Why Global Warming Deniers are a Liability

July 16th, 2010 at 2:50 pm | 25 Comments |

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Jonathan Kay has written a piece which explains why Global Warming deniers do harm to the conservative movement:

Have you heard about the “growing number” of eminent scientists who reject the theory that man-made greenhouse gases are increasing the earth’s temperature? It’s one of those factoids that, for years, has been casually dropped into the opening paragraphs of conservative manifestos against climate-change treaties and legislation. A web site maintained by the office of a U.S. Senator has for years instructed us that a “growing number of scientists” are becoming climate-change “skeptics.” This year, the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation gave a speech praising the “growing number of distinguished scientists [who are] challenging the conventional wisdom with alternative theories and peer reviewed research.” In this newspaper, a columnist recently described the “growing skepticism about the theory of man-made climate change.” Surely, the conventional wisdom is on the cusp of being overthrown entirely: Another colleague proclaimed that we are approaching “the church of global warming’s Galileo moment.”

Fine-sounding rhetoric — but all of it nonsense. In a new article published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, a group of scholars from Stanford University, the University of Toronto and elsewhere provide a statistical breakdown of the opinions of the world’s most prominent climate experts. Their conclusion: The group that is skeptical of the evidence of man-made global warming “comprises only 2% of the top 50 climate researchers as ranked by expertise (number of climate publications), 3% of researchers in the top 100, and 2.5% of the top 200, excluding researchers present in both groups … This result closely agrees with expert surveys, indicating that [about] 97% of self-identified actively publishing climate scientists agree with the tenets of [man-made global warming].”

How has this tiny 2-3% sliver of fringe opinion been reinvented as a perpetually “growing” share of the scientific community? Most climate-change deniers (or “skeptics,” or whatever term one prefers) tend to inhabit militantly right-wing blogs and other Internet echo chambers populated entirely by other deniers. In these electronic enclaves — where a smattering of citations to legitimate scientific authorities typically is larded up with heaps of add-on commentary from pundits, economists and YouTube jesters who haven’t any formal training in climate sciences — it becomes easy to swallow the fallacy that the whole world, including the respected scientific community, is jumping on the denier bandwagon.

This is a phenomenon that should worry not only environmentalists, but also conservatives themselves: The conviction that global warming is some sort of giant intellectual fraud now has become a leading bullet point within mainstream North American conservatism; and so has come to bathe the whole movement in its increasingly crankish, conspiratorial glow.

Conservatives often pride themselves on their hard-headed approach to public-policy — in contradistinction to liberals, who generally are typecast as fuzzy-headed utopians. Yet when it comes to climate change, many conservatives I know will assign credibility to any stray piece of junk science that lands in their inbox … so long as it happens to support their own desired conclusion. (One conservative columnist I know formed her skeptical views on global warming based on testimonials she heard from novelist Michael Crichton.) The result is farcical: Impressionable conservatives who lack the numeracy skills to perform long division or balance their checkbooks feel entitled to spew elaborate proofs purporting to demonstrate how global warming is in fact caused by sunspots or flatulent farm animals. Or they will go on at great length about how “climategate” has exposed the whole global-warming phenomenon as a charade — despite the fact that a subsequent investigation exculpated research investigators from the charge that they had suppressed temperature data. (In fact, “climategate” was overhyped from the beginning, since the scientific community always had other historical temperature data sets at its disposal — that maintained by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, most notably — entirely independent of the Climactic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, where the controversy emerged.)

