Why Is Global Warming Still an Open Topic? A Short Insight into The History of Climate Change Denial

Sara Sgarlata studiert Philosophie und Ethik in Polen und hat bei uns ein digitales Praktikum gemacht. In ihrem Studium beschäftigt sie sich viel mit dem Klimawandel und wollte ihre Einblicke und Ansichten mit der Kulturküche teilen – dafür hat sie diesen Blogartikel geschrieben.

Human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – are a primary driver of climate change – and present one of the world’s most pressing challenges. The red line in the graph above represents the average annual temperature over time. 

We can see that only in 2019 the average temperature increased of more than a half Celsius degree. But overall, this temperature rise is in the range of 1 to 1.2℃. According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the warming is due to human emissions, especially after the first industrial revolution. 

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the way people live and work has changed dramatically as manufacturing expanded. Over time, the amount of fossil fuels burned increased, which has increased the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. 

Before the Industrial Revolution, there was approximately 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the air. Today, that amount is over 400 ppm. If all human carbon emissions were to stop tomorrow, the earth would still warm at least another 0.5 ° C.

Moreover, the CO2 atmospheric concentration is not even, but affects disproportionately different regions. This graph shows that warming differs across regions. 

The Arctic pole is the most negatively affected region. The greenhouse effect melts the ice, which usually reflects the sunlight keeping the Arctic cold. The land absorbs more solar radiations and more ice melts. This phenomenon is called polar amplification, and you can see what it looks like in this NASA satellite picture.

The global scientific community shares a general consensus on the fact that the climate changes that we are facing from the 19th century on are caused by humans exploiting natural resources in order to keep up with the demands of capitalism. While the global warming is itself a natural phenomenon, its sudden acceleration becomes problematic because it alters in a few decades the balance that Nature reached throughout geological eras. The WWF warns us about the visible manifestations of the global climate change:

  • Extreme weather (floods, storms, droughts, and heatwaves)
  • Melting ice, causing sea levels to rise. and to flood coastal cities and whole island nations
  • Water scarcity and crop failures, causing food shortages and unprecedented movements of people within countries and across national borders
  • Reduction of biodiversity

We can see that climate change is a global problem for environmental security and resources availability. It threatens equal access to and just distribution of resources among countries, and leads to economic crises and social injustices.

In response to the climate change problem, the IPCC was formed in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations to review the latest climate science, and still nowadays it represents the consensus of the scientific community about climate change. The objective of IPCC is to provide policy-makers with the best scientific information in order to effectively respond to climate change. Thus, it believes in the scheme science-assessment-governance.

In 1995, the IPCC concluded that scientists have sound evidence that the climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. The IPCC’s report led to the Kyoto protocol, while the latest report (in 2014) assessed that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. This led to the Paris Climate Accord, signed by 174 countries committed to actions limiting warming to below 2° Celsius. 

However, the US resigned from the Paris Agreement in 2017, during Donald Trump’s government. Unfortunately, the science-assessment-governance scheme is more ideal than real. For example, in 2007 the IPCC issued a new report that stated climate change to be indubitable. In the same year, James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works until 2007, has suggested that global warming might be the „greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.“

As Chinn et al. (2020) show in their study, climate change has become more and more a politicized and polarizing issue in developed countries despite the scientific consensus. In addition, another group of researchers (Czarnek et al. 2021) illustrate the occurrence of climate-related mentions within scientific and political debates, and compare them. The graphs show that politicians talk about climate science more than scientists…

…while republicans talk about climate change more than democrats.

In her book Dark Money, the journalist Jane Mayer directly links the rise of rightwing charity organizations in the US with the story of climate change denial. She found out that fundraising organizations – such as the John Locke Foundation, the Ethan Allen Institute, the James Madison Institute for Public Policy, the Thomas Jefferson Institute, the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, and the George C. Marshall Institute – are all connected to a group of “influence-buying rightwing billionaires led by the infamous Koch brothers” (quote from the US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse), also called the “Kochtopus”.

One of the most active foundations within the climate change deniers what the George C. Marshall Institute, founded in 1984 by William Nierenberg, Frederick Seitz and Robert Jastrow as a “nonprofit corporation to conduct technical assessments of scientific issues with an impact on public policy.” All the founders were physicists, and were involved in US international security departments during the Cold War. They also shared anti-communist ideas.

In 1989, after the fall of the iron curtain, the Marshal Institute launched a Climate Change Policy program. They never stopped denying the scientific evidence supporting climate change, and they got funded by fuel companies such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. Just to give you an idea, the Koch Industries have been founded by Fred Koch, who made his fortune by founding oil refineries in the Stalinian Soviet Union and in the Hitlerian Germany. The book Hot Talk, Cold Science by Fred Singeris the Institute’s manifesto. 

