Climate Change Deniers — Who they are, and Why they do it

The article below is a synthesis from these two sources: Naomi OreskesMerchants of Doubt—How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, and Naomi Klein‘s This Changes Everything—Capitalism vs The Climate. Whenever a subsection below contains information from both books, I have indicated [Oreskes] or [Klein] to note the source.*

Why they do it

“It’s the economy, stupid”. To understand the reasons behind of climate change denial, we need first explore some contemporary economic history.

The transformation of our hearts and souls

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1990

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1990

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and communism in 1989, free market ideology has increasingly governed our societies, spearheaded by UK’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and imposed to the development world by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund through policy conditions to grant much needed loans, and written into countless trade agreements. [Klein]

The basis for free market expansion is that access to unrestrained economic activity leads to democracy and liberty. The logic goes like this: free market economic progress would lead to economic growth. Without growth, governments would be forced to control resources, and to control resources, governments would have to control people. To rid society of Government intervention thus equals “freedom”. That’s why free market supporters call this ideology “economic freedom”. Ultimately, free market economics is the belief not simply that free markets are the best way to run an economic system, but that free markets are the only way that will not ultimately destroy society’s other freedoms. As such it must be defended vigorously, since upon losing it, it is only a matter of time until society loses all its other freedoms, such as free speech, free religion, and free assembly. [Oreskes]

Over the last four decades, free market ideology has succeeded in reshaping our societies into its own values—greed as the driving force, and prioritization of the individual benefit over the collective commons. As example of this transformation, in a 1966 survey of U.S. college freshmen, only about 44 percent of them said that making a lot of money was “very important” or “essential.”, yet by 2013, the figure had jumped to 82 percent. The late Margaret Thatcher expressed the objective quite clearly: “Economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul”. Their mission has been largely accomplished. [Klein]

When free markets’ ugly side can’t be hidden anymore

Air pollution

Air pollution

There are external costs that markets fail to account for, from which pollution is the clearest example. External costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who do not benefit from the economic activity that produce them, and whom are not the target of the good or service that is being produced. Economists refer to these external costs as “negative externalities”: negative because they aren’t beneficial to the people who suffer them, and external because they fall outside the market system. Free market evangelists acknowledge the existence of external costs, however they claim these are rarely important enough to justify government intervention. [Oreskes]

By the early 1990s, global warming had already shown that free trade’s designed unrestricted commercial activity was generating plenty of pollution, which produced real, lasting, pervasive damage, such as the global destruction of ecosystems. Already by then there was consensus within the scientific community on the link between CO2 emissions and anthropogenic climate change, and through the signing of the UN climate agreement during the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio, the momentum was building up for political action. [Oreskes]

To accept the reality of global warming was to acknowledge that free enterprise can bring real, profound costs that the free market does not reflect, much less prevent, to acknowledge the limits of free market capitalism, and to acknowledge that our societies cannot be managed by the invisible hand of the market. Governments would be required to intervene, legislating and enforcing bans on polluting activities, granting subsidies for green alternatives, imposing penalties for violations, implementing new taxes to fund public works programs, reversing privatizations, among other duties. Needless to say, the defenders of free market capitalism were worried, deeply worried, and so became engaged with climate issues. [Oreskes/Klein]

Scientific skepticism? Or is it something else?

Many influential climate deniers readily accept that they became engaged with climate issues not because they found flaws in the scientific facts, but because of the economic and political implications that climate change brings forward, such as lowering our energy consumption, allowing for regulation and, more importantly, de-liberalizing our economy. [Klein]

Addressing climate change will usher in a new era of communism?

Addressing climate change will usher in a new era of communism?