Let me be clear: Climate-change denialism does not comprise a conspiracy theory, per se: Those aforementioned 2% of eminent scientists prove as much. I personally know several denialists whom I generally consider to be intelligent and thoughtful. But the most militant denialists do share with conspiracists many of the same habits of mind. Oxford University scholar Steve Clarke and Brian Keeley of Washington University have defined conspiracy theories as those worldviews that trace important events to a secretive, nefarious cabal; and whose proponents consistently respond to contrary facts not by modifying their hypothesis, but instead by insisting on the existence of ever-wider circles of high-level conspirators controlling most or all parts of society. This describes, more or less, how radicalized warming deniers treat the subject of their obsession: They see global warming as a Luddite plot hatched by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Al Gore to destroy industrial society. And whenever some politician, celebrity or international organization expresses support for the all-but-unanimous view of the world’s scientific community, they inevitably will respond with a variation of “Ah, so they’ve gotten to them, too.”

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25 Comments so far ↓

  • forkboy1965

    The author states, ““individuals tend to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce one or another idealized vision of how society should be organized,” which isn’t a far cry from how the religious right works either.

    Forget about the teachings of Jesus, but instead cherry pick the portions and passages of the Bible that reinforce their already-formed view of how society should be organized. Their system of belief isn’t based upon religious dogma, but reinforced by the portions of said dogma to which they agree.

    We see the same problem within the GOP when it comes to science that in some manner contradicts the Bible. The age of the Earth, evolution, etc. scientifically fly in the face of portions of the Bible and so the religious right claims the science is wrong. And yet, everywhere else science exists without a contrary position from the Bible, science wins.

  • pampl

    My biggest beef with climate change denialism is the same as with 9/11 trutherism: the supposed motivation of the conspirators is really, really implausible. We’re supposed to believe that people who’ve devoted their lives to technology and science want to secretly destroy it all and have taken the most marginal, round-a-bout way of doing it. That sounds about as likely to me as Bush perpetrating a mass, incredibly intricate conspiracy so he can force people to take their shoes off at airports.

    Say what you want about birtherism – and I roll my eyes at it as hard as anyone does – but at least the supposed motivation of the conspirators makes sense. Climate change deniers don’t even have that.

  • ktward

    Let me be clear: Climate-change denialism does not comprise a conspiracy theory, per se: Those aforementioned 2% of eminent scientists prove as much. I personally know several denialists whom I generally consider to be intelligent and thoughtful.

    With this statement, JK seems to be throwing a conciliatory bone of rationalization to Cons: “No no, I’m not saying you guys are crazy conspiracy theorists! I’m just saying your largely baseless climate-change denialism looks pretty much exactly like every other CT.”

    Whatever.
    AGW denialism is just one more tic in a looong list of anti-science, Religious Right-directed, we-are-real-Amuricans position statements of today’s GOP. Textbook FUBAR.

  • abj

    As long as warming deniers have a voice on the right, engaging in a rational debate becomes impossible. Deniers have a platform and a large megaphone, and it’s difficult to break through the noise machine.

    Deniers are also providing a gift-wrapped straw man to the left. Instead of having to defend the merits of abysmal policy proposals like cap and trade, all they have to do is attack the deniers’ histrionics. Instead of debating whether warming is real, we really need to focus the discussion on what the appropriate response should be. In terms of policy response, the left, unfortunately, occupies the entire field. It’s hard to address the merits of the policy when you have a large, vocal group of people arguing that the problem the policy is intended to address doesn’t even exist.

  • sinz54

    In my experience, a conspiracy theory is usually a rationalization for some deep fear.

    In the case of global warming, I’ve probed the views of climate change skeptics on various Internet fora. And what’s underlying their boasts that “it’s all a hoax” is a genuine fear: Fear that the measures needed to prevent global warming (assuming it’s real) will be so draconian as to cripple the United States as an economic superpower.

    The conspiracy theory is fantasy.
    But the fear can’t be dismissed so easily.

    When you read GreenPeace looking forward to the day when we’ve all abandoned our suburban lifestyle and gone back to living on small family farms and giant apartment blocks; when you read articles like this one in The Nation where the Left talks openly about Americans having just “enough”energy but no more than that,

    http://www.thenation.com/article/37529/clean-green-safe-and-smart

    you get the distinct impression that many on the Left are willing, even eager, to use global warming as a tool with which to take America down another few pegs (as if we weren’t in the dumps enough already these last few years).

