Why We (Still) Don’t Believe in Global Warming

Between July 8 and July 12, scientists captured by satellite something that had never been observed before: the melting of 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet surface, an event that many have warned would happen due to global warming.  NASA scientists were cautious to point out that ice core records show that rapid melting has happened in Greenland in the past, roughly every 150 years. The last one occurred in 1889, so perhaps this is part of a cycle. The Canadian National Newspaper ran the headline “Greenland ice melt foreshadows planetary armageddon” and Fox News declared the link to global warming “a bunch of hot air.” The controversy over what caused the melting reveals the difficulty of attributing any meteorological event to climate change. Meanwhile, July in the lower 48 states sizzled 3.3° F hotter than the 20th century average, the warmest on record, following the warmest twelve-month period the nation has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, NOAA’s 2009 State of the Climate Report confirmed that 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record.

Despite the mounting evidence that the earth is warming, Americans have become increasingly more skeptical and disengaged about climate change. In a study about Americans’ perceptions of climate change conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the number of Americans who described themselves as “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change declined from 51% in 2008 to 39% as late as March of 2012. The number of Americans who describe themselves as “doubtful” or “dismissive” of climate change rose from 18% in 2008 to 25% in 2012. Why has it become so hard to convince Americans about the dangers of climate change? Why are Americans up in arms about the economic recession or international terrorism but nonchalant about climate change, which is just as dangerous, if not more so? The answer may not have to do so much with the quality of climate science, but other factors, such as culture and communications in society today. 

The science is complicated. Unlike problems such as the build up of pesticides in the environment or the formation of the ozone hole, the effect of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere does not easily lend itself to analogies. Carbon dioxide itself is not toxic, and its natural occurrence in the atmosphere keeps the planet warm enough to sustain life. But in large quantities, it’s as bad for us as breathing in a crowded room with no ventilation. Even if we understand the greenhouse effect enough to know that more carbon dioxide leads to a warming of the atmosphere, the consequences of warming are not straightforward either and are often counterintuitive. For example, warmer air is more humid, which in a cold climate creates more snow. Skeptics point to snowy winters as proof that global warming is not happening when in fact increased snowfall is evidence of warming. Or consider the fact that melting of the Greenland ice sheet could dilute the Gulf Stream which would plunge Northern Europe and New England into a freeze.  A few degrees of warming sounds not so bad, even pleasant if you live in the North, but the growth of crops and the lifecycle of animals is incredibly sensitive to even small changes in temperature; a few degrees of warming would throw off the balance of entire ecosystems. Understanding the data and concepts behind climate change is not an easy task, and Americans, with our short attention spans, too often accept simple explanations that confirm preconceived notions.

Climate denial is a well-funded industry. If the science of global warming was not the easiest to understand to begin with, well-moneyed special interest groups have made it infinitely harder by hiring “experts” to feed a steady stream of articles, videos, and books to sow confusion around the science of climate change. But one does not have to dig very deep to find how little credibility these groups really have.

One of these think tanks, The Heartland Institute, was dubbed by The Economist as “the world’s most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.” Founded in 1984 in Chicago, its self-proclaimed mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” Among its many outreach activities, Heartland produces monthly newsletters on policy issues such as environment and healthcare distributed to policy makers. It releases press releases for journalists and reporters on research that support its positions, supports speakers to present at events and testify before committees, hosts conferences, funds advertisements, videos, podcasts, and school curriculums that promote its free market agenda.

The Heartland Institute says that no corporate donor contributes more than 5 percent of its annual budget, yet according to Sourcewatch.org, the organization’s Form 990 showed that public support made up just 33% of contributions in 2009, the rest of its funding came from private foundations, including Exxon Mobil. Similarly Greenpeace’s meticulous research on Exxon Mobil corporate giving reveals that since 1998 Exxon Mobil gave more than $676,500 to The Heartland Institute.

One of Heartland’s main projects has been publishing a series of reports from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (to be confused with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) called Climate Change Reconsidered, a 430 page document that challenges the IPCC position on human-induced climate change. This document has been widely cited by climate skeptics and mainstream media as a credible counterargument to the IPCC. And who are the authors of this audacious report?

