What is Climate Change Denial?

We look at what 97 percent of scientists say about global warming and how the climate skeptics respond. We look at the financing of climate change denial campaigns and their links with Big Oil.
Climate Denial Poster
Denied facts are still facts. Photo: Edward Kimmel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Serious Campaign to Undermine Public Trust in Science

Climate change denial – or global warming denial – is the unwarranted rejection of mainstream scientific opinion on climate change, a reaction comparable only with creationism, or with those who maintain the Earth is flat. 1 People who deny that climate change exists are sometimes inaccurately referred to as climate skeptics – inaccurate, because being skeptical about a scientific proposition is an intrinsic element in scientific enquiry. Skepticism indicates healthy doubt about the truth of a proposition, not outright denial of a worldwide scientific consensus. In reality, climate skeptics are deniers under a nicer label.

Climate change denial isn’t about a haphazard network of like-minded citizens who happen to disagree with certain aspects of conventional climate science. It’s about a serious campaign to undermine public trust in science – a “denial machine” organized and financed by industrial, political and other interest groups, and promoted by right-wing print, TV and social media, to create uncertainty about science in general and global warming in particular. 2

The climate change denial machine has been linked to the fossil fuels lobby, conservative think tanks and free-market fundamentalists, especially in the United States. According to one study, for instance, 9 out of 10 papers skeptical on global warming are initiated by right-wing think tanks. 3

A good example of lobbying from the petroleum industry, is the Exxon case. Thanks to research published in 2015 by InsideClimateNews, the Los Angeles Times, and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, we know that Exxon continued to finance climate denier groups up to 36 years after the company’s management were warned that man-made greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels like petroleum could elevate global temperatures and cause serious consequences. According to Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists, between 1998-2014 Exxon donated over $30 million to such groups. In addition, since 2007, ExxonMobil has given $1.87 million to Republican Congressional Representatives who deny climate change. 4

Why Climate Change Denial is Not Rational

Imagine a guy who is told by two independent, eminent specialists that his partner has cancer. Is he going to deny it, and take his partner out of hospital?

Well, suppose he does. And suppose he visits every major cancer unit in the whole world, only to be given the same tragic news. If, after all this, he continued to believe that his partner was cancer-free, would you think his attitude was rational?

Because this is the equivalent of the climate denier, who rejects the opinions of thousands of climatologists, oceanographers, geologists, and other experts from the top universities and climate institutes, all over the world. The truth is, climate change denial is irrational and anti-science.

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Chart showing global average temperature increase is rejected by Climate Denial movement.
Graph showing long-term trends (in blue) and short-term trends (in red). One deceptive method adopted by climate deniers is to focus attention on short-term changes, and ignore the more important long-term trends, in order to assert that global warming isn’t happening. Image: RCraig09 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Global Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

Most scientists who are active in this field, believe in the basic position adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Assessment Report 2015. Namely, that:

• Climate change is happening
• Human activity is the main cause of it
• It is having a major effect on the planet and our society
• We can limit these effects by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report’s Summary for Policymakers stated that warming of Earth’s climate system is ‘unequivocal’ with changes not seen for decades or even millennia, such as warming of the atmosphere and oceans, loss of snow, ice-melt, and rising sea levels. Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) – driven largely by economic and population growth – have led to a ramped-up greenhouse effect caused by CO2 emissions that are unprecedented in the last 800,000 years, perhaps longer. There is a 95 percent probability that these emissions, together with other man-made drivers, have been the dominant cause of global warming since the mid-20th century. 5

97 Percent of Active Climate Scientists Agree on Climate Change

Multiple studies and test results, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals around the world, indicate that 97 percent or more of active climate scientists agree with the IPCC’s basic approach to global warming, as outlined above. 6

In the remaining 3 percent of studies – those who reject the IPCC position – the relative climate-related expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers involved, are substantially inferior to that of the 97 percent who agree with the IPCC. Furthermore, subsequent analysis of the results and methods used in the ‘3 percent’ studies reveals a number of methodological errors, along with a pattern of common mistakes. 7

A recent scientific paper, shows that the consensus among researchers has grown to 100 percent, based on a review of 11,600 peer-reviewed studies published in the first 7 months of 2019. 8 9

Consensus Unaffected by Normal Scientific Disagreements

While 97 percent agree with the IPCC position on climate change, there are still a healthy debate on the effects of global warming, such as sea level rise, or the premature thawing of Arctic permafrost, or the impact of high levels of CO2 on plant behavior, for example. But this in no way affects the overall consensus on the subject. Indeed, on some issues (like forecasting sea level rise) the IPCC tends to be significantly more conservative than other scientists.

