Don’t Call Them “Climate Skeptics” — They’re Climate Deniers, Period

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    Cross-posted at Daily Kos

    In certain parts of the media, it is fashionable to refer to those who deny the existence of human-induced climate change as “climate skeptics.”  Don’t buy it — what these people are practicing is not skepticism but denial.

    For an in-depth discussion of this whole phenomenon, pick up a copy of John Cook’s and Haydn Washington’s excellent book “Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand”.  Cook’s Skeptical Science website is the place to turn for descriptions in plain English of climate science at both beginner and intermediate levels, and in direct refutation of all the Koch brothers’ and Exxon-Mobil’s talking points.  The book excels in peeling back the stinky layers of the onion that is climate change denial.  

    The first layer consists of corporate miscommunication to protect dirty profits, which has been thoroughly documented, as here and here and in the whole Heartland Institute affair.  But where the book really excels is in describing the next layer, that of our psychological tendency to refuse to believe in scary, disturbing realities.  It’s essential to understand these psychological dynamics if we are going to successfully convince the public and our major institutions to take significant action, before it is absolutely too late.

    The authors note that the Oxford English Dictionary defines a skeptic as “a seeker after truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definitive conclusions.”  (And precisely how many Limbaugh dittoheads have “not yet arrived at definitive conclusions?”)  As Cook and Washington put it:

    Skepticism is about seeking the truth and realizing the world is a complex place.  Skepticism is about stepping away from superstition and dogma.  Genuine skepticism in science is one of the ways that science progresses…Denial is something very different, it is a refusal to believe something, no matter what the evidence.

    Indeed, the immunity of climate deniers to mountains of scientific evidence — over 10,000 peer-reviewed, published studies, as Dr. Naomi Oreskes has documented — is the key to this phenomenon.  As Cook and Washington discuss, climate denial is too deeply rooted to be simply cured by trying to erase the public “information deficit” about climate change — yes, doing so is absolutely essential, but the current situation is about much more than mere ignorance.

    People have very important psychological and cultural reasons to pretend that climate change does not exist.  The warming of the Earth and all that goes with it threatens our complacency, many aspects of our way of life, many deeply held beliefs about Nature and humanity and the economy and technology and our inalienable right to do whatever the f**k we want.  It’s kind of like the theory of evolution in the insecurity it makes some people feel about their place on the Earth — but worse, because it has such enormous potential consequences for the future, requiring attention, action and changes today.

    Yes, the Fossil Fuel Lobby is peddling us a load of bull, but they are finding willing customers because sometimes bull has real value — psychological value at least.  

    This book, like Cook’s website, is enormously good at dissecting the arguments deniers use — which are ultimately quite flimsy.  These arguments strike a chord for the reasons discussed above, but it’s important to keep showing how empty and false they are, to dissipate the delusion of denial and bathe all who will listen in the sunshine of reality.  

    So Cook and Washington describe the 5 most common types of arguments climate deniers make:

    Conspiracy theories: the authors point out the role a source as wacked as Lyndon LaRouche has played in spreading climate conspiracy theories.  The fact that some grouchy emails by some climate scientists at the University of East Anglia professors got labelled “Climategate” (of all things) shows the problem.  The fact that the debunking of this so-called scandal by 7 different governmental, academic and research organizations is instantly and continually dismissed as just another sign of the conspiracy shows how deeply rooted this form of insanity is.  In fact, to believe that climate change is a hoax requires believing that thousands of scientists are faking their results in some big evil orgy of deception.  This is not an argument but a pathology.

    Fake experts:  Definitely a favorite tactic of deniers is to identify and promote the alleged experts whose word is presumed to negate the 95% or so of climate scientists whose research has found man-made warming to be a fact.  The book cites the Petition Project, which encourages alleged experts to sign an anti-climate change petition — but notes that only about 0.1 percent of signatories are climatologists, and veterinarians and engineers are not necessarily qualified to be cited as authorities in this field.  

    Impossible expectations: Put simply, climate deniers try to discredit all of climate science by trying to demonstrate that its models aren’t perfect and that it can’t explain everything in the world.  Well, duh.  Those who know anything about science know that not only are all models and theories imperfect, but that scientists frequently acknowledge and discuss this fact very openly.  The authors point out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has carefully summed up the scientific consensus, finding a 90% chance that humans contribute to global warming, and ask: “If you knew there was a 90 per cent chance you’d be in a car crash, would you get in the car?”  Waiting until we have 100% certainty before acting on anything is a recipe for eternal paralysis.

    Misrepresentations and logical fallacies:  Climate deniers are constantly demonstrating the most blatant errors of logic — which is why it’s so much fun to debate them!  For example, they frequently claim that since the climate has changed in the past without human causes, therefore our current climate change must also be from natural causes.  The authors say this is like denying the fact that humans start any forest fires, just because many are also naturally ignited by lightning.  My personal favorite example is the idea that carbon dioxide must always be benign because in the right amounts and contexts it is good for plants –ignoring the fact that many elements, like oxygen and nitrogen, can be deadly or essential depending on the amount, concentration, form, etc.

    Cherry picking:  Like sneaky lawyers, climate deniers love to harp on out-of-context pieces of evidence that seem to help their case, while downplaying the whole body of evidence that refutes it.  So, for example, they use the fact that 1998 was a record hot year, and that several years following did not match that year’s level, to claim that warming “stopped” in 1998.  In fact, at best, the rise in temperatures plateaued for a few years and now is rising again — it clearly has not gone down if one looks at temperature records for any length of time.  But if one builds a chart looking only at 1998 to about mid-2009 — aha, the hoax is revealed!  Such argumentation is both misleading and dishonest.  Which is why it needs to be answered, over and over again, until those who use such tactics are thoroughly discredited.  

    There’s much more in the book worth discussing, but I’ll close on its positive message that, to overcome the psychology of climate change denial, we need to communicate in a way that conveys not the inevitability of destruction and despair, but the grounds for hope — as long as we accept reality, mobilize and work together to address the threat of climate change worldwide.  As Climate Change Denial puts it:

    Martin Luther King galvanized American society by saying ‘I have a dream.’  He would not have galvanized them by saying ‘I have a catastrophe!’

    In other words, answer the cynicism of denial with optimism grounded in realism — we’ve overcome great challenges before with human ingenuity and willpower, and we can and must do so once again.