To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
Denialist Tactics: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt
When I examine the arguments used by global-warming Denialists, I find some common patterns. I'll discuss those below. But first, it's useful to consider who these Denialists are, and why they so persistently promote disbelief in global warming.
Encounters with the Arch-Denialist
Few Denialists have been as persistent, or as influential, as Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. In 2003, chairing the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated upon the American people." He claims the entire case has been refuted scientifically, but "George Soros, the Hollywood elitists, the far left environmentalists on the committee that I chair — all of them want us to believe the science is settled and it's not." He told the nation in 2006 that whatever warming was happening was due to the sun, adding the assurance that "God's still up there." Only Senator John Cornyn got more campaign money from oil and gas interests during the 2002 election cycle.
Those donations are "the gifts that keep on giving." Inhofe holds on to his Senate seat, and stubbornly maintains his position on global warming. In December 2008 he distorted the conclusions of a study by Swiss scientists to claim that half of warming was due to the Sun. His staffer Marc Morano went so far as to say this showed that "the participants of the Poznan conference are lunatics." Inhofe's career epitomizes the Denialist playbook. See for yourself:
Who are these Denialists?
By and large, they are prominent people; as such, they have more than ordinary influence. They are not all getting money under the table from big oil or coal companies. Some have done so, and it's plausible that this motivated their mendacity. But the number of such shills could never have been more than several hundred, and it is shrinking as the once-reluctant coal and oil producers themselves begin to "cooperate with the inevitable."
Note that it is not unethical for executives of a company with billions invested in coal mines or oil wells to question the need to abandon that investment. It becomes unethical only when they do so dishonestly. But as fossil fuels become harder to extract, as wind and solar get less expensive, and as the effects of warming multiply, sticking to a pure fossil-fuel business model becomes less and less defensible on practical as well as moral grounds.
Politics plays a part: Republicans are more likely than Democrats to disbelieve in AGW.1 While some Democrats (and presumably members of minor parties) do deny the reality of aspects of science (like vaccination), I know of none who deny that global warming is caused mainly by humans. No doubt fundamentalist Christianity is also a factor. Those who read their Bible literally would be inclined to believe they are a special creation, whom God will preserve no matter what. But the dominant factor is probably poor understanding of science coupled with, paradoxically, too much faith in the technological miracles wrought by free-market development of science. This faith was seen in George W. Bush's oft-proclaimed optimism that voluntary compliance would solve all environmental problems.
It's important to distinguish between Denialists and deniers. Deniers don't believe in AGW, or don't believe it's a looming crisis. But, unlike the Denialists, they feel no need to push their disbelief onto others. They are, for the most part, ordinary Americans. They hold down a job they may not enjoy in order to keep food on the family table, a roof over their heads, and gas in the car. They resent large impersonal forces (like government) screwing with their lives. Their understanding of science is less than adequate.2 They know it has given us great things, but are confused and annoyed by the steady barrage of conflicting claims from "experts" about subjects like nutrition, disease and, yes, global warming. From their ranks come the Denialists, but more important, they are the reason the Denialists have such influence. Without large numbers of deniers, the Denialists would be much less of a problem.
Denialists, then, arise from the pool of deniers for one of two reasons: either they have become radicalized by outrage over what they perceive as a series of unfounded warnings, or they simply seek to preserve their comfortable position. The news media play a part in creating that perception of unfounded warnings. Just in recent memory are grim headlines about things like alar, bird flu, cyber-crime, deficit spending, endangered species, mad cow disease, obesity, SARS, Y2K... the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, the real work that staves off many of the threats the headlines warned against goes on behind the scenes, largely unreported by the media. It's easy to perceive such headlines as empty warnings, nothing more than a way to sell newspapers. So why should global warming be any different?
But it's also important to note that, since I first put these pages together, the "ground truth" of climate change has changed considerably. Calfornia has suffered through a four-year drought; both the Gulf Coast and the northeast coast have been battered by stronger than usual storms; and the midwest has endured numerous floods of the kind that used to be known as "500-year flood." In addition, the long-term trends of less severe winters, earlier springtimes, and longer wildfire seasons in the intermountain west have continued. These changes have made the people who lived through them sit up and take notice; thus, the population of deniers has also decreased.