For many of them, climate change appears to have induced a full-fledged Cold War flashback. Former Czech president Václav Klaus, whose career began under communist rule, compares attempts to prevent global warming to “the ambitions of communist central planners to control the entire society”. Larry Bell, in his book Climate of Corruption, states that climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution”. British blogger James Delingpole has pointed out that “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Right wing think tank Heartland Institute’s president Joseph Bast expresses more bluntly his reasons to battle the climate movement: “[For the left] Climate change is the perfect thing… It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.” According to Bast, accepting any kind of government intervention to address climate change will usher in a new era of communism: “When we look at this issue, we say, This is a recipe for massive increase in government,”, and this is the reason why he became engaged with the science of climate change and try to disprove it: “Before we take this step, let’s take another look at the science. So conservative and libertarian groups, I think, stopped and said, Let’s not simply accept this as an article of faith; let’s actually do our own research.” [Klein]

So the free market ideological warriors unleashed a vicious campaign to alter the perception towards climage change on people’s minds, by aiming to disprove scientific facts, promoting scientific skepticism and outright denial, and attacking the scientific community. However, disprove facts they cannot, since science is not about opinions but peer-reviewed evidence. And even within economic circles anthropogenic climate change is not a controversy anymore: Nicholas Stern, formerly chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank from 2000 to 2003, and principal author of the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, has called climate change “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.” [Oreskes]

Who they are

Through their skepticism campaign, hard-core ideologists have claimed that ‘climate change is an elaborate hoax conjured up by thousands upon thousands of scientists’ for such reasons as global wealth redistribution. You might think these guys must be short on scientific literacy and high on conspiracy books, right? Well, the truth is a little bit more complicated than that.

There are two distinct groups of deniers: the ideologists—the influential minority— and the followers—the influenced majority. While addressing the why of climate denial, we were specifically addressing the beliefs of an influential small group of right wing ideologists, a group of deniers that is actually better versed in science than are accepters, since they perfectly understand the economic and political consequences of climate change and so very conveniently set out to be climate skeptics. Naomi Klein is referring to them when expressing, “when it comes to the scope and depth of change required to avert catastrophe, climate-change deniers are right on the money”.

This influential minority of ideologists targets the bulk of people with their disinformation campaigns, thus constantly shaping their perception on the issue, and effectively gaining big numbers of supporters in their crusade against climate change action. The Joes and Johns who belong in this majority group and deny climate change might not understand the science (which is itself no reason to oppose it: we still drive our cars even if we don’t understand how an engine works) or might also find the reality too costly—whether emotionally, intellectually, or financially— and stick with the convenient untruth. As an example, in Alberta, Canada, where incomes are soaring thanks to the tar sands, only 41 percent of residents told pollsters that humans are warming the planet, whereas in Atlantic Canada, which has seen far less extravagant benefits from fossil fuel extraction, the number goes up to 68 percent. As Upton Sinclair famously observed: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Below, let’s take a closer look at these two groups of deniers:

The influential minority

After being challenged by hard evidence from the real world, specially the 2008 collapse of Wall Street and the never ending ecological crises, free market economics should have already been deemed a failure and relegated to the dustbin of history. This ideology has avoided this fate so far only because it remains extremely profitable to powerful political and economic interests, like dirty energy giant Koch Industries and its billionaire owners, brothers Charles and David Koch, and ExxonMobil. These powerful players make huge contributions to denial-espousing think tanks and other advocacy groups with the result of profitting tremendously from the way the climate debate has been clouded.

The Guardian revealed in February 2013 that between 2002 and 2010, a network of anonymous U.S. billionaires had donated nearly $120 million to “groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change . . . the ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against Barack Obama’s environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action on climate change”. These groups, called the “climate change counter-movement” by sociologist Robert Brulle, and which include conservative think tanks and advocacy groups such as the Heartland Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, are collectively receiving more than $900 million per year for their work on a variety of right wing causes, most of it in the form of “dark money”—funds from conservative foundations that cannot be fully traced.

