I came across an interview that journalist Bill Moyers did with Christian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe back in 2014. The topic of their conversation is about the particular situation of Evangelical Christians in the United States as it relates to denial of climate change, but I believe the interview is remarkable because of the broader applicability of Dr. Hayhoe’s ideas as to why denial of many issues has been embraced by various communities and what can be done about it.
You can watch the interview in the video above, but I will provide a recap of the major points of the interview.
Dr. Hayhoe’s argument is that climate change is a hot button issue for many people because they feel it threatens all that they hold dear. However, what people reject about climate change is not so much the science but the solutions. Climate change is something that affects the community, and as such, efforts to deal with climate change require large numbers of people to work together, which means that the government has to be involved. But opposition to government is deeply rooted in the American psyche, and any legislation to limit what people can do or use is viewed with mistrust. Thus, climate change has become a casualty of much larger societal issues. This has been compounded by the fact that people have been lied to by those in whom they deposited their trust.
On the one hand, the leaders who many of these people trust because they share their values, have told them that climate change is a hoax, or that it’s real but it’s not a big deal and nothing has to be done about it. Or in the absence of clear leaders, political and media personalities who don’t like the solutions to climate change have stepped in. And because these individuals say the same things that people believe with regards to many other issues, the people put their trust in them. On the other hand, the spokespeople for the opposite point of view have often been scientists who do not share the values of the communities they are addressing. People will not believe messengers whom they do not trust because they perceive them as not sharing their values.
The remedy to this situation will not come from more information and more science, but rather from dealing with who we are as humans and how we function politically. Dr. Hayhoe says that, although caring about the climate is consistent with who people are as Christians, we have increasingly confounded our politics with out faith. Instead of allowing faith to determine our attitudes to political and social issues, we are allowing our political party to dictate our attitude towards issues that are clearly consistent with who we are.
Finally, Dr. Hayhoe says that everyone has a list of things they care about such as the health of their kids, job security, the cost of living, faith etc., and climate change should not be viewed as one more thing to put on the list that competes with the others because climate change is already affecting the top things on everyone’s list. Climate change is affecting the things most people care about, love, and hold dear.
There are other aspects to the interview, but the ones I’ve mentioned above are those that I think are more generalizable to other situations where misinformation and social dynamics are getting in the way of people accepting and acting on a reality. One possible such situation is COVID-19 vaccine denial.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary, there is a certain proportion of the population of the United States that refuses to accept the vaccine. In parallels with climate change deniers, the sector of the population opposed to vaccination tends to be conservative and distrusting of government. In another parallel to climate change denial, this group of people tends to listen to media that reinforce their fears feeding them misinformation about vaccines. At the same time, this group of people is distrusting of what scientists say about vaccines, and especially of those scientists associated with the government.
Like the evangelicals who have allowed their politics to replace their faith in guiding them with regards to climate change, the vaccine deniers have allowed their politics to replace their common sense and instinct of self-preservation when it comes to vaccines. And like climate change deniers, vaccine deniers have a list of things they hold dear and care about, and COVID-19 has probably affected every single item on the top of their lists, from the health of people they admire, acquaintances, friends, and family, to the impact on the economy.
Dr. Hayhoe advocates finding trusted messengers within the evangelical community (people who are like them, such as she is) to spread the message that we need to act on climate change. This is indeed a strategy that is currently being pursued in the case of vaccine denial. The government is trying to recruit media personalities and local respected leaders to talk in favor of vaccination. But I think we can go about finding these trusted messengers in an additional way which relies on another parallel between COVID-19 and climate change.
Much like climate change, COVID-19 affects everyone, and there is a growing list of vaccines deniers, who have been seriously ill or died due to the virus. The people who listened to these vaccine deniers have now been knocked back to their senses in the most brutal of ways. And I think that their stories should be used to snap vaccine deniers from the stranglehold that their politics have on their common sense and instinct of self-preservation. And unlike climate change, there is no ambiguity as to the cause of the harm. If someone loses their property, a friend, or a loved one to rising sea levels or a fire or a hurricane, they can always be told that there is no direct proof that climate change caused it. But if someone dies due to COVID-19, that reality cannot be denied.
So, find out who are those vaccine deniers that were harmed by COVID-19 and seek out their audiences, their acquaintances, their friends, and their families, and ask them to tell their story to those in their communities and to champion vaccination. Every serious vaccine-preventable COVID-19 illness or death among the community of vaccine deniers is a tragedy. But the silver lining is that these illnesses and deaths will generate a group of people willing to open their minds to vaccination and promote it. I think these people have an important role to play in stopping vaccine denial.
Image from pixabay by Gerd Altmann is free for commercial use and was modified from the original.