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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Psychology of Denial: Climate Warming Scam

It’s been a stormy time in the science of climatology since various emails were hacked that revealed the British-based Climate Research Unit, a major contributor to the IPCC, had used bad data and dodgy coding in some of its reports.

The minimal scientific impact of this has been explored widely, but I’m more interested in the way it has regalvanised a movement which, dominant in the US blogosphere, and now increasingly vocal over here, seeks to deny the agreed probabilities of  both climate warming, and human contribution to it.

Once again, the blogosphere, while providing wonderful resources for fact checking, data analysis and corroboration, actually seems to be working in reverse, and actively promoting groupthink, irrationality and faith-based argument…  

Let’s be clear here. My scientific training is near zero, but I completely understand that climatology, as a science, is subject to rebuttal,  new data, new interpretation. I also understand that the theory of anthropogenic climate change is “just a theory…”

But evolution is just a theory, so is Quantum Physics. But they have become useful and permanent theories because they have both withstood the accumulation of new data, and have acted as  powerful predictive tools.

At the moment, the British blogosphere is filled with people who have an alternative theory: the ‘Climate Change Conspiracy Theory’. My argument is that this theory doesn’t fit with most of the data, is not predictive, and in that that sense it is akin to the ‘theory’ of creationism.

Scepticism or Credulity?

Even the the term climate change ‘sceptics’ is a misnomer, because rather like evangelical atheists, it soon becomes clear, once you challenge them on their assumptions, that we’re dealing with a belief system or ideology rather than rational debate.

The pattern of denial is nearly always the same…

Since the basic premises of anthropogenic climate change have been endorsed by more than 40 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries, the deniers/sceptics soon have to aver that 97% of the world’s scientists are lying to us.

More than that, this near cult of scientific denial also believes that there is a multi-agency, multi-media and almost global government conspiracy to hide the truth and twist the facts. They ignore data that doesn’t suit them, and cherry pick the small but inevitable errors and anomalies in this vast field of combined science.

Having analyzed their links, argued back with countervailing data, I’m now convinced the bulk of popular climate warming scepticism is a conspiracy theory, like 911 truthers who believed Bush was behind the Twin Trade Towers, or those who still believe the Moon Landings were staged. Like all conspiracy theories, it’s impervious to evidence because – a priori – anyone who disagrees with them is in cahoots with the conspiracy. So it goes round and round, becoming more extreme, paranoid.

So the climate change sceptics are not sceptics at all: they are a strange combination of cynics and zealous missionaries, an online elect who feel they are in possession of some special insight, and feel impelled to remind the blind and ignorant how everything coheres in a simple flash of demonic conspiracy.  

Like zealots,  they buttonhole you for hours on end, with that swivel eyed determination to prove they’re right and the whole world is wrong. And they band together, sharing stories of infinite treachery and data manipulation, so that they can fire themselves up with more outrage and internet links, to prowl the blogosphere and pounce on anyone who doesn’t follow their lurid line.

You couldn’t get further away from the scientific principle of empirical doubt.

Libertarian Wish Fulfilment

Let’s also just state the obvious. The extreme form of climate change scepticism I’m describing is also a form of wish fulfillment, because the belief that carbon emissions are not warming the atmosphere, allows true believers to carry on burning coal, flying across and the stratosphere, and drive gas guzzling SUVs with moral (if not financial) impunity. For this reason no doubt, much of the original online sceptical arguments, publications and think tanks were sponsored by oil companies such as Exxon Mobil

My hunch is that the ideology of this elect band of self selected experts is powered also by loose libertarian thinking.

Not only is climate change denial in their economic self-interest, it makes a toxic mix combined with the  political ideology of libertarianism, which sees every regulation as the road to serfdom, and an infringement on our god given rights to run riot over each other, and the planet.

This ideology is also driven by oppositional thinking: partly from a mistaken belief that environmentalism arose on the left (it didn’t) and then adds a dash of familiar paranoia that every warning (except terrorism) is, like Y2k, some kind of scam by scheming central governments to bleed us.

For full disclosure: I have no vested interest in the anti carbon lobby, no history of environmental activism. My first book about cities, A Shout in the Street, was a deliberate push back against the dominance of the eco myth of a pastoral idyll, and I’ve written about how a desire for environmental apocalypse is a new version of religious end thinking.

But the collective delusion on display here is quite unsettling and remarkable. I don’t think I’ve seen such a group of otherwise (relatively) rational people shut their minds to evidence quite so dogmatically.

It should go without saying that, for the sake of my kids, and their kids, I desperately hope all these tenuous and tendentious ‘facts’ they purport to have to disprove man made global warming turn out to be right: then I can return to this diary with egg on my face, and still drive my car, burn coal, leave the lights on, and not worry about the future of the planet. My wish fulfillment is strong too.

But nothing anybody has ever shown in these debates has reassured me. In fact, they’ve worried me more about the fate of humanity if it responds to crises in this irrational way.

Ideology versus Science

No scientific theory is ever complete – yet we mapped out the solar system and send rockets to planets on the basis of Newtonian physics, though it only partially explains astral physics. If we waited until we were 100 per cent sure of man made impact on climate change, it would by definition be too late to do anything about it.

