Climate scientists have now identified anthropogenic global warming as the most important environmental issue of our time, yet it has taken over twenty years for the public to take note of this threat; and even so, most of the discourse about climate change has been shown to remain at a horrendously superficial level. (cf. Norgard, “Cognitive and Behavioural challenges in responding to climate change”). Accurate public understanding and acceptance of (the practical consequences of) climate science is important since substantial mitigation action can only be seen through in democracies with a strong support base (cf. Tvinnereim and Augustulen 4). The majority of climate scientists, like Frank Fenner or Jorgen Randers, warn that humanity might risk almost certain extinction within a few hundred years if it fails to adapt towards more sustainable practices (cf. Link A and Randers, 2012).
This article seeks to provide a summary and interpretation of (some of) the available evidence regarding the history and typology of climate change denial and strives to refute modern anti-science charges made in one of the most recent denialist works, Ian Pilmer’s Heaven and Earth – Global Warming: The Missing Science.
1.1 Brief historical background of climate change denial(ists) :
Denial can be thought of as one of humans central mechanisms of adjustment to the just-world-fallacy*, (in a superficial sense) seemingly necessary for psychological thriving, a mechanism constantly preventing the mind from succumbing to depressive realism in a world which is becoming increasingly complex and which seems to overwhelm individuals from all walks of life and on every point of the cognitive spectrum. Yet unlike religiously or ideologically motivated (ie traditionalist) denial, climate change denial seems to operate according to its own rules, which have not changed significantly since Paul and Anne Ehrlich first documented them in 1998; they may be summarized via several charges:
1. Environmental scientists are accused of ignoring the ample good news about the environment.
2. Population growth is declared not to cause environmental damage.
3. World hunger is seen to be a trivial problem, constrained to local or regional outliers, thus not indicative of potential overpopulation.
4. Natural resources are thought to be superabundant, not finite.
5. An extinction crisis is dismissed, efforts towards hedging against the risk of such are seen as uneconomic and wasteful.
6. Global warming and acid rain are seen as no serious threats to humanity.
7. Straospheric ozone depletion is thought to be a hoax.
8. Risk posed by toxic substances is seen to be vastly exaggerated via mainstream scientists.
9. Excess regulation is thought of wrecking economic efficiency.
Such campaigns started to gain ground from the 1960s onwards, as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring raised awareness of the problems stemming from synthetic pesticides. Back then, the pesticide industry wielded a far larger social clout than today leading to ardent vilification of the author; she was regularly declared both hysterical and wrong-headed.
But as can be gleaned from books on the topic**, climate change denial appears to be quite involved: It is not mere confusion about science: A deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and confuse the public is instigated, so that certain industries may maintain every figment of market capitalization possible. In the words of a 1960s inside memo from a tobacco company (Brown and Williamson), “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy” (cf. Al Gore, 2006, qtd. In Ibid 71f.), soothing the public’s need to feel both superior and, as the Ehrlichs have maintained in their books, “bolster a predetermined world-view and […] support a [overwhelmingly conservative] political agenda.” (Ehrlichs 1998, qtd. In Ibid).
Such groups, who provide the cohesive yet simplistic world-view many conservatives long for, come in all colours: Some, like Wise Use are staunch opposers of efforts to maintain environmental quality in countries such as the United States, other so-called astroturf groups do not even try to engage the mainstream arguments at hand, instead simply resorting to greenscamming, ie parodying the environmental tenets of scientist via aggressive, parodic mimicry.
What they all share, though, is a certain linguistic code: Code phrases such as sound science and balance are invoked in order to mask the fact that, really, anti-science is being peddled. Instead, orthodox science that proceeds via peer-review is provocatively labeled as junk science.
Peter Jacques et. al. document that most of the denialist books published between 1972 and 2005, whose author’s view are to varying degrees also quoted around the world, originate(d) solely from right-wing foundations and conservative think tanks (cf. Jacques et al, 2008); all these works contain severe errors of selectivity and a general misuse of statistical methods (cf. Washington and Cook 71ff. ): Misconstruing the intense debate between climate scientists about the rate of climate change they jump to the conclusion that the science is not settled, thereby propping their faux scepticism up.