First author Fred Singer is a well-known climate skeptic who received his PhD in Physics from Princeton and was former Director of the US National Weather Satellite Center. Singer founded the Science & Environmental Policy Project, which in 1998 and 2000 received $20,000 from Exxon Mobil. Under its guise Singer authored the Leipzig Declaration, a document signed by 126 scientists declaring that there is no scientific consensus on global warming. When journalist David Olinger of the St. Petersburg Times investigated the declaration, he discovered that of the 126 signers, 25 were TV weathermen, a profession that requires no in depth knowledge of climate research, other signers included a dentist, a medical laboratory researcher, a civil engineer, many who could not be located, and others with no credentials in the field of climate research. Of the 33 European signers, four of them could not be located, 12 denied ever having signed, and some had not even heard of the Leipzig Declaration. Those who did admit signing included a medical doctor, a nuclear scientist, an expert on flying insects, as well as climate scientists that had obtained grants from the oil and fuel industry.

Second author Robert Carter is a paleontologist and retired marine geologist at James Cook University in Australia. According to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, Carter was on the research committee at the Institute of Public Affairs, “a think tank that has received funding from oil and tobacco companies, and whose directors sit on the boards of companies in the fossil fuel sector.” He is known to have stated that “the role of peer review in scientific literature was overstressed.” Carter’s own website claimed that he received no funding from “special interest organizations”, but this was shown to be untrue with the release of private Heartland Institute documents in February 2012, which showed Carter was funded $20,000 annually by Heartland.

Third author Craig D. Idso is listed as chairman, founder and former president of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, a organization that promotes the view that “atmospheric CO2 enrichment brings growth and prosperity to man and nature alike.” Idso’s biography lists him as author or coauthor of several books, one of which is published on his own website, two that are published by other conservative think tanks, and two others, The Many Benefits of Atmospheric CO2 Enrichment (2011), and CO2, Global Warming and Coral Reefs (2009), both published by Vales Lake Publishing. The latter turns out to be a vanity press with a one page website representing only three authors besides Idso.

Now do these sound like authors whose research and opinion on climate change we would trust over those of the Nobel Prize winning IPCC? Climate Change Reconsidered is just one title in the sea of climate skeptic literature. In “The Organization of Denial”, academics Peter Jacques and Mark Freeman found that 92 percent of climate denying books published between 1972 ad 2005 in English were published by conservative think tanks, written by authors affiliated with those think tanks, or both.

Another conservative think tank at the center of the global warming misinformation campaign is Competitive Enterprises Institute. Founded in 1984, CEI conducts “research on public policy that reflects the principles of free enterprise, individual liberty and limited government.” Since 1998, CEI has received more than $2 million from Exxon Mobil to fund its research and operations, more funding than any other think tank. Other known corporate funders include the American Petroleum Institute, Cigna Corporation, Dow Chemical, EBCO Corp, General Motors, Ford, and IBM. In its work on global warming, CEI has argued that climate change would create a “milder, greener, more prosperous world” and that “Kyoto was a power grab based on deception and fear.”[1] In addition to climate change, CEI is a leading force behind campaigns to fight government regulations on everything from genetically modified foods to the disposal of hazardous wastes.[2]  All together, CEI and other conservative Think Tanks received more than $20 million in funding from Exxon Mobil alone in the years after the creation of the Kyoto protocol.

The media is “balanced.” The scientific community is virtually united in its verdict that climate change is happening and is caused by human activities, yet the media makes it sound like scientists are very much divided on this issue. With the numerous conservative think tanks poring money into the business of climate denial, it’s not hard to see why this might be the case. These organizations leave no stone unturned in the PR campaign against climate change science. One of these organizations, the Information Council on the Environment, provided a PR strategy in a leaked memo to “reposition global warming as a theory” and “supply alternative facts to support the suggestion that global warming will be good.”[3] Among its strategies was to create a climate change information kit that could be mass distributed to media outlets. It would also roll out newspaper, television, and billboard advertising, Instead of targeting the papers of large cities where journalists and readers are better informed, the organization would market to small town newspapers and TV stations that have a harder time finding material. The organization also launched a video called “The Greening of Planet Earth”, sent to sent to university and public libraries all over the country, that casts carbon dioxide as a fertilizer that will promote plant growth. The Information Council on the Environment became inactive when one of their strategy documents was leaked, but other climate denying organizations have picked up the tactics and applied them with increasing zeal.[4] Whenever one of the organizations was exposed for supplying unreliable information from false experts, another organization popped up (often run by the same people) to continue the deception.

