The Pillars of Climate Change Denial

Attacks on the teaching of climate change tend to use certain rhetorical tropes, themes repeated again and again: these are the pillars of climate change denial. Briefly, they are:

Pillar 1: Climate change is bad science

Pillar 2: Acceptance of climate change is driven by radical ideological motivations and leads to undesirable social consequences

Pillar 3: It is only fair to acknowledge a scientific controversy over climate change

Recognizing these pillars, understanding why they are mistaken, and knowing how to counter them effectively are critical to defend the teaching of climate science and to support its inclusion in formal and informal education. The discussion here focuses on the context of formal and informal education, although the pillars appear in discussions of public policy as well and have therefore been formulated in general terms.

The pillars of climate change denial are similar to the pillars of creationism

The first pillar of climate change denial — that climate change is bad science — attacks various aspects of the scientific consensus about climate change. As discussed in Climate Change 101, the scientific community’s consensus, based on over a century of research, is that the Earth’s climate is changing significantly, that human activity is significantly responsible for the change, that the change will have a significant effect on the world and our society, and that humans are able to take significant actions to reduce and mitigate its impact.

Accordingly, there are climate change deniers:

  • who deny that significant climate change is occurring
  • who acknowledge that significant climate change is occurring, but deny that human activity is significantly responsible
  • who acknowledge that significant climate change is occurring and that human activity is significantly responsible, but deny the scientific evidence about its significant effects on the world and our society
  • who acknowledge that significant climate change is occurring, that human activity is significantly responsible, and that it will have a significant effect on the world and our society, but who deny that humans can take significant actions to reduce or mitigate its impact

Of these varieties of climate change denial, the most visible are the first and the second: denial that significant climate change is occurringand denial that human activity is significantly responsible. But all at least partly contradict the scientific community’s consensus on the answers to the central questions of climate change.

Because the scientific community’s consensus is the best standard available for judging what is good science, the primary way to counter the first pillar is to refer to the consensus — as displayed, for example, in authoritative statements from scientific organizations or systematic reviews of the scientific research literature.

Reference to the scientific community’s consensus surrounding climate change, however, is not likely to be sufficient. Climate change deniers have developed techniques for responding, by:

  • denying that there is such a consensus,
  • acknowledging that there is such a consensus, but denying that the evidence on which it is based is genuine, or
  • acknowledging that there is such a consensus and that the evidence on which it is based is genuine, but denying that the evidence supports the consensus

None of these responses is convincing, however.

Attacks on the existence of the consensus are often supported by the citation of a number of people, or of a handful of distinguished scientists, who deny climate change. But consensus is not the same as unanimity. Likewise, such attacks are often supported by the citation of unanswered questions of data and theory in climate science. But such is the normal state of any vibrant area of contemporary science. The existence of a genuine and robust consensus among climate scientists on the basic points of climate change is clear.

Attacks on the legitimacy of the evidence sometimes allege that it is fraudulent or the product of a conspiracy. Such claims are sensationalistic and absurd: outright fraud is rare in science, and the idea of fraud on the scale that would be necessary to account for the scientific community’s consensus on climate change is ridiculous. Attacks on the evidence that claim that it is not fraudulent but nevertheless systematically mistaken are properly claims within climate science; as such, they need to be presented to and evaluated by the relevant scientific community.

Attacks on the validity of the consensus — claims, that is, that the evidence fails to support the basic points — are also properly claims within climate science. As such, they need to be presented to and evaluated by the relevant scientific community through the normal scientific process, including publication in the peer-reviewed scientific research literature. So far, all such claims have failed to convince the appropriate experts in climate science that the consensus is mistaken.

It is impossible to provide a complete guide to countering every claim advanced to support the idea that climate change is bad science, of course. But the discussion above, as well as the detailed debunkings provided by Skeptical Science, ought to provide a good start for countering the first pillar of climate change denial.

 

The second pillar of climate change denial — that acceptance of climate change is driven by radical ideological motivations and leads to undesirable social consequences — is itself typically based on economic and political concerns. Indeed, the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their history of climate change denial Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury 2010), argue that climate change denial is rooted in “free market fundamentalism,” much as creationism is rooted in religious fundamentalism.

The scientific consensus on climate change includes a recognition that human-caused climate change will affect the world and our society and that it is possible to mitigate and adapt to its effects, as discussed in “Climate Change 101”. But the scientific consensus is not capable of determining the proper response to climate change. What actions, if any, ought to be taken in response to climate change — and who is to foot the bill — are simply not questions that science alone is able to decide.