    America is a big country–four time zones, not counting Alaska’s and Hawaii’s. I can’t travel from MA (where I live) to Hawaii for a business meeting or vacation without using fossil fuels.
    Its suburbs and even many of its cities are too spread out to make mass transit viable. And it takes lots of energy to get through a New England winter or a Texas summer.

    Without nuclear power, I don’t see how America can continue to remain an economic superpower while coping with global warming too. China, on the other hand, refuses to take direction from the Western Left. Maybe the Western Left should think more about whether they want to live in a world where Chinese fascism, rather than American democratic capitalism, is the role model for the planet.

  • msmilack

    I’m very glad to see this piece on FF. One of the more insidious effects of fringe thinking on the right has been to devalue education and knowledge and this article clearly explains the importance of both.

  • busboy33

    @sinz:

    Sure, hysteria is borne of fear, but that doesn’t change its essential character as hysteria. When you say things like:

    “you read articles like this one in The Nation where the Left talks openly about Americans having just ‘enough’ energy but no more than that”

    it doesn’t cast you in a flattering light. The Left? As in, The “Capital ‘L’” Left? Is this the official policy paper of the entire “Left”? How did they all decide? Was there a big meeting, or did they reach their mammoth concensus thru e-mail and Tweets?

    Who on “The Left” has endorsed this idea? Or was it a person who personally tends “left” in their politics? The article you linked to appears to be the work of one person. An opinion piece. Why would you ascribe the writing of “Michael T. Klare, Nation defense correspondent, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College” to The Left? That’s as silly as tying you to the Creationism Meuseum. After all, he’s conservative. You’re conservative. Conspiracy! The Right wants to ride dinosaurs!
    (if you do manage to get saddles on dinosaurs, I’ll join the GOP. That looks like alot of fun, and the animatronic dinosaurs look really friendly).

    Is the concern that policies might have negative consequences that outweigh their merit valid? Sure. That is not only a valid “fear” but IMO a damn good idea. But to take that prudent caution and make it about “Teh Left” highlights the problem with paranoia and hysteria.

  • dante

    As long as the right-wing in this type of opportunistic glossing-over of the facts to push their political position, I’ll continue to be an ex-Republican. One of the first major turn-offs for me with the new GWB administration was the claim that since we had a budget surplus, we had to have tax cuts to “give the people back their money”. Never mind using that money to pay down our national debt. Never mind the adage that tax cuts are necessary to spurring growth. Never mind the investing in our future so that there’s less pain further down the road.

    Nope.

    It became 100% “we have a surplus, so we need to have a tax cut”.

    Fast forward 2 years to 2003 and we were running a deficit, and what was the call? “We have a deficit, so we need to have a tax cut.” All of the former reasons why we needed a tax cut in 2001 were exactly, 100% gone and we had a different set of reasons why we needed a tax cut. Now in 2010 we have a different set of reasons, but the call is still the same: TAX CUTS!!

    It’s obvious that the right (and left, to a certain extent) will use (and change) whatever justification they need to push their agenda. It doesn’t matter whether it’s climate change, taxes, evolution/creationism, or foreign policy, the shifting reasons for whatever they’re doing drives me absolutely insane. But you know what? It works. It works with the sheeple who tune in to Rush/Hannity/Beck every day and hear them drone on and on about how climate-change is a myth, or that our taxes are too high, or that Obama’s a socialist, or whatever.

    I’ve talked to people who (having never taken an economics course in their entire life) will just say “Laffer Curve, Laffer Curve, Laffer Curve” over and over again as justification as to why they think that when you cut taxes, the revenue generated ALWAYS increases. They can’t explain it, they have no idea of the actual theory behind it (and why tax cuts won’t necessarily increase revenue), but they will defend that idea to the death.