The Climate Change Denial Argument

The exposition and rebuttal of the climate change denial argument are well-covered in James Powell’s incisive article “The pillars of Climate Change” published by the National Center For Science Education (NCSE). 10

What Do Climate Change Deniers Say?

The climate change denial case can be expressed in 3 simple propositions, as follows:

(a) Climate change science is flawed science.
(b) The theory of climate change is based on a radical political agenda that is anti-capitalist and leads to undesirable consequences.
(c) At the very least, there is genuine scientific doubt about climate change.

Climate Change is Flawed Science

Deniers say:

  • There’s no such thing as global warming.
  • Okay, the earth is warming, but the Sun is the cause, not humans.
  • Okay, maybe humans are the cause, it doesn’t matter, because global warming won’t do any harm.
  • Okay, global warming is bad, but we can’t do anything about it.
  • Okay, we might be able to do something about it, but the cost is too high.
  • Okay, maybe we could afford it, but we should wait for new technology to be developed. 11

The first two points are heard the most. To rebut them, you should refer to the global scientific consensus on man-made climate change. After all, who better to judge the science behind a viewpoint, than the global scientific community. However, don’t expect this to do the trick. Deniers typically respond by citing the example of certain scientists or celebrities who don’t accept climate change. This is not convincing because it doesn’t invalidate the consensus, and the individuals concerned typically have little evidence to justify their claims, which is why they have little support from other scientists.

As well as citing individuals who reject global warming, deniers often cite a number of unanswered questions relating to the theory and praxis of climate science. But this is no more convincing. There are many aspects of Earth’s climate that remain unclear but this is the normal state of any evolving science. It doesn’t alter the fact that there’s a genuine and robust scientific consensus on the basic points of climate change.

Another favorite tactic is to cite data that seems to contradict the trend of global warming, such as a regional cooling or even a global cooling. The global cooling of the 1960s and 70s is a case in point. This was a short-term trend which extended over 2-3 decades, and was caused by the presence of industrial aerosols in the atmosphere, not a reduction in temperature per se.

By 1990, the warming trend reasserted itself, following clean air legislation, but not before the climate denial lobby claimed global warming to be a hoax. This type of denialist argument is always unconvincing because short term fluctuations prove nothing – it’s the long-term pattern of warming that matters. 12

Attacks by deniers claiming the science is systematically mistaken, need to be presented to, and evaluated by, the relevant scientific community through the normal processes, including publication in peer-reviewed scientific research literature. Thus far, no such claims have succeeded in convincing the experts that the consensus is flawed. On the contrary, analysis of these claims has disclosed a pattern of errors. 7

Climate Change is Based on a Radical Political Agenda

This objection is itself typically based on ideological concerns. For example, the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their history of climate change denial “Merchants of Doubt”, argue that climate change denial is founded upon “free market fundamentalism”. 13

Whatever ideological theories there may be in the climate change or in the denial camps, the fact is, mainstream science alone is not capable of deciding what is the proper response to climate change, let alone who should pay for it.

Scientists should rightly be asked to explain (a) the options for climate change mitigation, and (b) the likely consequences of those options, but after that it’s the job of policymakers to decide what set of consequences are most desirable.

So, for example, climate change education is not intended to promote or endorse any particular policy in response to global warming. In fact, climate change educators must respect the fact that science by itself is incapable of deciding policy issues. Science classrooms are not the right venue for a political debate, and teachers must take care to avoid promoting personal preferences about public policy on climate change.

That said, a number of grey areas remain. For example, at what point does a scientific discussion about an upcoming climate tipping point – such as the runaway ice melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet – turn into a political discussion about the need to take action now, rather than (say) in 5 years’ time.

