Why do people deny climate change?

As the new year starts we can reflect on a fairly “interesting times” sort of a year when it comes to weather. Both sides of the Atlantic have seen extremes of weather, with a prolonged drought in the Mid western USA and a number of devastating storms along the US Eastern Seaboard. Across the pond, Britain went from droughts in early summer (with talk of people’s water being cut off if things didn’t improve) to a series of floods and one of the wettest years on record.

Figure 1, storm, floods and drought in the US

Figure 1, storm, floods and drought in the US [Credit: silive.com]

Now it is always risky to blur the lines between “weather” and “climate”. While some of these weather patterns (drought in the US or more rainfall in the UK) are wholly consistent with projections as regards AGW. But others trends are not (the general view is that climate change should bring dry summers in the UK and wetter winters when in fact the opposite has happened in recent years). But that said, it’s a bit too early to be declaring a pattern, as the UK Met Office discusses here.

Figure 2, UK rainfall patterns 2012 [credit: BBC & UK Met Office]

Figure 2, UK rainfall patterns 2012 [credit: BBC & Source: UK Met Office]

But inevitably many people are scratching their heads and wondering aloud if this whole “Climate Change” issue might be the root cause of the recent weather chaos. Polls do seem to indicate that more and more people are getting the message as regards climate change, its potential impact and why we urgently need to do something about it. Even the Daily Mail seems to be coming around!

….But not everybody is convinced. There are still some refusniks out there who claim climate change is just a lot of wishy washy nonsense prompted by environmentalists. Some even go so far as to imply some sort of “conspiracy” against modern industrial society, or that climate change is promoted as some means of “government” control over society. This Libertarian blog post and this internet movie kind of sums things up.

Such belief’s seem to be deeply rooted within more right-wing individuals, such as Republicans, Libertarians or Conservatives. Of course climate denial is not an exclusively right-wing belief (and visa versa), but the polls do show a stark difference between those of a right wing mind set (about 30% believe in AGW) and those of more left-wing or centrists persuasions (70%) on climate. Indeed more Republicans believe in demonic possession than climate change.

This is having a direct effect on Republican politicians. Few if any of the leading Republican contenders in the last election would admit to the reality of AGW. And this has led to such King Canute like absurdities such as house republicans trying to ban the earth from warming (where’s mother nature’s birth certificate!), or North Carolina trying to legislate against sea level rise (i.e. by law the state now denies that sea levels are rising!). And Republicans, sore at loosing the recent election (in part due to Hurricane Sandy) are now refusing to pay for relief supplies to its survivors (essentially trying to deny the hurricane even occurred!)

Of course, as I discussed before, this denial of the facts almost certainly cost them many votes in key swing states, possibly enough to swing the last election Obama’s way. Indeed many moderates in the party now seem to acknowledge how damaging this denial is to the party.

Climate, weather & scientific uncertainty

But clearly doubters of climate change are getting their ideas from somewhere. In part, I would blame the fact that many ordinary people don’t understand how climate systems work for this. As noted some people often get climate and weather mixed up. For example I’ve heard the argument put “why if the world warms up by only 2′C how does that matter? It was 2′C colder yesterday and it will be 3′C warmer tomorrow”.

Of course I would point out that temperature difference between one climate zone and another (averaged over a year) can move north or south by hundreds of km’s on the basis of a single degree change in average climate temperature. This can have a huge impact on weather patterns, crop and plant growth rates and disrupt, move or eliminate the habitats of much wildlife. This and several other such notions are discussed and set right at the “Real Climate” website here.

Figure 3, Mean Autumn Temperature map for UK [Source: Metoffice.UK]

Figure 3, Mean Autumn Temperature map for UK [Source: Metoffice.UK]

I would also pin the blame on a lack of understanding of science and the principle of scientific uncertainty, as I discussed previously (scientific evidence is often incomplete, sensors don’t give readings that are 100% accurate, etc.) As this blog here shows (again from a Libertarian site) many people have a somewhat school body understanding of how science works. That we come up with a hypothesis run experiments, and either prove or disprove that hypothesis. In reality, its a little more complicated that this, largely because accumulating evidence to prove any detailed hypothesis beyond all doubt and uncertainty is a next to impossible task (how long is a piece of string? and all that!).

Figure 4, Gravity....its only a “Theory”

Figure 4, Gravity….its only a “Theory

Gravity for example is still just a “theory”. Now, take a running jump off something (H&S warning, not too high!) and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that +90% of what we think we know about gravity is completely accurate. However there are still gaps (and thus “uncertainty”) about certain issues, notably the effects of gravity on the very large scale and the very small scale (quantum gravity) and how to marry these two theories together. This is why we’re spending billions on particle accelerators to answer these riddles. We face similar issues with evolution (+90% of what we think we know is almost certainly correct, but the fossil record is incomplete, we’re still digging stuff out of the ground, thus scientists are forced to rely on an incomplete chain of evidence, supported by lab experiments and theoretical hypotheses).

