The next worldview revolution
In one way, it’s a bit unfair to harshly blame a company like Exxon for doing what investigative reports say it did: work hard for years to promote climate change denialism even as its own scientists had concluded that climate change was both real and dangerous.
Exxon and others that have so vigorously muddied the waters of public sentiment on the need for climate action recognized the science for what it was: a worldview-shattering truth. And such truths have always tended to be welcomed at first with an impulse to kill the messenger.
They also have tended to need time — lots of it — to percolate through society’s belief defenses and eventually be accepted by a critical mass of people. Think about the Copernican view of the solar system, or the ideas about individual agency and human governance that emerged during the Enlightenment. These worldviews took time to win over a meaningful proportion of society, in particular, society’s leaders and decision-makers.
Or look at an idea like the Big Bang, which even now is questioned by some supposedly smart and well-educated people like Republican presidential wanna-be Ben Carson.
The problem with climate change, though, as opposed to so many of those other worldview revolutions of the past, is that we probably don’t have the amount of time other shattering ideas needed to win acceptance. The implication of the science of climate change, as Exxon and other active deniers have intuitively recognized, is that the system of incentives and rewards that has worked so well for us up until now — that is, capitalism — is now revealed as inadequate to the challenges of today. That means it needs to be replaced by a different system… and a lot of people really, really don’t want that.