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Monday, November 21, 2011

Peter Gleick: The Rise and Fall of Climate Change Denial

The Rise and Fall of Climate Change Denial

by Peter Gleick, CEO Pacific Institute, MacArthur Fellow, National Academy of Sciences, Forbes, November 21, 2011
When scientific findings have big consequences for policy and politics, anti-science ideology and denial flourish. Religious ideology led the Church to deny Galileo’s scientific findings about the motion of the planets and stars and has fed the continuing denial of evolution in favor of fundamentalist claims of creationism. Stalinist ideology denied the science of genetics and led to a crippling of Soviet agriculture and biology for decades. And a mix of anti-government, pro-fossil fuel, and anti-environmental ideology underlies current denial of human-caused climate change.
Evidence and reality have little influence on some (as this humorous New Yorker piece describes). A sizeable number of Americans still deny the reality of the American moon landings. Polling consistently shows that around six percent of Americans (nearly 20 million) think we’ve never made it to the lunar surface, while another five percent are uncertain. A 2009 story in Newsweek showed that these numbers have been steady since 2001 when the Fox television network (itself a media stalwart in the field of climate-change denial) aired a straight-faced program called “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” Astronaut Buzz Aldrin once punched out a “denier” who claimed landings were faked. Another astronaut, Harrison Schmitt (ironically a self-described climate-change denier), also used the term:
“If people decide they’re going to deny the facts of history and the facts of science and technology, there’s not much you can do with them,” he said. “For most of them, I just feel sorry that we failed in their education.”
The use of the term “denial” and “denier” is regularly applied in instances where a small group of people reject proven science and broadly accepted facts, such as moon landing deniers, those who still challenge the link between smoking and cancer, or between HIV and AIDS (see the discussion on “AIDS denialism“), or human-caused climate change (see recent uses of the term in the GuardianSalon, and Washington Post).
Perhaps the most straightforward definition of scientific denial comes from Mark Hoofnagle, who describes it as the use of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate over issues for which a strong scientific consensus exists, and he offers insights into how to identify such denialism, particularly in the field of climate change.
Deniers can be distinguished from climate “skeptics.” There are plenty of true climate change skeptics because there is good science that remains to be done, questions that still need answers, and open-minded scientists able to answer them. Indeed, all true scientists are skeptics if we raise specific doubts about specific claims, develop alternative hypotheses, test them, and if we do not reject conclusions because of ideology, the lack of absolute certainty (which is unattainable), or occasional errors.
Climate change denial is ultimately doomed to whither from natural causes, overwhelmed by the science and reality of climate change, the compelling observational evidence from every corner of the planet (OK, trolls, I know the planet doesn’t have “corners” in the flat Earth sense), and the increasing severity of extreme weather events influenced by climate change. I don’t mean to suggest that climate denial will disappear. It never will. Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” noted that some fraction of believers of a failed or replaced scientific concept will hold onto their disproven theories until they die, rejecting all evidence that doesn’t agree with their beliefs. But this isn’t science; it is blind faith. A good example of this is the reaction of climate deniers to the evidence affirming once again that the Earth is warming, suggesting that some will never be able to accept the fact of human-caused global climate change no matter what the science says.
Some of those who argue against the science of climate change use the term proudly. Here are just four examples:
  • Professor Richard Lindzen from MIT says he prefers the term denier to skeptic. “I actually like ‘denier.’ That’s closer than skeptic.”
  • Lawrence Solomon wrote a book entitled: The Deniers, profiling a number of well-known scientists.
  • At the 2009 Heartland Institute anti-climate science conference, astronaut Harrison Schmitt (described above) called himself a “true quote ‘denier’ unquote of human-caused global warming.” [Here is the actual clip.]
  • The Heartland Institute, which receives financial support to promote climate denial, also promotes a video “I’m a Denier” with the following introduction: “This song is in honor of all the new Republican Freshman entering Congress and the Senate most of whom are Deniers and proud of it.”
Deniers won’t go away, though a measure of their diminished influence can be seen in their increasingly desperate ad hominem attacks on scientists rather than attacks on the science (see, for example, virulent personal attacks on IPCC scientists or individuals such as Drs. Michael Mann and James Hansen). But it is time for policymakers and the media to stop taking deniers seriously until they do what real scientists do: provide testable scientific theories, observations, or evidence that hasn’t already been decisively debunked and that proves to be better than the current theories and hypotheses at explaining what we see happening around us. Not only have deniers failed to do this, the evidence for human-caused climate change has continued to deepen and strengthen for decades. There’s no denying that.

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