Now the mistake made by creationists (I discuss their delusions in more detail here), flat-earth’ers or indeed climate change deniers is to hear the word “uncertainty” and insert the word “wrong” or “just guessing”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Its just professional scientists aren’t the business of 100% absolute truths (that’s the job of religion!), we’re about establishing what we do know and accepting that we don’t know (and can’t possibly know) everything.

Figure 5, the bumber book of right-wing science [Source: Cagle.com http://www.cagle.com/2012/10/republican-science/]

Figure 5, the bumber book of right-wing science [Credit: Cagle.com]

One of the often applied methods to get around this uncertainty is that of forming a “consensus” among leading scientists (which is exactly what the IPCC was setup to do!). This can lead to some heated debate and it is not unheard of for some scientists to cling to views that run against this consensus. Consider that the term “big bangwas coined by Fred Hoyle (Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis adviser), a noted critic of the Big Bang theory in order to disparage it.

In contrast to other areas of science, the consensus on climate change is pretty strong. Indeed by the standards of science the IPCC’s position represents a pretty broad consensus that the Earth is warming and that Greenhouse gases emitted by us are the primary reason for this warming. You will struggle to identify another area of science with such a level of strong consensus backing it up.

Of course as an engineer I would argue that the “debate” about climate change is largely moot and of academic interest only too climate scientists. In engineering we operate this thing called “the precautionary principle” which says that if you think you’ve got a problem, don’t wait for something to fail (potentially costing money or endangering lives) fix it straight away and quit worrying.

If you’re doctor told you you might have cancer and he recommends exploratory surgery to sort it out, you won’t refuse treatment until he was 100% certain (cos that would probably be when he’s doing you’re autopsy!). If the mechanic in you’re garage told you he was worried the brakes on your car might be defective you won’t wait until you’re sure they’d failed (likely when you really needed them, such as going down a steep hill!) before getting them fixed. The situation with climate change is not that different, yet essentially what the deniers are arguing is that we should wait until in all likelihood, it will be too late to do anything.

Denial Inc.

Of course the problems mentioned above are hardly helped by the propaganda and doubt spread by deniers and charlatans in the pay of the fossil fuel industry. This top ten” count down of the usual drivel from Fox News is a good example. Many millions have been spent over the last few decades on polemics aimed at confusing the issue. Again, Real Climate responds to some of these myths, as does Chris Beck of Grist.

But I think it would be foolish to lay the blame solely at the door of deniers like Lord Monckton or the Koch Brothers. Indeed, some of their propaganda, as I’ve noted before, has backfired….badly!

The Politics of Denial

Ultimately I would argue, at least as far as those on the political right are concerned there is a more obvious reason for climate denial. As this libertarian blogger points out, they deny climate change because they have too. They’re logic essentially is that, if climate change is real, then they can’t shrink government down and drown it in the bath tub, as only socialists solutions (as they see it) can save the planet from climate change.

I find it odd that the supposed supporters of capitalism seem willing to give up on it so easily. I’ve heard voices as diverse as George W. Bush, Obama, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland and head of UNHCR) all speak of a market led solution to global warming in some capacity. Opinions differ, both on the left and right of the political spectrum as to exactly what role corporations and governments should play in actions against climate change. Many on the Green/Left side for example are not exactly hot on the idea of our blundering politicians being put in charge, preferring instead to back more grassroots solutions to climate change.

But certainly at the very least, some sort of “legislation” would be needed, even if it is something as simple as a tax on carbon, or some sort of regulatory framework to gradually reduce greenhouse gas emissions (the European EURO vehicle emissions standards system being a good example). As George Monbiot points out, the Earth’s atmosphere is a global commons. And so long as someone can make money by dumping greenhouse gases in it, somebody will continue to do so, until some sort law is passed, or international treaty agreed upon to restrict or curtail these emissions….and that sort of requires some sort of “authority” to enforce said law/regulation.

Of course to right wingers, in particular libertarians, such a notion is unacceptable. Many go into full paranoia freak mode at the thought of “international treaties” (you know, foreigners who don’t even speak English meeting in foreign countries discussing something in a foreign language). Thus faced with the stark choice of either admitting that there is some role (limited though that might be) for governments to perform (aside from the obvious, cops, firemen, public utilities, etc.) or else denying climate change exists. Of course inevitably they opt for the latter.

And when those pesky scientific facts fail to support this belief, they are left with little choice but to opt for loony conspiracy theories instead. The crux of the infamous “Great Global Warming Swindledocu-fantasy was that right wing politicians such as the Thatcher and Reagan conspired with lefty green groups and academic professors (and one assumes the Roswell alien & Jimmy Hoffa!) to create this myth of global warming!

