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Understanding Climate Deniers

Posted on January 13, 2011

By Barbara Gottlieb

This essay is in response to: How can we integrate scientific evidence into our climate and energy policy choices?

The physical evidence for climate change has been accumulating for decades. So has the scientific documentation. Why then do so many people not believe that climate change is real?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s first assessment was published 20 years ago. Scores of scientific studies since have confirmed the rapid increase in greenhouse gases, the warming of oceans, melting of polar ice, rise in sea level, and destabilization of climate patterns. Broad scientific consensus also exists that climate change is largely anthropogenic.

And millions of people are experiencing first-hand the impacts of weather gone amok, from extreme snowfalls and cold, to record-setting heat waves and fires, to devastating floods.

Yet despite scientific studies and personal experience, American belief in global warming is decreasing. In 2006, 79% of US adults held that view. Today, only 59% do.[i]

Perhaps the fault lies not in the scientific evidence but in ourselves. Psychology, ideology, and vested interests contribute to people becoming “climate deniers.”

Religious views. Some people cite religion as reason to disbelieve the worst impacts of climate change. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), chair of the newly created House Environment and Economy Subcommittee, cited Genesis to that end, saying “I do believe in the Bible as the final word of God. And I do believe that God said the Earth would not be destroyed by a flood.”[ii] More recently, Rep. Shimkus acknowledged that world climate is changing. However, he still opposes spending taxpayer dollars on “something that you cannot stop.”[iii]

Political ideology. Americans’ views on climate change are sharply divided along party lines. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats believe that global temperatures are increasing. Among Republicans, only 38% agree, while 53% see “no solid evidence of warming.”[iv]

This divergence in views is deepened by ideologically oriented news sources. Recently, the Washington bureau chief of Fox News directed his staff to pair all reports on climate change with a statement questioning whether climate change is real. He said, "We should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. …It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts…"[v] Given the strength of the scientific consensus on the facts, this smacks of deliberate bias in reporting.

Some think tanks also promote climate denial. Heartland Institute and Atlas Economic Research Foundation, for example, cosponsored a conference entitled "Global Warming: Was It Ever Really a Crisis?" and Heartland promotes a book dismissing the IPCC’s findings that global warming is man-made and would have harmful effects. Some journalists call these think tanks part of “[a]n orchestrated campaign” designed to “undermine public acceptance of man-made global warming.”[vi] 

Vested interests. At times fossil fuel companies act visibly to discredit the science of climate change; for example, ExxonMobil has funded the Heartland and Atlas thinktanks. At other times, the impact of big energy companies can only be surmised. Why do Senator Rockefeller of West Virginia, a coal state, and Senator Murkowski of Alaska, an oil state, propose to curtail the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gases? The answer might not be corporate power; it might simply be jobs. However, corporate donations to political candidates often play a role in shaping politicians’ views.

Psychology. Many people believe misinformation if they hear it repeatedly – hence the effectiveness of Fox News. Cognitive dissonance may also underlie the readiness to brush off a frightening truth. If people believe that humans are the highest and the smartest form of life, and that human life on earth will inevitably continue, they will reject new information suggesting we are terribly at risk.   

How should health professionals respond to the rejection of climate science?

1. Stand up for the science. Many people don’t really know the facts, and even those who are sympathetic have to contend with a constant onslaught of misinformation. That means there is a need to “preach to the choir.” This includes reminding people how strong the scientific consensus is.

2. Talk about climate change as a health issue. Many people see climate change as an “environmental” issue – something “over there.” Even many policymakers are unaware how much and how deeply climate change threatens our health. Share information about the increasing danger to us all from heat waves and infectious, pest-borne and water-borne diseases

3. At the same time, provide hope. People are motivated by hope more than by fear, so let them know that it’s not too late. Speak out for measures to reduce greenhouse gases. Promote programs for energy efficiency and conservation, a transition off coal and oil, and adoption of clean, safe, renewable energies like wind and solar. While individual actions are important, encourage people to support policies that assure we create the wide-scale improvements needed. And remind people that we are creative, loving and determined. Together, we can save our planet and our future.

[i] Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “Little Change in Opinions about Global Warming. Increasing Partisan Divide on Energy Policies.” October 27, 2010.

[ii] Politico. “John Shimkus cites Genesis on climate change.” November 10, 2010.

[iii] Politico. “John Shimkus cites Genesis on climate change.” November 10, 2010.

[iv] Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “Little Change in Opinions about Global Warming. Increasing Partisan Divide on Energy Policies.” October 27, 2010.

[v] The Guardian. “Fox News chief enforced climate change scepticism – leaked email.” Dec. 15, 2010.

[vi] The Independent. “ExxonMobil cash supported concerted campaign to undermine case for man-made warming.” By Jonathan Owen and Paul Bignell. February 7, 2010.





Corinne Livesay said ..

The same sort of denial occurs when people discuss overpopulation, which is certainly part and parcel of global climate change! Ignorance is legion!

January 15, 2011
Dave King said ..

Here in Portland some folks are trying to bring the issue of unemployment together with global warming. We believe that only a massive mobilization of resources on the scale of WWll will be effective in dealing with the necessary reduction of carbon emissions. Such an effort would provide work for everyone able to work and then some. Bringing this idea to unemployed people and their supporters has proved to be an effective way to interest people in learning more about climate change.

January 14, 2011
Lawrence of Albany,NY said ..

I work in the environmental field and what I find missing from the global warming debate is a more comprehensive approach to the global warming argument. There are too many uninformed people who argue that global warming caused by man is a farce. On the other hand, the environmentalist argument for doing something about global warming is mainly based upon detremental CO2 emissions. In order to defeat the propaganda against science, the environmental movement should explain, as I do in my presentations, that CO2 emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels and it is not an "a la carte" menu, it is a "buffet" - because when you burn fossil fuels, not only is CO2 emitted, but many other pollutants are emitted that cause acid rain, cancer, asthma, respiratory problems, mercury deposition, birth defects, wildlife depletion, etc. Additionally, there are the economic disadvantages of sending billions of dollars overseas for oil (some to countries that support terrorism) and sending jobs overseas. Relying on other countries for our fuel is also a threat to our national security. Lastly, let's not forget that the past five recessions since 1974 have all been preceded by significant oil price spikes! When you present this comprehensive argument, of which global warming is a part (probably the most important part), no one can then argue against the need to reduce fossil fuel useage. I have used this argument many times during presentations and discussions and no one has yet come up with a better response.

January 14, 2011

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