Monbiot goes even further, calling the panoply of right-wing foundations a climate change denial industry: Denial stories do not originate with journalists anymore, but deniers make use of otherwise distinguished scholars to bolster their claims, even though these experts – as far as the anti-environmental claims are concerned – are (almost always) operating outside of their fields of expertise. Though it may sound like a conspiracy theory, Exxon Oil has been known to fund many organizations that deny climate change, if the Royal Society in the UK is to be believed ( cf. Hoggan, 2009). What has thus started as a mere quest to maintain market share has really become a brute-force war for Exxon to maintain its status as one of the world’s most profitable companies (quarterly profits of 10 billion $) (cf. Ibid 74f.); at the same time, such political anti-science efforts also ensure an extreme diversification of the investment portfolio of its shareholders: these shareholders are primarily made up of the 0,1 percent and span the entire investment horizon in terms of asset allocation (physical property, real businesses in all industries as well as illiquid ETFs of the same), making funds virtually unassailable, even during periods of extreme economic hardship (ie 2008’s global financial crisis, for instance).
Above-average market returns are achieved every year, an achievement that cannot be bested by the lower and middle classes. Thus, climate change denial seems to have changed throughout recent history: a – once – desperate plea to maintain one’s core business running has morphed into a covert ploy for the maintenance of obscene global inequality by way of outsized asymmetry in financial power. In the layman or -woman’s mind, excessive funding of denialist organization creates the (superficial) impression that doubt is more widespread than it really is. This is due to a statistical skewing of the common understanding concerning the preponderance of evidence in regards to climate change; ie if you repeat something long enough, no matter how incorrect it may be, it will – with high likelihood – eventually be accepted by up to 60 percent of “targets”.
Faux climate change scepticism culminated in an Oregon Petition, funded by tobacco company Philip Morris and carefully typeset according to the font and format requirements of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1998, so as to dupe academics without a background in climate science: Even though the Academy released a statement declaring the document to be hoax, it has since then been in wide circulation, gaining support from 31,000 academics. The formation of various fake (conservative) coalitions ensued, such as The Advancement for Sound Science Coalition (TASSC) or the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The Reason Foundation etc. Even today, studies after studies continue to be published, all backed by either Exxon or Philip Morris (cf. Washington and Cook 78ff.).
1.2 Brief typology of climate change denialists’/denialism’s arguments via Ian Pilmer’s example of Heaven and Earth […]:
The typology of climate change denialists and denialism, excepting Ehrlichs’ general framework summarized above, may perhaps be aptly illustrated via closer scrutiny of one of the latest tomes bandied about in denialist circles, namely Ian Pilmer’s Heaven and Earth from 2009; in the following I shall try to name and refute all the logical fallacies Pilmer commited in his “arguments”; he summarizes all of them on page 23 of his book, which I will take as the basis for my discussion (cf. Pilmer 23):
a. Pilmer proposes that the earth’s climate has always changed with cycles of warming and cooling, long before humans appeared on Earth, disregarding the consensus view that this is in fact not under debate; intense discussion arises out of the interpretation of the negative consequences man-made global warming will likely exert on humanity. Pilmer has thus constructed a false strawman argument to shoot down, misrepresenting his opponents.
b. He asserts that measurable global warming in the modern world has been insignificant in comparison with former “natural” cycles. While scientific consensus agrees with the fact that there have been large changes in global temperature, it is established that these did not happen at the speed with which they are occuring nowadays. It seems to have been most significant in the last 10,000 years. Pilmer has therefore, again, constructed a strawman to shoot down.
c. He states that, although man-made increases in atmospheric CO2 may theoretically make some contribution to a rising temperature, such links have not been proven and that there is abundant evidence to the contrary. This is patently false, indicating a pure argument by assertion: The vast majority of climate scientists accept that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that humans have increased the levels by more than a third, and that warming in the last hundred years can only be explained by both natural and anthropogenic(ally) forced change, instigated by humans. Further, this is not just empty theorizing, it is theory supported by multiple, independent sources of research data. Instead of attacking each research by itself, Pilmer makes a sweeping generalization.
