Navigating the Flat Earth of Climate Denial

By David L. Brown

Al Gore, in an interview with CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl scheduled to air today on 60 Minutes, has compared climate deniers with people who believe the Apollo Moon landings were staged on a Hollywood set and that the Earth is flat. He mentions Vice President Dick Cheney as one high-profile individual who doubts global warming is caused by human action. The story is reported on CBS.com here.

There are several possible reasons why someone like Dick Cheney would be a climate denier. To follow Al Gore’s lead, let’s view this from the point of view of an Apollo mission denying Flat Earther, and ask the question:

Why does a Flat Earther deny that the Earth is a sphere?

A Flat Earther looks around and concludes that what he or she personally observes in the immediate vicinity can serve as a fair sampling of the entire Universe. They notice that the area nearby appears to be flat, and deduce that the landscape stretching away into the distance must likewise be flat. Up to a point, of course, because all good things come to an end and here be monsters. It is plain common sense, no? And if that is the case there could be no such thing as astronauts flying to the Moon, could there? Of course not, therefore the only possible explanation is that the supposed Apollo landings were all part of a government plot to deceive the people. But Flat Earthers with their incisive two-dimensional logic are way too smart to fall for that.

And that raises a point I want to make: Let’s not simply write off these people as “stupid.” It would be rude and perhaps not even accurate, since many apparently very smart people believe some quite remarkable and implausible things. Let’s agree to agree that Flat Earthers are not deluded morons (although the temptation is certainly there!).

Well, if one were a bit more alert one might notice some disturbing evidence to contradict the Flat Earth Theory. For one thing, if you travel any great distance (something that Flat Earthers apparently tend not to do), you soon notice that at a given time the positions of the Sun, Moon and stars are different in relation to the spot on which the observer is standing than when they are at home. For instance, if the Sun rises at 7 a.m. wherever their home is, and the Flat Earther has traveled several thousand miles East or West without resetting their watch, the Sun will rise at quite a different time. That could be an important clue to the discerning analyst, but it is apparently possible for Flat Earthers to ignore this smoking gun.

Here is another clue the Flat Earthers miss: When the shadow of the Earth passes over the Moon during a Lunar eclipse, Yoicks!, the shadow is curved, something like what you would see if you shone a light on a spherical object. But a true Flat Earther would soon explain that away, because you see the Earth is not only flat, but also round like a pancake. Of course it would throw a shadow like that. And don’t ask questions about why if the Moon is low on the horizon and the Earth is a pancake the shadow still appears round. Flat Earthers are accustomed to hearing, and rejecting, spurious claims such as that.

And then we can look at the Moon itself, for it requires no telescope to see that it appears to be a round shape. But, aha! Once again the Flat Earther will trump your point by stating that the Moon, like the Earth, is a pancake-shaped object that just happens to always be face-on to the Earth. In fact, you can see that is true because the “Man in the Moon” is more or less fixed. And don’t bring up the changing phases of the Moon as evidence of its spherical nature3, because the Flat Earther just isn’t going to listen to your siren songs of doubt.

I myself have seen even more evidence that the Earth is round, not flat. For example, on no less than three occasions I have flown on business trips that have taken me completely around the globe, for example from Chicago, to Japan, to Singapore, to Bangkok, to Frankfurt, and back to Chicago. On another occasion, from Chicago to Osaka to Sydney to Bangkok to Frankfurt to Chicago. On a number of other trips I have crossed the Date Line to Asia or the South Pacific and returned, giving me ample opportunity to observe the changing time zones and even dates that result from the planet’s spherical nature. I have witnessed the constellation Orion upside down in the northern sky from interior Australia. Strong evidence, but not strong enough to sway a devoted Flat Earther.

So why would Flat Earthers take these positions? Well, one could speculate that they feel threatened by the possibility that the Universe is big, complex, and hard to understand and find it far more comfortable to believe that everything is merely a stage setting with painted flats (and perhaps even a Deus Ex Machina or three if the Flat Earther in question is religiously inclined).

Another theory is that the subject has been told that the Earth is flat by someone he or she implicitly believes, such as a preacher in a storefront “church,” a devoted parent, or some guy at the neighborhood tavern. You can’t argue with reliable sources like that, can you? Well, OK, you can, but what matters is that the Flat Earthers don’t.

Well, you may think I am being silly by droning on and on about this subject but I am doing so for a reason, namely to lay the groundwork for the real question of this essay:

Why does Dick Cheny deny human-induced global warming?