Characteristics of Denialist arguments
A large segment of the American public is poorly informed about science. Such ignorance can readily be exploited. And it is being exploited, by those with large stakes in the status quo, to defend their interests. Again, this is a relative handful of people. Most of the energy industry understands that global warming is real, and that the changes it will bring present new opportunities for profit. Most politicians also understand these things. But a relative handful cannot or do not accept the new reality. For whatever reason, they seek to fend it off as long as possible. Their tactics fall under the rubric of FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.3
The primary goal of a well-run FUD campaign is to avoid discussing the facts of the matter at hand, when the facts don't favor your side. Global-warming Denialists have this down to a science, if you'll pardon the phrase. They cherry-pick facts, quote experts out of context, ignore unsuitable evidence, misuse statistics, and generally dismiss the big picture. Denialists leap on the slightest discrepancy in data presented by a mainstream scientist to claim that his entire study is without merit. At the same time, they ignore all rebuttals to arguments they present. Distraction is an essential part of this process. If one claim is demolished, they simply trot out another from an array of seemingly plausible arguments. By the time that one is demolished, a third one is ready. And so it goes. If this round-robin distraction should falter, the ad hominem attack is an ever-ready backup. Thus, the typical arguments depend on rotation (as already discussed), on repetition, ridicule and rodomontade — which supports my contention that they are part of a political campaign.
Science during the administration of George W. Bush was treated as a luxury, to be cast aside when its findings undercut the party line. Climatology was the most prominent field affected, but the axes fell on inconvenient truths in every scientific field.
Bush is out of office now, and I won't dwell on the past here. Nevertheless, I think it's important to understand how pervasive the damage to science was. (See the links below.)
Finally, fear comes into play when, casting aside their nonchalance, they point to the costs of fighting global warming — costs so enormous, they maintain, that the economy will collapse. They rarely discuss the costs of not fighting global warming.
Climate scientists have recently been subject to fears of a more personal nature. These include both investigations for alleged malpractice4 and threats of death.5
Add up all their contradictory claims and you have a nonexistent phenomenon which will be largely beneficial, but whose harmful effects, if any, will be dealt with in due time through technical advances produced by the free market. The sensible course, therefore, is to ignore the doomsayers. However, if any action is taken to combat global warming, the entire world will go bankrupt.
A scientifically literate person might think that, with all the information about global warming that is freely available on the Web, in popular magazines, on television, and in scientific journals — not to mention plain common sense — these absurd arguments would have long since faded away. Sadly, I have found this not to be the case. Since the Denialists won't see reason and stop of their own accord, I conclude they must be forced to stop.
The Bottom Line on Denialist Tactics
So what's to be done?
That conclusion begs the question of what can be done about this obstinate obstruction. My opinion is that the Denialists must be engaged as often as possible, on as many fronts as possible. Those who seek to oppose them should be familiar with the general scientific picture, but need not be up on every detail. This is because pinning Denialists down on details is not helpful; in fact, it is a waste of time. A better plan is to turn their own tactics against them. Point out inconsistencies. Ask them for citations. Remember that the real goal is to convince the audience. Be polite, but firm. Keep in mind the following talking points:
In any real-time confrontation with Denialists, don't let their endless barrage of nonsense make you lose your temper, or tempt you into mockery. That's what it is intended to do. Remember that the facts and reason are on your side. Stay cool, and you'll prevail.
1 The April 2008 survey of the topic, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, found that the partisan divide over global warming had widened. Fully 84% of Democrats and 75% of independents say there is evidence that Earth's temperatures have been rising, compared with just 49% of Republicans. Among Republicans, conservatives "out-doubt" the more moderate wing of the party: only 43% of conservatives think there's evidence for rising temperatures, versus 69% of the others. A March 2009 Survey found a similar partisan divide.