But climate change deniers often interpret climate science in general, and climate change education in particular, as ideologically based and economically motivated: aimed at endorsing particular policies in response to climate change, benefiting particular sectors of industry or classes of society at the expense of others, or even attacking the ideas of capitalism, the free market, and national sovereignty and favoring the ideas of socialism, collective ownership, and world government — or, in the most extreme cases, neo-pagan nature-worship.

These ideas resonate with a particular set of political views, and there is a strong, widely reported, and extensively researched correlation between political conservatism and climate change denial in the United States (see, e.g., McCright and Dunlap, “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001—2010” (PDF), The Sociological Quarterly 2011). With local school boards usually, and state boards of education often, filled by electoral contest, it is hard to avoid the influence of partisan politics on climate change education in the United States.

In countering the second pillar, it is crucial to emphasize that there are sound reasons to teach the scientific consensus on climate change. Science teachers have a responsibility to help their students understand, to the extent appropriate, the central methods and results of contemporary science. There is substantial scientific agreement around climate change. Science teachers thus have a responsibility to help their students understand climate change, the evidence for climate change, and the fact that the scientific community agrees that the evidence is convincing.

The National Association of Geoscience Teachers, for example, endorses teaching about climate change, recognizing, “(1) that Earth’s climate is changing, (2) that present warming trends are largely the result of human activities, and (3) that teaching climate change science is a fundamental and integral part of earth science education,” and adding, “a current and comprehensive level of understanding of the science and teaching of climate change is essential to effective education.”

Two subsidiary points are also useful in countering the second pillar. They are subsidiary because, in the end, they presuppose — correctly — that there are sound reasons to teach the scientific consensus on climate change, but they are worth bearing in mind because they help to allay concerns associated with the second pillar.

First, it is helpful to explain that climate change education is not aimed at endorsing particular policies in response to climate change. It is important for climate change educators to respect the fact that science on its own is not capable of deciding policy issues. Science classrooms are not a proper venue for political debates, and teachers in the public schools ought to refrain from using their positions as pulpits to voice their personal preferences about public policy. The National Science Teachers Association’s position statement on teaching science and technology in the context of societal and personal issues is consistent with such a recommendation.

Nevertheless, it is clearly useful to discuss climate policy issues — in particular, what, if anything, should be done to reduce or mitigate climate change — in the science classroom. Integrating a discussion of solutions to climate change within a presentation of the relevant science, helps to retain student interest and to allay student disquiet, as discussed in "Teaching Climate Change: Best Practices". But again, the goal of such a discussion is to help students learn the science, not to convince them of the advantages or disadvantages of any particular policy.

Second, it is helpful to explain that acceptance of climate change is not inexorably linked to any political ideology or economic interest. For example:

  • There are conservatives who accept climate change. Such conservatives even include leading climate change scientists such as Kerry Emanuel, described by the Los Angeles Times (January 5, 2011) as “a politically conservative climatologist who accepts the broad scientific consensus on global warming.” Groups like Republicans for Environmental Protection are attempting to convince political conservatives to respect the scientific consensus while advocating for conservative values to play a role in debates over climate policy.
  • Big business accepts climate change. Consider the United States Climate Action Partnership, in which major companies such as Alcoa, Chrysler, and General Electric join leading environmental groups in lobbying for climate legislation, or the financial services company Allianz, which coproduced a 2005 report with the World Wildlife Fund on the implications of climate change for the financial industry.
  • The United States armed forces and national security agencies accept climate change. In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, for instance, the Department of Defense acknowledged (PDF, p. 85) the “need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on our facilities and military capabilities,” adding that climate change “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict … around the world.” The Department of Homeland Security similarly concluded (PDF) that “[c]limate change has the potential to accelerate and intensify extreme weather events which threaten the nation’s stability and security.”

It is impossible to provide a complete guide to countering every claim advanced to support the idea that acceptance of climate change is driven by radical ideological motivations and leads to undesirable social consequences, of course. But the links below and discussion above ought to provide a good start for countering the second pillar of climate change denial.

 

The third pillar of climate change denial — that it is only fair to acknowledge a scientific controversy over climate change — is perhaps the most insidious of the lot. It takes the first pillar for granted, presuming — falsely — that there is a scientific controversy over climate change. But the third pillar is rhetorically powerful because of its appeal to ideals of fair play and even dealing that are (deservedly) popular among the American public — so popular that they are easy to abuse in the service of climate change denial.

