What Really Drives Climate Denial?

I don’t know that anybody knows the answer for certain. But I’m almost certain that it doesn’t have much to do with the data. (More on that below.) In this morning’s Times, an economist (admittedly, a liberal one), offered as good an answer as any I’ve heard yet:

“Think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.”

In short, it’s not about facts; it’s about defending a worldview.

Today, I got a comment on Beloved Planet that almost certainly bolsters this argument. The comment’s writer makes a remarkable claim: That there’s been no global warming for 17.8 years. This is offered as a fact. The “fact” is accompanied by an effort – easily debunked – to discredit other sources I had cited as “staunchly left wing” – a harbinger of the ideology that surely drives this person’s view of climate change.

But what about the “fact?” Is it possibly true? Does the proponent of the fact believe it himself, or is it just another effort to manufacture doubt? Well, you take a look, and make up your own mind. Here’s the global temperature data, as assembled by the four global meteorological organizations that do this sort of thing, including the USA’s NASA and NOAA:


Source: NASA

So what do you think? Can we argue – by selecting a runaway record hot year, 1998, as a starting point – that the global climate isn’t warming?

Well… sort of, if actual facts aren’t all that important to us. Never mind that global heat had never come anywhere near 1998’s levels since record-keeping began. Never mind that in the 15 years since then, six years have been within rounding errors above or below that sweltering record. And never mind that every single year since then has been hotter than the pre-1998 record-hottest year.

So what motivates someone to make an obviously cynical argument like this? Suppose we went way back to the Little Ice Age in the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries, and picked the year 1450 as our starting point. That was a runaway cold year during a cooling trend, just like 1998 was a record hot year during a warming trend. And sure enough, it would take 60 years before 1450’s record of cold weather was reached again. But cooling continued, and by the time the Little Ice Age was over, the human population on Earth had shrunk by as much as one-third. Anyone wanting to deny that it was happening, however, would have had six decades to repeat their nonsense.

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

With climate change, ideological misuse of data can have enormous consequences.

So, do facts matter to us, if they challenge our ideology? Would we be convinced if NASA – the real rocket-scientists – reported that “97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities?”

No? Okay, what if the world’s largest scientific society, American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded: “The vast preponderance of evidence, based on years of research conducted by a wide array of different investigators at many institutions, clearly indicates that global climate change is real, it is caused largely by human activities, and the need to take action is urgent.”

Not good enough? Okay, how about the American Geophysical Union: “Human activities are changing Earth’s climate. Because natural processes cannot quickly remove some of these gases (notably carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, our past, present, and future emissions will influence the climate system for millennia.”

So, NASA, AACS and AGU are not good enough for us? Okay, let me try again. How about the US National Academy of Sciences, set up by Abraham Lincoln precisely for the purpose of advising us on complex scientific matters beyond the grasp of laymen? Their report states: “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Still no good? Then what if the National Academies of all the industrialized countries in the world came together to offer this statement? “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action. It is vital that all nations identify cost-effective steps that they can take now, to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Still unconvinced? Okay. Let me try again. How about this little list:

  • “The global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases.”  US Global Change Research Program
  • “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  • 197 worldwide science academies – ranging from Academia Chilena de Ciencias (Chile) to the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences – that all affirm that climate change has been caused by human action.
  • “Our AMA … supports the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report and concurs with the scientific consensus that the Earth is undergoing adverse global climate change and that anthropogenic contributions are significant.” American Medical Association
  • “It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases.” American Meteorological Society
  • “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.” American Physical Society
  • “The Geological Society of America concurs … that global climate has warmed and that human activities (mainly greenhouse‐gas emissions) account for most of the warming since the middle 1900s.”

Are all these experts – essentially all of science all over the world—still not enough for us? Still prefer the guy who claims that there’s been no global warming in the last 17.8 years?

Okay, then. I rest my case. There is no data – no expert consensus of the actual researchers – that can ever satisfy us, if it requires us to reconsider our ideological commitments. The brilliant physicist Max Planck said it almost perfectly: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

After his death, he was paraphrased to perfection: “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

Can the Earth’s ecosystems – and our children – afford to wait for our funerals?

4 thoughts on “What Really Drives Climate Denial?

  1. Cricket Hunter

    I think you’re right — it’s about worldview. Climate change isn’t good news anywhere, but it’s much more inconvenient in the worldview you’ve laid out above.

    Though not for reasons as well-articulated as yours above, I’ve been shifting my responses lately, not engaging on The Science but giving people a safe place to step away from the 97% of scientist arguments. (Admittedly, this is likely a much more successful approach with those not truly entrenched, but rather sympathetic to the entrenched deniers).

    Instead of scientists and scientific society, I’ve been pointing to the re-insurance industry and the American military as two entities whose success (existence, even!) depends upon getting this right, and which, here, have motives generally trusted by most Americans. Both entities have concluded (both recently and less-recently) that climate change is a threat, and both have stated so publicly — so no layperson *has* to sort through each new scientific publication.

    Insurance and military success depends on continuing to get it right, so we know they’ll continue to evaluate data and publications. *We* are free to move our discussion on to what we must do, and how we might best do so — and even to begin acting in ways we already can right away. In addition to the Quadrennial Defense Reviews, have a look at former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s comments on climate change last year!

    1. John Elwood Post author

      Cricket, you are wise to try any avenue that might make some inroads into the fortress erected against the unfolding facts before us. However, I’ve been surprised at how impervious the denial mindset has been to military awareness of climatic threats. It has erased the fact that military leaders under Clinton, Bush and Obama have all agreed. They’ve been dismissed as retired officers desperately seeking attention, and more recently identified with Obama alone.

      Might that conservative bastion — the insurance industry — find immunity from these defenses? Perhaps. But I’m bracing myself for disappointment once again.

      There’s an argument that self interest will drive a publicly-known denier to maintain that posture throughout his life, rather than facing the growing mountain of evidence. His children’s problems are theirs, not his; while the embarrassment of repentance is his alone. I’ve come to see some merit in that train of thought, as much as I wish I didn’t.

      1. Cricket Hunter

        I admit, John, that I have given up on the truly entrenched, but I’m determined not to cede those who *listen* to the entrenched, and THAT is where I think the 1-2 combo of the self-interested economically-bound insurance industry and the military can help. (Also, I’m selfishly bored of having the one detail at a time “is it real?” conversation. Totally, totally bored. I refer people to Skeptical Science for that.)

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