Climate change deniers are just normal people, like you and I. Their (misguided) arguments permeate the internet; numerous blogs, social media accounts and websites exist dedicated to their cause. It is widely accepted that global warming is a real phenomenon, and is caused by us. There is a 97% consensus from thousands of scientists across the world to this end, and
virtually every credible scientific organisation has released a statement to this effect. But if these websites and pages are receiving votes and support from many people, then does something bigger lie behind the hysteria?
Far from being a modern equivalent of the flat-earth
society, climate change denial enjoys a significant amount of support, especially in America. In a 2014 poll, only 50% of Americans believed that global warming was driven by humans, compared to 87% of AAAS scientists. Only 33% believed that it was a serious issue. As an extrapolated representative sample, that
means that 160 MILLION Americans don’t understand or believe in global warming. With a scientific consensus bordering on unanimity, how is this possible?
Fossil Fuel Industry Investment
Global warming has been fuelled in part by increasing emissions from industry and energy production, and naturally the fossil fuel industries stand to lose a lot. Very, very powerful companies, steeped in wealth, power and tradition, realised early on the potential implications of action on climate change upon their industries. If fossil fuel production and usage is a key component of global warming, any action can and will target a reduction in fossil fuel use and emissions, thus hugely impacting these companies’ profits, as well as thousands of jobs. One might think that could have diversified their businesses into renewable energy, but instead they have coordinated and funded one of the most controversial, vicious and arguably successful discrediting campaigns in history.
The most notorious of the funders are the Koch Brothers, who have made a lot of money from fossil fuel industry. According to Greenpeace, the Koch Brothers have spent nearly $79,000,000 supporting climate change denial groups since 1997. Yes, SEVENTY-NINE MILLION. That is more than the annual GDP of Tuvalu, a nation that is at more risk than most to climate change. This money is usually used for disinformation, using terms like ‘climate alarmism’ and using powerful platforms such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journals to sow seeds of doubt. Other companies, such as ExxonMobil and Shell have also spent millions of dollars on climate misinformation. With science firmly on the side of the scientists, it appears evident that the debate has become heavily influenced by industry politics. The irony is that the groups that these companies have funded do not specialise or have experience in climate science, instead often consisting of lobbyists with economic concerns relating to fossil fuel usage. I believe that self-interest is a major factor in determining climate denial; see this map, where the areas with little or no support for climate change are heavily correlated with areas with major fossil-fuel economies. Using their positions of authority and power (and limited scientific credibility), they are able to preach effectively to the masses. These companies also actively bankroll anti-global warming science; the oft-cited, contrarian scholar Willie Soon has received over $1,000,000 in funding from fossil-fuel based organisations. The money doesn’t stop there, with one organisation offering $10,000 up front for any paper written that contradicts the existing consensus on climate change.
Owning the Media
The climate denial movement has made strong use of the media a key component of their efforts to discredit scientists. The much-cited ‘ClimateGate’ scandal, where UEA’s Climate Department email system was hacked, and a number of emails were perceived to disprove climate change, is just one instance. Climategate resulted in a huge amount of coverage, criticism and a huge loss of confidence in climate science. 7 independent enquiries exonerated the participants and ‘debunked’ the entire scandal, with the US Environmental Protection Agency even stating that the exposé
had “routinely misunderstood the scientific issues”, reached “faulty scientific conclusions”, “resorted to hyperbole”, and “often cherry-pick language that creates the suggestion or appearance of impropriety, without looking deeper into the issues’. The headline had already been made, and timed perfectly before the 2010 Copenhagen environment negotiations, the damage had been done, creating shockwaves across the world.
Influencing The Kyoto Protocol
The American government in particular is closely linked to fossil fuel entities, and
would be foolish to underestimate the extent to which economic self-interest could influence government policy. The USA’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, against the advice of their own Environmental Protection Agency, is sometimes cited as the most high-profile of this. Taking over from the more agreeable Clinton administration, Bush was quick to reject the Kyoto protocol, citing a number of reasons. This devastating decision greatly undermined the value of the protocol, leading to a strong international response from European states in particular. The Bush administration had aligned itself with the conservative climate skeptic movement, and there is strong evidence to suggest that the climate misinformation campaign had a major role in the USA’s rejection of Kyoto
Is it the climate denier’s fault?
Fossil fuel companies and climate denial activists have succeeded in duping a large proportion of the public, both American and international, introducing uncertainty where there should be none. They have attacked the livelihoods and lifetimes of work from respected scientists the world over. They have tried to sully the names of academic institutions, and tarred vital climate negotiations with misinformation. They have pumped millions into climate misinformation. They managed to stop the world’s sole superpower from signing up to the Kyoto Protocol. If that isn’t power, what is?
When we talk about climate denial, it is all too easy to discard denialist’s views as being crackpot, deranged or simply hysteric, but this is not the case. I have shown how vast sums of money have been pumped into a sophisticated misinformation campaign operating at a number of levels, from fossil-fuel lobbyists to junk scientists, from the conservative movement to controversial journalists. This campaign is a powerful, dangerous entity, and it has ultimately been successful in its aims.
Have they won?
You could argue that the climate denialists have won the battle, given their influence, but they certainly haven’t won the war. Given the amount of funds that have been pumped into their campaign (and the authority figures on their side), wouldn’t we be more surprised if they didn’t have significant support? Make no mistake, their movement is powerful and dangerous, but climate scientists have time on their side. Models are only going to get more accurate, and the limited uncertainty that does exist within the science is only going to get smaller over time. In the past 5 years or so, the world has awoken to the realities of global warming. The first climate refugees; the US Military getting worried; China coming to the table… We are on the right side of history. The upcoming COP21 talks in Paris will determine the future of global environmental policy and ultimate the extent to which climate denialism has worked. May we hope that the world leaders have listened and learned, and that we will be frogs in slowly boiling water no more.
 Cook et al, 2013, Quantifiying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, Environmental Research Letters, IOP Science.
 Pew Research Center, 2014: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/pi_2015-01-29_science-and-society-00-01/
 Crowley, T.J, Science, 2014: Causes of Climate Change over the past 1000 years.
 Houghton. J, 2009: Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
 Hoggan. J, 2009, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade To Deny Global Warming, Vancouver, Canada.
 McCright. A.M, Dunlap. R.E, 2003, Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy, Social Problems, Vol .50, No.3. (http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/McCrightDunlap2003.pdf)