The climate fight isn’t just about facts

We should be talking about values and the kind of world we want.


Five years ago, I hiked to the toe of the East Fork Glacier in Alaska’s Denali National Park. I was on my way to climb a small peak in the Alaska Range and had tracked down a photo taken in the 1920s by one of the park’s first geologists. Lining up the mountain skyline with the photo, I scrambled around until I found the exact spot where Stephen Capps stood to take the picture some 90 years earlier. The glacier had retreated nearly a mile since then.

I am an environmental philosopher, and have also worked as a glacial researcher, backcountry guide and naturalist. Seeing the dramatic disappearance of the East Fork Glacier was one of many intimate experiences I have had with a warming world.

So how do I reconcile the overwhelming evidence that the world’s atmosphere is being disrupted with the perception of the 30 percent of Americans who do not believe in climate change?

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Here’s a thought experiment: If I say that there are 10 M&Ms in a bowl, and then I count the 10 M&Ms right before your eyes, you would have to “believe” me, right?

Many scientists aim to persuade climate skeptics by counting M&Ms — graphs of CO2 concentration, temperature records, and other scientifically observable measurements.

So let’s count: The United States Geological Survey has been measuring Alaska’s Gulkana and Wolverine glaciers for 50 years — the longest continuous glacier research program in North America. Both show the kind of retreat emblematic of significant regional climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing roughly 75 billion tons of ice annually. That’s a lot of M&Ms. 

If the current preponderance of evidence fails to convince skeptics of climate change, then the issue we face is not about facts or evidence, but rather about values — about our call to heal the world.

Nearly 300 years ago, the philosopher David Hume warned in his influential work, A Treatise on Human Nature, against making claims about how the world should be strictly from statements about how the world is. If, for example, I say, “Extensive deforestation has decimated the truffula tree population,” I am not actually saying anything about whether or not the world ought to have truffula trees, or why we should change our behavior in order to protect those truffula trees. The connection between facts and values — what Hume calls a “new relation or affirmation” — needs to get us from the description of deforestation to any prescription for preservation. I could, for instance, defend the intrinsic value of the tree or argue that perpetuating extinction is wrong. Philosophers call this the “is-ought” problem.

Reactions to climate change like alarmism or blame don’t necessarily follow from climate science. Even if predictions are worrisome — floods, drought, extreme weather — they merely describe the world. Climate activists can commit the is-ought sin by demanding massive behavioral changes like cutting fossil fuels, without equally discussing fairness or wrongdoing. By introducing value-laden rhetoric into the discussion of facts, we open up the facts for debate. So when a climate skeptic doesn’t want to believe that people can influence the climate, he or she might respond by constructing a different description of the world: If there shouldn’t be 10 M&Ms, then there cannot be 10 M&Ms — and consequently, the climate skeptic insists that the count must be off.

If Donald Trump makes good on his campaign rhetoric, he will take the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the international treaty on climate action, roll back renewable energy subsidies, incentivize coal mining, and possibly open up more public lands to drilling. Trump once tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

At the same time, we see melting glaciers, record wildfire seasons, disappearing habitat, and many other significant changes reshaping the American West. According to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average global temperature has risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. Thermometers don’t lie — the climate is changing — but temperature records and other evidence will continue to fail to change many skeptics’ minds, because the description of climate change is not what we actually disagree about. We disagree about the role of government, fossil fuels and other essential components to our way of life. 

We can’t throw more facts at a problem that is not about facts. I value biodiversity; I think we should take care of vulnerable populations; I like glaciers. Let’s talk more about what sort of world we want to live in, what options we have going forward, and the moral commitments we have in a changing world. 

These values shape the real threat we face — even though it’s a fact that there are still 10 M&Ms in the bowl.


Alexander Lee is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an environmental philosopher and lecturer at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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