    The biggest question is whether this “questionable arguments” are going to impact the majority of people who *don’t* listen to Hannity/Rush/etc. Is it going to turn moderates off like it did me? Or are moderates going to believe the BS talking points that the GOP puts out? I don’t know, we’ll just have to wait and see…

  • forkboy1965

    @sinz54

    I have no doubt that you are correct in stating that some on the left (perhaps the far left) are anxious to see wholesale changes in the way our nation makes use of the natural resources the world offers, but I think it a bit disingenuous to suggest they want this only for America.

    They do not want to “…take American down another few pegs,” but want all nations to engage in better stewardship of the planet. They’re call isn’t to downgrade America, but to bring sustainability to the world at large.

    Your particular phrasing is created to paint this issue as one of Left versus Right; anti-business versus pro-business. Personally, I don’t know anyone on the Left (including myself) who wants to see the U.S. (or the world at large) return to some sort of agrarian/pre-industrial revolution state. Instead, they (like myself) want to see us engage in smart decision making that allows business to grow, personal assets to grow, AND to keep our planet healthy so that it might continue to sustain our personal and business growth.

  • pampl

    There do exist neo-primitivists on the left. Just look at the nationally syndicated comic strip Minimum Security, for example. I don’t think they’re an especially large bloc, but they are there

  • abj

    forkboy1965 -

    Instead, they (like myself) want to see us engage in smart decision making that allows business to grow, personal assets to grow, AND to keep our planet healthy so that it might continue to sustain our personal and business growth.

    We’re in total agreement here, and it disappoints me when conservatives don’t even acknowledge that this is a worthy goal. Historically, a major tenet of conservatism has been conservation and protection of nature.

    Now, I don’t agree with, well, any of the Democrats’ policy proposals, but it’s a shame we aren’t advancing alternatives. So it goes, unfortunately.

  • Jim_M

    I won’t discuss religion on public forums. People become quickly agitated if they believe their faith has come into question. I understand. So, feel free to pray to whom you want when you want. But please do not be offended if I don’t kneel beside you.

  • ktward

    @pampl.

    ‘Neo-primitivists’?
    I thought that was an art movement term.

    I think I get your point, though, in that there exist ideo fringe elements in both ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ political factions.

    Thing is, in my 5-decade lifetime, I don’t ever recall a time in which the Left’s fringe steered the entire Dem boat, stem to stern. OTOH, the Right’s fringe is unquestionably, today, steering the GOP ship.

  • abrady

    Having recently visited several South Pacific Islands in the past few years, I can tell you that none of the residents of these countries care about the politics of global warming in the United States. They just care about the results that they see in their country’s increasing sea level and coral bleaching caused by increasing water temperature.

  • Poptech

    Unfortunately this article is misguided as the number of skeptic’s published peer-reviewed papers continue to grow,

    750 Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism of “Man-Made” Global Warming (AGW) Alarm

    http://www.populartechnology.net/2009/10/peer-reviewed-papers-supporting.html

  • Poptech

    I am disappointed to see so many commentators here referring to “climate deniers” or “climate change deniers” as both are laughably inaccurate. No skeptic deniers there is a climate or that it has changed or will change. The prevailing opinion among the most prominent skeptics is that their has been a mild warming since the end of the little ice age but there is no cause for alarm of government action. How much of this warming if any is caused by man-made CO2 is still being debated.

    In reference to conspiracy theories, again the prevailing opinion does not support any. Personally I am religiously agnostic, a supporter of evolution theory and do not support any conspiracy theories including 911, JFK or the moon landings. Politically I am a limited-government libertarian.