In countering the third pillar, it is crucial to highlight and challenge the presupposition that there is a scientific controversy over climate change. Scientists are in broad agreement about the occurrence, causes, and consequences of climate change (as discussed in “Climate Change 101”); climate change deniers are wrong to claim otherwise; and science teachers thus have a responsibility to help their students understand climate change, the evidence for climate change, and the fact that the scientific community agrees that the evidence is convincing.

It is not sufficient, however, to challenge the presupposition that there is a scientific controversy over climate change. It is necessary also to explain that presenting climate change denial as scientifically credible or misrepresenting the scientific consensus on climate change is, in fact, anything but fair. It is:

  • unfair to the scientists on whose research the consensus is based,
  • unfair to the authors of textbooks and the framers of state science standards who have labored to present the consensus in a pedagogically appropriate manner,
  • unfair to the science educators asked to ignore their professional responsibility to present the consensus,
  • unfair to the taxpayers, who are entitled to expect public science education and public policy to respect the consensus of the scientific community, and, most of all,
  • unfair to the students, whose scientific literacy is on the line.

In sum, what is truly unfair is not to teach the scientific consensus on climate change.

Two subsidiary points are also useful in countering the third pillar. They are subsidiary because, in the end, they depend on the fact that there is a scientific consensus over climate change, but they are worth bearing in mind because they help to highlight particular problems with the third pillar.

First, it is useful to challenge the selectivity of the idea that it’s only fair to teach the controversy over climate change, whether it is presented with scholarly allusions to Milton’s Areopagitica and Mill’s On Liberty, philosophical ruminations on the importance of objectivity and critical thinking, or homely slogans like “Why not just teach all the views, and let the students make their minds up for themselves?” Without challenging the general importance of fairness, it is appropriate to ask: why climate change in particular?

When it comes to the capital of Burkina Faso or the cardinality of the primes or the outcome of the American Civil War, students are not left to make their minds up for themselves for the sake of fairness. Instead, it is proper and effective pedagogy for teachers to report what the consensus of the scholarly community is (Ouagadougou, aleph-null, and the South’s surrender), in addition to presenting, to the extent appropriate, the relevant evidence and theories on which that consensus is based. So, too, with climate change.

Second, it is useful to ask which controversies within climate science are supposed to be presented to students (especially those who are encountering the topic in any detail for the first time). The term “controversies” is tendentious, but indisputably, there are unanswered questions of data and theory in climate science. Such is the normal state of any vibrant area of contemporary science; it is not a sign that the discipline is in crisis or in any doubt about its central principles. Indeed, such questions provide the impetus for continued research.

Not all such questions are suitable for beginning students — do Dansgaard-Oeschger events follow linear or nonlinear dynamics? But there are unanswered questions within climate science — how will a warming world affect Atlantic ocean circulation? — that even beginning students can understand, appreciating, at least to a degree, the evidence and theory relevant to finding the answer. Such questions are not inappropriate for inclusion in climate education. But misrepresenting questions that have been answered as unanswered, or pretending that the mere existence of ongoing research undermines the consensus, is inappropriate.

It is impossible to provide a complete guide to countering every claim advanced to support the idea that it’s only fair to teach the controversy over climate change, of course. But the discussion here and the links below ought to offer a good start for countering the third pillar of climate change denial.

Further reading

Evolution: What’s wrong with teaching the controversy? (PDF) is a 2003 paper by Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. While focused on applications of the third pillar to evolution, the paper provides a general test for determining which issues are genuine controversies worth addressing in science classes and which are not genuine controversies or are not appropriate for classroom, a test readily applicable to climate change as well. The paper is discussed further in Teach the “Controversy”? in the evolution section of NCSE’s website.

“Balance As Bias: Global Warming and the US Prestige Press” (PDF) is a 2004 paper by Max Boykoff and Jules Boykoff, published in Global Environmental Change. The authors examine how the journalistic norm of balance can produce a form of bias in reporting on climate change. They presented a less technical account of the paper in FAIR! (November/December 2004). While the authors’ analysis of more recent media coverage finds that this false balance is less common in the US media than it once was, the original paper remains a valuable critique of the third pillar’s rhetorical form.

 

Images (First Pillar of Denial, Second Pillar of Denial, Third Pillar of Denial, respectively) by Josh Rosenau for NCSE (2012)
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