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You Can't "Believe" in Climate Change

It's not a religion. It's a scientific fact.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Last week, Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy made little impression on Republican senators at an Environment and Public Works hearing, where she said, “Climate change is not a religion. It is not a belief system. It’s a science fact.” She would have been better off aiming her remarks at a different audience—anyone who says he or she "believes" in climate change.

The phrase, “believe in climate change” returns almost a quarter-million Google results. As McCarthy said, science is neither a faith nor a religion, yet the term belief pervades media and politics. Why do advocates so consistently play along with the climate-change-denier narrative?

Conservatives have long drawn comparisons between climate change science and a fervent religion. A 2013 National Review column articulated the parallels thus: “Religion has ritual. Global-warming alarmism has recycling and Earth Day celebrations. Some religions persecute heretics. Some global-warming alarmists identify ‘denialists’ and liken them to Holocaust deniers.” 

Their arguments work best when they can convince the public the issue is a debate between ideologies, rather than about scientific observation. By playing into the conservative trope and conflating science with faith, climate change communicators hurt their own cause. The same people wouldn’t discuss gravity as a faith. Evolution is no more a belief, either. But the ongoing controversies over teaching evolution in schools shows how a certain segment of the population has always been at odds with scientific fact, at least since the days of Tennessee v. Scopes. Generations of philosophical opposition to science has made it easier for corporations with vested interests against regulations to sow doubt among the willfully ignorant. 

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, and as an evangelical herself, she works to communicate science to the faith community. "These days, I begin my presentations with the Google definitions of 'faith' and 'science' to illustrate how they are not the same thing in fact they are exact opposites," Hayhoe said. "I then make a point of saying that I do not believe in global warming, it is the only logical conclusion based on observed data and facts [...] For those of us who already have a belief system that is important to us, we don’t want a new one and we will reject anything that is presented to us in those terms."

Not everyone who advocates for stronger public understanding of climate change agrees that semantics set them back. Edward Maibach, the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, politely disagreed that the phrase is troublesome. “Most people ‘know’ very little about climate change, but that does not stop them from forming beliefs and opinions,” he wrote in an email. “If their beliefs and opinions influence their subsequent actions and/or their support for policy responses, the beliefs are important and consequential, and should not be dismissed as being irrelevant.” He made one exception. It’s never useful to use the term belief to describe climate scientists’ extensive knowledge of the subject. “For them, it is proper and useful to say 'climate scientists know...' or 'climate scientists are convinced...' or in cases where this is still uncertainty 'climate scientist[s] think...,'" he said.

It seems harmless enough to talk about a person’s belief in science. After all, there are only so many ways to talk about climate change. I have also fallen into the trap of writing it; there simply aren't many satisfying substitutes. A colleague once suggested swapping out “believe in climate change” with “accepting the science.” Where possible, I try to talk about climate change as science people either accept or don't. Climate change is best left to the scientists—what they observe and report. 

Sometimes it's okay to talk about what people believe when it comes to climate change. It's fair to say someone believes in an argument about how society can address the problem: One person might think pollution warrants a specific course of action, such as government investment in clean energy; another might say the emphasis should be on energy efficiency; and yet another might say fossil fuels are worth the consequences, because we will adapt. Some arguments carry more weight than others, but at least it's a debate that can stand on agreed-upon fact.