The most persuasive voice in this is the founder of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock. For two decades he believed that the greatest risks of climate change had come from small plankton and bacteria producing ammonia in Devonian times. He thought human impact on climate was minimal and survivable. But then about six years ago he toured the major climatology centres, and studied the effects of plankton loss through warming, ocean stratification, loss of ice cover and albedo effects, methane release from permafrost, water vapour and other positive feedback loops, and became urgently convinced that carbon emissions needed to be mitigated before (in our terms) irrevocable and catastrophic change took place.

Climate Change is no longer about ecological or green issues. This isn’t at heart an ideological issue. The premise is a reversal of the classic environmental desire “to protect environmental systems from human activity”. Instead it is “to protect humankind from the activities of environmental systems.”

So taking ideology out of it. I have a simple rebuttal for the deniers.

A Simple Gedanker Test

Let’s imagine, rather than 97/3, that scientific opinion  was split 50 50 in terms of man made carbon emissions creating global warming.  Calculate the risks.

1. If the sceptics are right: the downsides or reducing carbon outputs  are pretty minimal – higher energy costs for sure, but less dependence on peak oil. They are also reversible

2. If the sceptics are wrong: the downsides of not reducing carbon emissions are catastrophic: desertification, loss of species, rise of sea level, and countless positive feedback loops in the oceans and tundra which make warming irreversible.

It’s pretty simple; the risks of doing something are lower than the risks of doing nothing.

Now I’ve heard a new response to this from the cocoons where climate sceptics gather. They say I’m now using Pascal’s wager as an argument for reducing emissions, and that somehow shows my  desperation. In fact, the analogy shows the desperation of the deniers.

Pascal’s wager was a gamble about personal survival in the next world.

Climate change is a gamble about collective survival in this world.

Perhaps this cartoon expresses it better still:

In the last year, I’ve seen climate change scepticism breed and multiply in British political debate. The misinformation and ignorance would be worrying in itself, but it’s bound to eventually affect policy. It was prevalent in the US when Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto protocols. It was sufficiently prevalent for Saudia Arabia to use it as a pretext for not doing anything to reduce emissions during the last Copenhagen round.

I’d urge you all, for our collective health, to push back against this cult where you find it: antidote it with fact, mock it with humour, point out the flaws in its conspiratorial premises, but above all to separate the science from the ideology.

Our lives could depend on it.



    Great diary.  We need to keep talking about this, not let it get upstaged by the teabaggers and Palin, etc.

    Your point about the preponderance of evidence is a good one.  Next time I argue with someone who would use a winter storm as evidence against global warming, I’ll try saying, “So would one really hot day be enough to convince you of global warming?”

  2. As you say, if the few who dispute the theory of anthropogenic climate change are right, then this will be little more than a footnote in the history of our times. If the overwhelming majority of scientists who support the theory are right then it is the paramount issue of our times. In fact, there may be no humans around to read the history of our times if the feedback loops they warn of finally kick in. We agonize over things like DADT and ignore this issue at our peril.

    One motivator for denial that you didn’t mention is Christianism. The belief that God would never allow us to destroy the planet. I’ve encountered that argument. I countered it with a very simple question. “What if God becomes so angry that he destroys mankind for abusing the planet?” The reply I got was that God said after the flood that he would never do that again. My reply was another question, actually two questions. “How can you be sure? Do you mean to tell me there are no examples in the Bible of God changing his mind?”

  3. Shaun Appleby

    Is a marvelous framing, we all know about ‘denial,’ right?  It’s a great way to separate the rationalists and the irrationalists with one simple question.  The portable, practical litmus test for stupid.  May come in handy sooner than we think!  Ironic that the fundamentalists are the ones with the eschatological belief system in search of an apocalyptic causation, and yet…

  4. DTOzone

    In all seriousness, the new argument from the right now seems to be “Yes, Climate Change exists, but it’s natural and we can’t do anything about it, it’s just a convient excuse for liberals to take away our freedom”

    so, yet another dead end.

  5. HappyinVT

    Seeking to protect the oil industry, the Alaska state legislature has appropriated $1.5 million to fund an astroturf campaign to weaken the Endangered Species Act and put on a conference questioning the listing of polar bears as a threatened species.


    The primary purposes of the conference will be to challenge the listing of polar bears and to determine the best ways to lessen the impacts of the Endangered Species Act for the oil and gas industries.

    To do that, a Harris aide told the Anchorage Daily News, the PR firm will “initiate a grass-roots movement” to go to Congress and demand reforms to the law.


    Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, planned to announce Monday that NOAA will set up the new Climate Service to operate in tandem with NOAA’s National Weather Service and National Ocean Service.


    The new agency will initially be led by Thomas Karl, director of the current National Climatic Data Center. The Climate Service will be headquartered in Washington and will have six regional directors across the country.

    Lubchenco also announced a new NOAA climate portal on the Internet to collect a vast array of climatic data from NOAA and other sources. It will be “one-stop shopping into a world of climate information,” she said.

    Creation of the Climate Service requires a series of steps, but if all goes well, it should be finished by the end of the year, officials said.


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