December 4, 2015

The Four Steps Of Climate Change Denial

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The "Seine" meeting hall at the Paris climate summit.


The "Seine" meeting hall at the Paris climate summit.

This month, global leaders are gathered in Paris to make a plan to combat climate change. There is broad scientific consensus that climate change is real, serious and caused by humans—but political consensus in this country has been elusive, often clouded by doubt. Over the years, climate denial arguments have changed, but the result has stayed the same: blocking action on climate change.

As an energy reporter in Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal-producing state, it’s not uncommon for me to hear climate change denial. For example:

  • “For the last 18 years, we’ve had global cooling, instead of global warming.” — Scott Clem, WY State Representative
  • “We have 186% of normal snowpack. That’s global warming?” — Mike Enzi, U.S. Senator
  • “The climate’s changing, absolutely. The real debate is to what’s causing it.” — Larry Hicks, WY State Senator

As you can see, there is not just one argument against acting on climate change. In fact, over the years, dozens and dozens have emerged. It can feel like a game of Whack-A-Mole, with new reasons to doubt popping up whenever old ones fall out of favor. But we wondered: is there a pattern to the denial? I got in touch with Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who studies climate change denial. His answer? Sort of.

“Overall, since the early days, there have been sort of four main themes, but they have evolved as the evidence evolves,” Dunlap said.

Number one: The Earth is not getting warmer.

  • “There isn’t any warming going on, there hasn’t been. Nothing significant is happening.” — John Coleman, Weather Channel
  • “There is no science that proves that carbon dioxide is anything more than an inert gas!” — Tracy Melmer, ND farmer

Number two: It may be getting warmer, but it’s not because of us.

  • “The hoax is that there are people who are so arrogant that they think they have the power to change climate. Now that’s the hoax.” — Jim Inhofe, U.S. Senate
  • “Of course I believe [the] climate is changing. It’s changing all the time.” — Marti Halverson, WY State Representative

Number three: What’s so bad about a warming Earth anyway?

  • “Some warming would actually be good, for a lot of things and people!” — Rush Limbaugh, talk radio host
  • “There are lots of suggestions that more CO2 will be good for the world, will increase agricultural production…” — William Happer, physicist

Finally, there’s argument number four, one I’ve been hearing more often.

Number four: Maybe we are causing the planet to warm, but doing anything to stop it will be devastating to our way of life.

  • “It seems that there is a significant cost to our economy, our jobs and to our own country’s competitiveness.” — John Barrasso, U.S. Senator
  • “It will make no difference at all, and yet we’re destroying people’s lives and livelihoods.” — Carly Fiorina, Republican Presidential candidate
  • “If you took oil, gas and coal off the table and you still wanted the same amount of energy produced by wind turbines, you would have to have over 700,000 wind turbines in Wyoming. It would cover the entire state and part of Colorado. Now I don’t know how the endangered species feel about that.” — Matt Mead, Wyoming Governor

That argument is a long way from simply denying the existence of climate change, but Dunlap says all these arguments have something in common.

“All of these discursive moves, so to speak, are made with one firm, never ending goal, and that is: block action to limit carbon emissions,” he said.

Dunlap identifies lots of reasons why people don’t want to act: fear of government regulation, concern about the economic consequences, belief that God wouldn’t allow catastrophic warming. For all of those reasons, he says denial isn’t going away anytime soon.

In fact, with the Paris talks underway, Dunlap says it’s likely we’ll be hearing a lot more doubt in coming weeks. If the past is any indicator, that doubt could be effective at keeping us from acting.

What’s next?

    • Read the groundbreaking new study out of Yale that traces how climate change denial arguments originate, and how they’ve trended over time. The Washington Post also has a story about the study.


  • Also read a new study out of Michigan State University that establishes it’s much easier to sow doubt about climate change than to argue for action.