Climate Change: The Power of Delusion, and the Delusion of Power

06/11/2012 02:53 pm ET | Updated Aug 11, 2012

Aspens surround our cabin in the Colorado Rockies, the early June sun filtering through brilliant green leaves. The comforting warmth, the green, can lure one into complacency. For us longtimers, though, it reminds us of just how far and fast climate is changing. Not too long ago, early June aspens would have been stark white skeletons surrounded by melting snow with snowmelt, the day when ground snow disappears, a few weeks away. But as snowmelt comes ever earlier, we arrive to a June wilderness that looks like July. Early spring glacier lilies, waterleaf and spring beauties are long gone. The midsummer blue columbines are blooming.

For people like us, perpetual observers of the natural world around us, nature regularly brushes away any comforting veneer of delusionary dust from our eyes whenever we want to believe that big changes aren't under way. Many Americans, too, understand that burning fossil fuels is changing the dynamics of our planet, which has, so far, allowed our civilization to prosper. But many, even among the powerful, believe that change is not occurring, or humans did not cause it. Mitt Romney, the most prominent current example, is uncertain about what is causing climate change. Never mind that the hard logic of physics explains the process clearly linking human combustion to a heating planet and changing climate. Never mind that no one has yet come up with a better logical explanation. Delusion is powerful.

It is especially powerful when reality collides with our world views, as a recent Yale research study illustrated. It showed that people who view society divided into rigid social levels, who value strong individual freedoms, including freedom to conduct business, are less likely to show concern about a changing climate, because the solution might involve regulation, a perceived threat to freedom. If they are well-versed with the science, they will use it to rationalize a stance that fits their worldview. Conversely, there are people who view society more as an egalitarian worldwide community that requires collective responsibility, and view business as creating inequality and requiring regulation. These people are more likely to accept the scientific logic and be concerned.

As U.S. economic inequality has grown, the rich have become far richer and more powerful, and some appear delusional about climate change, either its existence or importance. Thus, these delusionary powerful can exert inordinate influence over the rest of society, deluding many into accepting governmental inaction. They do so by controlling communication -- think Rupert Murdoch -- and controlling political influence, as the rich fossil fuel industry illustrates. How else can one explain the continuous scrutiny by our main media on microscopic changes in monthly employment levels, while long-term climate trends and inadequate action on climate change receive relatively little scrutiny? How else to explain congressional inaction?

Current consequences of inaction are catastrophic and will become more so, possibly irreversibly and uncontrollably, if we don't act soon, note Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists and other reputable climate scientists. This should shake up the delusionary powerful in our society who acknowledge climate change. They, too, will suffer with the rest of civilization.

Yet their complacency illustrates a rarer but pernicious delusion, the delusion of power, often found in those whose incredible prosperity and resulting power arose through technological developments. Technology has been so successful, it can conquer this, too, they reason. Thus, humans has the technological capacity to adapt ultimately to any climate changes, ranging from innovative architecture to global geo-engineering schemes. But they ignore the cascading consequences of climate change -- and that technology has never been demonstrated to develop adaptations to a moving, unpredictable target. Architects of the oft-cited technologically successful Green Revolution used technology as a temporary fix, not a solution, to world hunger, as rising global food prices and hunger now illustrate.

The searing irony here is that the solutions to climate change -- boosting energy conservation and efficiency, and transitioning to clean energy, which involve technology -- are also solutions to low employment, and burgeoning health problems from fossil fuel pollution. Most American voters support these solutions. But few have told Congress that they will vote for those who support a quick transition to clean energy. If you want to do so, you can, here.

Do not be deluded: we have changed nature, and nature will change us. The power of the richest is no match for adapting to continued climate change. While technology has raised the quality of daily human life, it has not contributed to the long-term continuation of our civilization. Ultimately, that will be driven by our philosophical and behavioral choices. Will we take the science seriously? Will we choose to prevent catastrophic climate change with new energy policies rather than attempt adaptation? Will we choose to value sustainability over unsupportable growth? Will we choose leaders who will act on the right choices in time? You have a voice, and a vote.