Sorry, New York Times: The Climate Report Won't Change Any Climate Change Deniers' Minds

The new report from the UN is stark, detailed and unflinching in its depiction of climate change. And despite The New York Times' hyper-optimistic predictions, it will not change a thing.

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The new report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is stark, detailed and unflinching in its depiction of climate change. And despite The New York Times' hyper-optimistic predictions, it will not change a thing.

Look, I understand why the Times editorial board would believe that presenting someone with evidence would change their mind. That belief is kind of central to their mission. But the lede on the board's Tuesday's editorial about the UN report is so hopelessly naive that it's somewhat staggering. "Perhaps now," the board writes, "the deniers will cease their attacks on the science of climate change, and the American public will, at last, fully accept that global warming is a danger now and an even graver threat to future generations." In the less-lofty vernacular of Kids Today™: AYFKM.

By way of review, the IPCC's report is its fifth, a hundreds-of-pages-long examination of the most recent analysis of the effects of warming on the climate and local environments. We pulled details on Monday, including the Times' excellent overview of the ways in which the climate is already changing on "all continents and across the oceans." If you arrived upon this Earth fluent in English and science but unaware of politics, you could sit down with the report and quickly become convinced of the dire state of affairs. (In fact, given the IPCC's focus on being conservative in its estimates, you might have an underappreciation of how bad things are.)

No one already on Earth comes to the report from that place, particularly not those the Times pejoratively calls "the deniers." (On the editorial pages, this is a grade one dis.)

In 2011, Chris Mooney wrote one of the best overviews of the way in which rationality and emotion come into conflict. Published in the obviously-sympathetic-to-climate-science Mother Jones, Mooney's piece walks through the very specific reasons that people who have made up their minds on an issue are unlikely to be dissuaded from it. They may, in fact, believe their preconceptions more strongly.

[W]hen we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end—winning our "case"—and is shot through with biases.

And what's more, people who come to a presentation of evidence with some sophistication on the topic are "prone to be more biased than those who know less about the issues." Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, notorious for his green-goading, will not read this report and reconsider his belief system. If Inhofe and politicians like him can fundraise from oil companies and other climate change deniers more readily, they have an additional reason to reinforce their own biases. (Seriously, that Mooney piece is terrific. Read it.)

Of course, there's a cottage industry outside of the Senate that is vested in confusing the issue, and has, successfully. Within hours of the IPCC report release, the notorious Heartland Institute took advantage of space provided at to argue that the report "deliberately excludes and misrepresents important climate science." Which it doesn't, of course. But these are the tree limbs Heartland and Inhofe throw into the lakes to rescue anyone flailing in their attempts to rationalize.

So how do you change people's minds on climate change? Maybe you don't. At least, not many. Stories like this one, also in Tuesday's Times might make more of a difference. It explains how the Iditarod course, which is usually, you know, snowy, wasn't this year. The main culprit: climate change. That tangibility is harder to refute than an abstract study, and harder — but not impossible! — to rationalize away.

And now the final irony. Our appeal to the demonstrated science showing that people are unlikely to be dissuaded from their established positions is unlikely to change minds on the Times editorial board because, well, people are unlikely to be dissuaded from established positions by demonstrated science. You'd think, though, that the tangibility of an obstinate Congress might have made some sort of impression.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.