A poll last week from Duke University found that 50% of Americans are “convinced that climate change is now occurring” and another 34% believe it “is probably occurring”. That leaves only 16% of Americans as “climate change deniers.” This finding echoes a Gallup poll from 2012 in which only 15% of Americans felt that the effects of global climate change “will never happen.”  Does this mean that we are out of the woods with climate change denial? Hardly. In fact, there are many levels of climate denial, and almost all of us suffer from some form of it.
Classic “climate deniers” are so-called because they continue to believe that climate change is not real, despite so much clear evidence to the contrary. Here are some of the ways in which the rest of us deny the reality of climate change.
Temporal Denial: The effects of climate change are far off . Even among people who believe climate change is real, many think that its effects are not occurring now. This is false. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (the most prevalent greenhouse gas) is higher than it has been in 16 million years, and according to data from NASA the global mean surface air temperature of the planet has been increasing about .15-.2 degrees Celsius/decade since the 1970s. According to the Global Humanitarian Fund, global climate change is already implicated in 300,000 deaths per year, and according to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security climate change has already contributed to creating over 20 million environmental refugees – people who have had to leave where they live due to ecological disruptions, such as droughts, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels.
Proximity Denial: The effects of climate change will not be felt by us . Even among Americans who believe climate change is occurring, many believe that the effects will not be disruptive to us in our lifetimes. This is false. Global climate change is already affecting weather pattern s and extreme weather events in the United States. Moreover, on the most optimistic future greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, global temperature increases will be “limited” to around two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. This level of warming involves massive ecological disruption, including species extinction rates several orders of magnitude above the historical baseline. Imagine Boston in 2100 with the same average annual temperature that Lexington, KY currently has – that is the low future emissions scenario. Moreover, if large portions of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets break off, as many scientists are increasingly concerned they might, there would be sea level rises of several feet within just a few years. This would have massive impacts on coastal regions and the people who live there – nearly 4 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide.
Ethical Denial: Climate change is not among the most important things for us to address . Many people who believe in human-caused climate change, also believe that addressing it should not be prioritized in the same way as jobs or the economy, for example. But considered this: the United States, which is approximately 4.5% of the global population, is responsible for approximately 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We are knowingly making a very large contribution to bringing about potentially millions of deaths, hundreds of millions of refugees, and hundreds of thousands of species extinctions by the end of this century. We are causing widespread suffering and undermining people’s ability to secure their basic rights. Moreover, the impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on the global poor, who are much less responsible for causing climate change (due to their low levels of consumption and energy usage), as well as future generations, who are not responsible for causing it at all. Global climate change therefore involves significant injustice. Given that climate change causes massive suffering, undermines humans rights, and is unjust, we have an ethical responsibility to reduce our (disproportionately high) emissions and limit its magnitude so far as reasonably possible, even if there are some significant costs to us in doing so.
Response Denial: Global climate change can be easily addressed . Many who believe that global climate change is real and that we have an ethical obligation to respond to it also believe that it can be addressed through alternative energies and technological innovation alone, and so with very little effort from most people. (This appears to be the view of President Obama.  ) This is very likely false. It would, of course, be wonderful if an inexpensive, abundant, general use, low-emissions energy source became immediately and widely available. But this is unlikely, given the infrastructure constraints involved, as well as other economic and innovation thresholds. It would also be wonderful if an inexpensive, easy to use, and ecologically benign carbon capture technology became immediately available that would enable removal of billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere. But this, too, is unlikely for reasons associated with innovation barriers, cost, scale-up, and ecological impacts. Moreover, almost all the past and projected future increases in greenhouse gas emissions are due to higher levels of consumption and population growth. Therefore, if we are to accomplish a low emissions future, we likely need to address our lifestyles – our consumption and population patterns – in combination with energy and technology innovation. The requisite changes are not necessarily sacrifices. In fact, they can involve positive developments like increasing education access for women around the world (which is strongly correlated with lower fertility rates), and eating healthier, less meat-intensive diets in affluent nations (the vast majority of agricultural emissions are from animal agriculture). But they will be “felt” changes.
What are the implications of the prevalence of these climate change denialisms for higher education? First, educating our students and communities about global climate change does not mean just helping them to understand that it is real. We must also teach about the ethical responsibility we have to address it, the urgency with which it must be addressed, and what is involved in really doing so. Second, we need to consider how the realities of climate change are likely to impact our own areas of expertise – e.g. education, urban planning, public administration, and social work – and include those reflections in our training programs. We need to prepare our students for how the realities of global climate change might affect their work now and in the future. For example, in coastal cities like Boston, urban planners need to be taking potential sea level rises seriously when developing and authorizing projects, and educators at all levels need to be thinking about how to maintain teaching and learning when potentially disruptive climate change related impacts occur. In addition, universities need to be leaders in addressing the realities of global climate change by aggressively reducing their emissions. Colleges and universities very often tout their green credentials, at the same time they invest endowments in fossil fuel corporations and fly people all around the world. We need to think about how we can accomplish our worthwhile missions with fewer emissions – and that might mean some changes for our educational lifestyles as well.
 The two polls can be found here: http://www.nicholasinstitute.duke.edu/sites/default/files/publications/ni_pb_13-01_0.pdf ; http://www.gallup.com/poll/153608/Global-Warming- Views-Steady-Despite-Warm-Winter.aspx ). Two other polls released in the past week, one commissioned by the League of Conservation Voters ( http://www.lcv.org/media/press-releases/polling-on-climate-feb-2013.pdf ) and the other by the Natural Resources Defense Council ( http://www.nrdc.org/2013stateofunion/ ), also have similar findings.
 President Obama made remarks to this effect in his first press conference after his reelection ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/11/14/remarks-president-news-conference ), as well as in his 2013 State of the Union address ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/remarks-president-state-union-address ).
Ronald Sandler is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Ethics Institute ( http://www.northeastern.edu/ethics/ ) at Northeastern University. He is the author of The Ethics of Species (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Character and Environment (Columbia University Press, 2007), and Nanotechnology: The Social and Ethical Issues (Woodrow Wilson Center, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, 2009)