Can humanity cope with climate change without believing in it? Medical history suggests it is possible

Strange as it may seem, early germ theorists could tell us a lot about today’s attitudes towards climate change.

While doing research for a new book about the history of emerging infections, I found many parallels between early debates about the existence of microbes and current debates about the existence of global warming.

Both controversies illustrate the difficulties of seeing an unseen threat. Both reflect the influence of economic interests that benefit from the status quo. But most importantly, both show how people with different beliefs and interests can still agree on key policies and practices to tackle a global problem.

What you can’t see can hurt you

Seeing is like, and until the middle of the 19th century, it was very difficult to see the small organisms responsible for our so-called “fever” disease.

Although the circumstantial evidence was very strong, many people were skeptical about “animals” – as microorganisms were once called – until the microscope was sufficiently developed. Even then, it was gradually accepted. The once dominant ideas of disease-causing gases, called miasmsas, lasted for many years before most people acknowledged that fevers had a living cause.

Climate change poses similar visibility challenges. Although everyone can see and feel the weather, its larger patterns and longer trends are often difficult to observe without the help of technical charts.

Charts show global temperatures and sea levels rising as carbon dioxide emissions climb far faster than anything for thousands of years.

Even when people acknowledge the bigger picture, the situation of human responsibility is complicated by the fact that the naked eye does not see the carbon emissions from our engines, like the germ infections inside our bodies. It is difficult to achieve human solutions when the evidence of human reason is invisible.

Economics can be more important than evidence

Adding to these challenges, economic interests often confuse scientific recommendations.

In the case of the germ theory, early proposals to prevent the spread of infection included re-establishing quarantine at shipping ports and border crossings, which would impede the flow of international trade.

In the case of climate theory, proposals to slow global warming include reducing the consumption of carbon-based fuels, which would reduce the flow of oil. These strategies can threaten livelihoods as well as profits, so it’s no surprise to find labor unions divided over green initiatives and energy executives spreading misinformation about climate science.

Beliefs and interests do not necessarily coincide

But people’s opinions and interests need not be aligned if everyone finds some benefit in the proposals.

This was the case in the last years of the 19th century, when Joseph Lister’s antiseptic techniques were adopted by surgeons who nevertheless reject germs.

They did so mainly for the practical reason that their patients did better under the new methods. But if an explanation was needed, many of these die-hard skeptics claimed that Lister’s methods prevented the transmission of miasmas rather than living organisms.

Responding to these claims, Lister said:

“If any one chooses to suppose that the septic matter is not of the nature of living organisms, but a chemical fermentation, as it is called, lacking in vitality … such a notion will be unjustified, though I believe it is with no scientific evidence, in a. practical attitude to be equivalent to germ theory, because it will instil precisely the same methods of antiseptic management.”

Lister was more concerned with saving lives than winning arguments. As long as the surgeons adopted his methods, Lister did not care much about their justification. When it came to preventing infection, it was behavior rather than beliefs that counted.

Illustration of doctors working with a patient on a table with a misting device spraying liquid over the surgical area.Illustration of doctors working with a patient on a table with a misting device spraying liquid over the surgical area.

Changing behavior through complementary interests

The same could be said for global warming: Changing behaviors is more important than changing beliefs.

Case in point, there is a large environmental movement that is growing among evangelical Christians. Organizations such as the Green Faith and the Creation Care Task Force cite biblical scripture to promote environmental stewardship as a sacred duty.

Although many of these groups acknowledge human-based climate change, some of their core beliefs are at odds with the evolutionary theories that my colleagues and I as scientists employ. But we don’t need to agree on fossils to rid the world of fossil fuels.

The same applies to economic priorities and interests.

A recent Pew national survey found that a large majority of Americans support the development and use of renewable energy. This includes a small majority of Republicans, although their reasons tend to be different from those of Democrats.

Republicans are more likely to prioritize the economic benefits of renewable energy than Democrats, who tend to list global warming as their driving concern.

The economic benefits may explain why red states produce the largest share of America’s wind energy and why three of these states are among the top five solar energy producers in the nation. Their adoption is correlated with the geography of the wind and solar belts, where farmers see favorable returns from producing power and a stable source of income to cushion the price fluctuations of weather-sensitive crops. Careers are a powerful motivator.

Finding common ground could change the world

None of these examples address climate change in all its aspects. And among Democrats as well as Republicans, there are differing opinions on how fast and how far the transition to renewable energy should go.

But we can take another hopeful lesson from the 19th century: Although people did not agree on every action to prevent disease, they nevertheless found enough common ground to achieve the greatest reduction in mortality in recorded history.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you reliable facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. Written by: Ron Barrett, Macalester College

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Ron Barrett does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article this, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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