Deny, Deny…no…wait!..its a conspiracy!

And indeed such behaviour is rather typical of right wingers, again libertarians and tea party types in particular. One could argue that climate change is merely a symptom of a wider problem of pollution (there’s lots of nasty stuff we’re putting in the oceans and atmosphere that do a heck of a lot more damage in the short term than CO2!). But again, they deny this problem exists at all (or indeed propose some sort of conspiracy by liberal environmentalists against industrialisation).

Then there’s issues such potential future (or indeed present day) shortages of fossil fuels (see my peak oil primer) and primary metals. Now, as I discuss in a prior post on “the limits to growth there is perhaps a lack of clarity on both sides of this argument to the real issues at hand. i.e. we’re not “running out of oil” there’s plenty left, its just what’s left is harder and more expensive to extract with a much lower EROI. But certainly the libertarian position is to deny the problem exists at all (e.g. infinite resources on a finite planet!).

Indeed one could argue that pollution, climate change and peak oil are all merely symptoms of a wider problem called “overpopulation”. Again, the libertarian is forced to deny the problem exists (some even supporting ridiculous conspiracy theories about government’s plans to curb it).

Figure 6, Maybe Ron Paul's plans to get rid of FEMA need a rethink!

Figure 6, Maybe Ron Paul’s plans to get rid of FEMA need a rethink!

And even if libertarians can wriggle out from under this issues, there are many other things “big government” does that is important. Disaster relief for example (in a libertarian world, a storm washes away you’re house, you’d want to have a credit card handy when the helicopter comes to pluck you out of the sea!) or dealing with disease outbreaks.

Then there’s things such as international terrorism. Now while much recent such activity is, I would argue, blow-back from the West’s policy of securing oil supplies (as if we needed more reasons to kick the oil habit!). But suffice to say that there are some crazy people in the world who want to commit mass murder. Indeed, casing point, the most recent terrorist attacks in the US was conducted, not by muslims, but by a libertarian tea party member, while the most recent in Europe (Brevik) was conducted by a global warming denying neo-nazi.

But again, the libertarian, unable to accept that there’s a role for government to play in society (and that gun control mightn’t be a bad idea) is forced to deny these problems exist, or indeed as I discuss with regard to Sandy Hook, deny that America has a gun problem, propose unworkable solutions (arm kinder garden teachers and 6 year old’s with assault rifles!) and propagate wild conspiracy theories (such as the various 9/11-was-a-inside-job lunacy) to fill in the gaps.

And indeed even where libertarians are forced to confront the realities of climate change (or peak oil), they will often leap from one fantasy (denial) to believing in various fanciful solutions (geo-engineering, Abiotic oil, energy suppression and all that).

The LFTR system I critiqued a while back is a good example. The crux of my critique of this technology, is that its supporters have both overestimated the potential benefits and underestimated the technical difficulties to be overcome (Oliver Tickell‘s article summaries some of these points). Ultimately if you want to make nuclear energy (of course as I discuss here nuclear energy comes with many drawbacks and is not exactly cheap), the quickest and simplest way to do that is with a LWR, made out of an easily forged and mass produced metal like Steel, cooled by water, running on a once-thro fuel cycle. The LFTR’s, favoured by libertarians, are made from exotic and expensive nickel alloys and involve mucking around with toxic molten salts and radioactive lava! Of course unable to accept this reality, LFTR fans are forced to promote elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why the nuclear industry still favours LWR’s over LFTR’s to this day (hint, actually its because nuclear scientists (with their PhD’s and all) want to stick with a reactor technology that actually works!).

In summary

So in short, while we can blame some of the reason for climate denial on a lack of understanding of the issues by the general public, something not helped by a deliberate effort to confuse people spearheaded by many denier groups (some of whom are funded by the fossil fuel industry itself). But certainly a lot of denial has its origins in the fact that many are automatically distrustful of government (something I would argue is healthy in a democracy, after all its our job to hold the politicians to account!) and are allowing that distrust to cloud the science.

Figure 7, The consequences of Denial

Figure 7, The consequences of Denial

And unfortunately those on the political right and their attempts to cling to their fantasy views as regards politics, leaves them especially vulnerable. They want “big government off their backs” but of course as I’ve pointed out beforebig government” is essentially subsidizing many Tea Party states in America (who spend more federal money than they pay in taxes!).

The modus operandi of the rights seems to be to deny that any problem that could derail their philosophy exist. If this fails, blame some convenient scape goat (currently that would be Obama, before that it was Jon Steward, before that Michael Moore) and when confronted by those pesky annoying facts and science that disprove this, invent an elaborate (and generally implausible) conspiracy theory…..cycle repeats!