Well, like the Flat Earthers Mr. Cheney (and I use him as an example only because he was mentioned in that context by Al Gore as reported on the CBS.com website) is capable of ignoring loads of real evidence. To maintain his position on this question he must buy into all kinds of hookum about how the present state of the Earth is due to natural cycles, a warmer Sun, scientific errors, conspiracies, etc. ad infinitum. Nevermind that the planet has not been this warm for perhaps millions of years. Forget that natural cycles as shown in the geologic record predict that we should now be in a pre-glacial cooling stage. Ignore the fact that the Arctic sea ice is rapidly disappearing, that glaciers are melting everywhere, and that the two giant ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are showing signs of breaking up. Pretend that thousands of species are not becoming extinct, or that the world isn’t teetering on the brink of famine, or that … well just chuck the whole enormous bulk of evidence that something serious is going on.

Once again, we cannot take the easy way out of this question by concluding that people who believe as Mr. Cheney does are stupid. That is obviously not the answer, so we will have to look elsewhere.

Well, in the case of the Flat Earth people we suggested that the idea they so fervently reject might make them uncomfortable, and indeed that could also help explain the attitudes of climate change deniers. It is not a happy thought to think that our Earth might be sliding into a warmer future in which green prairies will turn to deserts; in which rising oceans will engulf hundreds of major cities; in which millions of animal and plant species will become extinct; in which the very future of the human race will be left in doubt. That vision of the future is something that we might want to put out of our minds, and we can — thanks to the psychological version of the subject at hand: Denial, a defense mechanism first described by Sigmund Freud. By denying that which threatens us, we protect ourselves from fear (although the threat remains no less real).

Hmm, it seems unlikely that the vice president of the United States would be swayed by what amounts to craven fear. After all, Cheney has been the Secretary of Defense and is a man who has personally orchestrated wars involving the deaths of thousands. It seems unlikely that fear could be the explanation for why such a bold warrior would reject climate change.

Again in the case of Flat Earthers I suggested that the true believers have been given suspect information by people they trust. I think we may be getting closer to the truth about climate change denial here, for there are a lot of so-called “experts” going around spreading disinformation. There is no doubt in my mind, none at all, that Dick Cheney has been “informed” by some very powerful people that global warming is a fiction. People such as evangelistic “scholars,” lobbyists from ExxonMobil and other wildly successful energy companies, popular right-wing journalists, and who knows, perhaps even his loving parents.

The trouble with all that is that, as far as I know, none of those sources of information are very well informed about the subject. I doubt that any of them have even a B.S. degree in a relevant subject (i.e., ecology, climatology, etc), much less a doctorate and years of experience in those fields. Because, you see, virtually every true expert in scientific areas related to global warming and climate change is in agreement that it is a real phenomenon and that it is the result of human action. The International Panel on Climate Change has affirmed those facts after a rigorous effort that went into its third five-year report last year.

Could it be that people like Dick Cheney are reacting to climate change by acting like ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand? Or behaving like children with fingers in ears, intoning “La! La! La! I can’t HEAR you!” Is that what we expect from our leaders? Well, no, but that might be what we’ve gotten.

But there is one more thing to consider, and that is to ask the age-old question Cui Bono? That’s Latin for “Who benefits?” or as we might say today, “Follow the money.” Dick Cheney is joined at the hip with the oil industry, as is his boss George W. Bush. Both men owe their personal fortunes to the oil business. And if humans are in danger of destroying the planet by burning vast and increasing quantities of fossil fuel, that is not something that anyone involved in the energy business wants to hear. They want business as usual, fossil fuel being drilled and dug and sucked out of the Earth until the last possible molecule of CO2 has been released from hundreds of millions of years of sequestration. Not to mention, of course, separating the last dollar from the pocketbooks of the masses.

It is well known that many of the so-called “experts” that weave threads of doubt into the public debate about climate change are funded by energy companies. Big Oil and Big Auto and Big Power are behemoths that loom over our economy. Journalists tread carefully around these giants, because the advertising revenue that supports them is hugely dependent upon continued spending by energy-related corporations. Politicians, reliant upon campaign funding and the occasional junket, are also circumspect when dealing with these powerful entities. And as far as those evangelists and well-meaning parents and guys at the tavern, well they, too, are important because each and every one of them represents that most precious thing in politics: A vote.

Am I suggesting that many of our leaders are denying climate change for reasons of personal gain or power? Of course not. I would never imply such a thing. I will leave you to figure it out for yourself.

As a closing thought, there is reason to believe that the climate change deniers may soon have to change their views. Oil has become the most powerful economic and political tool in history, and much of it is in the hands of those who do not love the United States, in places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Russia. From greed and love of money, the U.S. has allowed itself to be maneuvered into one of those situations such as often faced by the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, at which point Hardy turns to Laurel and says “Well here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!”

Those who have made this fine mess are the corporations and institutions and governments and self-appointed experts that have pushed the addiction of petro-chemical dependence upon us and the entire world. Unlike Stan Laurel, who was generally innocent, they have much for which to answer.

And unlike a Laurel and Hardy plot, there is nothing even remotely funny about this human tragedy.

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