It holds that warming is a natural phenomenon and there is no scientific evidence that human emissions add to it. The data used by climate scientist are not reliable. According to DeSmog, Fred Singer received $5,000 a month from the Heartland Institute to claim that “Climate change is a natural phenomenon […] since 1979, our best measurements show that the climate has been cooling just slightly. Certainly, it has not been warming.”

The historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have extensively studied the strategies adopted by the Marshall Institute to adumbrate the climate science with a whole counter-research corpus of studies disguised as a disinterested academic program. Their findings are discussed in the book Merchants of Doubt, wherein they document the campaigns run by the Marshall Institute over four decades after the end of the Cold War to deny the carcinogenic nature of tobacco smoking, the existence of acid rain, the correlation between CFCs and ozone depletion, and global warming.

In 2015 the Marshal Institute dissolved due to bankruptcy and its members formed the CO2 Coalitions. A pre-eminent representative of the coalition is William Happer, who stated that the “demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler” during a live interview. The CO2 Coalition’s fundamentals are: “CO2 is not a pollutant,” “CO2 is Plant food,” and “CO2 was higher in the past.” The CO2 Coalitions still nowadays attempts to mislead the public opinion by means of ad campaigns like this:

We can so far outline the strategy used by climate change deniers in order to trick the people into believing them:

1. Selective inattention from scientific evidence. As Robert Proctor and Linda Schiebinger (2008) put it, 

Part of the idea is that inquiry is always selective. We look here rather than there; […] and the decision to focus on thisis therefore invariably a choice to ignore that. Ignorance is a product of inattention, and since we cannot study all things, some by necessity—almost all, in fact—must be left out. Deniers shift people’s attention to made-up details that scientists might have overlooked. Afterall, science is about simplifying complex phenomena, and making them intelligible trough numbers and words. Deniers thus cast doubt on the reliability of the existing evidence, suggesting that climate scientists simplified too much or did not pay attention to all the relevant aspects of the phenomenon in question.

2. Scientific evidence is never enough, therefore the scientific debate remains open. Modern science proceeds with evidence, and even the most sound of the theories is always open to be revised, modified, or even abandoned as long as striking new evidence is available. Science should be an open exchange of ideas and a democratic arena wherein everyone has the right to make questions. Afterall, critical thinking requires us not to buy everything we are fed. The conclusion is very similar to Point 1.

3. Emphasis on uncertainty: correlation is not causation. Climate change deniers want well-settled debates to stay controversial. They argue that even if two events occur at the same time, it does not mean that they are correlated. For example, every time I wait at the bus stop, a bus arrives after a few minutes. However, I did not cause the bus to arrive. For the sake of objectivity, scientists must always be careful when evaluating whether the correlation between two phenomena is not a coincidence, but a true relationship. However, deniers use the principles of good science to falsify the whole edifice of science. This is absurd and unethical!

Yet, the climate change denial cannot be explained only as an illogical rebuttal of the most commonly accepted practices in science. Thus, we must address the core of the problem: If most of the scientists all over the world agree on the anthropogenic nature of global warming, why is climate change still debated? And why the locus of such debate is the political arena rather than scientific gatherings?

Thanks to the works of the researchers mentioned above, we can outline two brief and certainly incomplete, yet interesting hypotheses. Think about the historical context enabled the radical right to strive in the US, namely, the post-Cold War era. Consider also that during the Cold War physics, the chemical industry, and anti-communist ideology played an important role in ensuring US political security. In the first place, the Marshall Institute’s anti-climate science activism was a reaction to the decline of physics, which earned the title of „queen of all sciences” during the Cold War due to its applications in technology. However, once the Cold War ended, biology and Earth sciences took over, and most of the fundings flowed into these new scholarships. In the second place, the deniers’ arguments were in line with the U.S. Republican Party’s market fundamentalism, as Oreskes & Conway (2011) put it. In other words, the radical right had interests in keeping up with anti-regulatory market policies, as long as pro-ecology restrictions would constitute a limitation to the free market and a threat to political liberties. In this sense, anti-ecology narratives fit well with the anti-communist mentality, as long as they both are the ideological outcomes of the what Richard Hofstader has called “paranoid style” in American politics. To conclude with Oreskes & Conway’s words:

The Cold War, however, is over. We face now not a binary choice between communism and capitalism (if ever we did) but rather the realization that capitalism has had unintended consequences. When humans began to burn fossil fuels, no one intended to create global warming. But they (and we) did. Capitalism triumphed over communism, but now must deal with its own waste products.

Chinn, S., Hart, P. S., & Soroka, S. (2020). Politicization and polarization in climate change news content, 1985-2017. Science Communication42(1), 112-129.

Czarnek, G., Kossowska, M., & Szwed, P. (2021). Right-wing ideology reduces the effects of education on climate change beliefs in more developed countries. Nature Climate Change11(1), 9-13.

Mayer, J. (2016). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. New York: Doubleday. 

Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. (2011). Merchants of Doubt : How A Handful of Scientists Obscured The Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Proctor, R. N., & Schiebinger, L. (2008). Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance.

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