But as I’ve said if there’s one point to be gotten across, its that we’re better off leaving the climate science to the climate scientists and leaving politics (from both sides) out if the “debate“. Getting on with the job of starting the transition towards a low carbon future should be the priority and deciding what form that solution will take.

If there’s one thing that puts me firmly in the leftist camp, and ignoring like the plague any libertarian proposals, its there inability to come up with a plausible plan to deal with climate change that doesn’t involve denying its existence or resorting to conspiracy theory fantasy.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, LFTR, nuclear, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, thorium. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Why do people deny climate change?

  1. klem says:

    “why do people deny climate change?”

    Um, you seem to think the climate deniers are mostly on the right. I have a different experience. Almost every climate denier I know believes that the earths climate is naturally highly variable, the climate has always change and it always will. Their climate deniel is derived from acceptence of climate change. OTOH, almost every climate alarmist I know seems to think that the earths climate is flat, that there is little variability in climate, that any climate change is bad climate change and is caused by humanity’s sinful lifestyle. In other words, the true climate deniers are the alarmists, they reside mostly on the left.


    • daryan12 says:

      While true that the climate has undergone some dramatic changes in the past, generally there’s been something driving that change, be it a series of large volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, continental drift, changes in received solar energy. One of the most compelling arguments in favour of AGW is the fact we are seeing an unprecedented level of warming and cannot identify anything (natural) that could be driving that warming.

      For example the Permian extinction event was almost certainly caused by a series of very large eruptions in Siberia over an area of thousands of square km’s. The PETM event (which is the closest thing in the fossil record to our present trend of warming) was likely caused by a series of very large releases of Methane Clathrate (we’re talking vast areas of ocean literally bubbling with methane over the course of several hundred years). The ice ages saw whole continents buried under km’s of ice. If any of these events were happening today, we won’t knew climate scientists to tell us, it would be all to obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes. In short the IPCC are saying that the only thing that could be driving present climate change is us.

      Coby’s blog address this misconception further here:

      Further, my key point is, as an engineer my instincts are to fix a problem before it becomes a problem. The IPCC are 90% sure climate change is a reality, even John Christy (one of the few climate skeptics with credible scientific qualifications) reckons its about 40% probable. This is an order of magnitude more likely than it is that you’re house will burn down or that you’ll come down with a serious illness, yet most people don’t seem to mind paying for fire or life insurance. The position of “do nothing” on climate, even if you believe the skeptics is still irrational and dangerous.

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  4. David says:

    Why can’t I comment on this page?

    I’ll just comment here because this page actually lets me comment.

    “The crux of the argument seems to be the proliferation risk (I’ll come back to that one later), the fact that a number of its spend fuel outputs (such as Technetium-99) are “nasty stuff” with a long half life…”

    “Certainly the fission products from a Thorium reactor are a worry, Technetium-99 has a half life of 220,000 years, uranium-232 produces thallium-208 (a nasty wee gamma emitter), Selenium-79 (another gamma emitter with a 327,000 year half-life), even Thorium-232 is a problem with its half life of 14 Billion years (and while the T-232 isn’t a major worry, all the time during this 14 Billion years it will be decaying and producing stuff that is!).”

    These paragraphs have of errors.

    1) Technetium-99 is not harmful. I work with radioactive isotopes for diagnostic imaging and cancer treatment (my job title is medical physicist). We stick Technetium-99m into people all the time. It then decays into Technetium-99, which people piss out into their toilets and thus public water systems. Its half-life is long enough that it doesn’t have a high enough radioactivity to matter.

    2) Thorium-232 is not a problem. Its half-life is ridiculously long, meaning its radioactivity is ridiculously small. Also, the stuff that results form Thorium-232 decays necessarily comes into existence at a rate that is equal to the decay rate of Thorium-232. Again, that happens at such a ridiculously low rate, its not a danger.

    • daryan12 says:

      Why can’t I comment on this page?
      The page in question is part of a longer article, the comments section starts at the link below:

      I don’t claim to be a nuclear scientists, but merely highlighting the contradictions in the pro-LFTR argument. i.e. they will claim that LFTR’s produce no long lived isotopes and this is one of the key advantages of the thorium reactors over Uranium. but in fact the truth is that they do produce such long lived isotopes. Then the pro-LFTR cheerleaders will turn around and claim that actually long lived isotopes aren’t the problem, its the short lived stuff (such as they are proposing) that’s the problem ?!?

      Also for proliferation resistance, this requires a strong gamma emitting substance to be produced, as Furukawa etal (2008), one of the few pro-LFTR academics, explains:

      But then of course you’ve the problem of disposing of said waste. You can’t have it both ways!

      Reports by MIT, Harvard University and the UK’s NNL all claim that in reality a Thorium cycle would produce only a “modest” reduction in nuclear waste

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