2 Evidence that many Americans understand science poorly is indisputable. Most newspapers run a daily horoscope feature. Surveys show that roughly half the adult population thinks humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, and many dismiss biological evolution as "only a theory." Thinking "Intelligent Design" is a scientific alternative to evolution, local school boards and some state legislatures continue trying to introduce ID into public school science curricula. Surveys regularly show that, sadly, such shallow understanding of science is only one facet of the general public lack of understanding of law, history, civics, geography, basic mathematics, and the devices most of us use daily, from cars to computers.
3 Republican pollster and focus group leader Frank Luntz is credited with recommending the phrase "climate change" to replace "global warming" because it sounds less threatening. He is also the architect of the strategy of keeping public attention on scientific uncertainty. In a 2002 memo to President George W. Bush, Luntz wrote: "Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field."
4 Following the theft and release of the CRU e-mails, a spate of investigations began. Scientists found guilty of serious misconduct would be dismissed. So far, all have been exonerated of everything but insufficient openness. But these investigations take them away from their research, and the attendant publicity can hurt public and official support for them. Some calls for inquiry come from hostile parties (e.g. Senator Inhofe) and it's arguable that these are meant to do that. The release of the CRU e-mails shortly before the December 2009 conference in Copenhagen lends credence to that suspicion.
5 On the Internet, heated discussion of climate change (and most any other topic) has long been commonplace. This tide of what's called "flaming" has always included a few empty threats. But recently, about the time in early 2009 that James Hansen began speaking out and showing up at coal-plant protests, climate scientists began getting death threats. These surged after each diatribe from a right-wing radio talker, and when the CRU e-mails were stolen and released, they rose to a torrent. It's hard to keep a detailed record of this, but the threats now number in the hundreds. It's likely that most of them don't amount to anything more than letting off steam. But it only takes one man to kill an abortion doctor or a scientist, and in the climate of fear promoted by right-wing radio, deadly action by that one unbalanced man becomes more likely. See Violent Backlash Against Climate Scientists (By Stephen Leahy, IPS News, 9 March 2010)
Notes and References
These references on Denialist tactics deserve special mention. They are a collection of YouTube videos produced by Peter Sinclair (aka Greenman3610) to debunk various climate-change myths — a job they do superbly well. He has produced more since my last update.
CLIMATE DENIAL CROCK OF THE WEEK
* On 26 July 2009, Anthony Watts misused the DMCA to force this video off Peter Sinclair's YouTube channel. Sinclair pursued the administrative process of restoring it. On 19 August, he succeeded.
** Just in case of further disruption, here is an alternate YouTube location for the video. (Note that this version has an extra five seconds of runtime.)
These Climate Crock videos are now collected in a blog, http://climatecrocks.com/ , in order released. There is also a live TV channel, http://www.ClimateTV.tv/ .
Business and Climate Change
Harrassment and Violence
The Bush Years
Science during the Bush administration was treated as an inconvenience to be dispensed with when its findings conflicted with Republican policy. The damage was pervasive: Competent scientists were cut from advisory panels and replaced by industry lobbyists or ideologues; political hacks watered down study conclusions to conform to doctrine; cabinet members ignored staff recommendations for the sake of party loyalty; dissenting scientists were monitored or even muzzled; funding was shifted to faith-based programs; anti-pollution standards were relaxed. Early in his first term, Bush renounced his campaign pledge to cut carbon dioxide, undercutting his EPA director in the process. Quite a few scientists, as well as other administration officials, resigned in protest over Bush's policies. His EPA director was one of them.
An array of diverse organizations fought back, investigating and exposing the suppression and distortion of science. During Bush's second term, Congress began investigations of its own. Books were written. Reports were issued. Hearings and press conferences were held. There is a great deal of documentation. I contributed a tiny bit of it myself, while Bush was in office.
But now he's out of office, and President Obama has pledged to restore scientific integrity to the White House. I don't think it serves any purpose to examine the past administration's misconduct here. But I do think it's important to recognize and understand the extent of that misconduct. The following links are a small part of what's available.