If denialist organizations are zealous about getting across their point of view, climate scientists, with the intention of being honest and precise, tend to be cautious and unassuming of what they say. There is always a degree of uncertainty in scientific research and scientists are quick to admit it. In the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, the authors state that it is “very likely” that human activities are the cause of global warming. In the report, the authors define “very likely” to mean more than 90% confidence in their conclusions. However, skeptics have used the IPCC’s choice of words to suggest that even the authors themselves are not certain about climate change. But as James Hoggan put it, “if scientists told you that there was a more than 90% chance that your plane would crash, you would assuredly forego the trip.” But when the conveyance of choice is planet Earth, the skeptics consider it ok to take the risk.[5]  The academic language used by scientists is often off-putting to the general public, and their publications are confined to academic journals read by other academics. To their detriment, scientist also tend to spend more money on research and not very much on outreach to help the general public understand the implications of their research. No wonder then that the skeptics are able to overwhelm the media channels with their own message about climate change.

The media has also exacerbated the problem in its desire to provide balanced coverage. Reporting both sides of an issue is legitimate when it comes to policy issues such as gun control or what should be done to address climate change, where opinions vary based on personal philosophy, but it is no way to report climate science. In climate change, 99% of scientists may agree that climate change is human induced, but the media will also report the opinion of the 1% (funded by fossil fuel companies) who disagree and make it sound like the scientific community is 50/50 on the issue. Journalists and TV anchors, especially in secondary markets, who are harried to produce stories on short notice, often do not bother to check the credentials of those who pose as “climate experts”. Stories about drama and controversy also sells more papers and attracts more viewers than reports about consensus. The result is that the effort to be balanced actually creates a biased picture of reality.

The death of the moderator. It used to be that if someone wanted to publish their research, the person would need to have a university affiliation, go through the process of submitting it to a journal, get peer reviewed or at least vetted by an editor, and have a press print and distribute physical copies. Nowadays, anyone with a keyboard can put their opinion onto the internet, where it can get picked up and circulated through tweets, Facebook shares, emails as well as make its way into radio and television. We no longer have a moderator that screens the information that lands in our laps. A generation ago, the IPCC would have been the only source of information on climate change, and you would have learned about it through Time Magazine, the New York Times, or another reputable outlet in print or on television. Today anyone who can make an attractive website can appear pretty legitimate, and it’s up to the reader to decide what to believe. What gets repeated in the digital world is no longer what is the most important, but what is the most popular.

In the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nichols Carr observed that that the internet, and the dominance of digital information, may be changing the way we think. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” Carr said, “My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages….The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” Our highly technological lives have made it harder for us to concentrate on any one activity and easy for us to shift our attention from one thing to another, led by our whims and obsessions. Television, competing with a multitude of channels and entertainment options, tries to keep our attention through sensational one-liners and bombastic personalities. Book reading has declined and writers struggle to convey information in shorter and shorter sound bites. None of this creates an environment in which a lay person can make sense of climate science, neither does it allow for a rational debate where credentials can be checked and facts verified. Unable or unwilling to understand the material for ourselves, we are left to the opinions of whichever spokesperson we decide to trust. Or, not trusting any, to throw up our hands at the confusion engendered by too many voices.  

Nobody likes bad news. Perhaps there is another reason that we still don’t believe in climate change that doesn’t have to do with conspiracies or the media. Maybe we just don’t want to believe in something with such terrifying import and that demands from us such responsibility. Patients who are very sick don’t want to believe that they going to die, just like people who are healthy don’t want to buy health insurance. Climate change happens to be very bad news, and bad news that individually we can do little about. It feels better to believe that it’s not happening or that there isn’t anything we can do about it. It resolves us of guilt or responsibility.

All this may sound like there is no hope of bringing clarity to the situation, but the good news is that much about climate change is clear. The truth is that the disagreement over climate change is not because of a lack of agreement in the scientific community, but a host of cultural and political factors, not the least of which is the deliberate campaign of misinformation funded by a powerful industry. Noami Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California-San Diego, conducted an exhaustive search of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles on global climate change that were published between 1993 and 2003. Of the 928 articles she found, not a single one took exception to the position that human activities are causing global warming. In her carefully documented 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes shows how the same scientists that deny global warming also actively worked to cast doubt on the dangers of tobacco smoke, the harm of pesticides, and the problem of the ozone hole.