    To understand where rational skeptics are coming from I recommend reading the following,

    Caspar and the Jesus paper (Andrew W. Montford, B.Sc. Chemistry)
    http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/images/stories/papers/commentaries/caspar_and_jesus.pdf

    Circling the Bandwagons: My Adventures Correcting the IPCC (Ross McKitrick, Ph.D. Professor of Environmental Economics)
    http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/images/stories/papers/reprint/Circling_the_Bandwagons_Correcting_the_IPCC.pdf

    Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions? (Richard S. Lindzen, Ph.D. Professor of Atmospheric Science, MIT)
    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0809/0809.3762.pdf

  • CAPryde

    10-15 years ago, there were people totally denying climate change as a reality. Today, as Poptech points out, those folks have fallen back to saying, “Okay, there’s climate change, but it’s not man-made and it isn’t a big deal.” So give it 10-15 more years, and the debate will be over, as even that position loses its tenuous grip.

    The problem for the GOP is that its embrace of this position, like so many others, makes it look really stupid to folks outside the true believer circle. As the opinion continues to go against them, the circle will continue to shrink. Eventually they will have to change; the question is how much damage they are will inflict on the party in the process.

  • Madeline

    The problem for the GOP is that its embrace of this position, like so many others, makes it look really stupid to folks outside the true believer circle. As the opinion continues to go against them, the circle will continue to shrink. Eventually they will have to change; the question is how much damage they are will inflict on the party in the process.

    Fortunately for the Republicans, they have the ability to completely re-write history! Yes, they do! That’s how Afghanistan becomes “Obama’s war”. That’s how multiple prominent Republicans can go on the teevee and announce that there were no terrorist attacks during GW Bush’s presidency. That’s how Republicans can say that it was the Democrats who were against the Civil Rights Act, even though said act was passed by a House and Senate that had nearly 2/3 Democratic majorities, and was signed into law by a Democratic president.

    Mark my words, within a decade, the Republicans will claim to have always been “on the forefront of green technologies”, or some such nonsense.

  • sinz54

    busboy33: Why would you ascribe the writing of “Michael T. Klare, Nation defense correspondent, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College” to The Left?
    Because Dr. Klare is defense analyst for “The Nation,” which for 100 years has been the leading journal of LEFT-WING political thought in the United States. That’s the Left’s intellectual “brain trust,” just like National Review is for the right-wing.

    As for whether that view is common among the modern Left, you can look at Daily KOS (and don’t tell me that’s not representative of the American Left either). A search of diaries over the last 2 years (when America was ravaged by unemployment) returned the following hits:

    Health care: 3,749 hits
    Global warming OR climate change: 1,008 hits
    Unemployment: 899 hits

    Evidently putting Americans back to work is not as high a priority for these left-wing netroots as are the Really Big Issues ™ of global warming and health care.

    Franklin Roosevelt would have had the opposite priorities. Liberals of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (including my own parents) believed in strong economic growth, they wanted to see all Americans gainfully employed. Today’s liberals are of a very different stripe. They’re suspicious of economic growth on environmental and even on geopolitical grounds. And they have their heads in the clouds worrying about the future of The Planet ™.

    I’ve given you TWO good examples already: “The Nation” and “Daily KOS.”

    So don’t argue with me about it.
    Go argue with them.

  • greg_barton

    I tend to lump global warming deniers and renewable energy advocates into the same intellectual bucket.

    Yep. You heard me right.

    GW deniers happily ignore the numbers (temperature trends, etc.) to make thrir arguments, and renewable energy advocates do exactly the same thing. They ignore the fact that solar and wind will require far more materials use and far more construction costs than the most logical choice: nuclear. They ignore the fact that a significant portion of the Earth’s surface will need to be convered with panels and turbines, and that this poses significant problems. (Need to travel more, and thereby expend more energy, for both construction and maintenance.) They ignore the fact that en entirely new technology will need to be invented, the “smart grid,” to solve the fundamental but obvious problem of renewables: sometimes the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.

    So the real problem is that on both sides of this “debate” there’s a riot of willful ignorance. Unfortunately for the forseeable future the ignorant (on both sides of the political spectrum) have a tight grip on the reigns of power.

