do. No one was sure what Y2K was going to be, but many assumed it would come in the form of a computer glitch or bug that was going to “take down civilization as we know it”—at least for a while. In fact, although there were some incidents, few lasting effects were felt by the general population.
What was drastic and did happen were the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, less than two years after the turn of the century. The preparations for Y2K had prompted government and corporate entities to take serious precautions “despite a lack of full scientific certainty about the extent of danger.”[v] Dramatic as the effects of 9/11 were on American life, they could have been far worse on the economy.
Part of our concern about climate stems from the equation that scientific fact is the best basis we have for prediction, but it’s the space between current and future knowledge that allows science-deniers their day. What Y2K researchers offer us are some assurances that precautions, as well as direct actions, are worth taking. National and local governments must act. Safeguards will not fend off everything but they will make life more manageable for most of the Earth’s population. Better than a reaction to each individual disaster, they would put strategies in place that might be quickly implemented to fend off the consequences of the unexpected.