The expose is out, and we no longer have an excuse to continue to be deceived. Both individuals and the media must think critically about the information we consume, and scientists have the responsibility of communicating information in ways that are accessible and compelling. We cannot let the temptation of easy explanations and enticing advertisements draw us astray from making responsible decisions. For years, the tobacco industry tried to convince the public that cigarette smoking was not harmful to health, using many tactics now applied towards climate change. But the tide of public sentiment has risen sufficiently that today smoking is banned in almost all public spaces in America. We need to apply the same resolve to climate change and cure our addition to fossil fuels. It is not an easy task, but if we are to take our planetary health seriously, it may be the only option we have.

Sources


[1] R. Brunet, “It Just Ain’t So, Say These Reputable Scientists” Alberta Report, 10 November, v.24(48) 1997 p20-21

[2] Beyond the Theories: Think Tank Debunks Popular Myths; Audrey Hudson, May 18, 2004, Washington Times

[3] Hoggan, James. 2009. Climate Cover Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver: Greystone Books. p. 32.

[4] Hoggan, James. 2009. Climate Cover Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming.Vancouver: Greystone Books. p. 32.

[5] Hoggan, James. 2009. Climate Cover Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver: Greystone Books. p. 69.

11 thoughts on “Why We (Still) Don’t Believe in Global Warming

  1. You make some very good points, to which I will add another couple. 1) The adverse impacts of climate change are difficult to predict specifically. In other words, it is very difficult to predict which crops will fail, or which species will go extinct. It’s hard to get people concerned about adverse outcomes that can only be described imprecisely. 2) The perception that nothing can be done. The sense that climate change is now inevitable discourages timid minds from even acknowledging it. This binary, all-or-nothing, view of climate change is one unfortunate side effect of conservationists who argue that unless the CO2 concentration stays below 350 ppm, catastrophe will result. It’s now clear that CO2 will not be below 350 ppm for a long time, and we ought to be thinking of adaptation and management in addition to mitigation.

    • Hi Peter, I think another very troubling thing is the fact that the opposition has framed climate change as a political issue, where people are told that climate change is a scheme for government to take more control over our lives and limit our lifestyles. It has become associated with socialism. They are very good at linking climate change to hot button issues that the Right instinctively rage over.

  2. This is a good contribution. Thanks!

    I think that your points about the media being “balanced” and the lack of a moderator are true. However, they sort of work at cross purposes. The media as set up over the 20th century is not equipped to provide us with valuable information, in part because they are stymied to a model of objectivity that requires them to give voice to opposing sides on an issue and not make either look wrong. But that means that the lack of a moderator is potentially a very good thing in this sense: the old moderator was not helping. Now that new media not burdened with “objectivity” can reach a mass audience, we have a great channel for persuading people.

    I suspect that the solution to our problem is less to enthrone a new moderator than it is to teach kids how to reason and navigate the media. We’re doing a very bad job of teaching kids media literacy. I think our best bet for raising the level of public debate is educational reform. English teachers need to be a bit less focused on teaching literature and a bit more focused on teaching media, or at least teach the analytical skills for grappling with media while teaching literature. The same could be said for math and science: less pure math and science, and more application of math and science to everyday problems. And given that kids are going to be much more interested in these applied cases, I suspect that a strong media education doesn’t even preclude rigorous training in pure math, science, or literature.

  3. no where did i read anything other than personal attacks. where is your balance? who funds ‘climate science’? taxpayers via governments. what happens when you finally admit you cannot prove our around 3% (of total global emissions ) of co2 is causing catastrophic warming? your funding gets cut. unemployment. is there no conflict of interest? its very obvious there is. for what purpose were 4500 of 6000 places in the world where temperature is measured removed, mainly from the coldest places on earth? to help ‘prove’ AGW. there was new zealand court case over manipulating the data. proven in a court of law as good as the USA or australia’s. i am not that dumb. measuring the temp of the mountainous bolivia by averaging the temperatures from the coast of peru and the amazon jungle is ridiculous and the poorest science i have ever heard of. why dont they just go back to how it was done before? by actually measuring in bolivia like it used to be. it would make fools of them and their ‘science’. its fraud and you will know it if you care to find out.