d. He writes that, contrary to nearly two dozen different computer models, all of which have undergone rigorous statistical back-testing, temperature has not increased in the last decade despite an accelerated input of CO2 into the atmosphere via human activities. Thus, this seems to be an argument stemming from ignorance, from incredulity or a generalisation from fictional evidence.
e. He contends that other factors, such as major earth processes, variable solar activity, solar wind and cosmic rays, appear to have a far more significant factor on earth’s climate than previously thought. The IPCC has, according to him, not demonstrated that the Sun was not to blame for recent warmings and coolings. The scientific consensus also shoots this down: Climate science is the branch of science set up (solely) to consider climate changes. Solar variation has changed very little in the past decades. Climate scientists do not argue these or other processes do not exist or that they do not bear some significance, but emphasise that the most probable explanation for recent warming is the rapid incerase in greenhouse gases added by humans. Thus, Pilmer has concocted fabricated evidence while dodging an acceptable tackling of an actual argument in the consensus view.
f. Lastly, he is convinced that humans have adapted to live at sea level, at altitude, on ice sheets, in the tropics and the deserts. As in the past, he (wrongly) extrapolates that humans will again adapt to any future coolings or warmings. This is an obvious non-sequitur, since, as Nassim Taleb has argued in his writings, artificial absence of evidence about the future distorts the risk-profile of extreme deviations when it comes to natural phenomena. He calls such threatening events (, which cannot be foreseen nor managed due to the outsized proportion of harm inflicted,) Black Swans (cf. Link C). It certainly appears that irreversible environmental degradation might indeed be the next Black Swan to hit us. Consensus view of climate change agrees with the fact that humans are (relatively) adaptable, but our societies are becoming far less so (cf. Diamond). In the past 8000 year human civilization could indeed only prosper due to a largely favourable climate. Still, few climate scientists argue that global warming will render us all truly extinct, but that it could lead to major water and food shortages and vastly impoverish the world we share with other species. Human adaptability is thus not really the issue. Human rationality and ethics seem to be at stake. Pilmer, as always, avoids tackling the real issues at hand, interpreting the available evidence according to his whims and wishes.
Despite the grave shortcomings of the book, Pilmer manages to come up with one interesting statement on page 475, declaring that the “irrationality of destructive delusions costs communities dearly” (Pilmer 475), a tragically ironic statement given his cherry-picking of “evidence” which fit his own (political) biases. The author hopes that governments across the world take note of the disastrous effect the denialists could have on all of us if their political base were to ever catch on in the upcoming elections, and urges them to continue to try to emphasise the basics of genuine scientific enquiry and critical thinking skills to (at least) a fraction of the populace (which happens to enjoy a university education).
By Marcelo Diez
During the composition of this article the author repeatedly listened to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
*Adjustment to the so-called just-world-fallacy occurs when real-world circumstances are becoming too difficult to manage, making most individuals shift their interpretation of the real facts in order to maintain an artificial sense of the following tenets, which supposedly trigger human happiness and flourishing: A person’s actions are thought to be inherently leading to fair outcome to the end that all noble actions ought to be rewarded and all less than optimal or even evil actions should thus be punished. Some evidence suggests that many people engage in the aforementioned distortive mental behaviour in order to maintain “prior beliefs” namely that a.) the world and people are benelovent; b.) that life is meaningful (see above) and c.) the self is worthy. (cf. Link B and Cohen 16, 49 71-2, 96).
**Good introductory works are Ehrlich’s Betrayal of Science and Reason from 1998, George Monbiot’s Heat from 2006 or James Hoggan’s Merchants of Doubt from 2009 (cf. Washington and Cook 72).
***Not every evidence cited here was explicitly used to compose this review-article, yet the preperatory phase did indeed result in a sifting through all of these, which, in the author’s view, merits their inclusion in full, so that interested readers may easily (and most importantly rigorously) educate themselves on the topic.
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