The main problem here, is that climate change presents a series of massive challenges to the way we do business, power our societies, and generally live our lives. We can’t avoid this issue. Sticking our heads in the sand and hoping our grandchildren won’t mind, is not going to help.

Meantime, science educators have a responsibility to help students understand climate change and the evidence for it, as well as the fact that the scientific community agrees overwhelmingly that the evidence is convincing.

There is Genuine Scientific Doubt About Climate Change

This claim needs to be challenged head on. Because it’s simply not true. It’s an untruth peddled by the climate denial machine for ideological reasons. You can hear it expressed, for example, in the newspaper columns and TV shows of the right-wing media, and in comments by Republican Party presidential candidates.

In the 2016 United States election cycle, every Republican presidential candidate either questioned or denied climate change, and opposed U.S. government steps to address it, as also has the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate. [Source: The New York Times, 12 December 2015.]

The one place you won’t find any doubt expressed is in the leading scientific journals of the world.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the climate denial machine is being deliberately dishonest, in order to muddy the waters and stop us from taking the climate action the situation warrants.

And the fossil fuel industry is very grateful. By the end of 2019, during the current U.S. Presidential election cycle, 97 percent of political contributions from the coal industry and 88 percent of contributions from the oil and natural gas industries had been paid to Republicans, prompting New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to dub the Republicans “the world’s only major climate-denialist party.” 14

Casting Doubt on Science is a Known Tactic of Corporate America

In December 1974, two scientists, Rowland and Molina (who later won the Nobel Prize) testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, about their research showing that CFCs damaged the ozone layer. In 1976, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) confirmed the accuracy of the ozone depletion diagnosis. 15

However, the science was vigorously disputed by the aerosol and halocarbon industries. The chair of the board of DuPont was quoted as saying that ozone depletion theory was “utter nonsense”. Even after the evidence was overwhelming, the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy – a trade association representing the CFC industry – was still insisting that the scientific evidence was ambivalent. Even as late as March 1988, DuPont Chairman Richard E. Heckert wrote in a letter to the United States Senate, “At the moment, scientific evidence does not point to the need for dramatic CFC emission reductions. There is no available measure of the contribution of CFCs to any observed ozone change…” 16

Ozone in The Stratosphere
Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer

Big Tobacco is another case in point. Faced with powerful, peer-reviewed scientific evidence of the harms of smoking, the tobacco industry used sophisticated public relations approaches to undermine and distort the emerging science. This dishonest attempt to muddy the waters led ultimately to convictions under the RICO racketeering laws in United States v. Philip Morris USA, Inc (1999-2006). 17

Just like the halocarbon industry and the tobacco industry spent millions trying to cast doubt on the science of CFCs and cigarettes, today’s climate change denial propagandists are trying desperately to sell us the idea that doubt exists about our climate crisis, in order to keep fossil fuels flowing.

According to journalist Graham Readfearn, “there are four main cogs that make up the machinery as I see it – conservative free market think tanks, public relations groups, fossil fuel organisations and ideologically aligned media. 18

For example, there are numerous conservative think tanks across the world, who play a key role in producing doubt that serves the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. America, for instance, has the Competitive Enterprise Institute, The George C. Marshall Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Campaign for A Constructive Tomorrow.

The UK has the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and Australia has the influential free market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.

The aim of the climate denial campaign is to make doubt about climate change a primary issue in the debate, because once the public believes that the scientific issues are settled, its views will change accordingly.

The campaign, says Readfearn, was one perfected by the tobacco industry during its fight against the science linking its products with cancer. In the book “Merchants of Doubt” (released as a film a few years ago) authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explain that some of the same people and organizations who had worked with the tobacco industry subsequently moved on to climate science denial. 13

A similar attempt to smear science can be seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, where certain political leaders have cast doubt on medical opinion about a variety of issues, for self-serving purposes. See also: Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change.

Public Opinion on Climate Change

Despite the efforts of the climate change denial movement, the public is aware that man-made global warming is happening and that it’s a problem.

In the United States, Gallup polls in 2016 show that 65 percent of US adults think global warming is caused by human activities. 19 In 2019 the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication finds that 69 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening.