    here in australia we have a ‘climate commission’ that is so over funded it bought for $18,000 each coffee making machines for its offices. they were neither solar or wind powered either. they jetset all over the world attending AGW partys, umm, i mean conferences. a real gravy train industry living off the hardworking taxpayer. skeptical? of course the ordinary person is. oceans rising 8 stories high? yeah thats been claimed, now its down to a metre? the water markers still remain in sydney and hobart from the 1780s or 90s and show no rise at all? unbelieveable isnt it? its true nonetheless. so its actually risen slightly, unnoticably, in over 200 years but will rise a metre in 90 years? i want to laugh but this fraud is costing us ordinary people billions. government keep paying because they keep getting told ‘we must act’, yet china itself will undo anything the few countries who are trying to reduce co2 will do. climategate was a disaster for AGW and still is. so is the other – 92+ scandals- yet to be proved untrue by ‘climate scientists’. what do they actually study for that? meteorology? lol you trust the weatherman to tell you the weather in 100 years but he fails on next week? a real ‘climate scientist’, in my opinion, has a phd in physics, meteorology, electrical engineering (disagree? these are more important than all of them for their understanding feedback mechanisms) and paleoclimatology. then they will have the education behind them. too many unqualified idiots talk alarmist nonsense they couldnt ever dream of understanding.

    everyday i read more alarming propaganda predictions. one even blamed AGW for earthquakes which is the funniest own goal i ever seen kicked. i think its time to dig up some old predictions from the 90′s that concerned now and publish them in every major newspaper in the world. who will have egg on their faces, the ‘skeptics’ or the nut cases who will not accept with a religous fervor any peer reviewed science that doesnt fit their ideology? skeptics are not all right wing conservatives as you suggest nor are ‘believers’ from the socialist left. why? i cannot be from the right. i’m a construction worker (carpenter), union member, ‘together we stand, divided we fall’ kind of guy.

    i dont mix politics and science. yet one side is funded by government and the other you allege is from the oil industry. actually, not many skeptics are on anyones payroll, they just dont believe that 77 of 79 scientists constitutes a worldwide ‘consensus’ when the questions were horribly loaded, vague and another 10,000 or so were struck off the survey. i have seen what your lot constitutes as consensus and i call bullshit. if the science speaks for itself then why do we need to be convinced by your ‘consensus’ garbage? we are not stupid and we see through all this rubbish. i’m sorry if you cannot. we dont we need re-educating, you lot do. brainwashed.

    • You’re asking for someone to have a simultaneous understanding of everything at once so they can predict conclusively that a particular place on earth will be in a specific condition on a specific date, other wise their opinion is no different than any bloke on the street. You might do as well by asking someone to predict where a particular fish will be in the ocean on a particular day so you can put your hook in the water to catch it without having to wait. People are not Gods.

      It was unfortunate that the climate hysterics were the introduction most people had to the issue, but unfortunately it’s the noise that gets the press and it’s equally unfortunate that we were encouraged to pick a side. All or none. The reality is no one can comprehend just how the earth will react to the increase carbon levels, the increased population levels or the continued extraction of water and hydrocarbons from the earth’s crust. Scientists can model potential outcomes. Some will prove to be true. Some will not happen, but to say nothing will happen goes beyond being a skeptic. It’s being willfully ignorant. I understand that the prospect of facing some some of the probable outcomes is too horrible to countenance, but we ignore and dismiss facts at our peril.
      We may end up as the proverbial frog that doesn’t jump out of the pot of water as it heats from comfortable to killing.

  4. Never pay heed to anyone who claims that they are not stupid.

    As for the article itself- A reasonable synopsis. The words we use are still a problem- Global change (warming and all the rest) is not subject to “belief!” It is science pure and simple. We observe, we hypothesize, we test, we measure, we interpret, and we may finally conclude, but we never “believe!” People can believe whatever they like, but that is not science. I can believe that Brahms was a more expressive composer than Bach, or that blue is a prettier color than pink, but climate is not a matter for belief. We should not use the term.

    • Thanks. I agree that “belief” is not the word we should be using for climate change. Yet I use it to highlight the attitude Americans have towards climate change.

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