Climate change-deniers singin' in the rain. Illustration by Tony Auth. Source: Climate change-deniers singin’ in the rain. Illustration by Tony Auth. Source:

The ties between these powerful interests and the deniers (think tanks, complicit scientists, media communicators) are well known and documented. Just some examples:

Think tanks

The Heartland Institute, whose International Conference on Climate Change is the premier gathering for those dedicated to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, has received more than $1 million from ExxonMobil together with foundations linked to the Koch brothers and the late conservative funder Richard Mellon Scaife, and receives multimillionaire contributions from anonymous donors, their largest one a shadowy individual who has given more than $8.6 million specifically to support the think tank’s attacks on climate science.

Scientists not exempt of “conflict of interests”

Scientists who present at Heartland climate conferences stink of fossil fuel dollars. Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, who gave the 2011 conference keynote, once told CNN that 40 percent of his consulting company’s income comes from oil companies (Cato itself has received funding from ExxonMobil and Koch family foundations). Astrophysicist Willie Soon, another conference speaker, had 100 percent of his new research grants had come from fossil fuel interests between 2002 and 2010.

Media communicators

The people paid to spread and amplify the views of these scientists in different media channels, such as blogs, op-eds, and television appearances, are similarly funded by many of the same sources. Money from big oil funds the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which houses Marc Morano’s denialists’ go-to news site Climate Depot, and also the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose senior fellow Chris Horner specializes in harassing climate scientists with burdensome lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests.

The influenced majority

socialistscamIn the United States, more than 75 percent of self-identified Democrats and liberals believe humans are changing the climate, while Republicans and conservatives have overwhelmingly chosen to reject the scientific consensus. In some regions, a paltry 20 percent of these accept man-made climate change. The evidence is striking. Among the segment of the U.S. population that displays the strongest “hierarchical” views, only 11 percent rate climate change as a “high risk,” compared with 69 percent of the segment displaying the strongest “egalitarian” views.

Similar political divides over climate change can also be found in Canada, Australia, the U.K. and Western Europe, evidencing a tight correlation between political beliefs and attitudes toward global warming. A great deal of social science research has been devoted to explaining how and why this correlation happens:

The ‘cultural worldview’ correlation

According to Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, one’s “cultural worldview explains individuals’ beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual characteristic”. The Yale researchers explain that people with strong “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldviews (such as having an inclination toward collective action and social justice, concern about inequality, and suspicion of corporate power) overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. Conversely, those with strong “hierarchical” and “individualistic” worldviews (such as having opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for industry, and a belief that we all pretty much get what we deserve) overwhelmingly reject the scientific consensus. The tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science is attributed to “cultural cognition”, the process by which we filter new information in ways that will protect our “preferred vision of the good society”, regardless of our political leanings. If new information seems to confirm that vision, we welcome it and integrate it easily. If it poses a threat to our belief system, then our brain rejects it.

The ‘social and economic privilege’ correlation

Many recent studies on climate perceptions have found that there is a clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false. A much discussed paper on this topic by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap, titled “Cool Dudes”, found that as a group, conservative white men who expressed strong confidence in their understanding of global warming were almost six times as likely to believe climate change “will never happen” as the rest of the adults surveyed. McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: “Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”

The ‘religious’ correlation

For many conservatives, particularly religious ones, the challenge threatens not just faith in markets but core cultural narratives about what humans are doing here on earth. Are we the master species, sent here to subdue and dominate, or are we just one species among many? Professor of politics Robert Manne says that climate science is for many conservatives “an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over Nature.” For these conservatives, he notes, “such a thought is not merely mistaken. It is intolerable and deeply offensive. Those preaching this doctrine have to be resisted and indeed denounced.”

*The first part of the article (“Why they do it“) is a mix from This Changes Everything and Merchants of Doubt. The second part (“Who they are“) comes in its entirety from This Changes Everything.

In the article above, I left plenty of valuable information out from the 2 books, to better accommodate for web reading. If you have the chance, please read these two books in their entirety, I promise you will get enlightened with both Naomis’ wisdom.