  • Carney

    It doesn’t have to be a Dr. Evil style conspiracy (although when groupthink gets strong enough and the perceived, supposedly world jeopardizing stakes get high enough one eventually can rationalize ever greater dishonesty and misconduct). It just needs to be a consensus, powerfully reinforced by social and cultural attitudes, ostracism, and control of grants and funding.

    While eager to describe a bias toward skepticism on the part of individualists, Kay never mentions the contrary possibility: that believers in collective action, and those who have a bent toward judgmental, ascetic, eco-Puritanism practice precisely the same sort of selective filtering, of acceptance bias, of an attitude that a rarifed elite should dictate to the rest of us how to live.

    Note his all-too-typical disdain for Americans driving large vehicles and the ethos of freedom that symbolizes – I have run across this many times, and if you scratch it enough the emotion goes beyond cocktail-party put-downs to creepily intense tribal hatred, complete with parody Southern or Western accents, mockery of Christianity, etc. If you present the idea that renewable, low or zero carbon footprint biofuels could supply this need, allowing a big family with lots of stuff to zoom off into the sunset in their fuel guzzling big fast robust powerful vehicle, they don’t WANT it to be true and look for reasons to ignore the data (because it would de-legitimize their longed-for agenda of forced austerity, of the deep satisfaction of imposing humiliation and deprivation on us that will punish us for our sins, take us down a peg and teach us a lesson).

    While those who make science and hard data their profession deserve respect, they are human and can go off the rails and do not deserve unquestioned deference.

    The Soviet Union, and all Communist cultures, glorified engineers, for example, and a number of senior Communist leaders in various states (Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Hu Jintao, Kosygin, Brezhnev, Ligachev, etc etc) were engineers by training. Perhaps there’s a certain cast of mind among scientists that makes a belief in central planning, and a horror of the “chaos” of freedom, more prevalent. Some (Yeltsin, Iliescu) break free of it; others do not.

    I recall the “Union of Concerned Scientists” constantly making itself useful to the USSR by pushing for pointless “arms control” treaties (useful because the USSR would always break them, while we did not, ensuring that we would fall behind), perhaps because that satisfied its members’ predilection toward tidy-seeming, sweeping, centralized solutions.

  • JJWFromME

    Careney: “It just needs to be a consensus, powerfully reinforced by social and cultural attitudes, ostracism, and control of grants and funding.”

    How would this happen in practice, though? If it were this big a coverup, the ambitions of every single scientist in all the world’s scientific institutions and associations would have to be suppressed. Science is a competitive endeavor. If you break the paradigm, your career is made. But no real suppression is seen, unless you count the claims of paid-for scientists like Pat Michaels and Fred Singer. Richard Lindzen of MIT all the time gets included in deliberations, but he’s such a loan wolf that it’s no wonder he has no power, and at this point he’s conceded just about everything.

    The best thing to do is look at the evidence produced, by all the independent research scientists. The evidence is so overwhelming, from so many independent institutions and sources, that your claim of all those collective thumbs on the scale strains credulity.

  • CAPryde

    “I recall the “Union of Concerned Scientists” constantly making itself useful to the USSR by pushing for pointless “arms control” treaties (useful because the USSR would always break them, while we did not, ensuring that we would fall behind), perhaps because that satisfied its members’ predilection toward tidy-seeming, sweeping, centralized solutions.”

    Wow. You’ve got to love Carney for bringing this back to fears about what we now know was an imaginary “missile gap” and claims about the ineffectiveness of treaties that Reagan himself appreciated.

    The Cold War is over, my friend. It turns out that the Soviets really aren’t coming for you. And given your posts elsewhere on this forum, I would hasten to add that the non-whites aren’t coming for you, either. And I suppose that I should probably reassure you with regard to both the Jews AND the Muslims, which is really saying something when you think about it. Ditto for the aliens, the hippies, the communists, etc.

  • drdredel

    @CAPryde,

    I’m an alien jew hippie and I AM coming for Carney, so speak for yourself!