In the EU, the 2019 Eurobarometer Survey conducted by the European Commission finds that: 93 percent of EU citizens see climate change as a serious problem and 79 percent see it as a very serious problem. Furthermore, 92 percent of those questioned – including more than 80 percent in each Member State – agree that greenhouse gas emissions should be lowered to a minimum while offsetting the remaining emissions, so as to make the EU economy climate-neutral by 2050.

In China, according to a report commissioned by the China Climate Change Communication program, 94 percent of interviewees supported fulfilling the Paris agreement, while 98 percent of interviewees supported climate change education in schools. 20

NOTE: To understand why governments, corporations and some people are against climate action, please see: Root Cause of Climate Change.

Why Do Individuals Reject Mainstream Climate Change Science?

In addition to Big Business and ideological groups, a significant minority of individuals around the world disagree with scientists about the climate crisis and the need to switch to renewable energy to reduce emissions.

In the US, people less likely to accept climate science are older, less well educated, more religious and more likely to align with the Republican Party. (Source: Pew Research.)

In addition, there is evidence that fear of the consequences of global warming tends to induce some people to reject the whole idea of it. Emotional reactions to climate change can involve guilt, fear, anger, and apathy. Emily Green in an article titled “The Existential Dread of Climate Change, has suggested that “despair about our changing climate may get in the way of fixing it.” 21 22

But other motivations are also in play. Some deniers reject climate change because of ideology, or because they support unrestrained capitalism; others because they work in the fossil fuel industry; some because they live in states or cities that depend upon the coal, oil or gas industries for a living; others deny climate change for the same reason that makes people join the Flat Earth Society.

FAQS About Climate

For answers to lots of popular questions on all aspects of our climate crisis, see: 50 FAQs About Global Warming and 50 Climate Change FAQs.

References:

  1. Evolution, Climate Change and Other Issues. Pew Research Center.” []
  2. Dunlap, Riley E. (2013). “Climate Change Skepticism and Denial: An Introduction“. American Behavioral Scientist. 57 (6): 691–98. []
  3. Climate Change Deniers and Advocacy: A Situational Theory of Publics Approach“. Jordi Xifra. (2016). American Behavioral Scientist. 60 (3): 276–287. []
  4. Exxon’s Climate Denial History: A Timeline[]
  5. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (2014). Synthesis Report. Summary for Policymakers. []
  6. Expert credibility in climate change.” William R. L. Anderegg, et al; PNAS July 6, 2010 107 (27) 12107-12109. []
  7. Learning from mistakes in climate research“. Benestad, Rasmus E. et al; (2016-11-01). Theoretical and Applied Climatology. 126 (3): 699–703. [][]
  8. “Scientists Reach 100% Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming“. James Powell. (November, 2019). Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society: 027046761988626. []
  9. See also: “Does It Matter if the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming Is 97% or 99.99%?” Andrew G. Skuce, John Cook, Mark Richardson. May 2, 2017. []
  10. The Pillars of Climate Change Denial.” National Center For Science Education (NCSE) []
  11. “The Inquisition of Climate Science.” James Lawrence Powell. (2012). Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-15719-3: pp. 170–173 []
  12. The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus” Thomas C. Peterson, et al; Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 89 (9): 1325–1337. []
  13. “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.” Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway. (2010). Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4 [][]
  14. The Party That Ruined the Planet.” []
  15. National Research Council. 1976. Halocarbons: Effects on Stratospheric Ozone. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. []
  16. Du Pont: A Case Study In the 3D Corporate Strategy“. Greenpeace. 1997. []
  17. Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics.” Allan M. Brandt. Am J Public Health. 2012 January; 102(1): 63–71. 2012. []
  18. “Doubt over climate science is a product with an industry behind it.” The Guardian. Mar 5, 2015. []
  19. U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High.” []
  20. Yu, Hao; Wang, Bing; Zhang, Yue-Jun; Wang, Shouyang; Wei, Yi-Ming (22 May 2013). “Public perception of climate change in China: results from the questionnaire survey“. Natural Hazards. 69 (1): 459–472. []
  21. The Existential Dread of Climate Change“. Emily Green. Psychology Today. (13 October 2017) []
  22. Emotion and the Psychological Distance of Climate Change.” Haoran Chu, Janet Z. Yang. December, 2019. []
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