Lentis/Climate Change Denial
Climate change denial is a social movement that seeks to discredit global warming, and undermine the scientific opinion that humans are negatively impacting the atmosphere. Typically, climate change deniers attempt to give the appearance of legitimate debate over global warming where there is none, or marginalize published research by exaggerating uncertainty within the field. The dangers of climate change hold alarming implications for the future of Earth, and as such, it is important to address why different groups reject the established consensus.
In terms of scope, this chapter will focus on climate change denial in the United States. It will address its inception, development, and the perspectives of relevant stakeholders to shed light on sociotechnical lessons applicable to other cases.
The concept of climate change has met skepticism and uncertainty throughout its history. From the first calculation of the greenhouse effect in 1896 to the ratification of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the idea has consistently faced dispute, despite growing scientific evidence. Such controversy has laid the foundation for climate change denial and its perpetuation.
The issue of climate change first appeared in American politics in a 1965 report by former President Lyndon B. Johnson's Science Advisory Committee, which warned of the warming effects of fossil fuel emissions. As evidence grew through the 1960s and 1970s, the climate change movement and its call for increased regulation met conservative political resistance; climate change truly became a political issue during the Reagan administration. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science budget was cut by 58 percent, and leadership in the EPA was significantly modified. Reagan appointed individuals based more on ideology than government experience -- many appointees came from the industries that they were tasked with regulating, increasing the potential for regulatory capture. In fact, the EPA faced congressional investigations in the following years due to scandals involving conflicts of interest and obstruction of justice.
This period pushed the public perception of climate change toward a polarizing political opinion rather than a conclusion based on scientific evidence. Climate change denial was further amplified by the media in response to a 1983 report by the EPA that labeled global warming as "not a theoretical problem but a threat whose effects will be felt within a few years". The issue was dismissed as alarmist by the Reagan administration, prompting widespread media coverage and controversy that has continued ever since.
With the agreement of over 97% of climate scientists, it would seem that the facts are settled and that there shouldn’t be any contention about the issue. Though, only about one in seven Americans (15%) understand that nearly all climate scientists have concluded that human-caused global warming is happening. A person’s reasons for climate change denial may not be clear at first when one tries to understand their thinking. However, the field of psychology provides three main principles to explain climate change denial.
Humans in the far past dealt with more simple immediate issues like shelter, hunger, and safety compared to the more intricate societal problems of today. Psychologist John Tooby has stated, “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.” He describes that we deal with threats of today using psychological tools from our evolutionary past. Climate change is one of these intricate modern dilemmas that can make emotional response complicated. Dealing with these issues is not simple and it can be difficult to put it into a familiar perspective. Humans are better at dealing with problems that are concrete, close-at-hand, familiar and require skills and tools that we already possess
Humans react most strongly to events that psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to as PAINful (Personal, Abrupt, Immoral, and Now). Accidents and personal trauma fall into this category, whereas the more complex issue of climate change is more difficult to categorize. Climate change is often talked about as gradual, impersonal process that will happen in the future, making it even less likely to trigger a strong reaction. We may appreciate the potential impacts of climate change, but many will not respond until it immediately affects their livelihood and safety.
Another example of the psychological response to climate change can be described as a student procrastinating on an assignment. According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, when we are faced with uncertain threats in the future, our brains begin to create excuses why we shouldn’t act on them immediately. The continual referral to climate change in the future tense reinforces this principle and allows us to rationalize our excuses. According to a poll by Yale University, 71% of people believe that climate change will harm future generations, compared to 42% believing climate change will affect them personally.
Some climate change threats (such as natural disasters) have become so familiar through constant news coverage that they now just feel normal instead of outrageous. Before the widespread use of the internet, people would get their news from fairly neutrally biased local sources. As the internet became more popular, traditional media formats began to lose audiences. Hyperbole induced media is common now due to the continual use of “clickbait” and dramatized headlines to attract readers. Americans have become numb or indifferent to issues that aren’t about to literally kill us. Patricia Linville and Gregory Fisher argue that we have a finite pool of worry and that is affected by our groupings by importance. Climate change often isn’t in that pool of worry.
According to Sociologist Stanley Cohen, climate change denial isn’t “not knowing” or “refusing to know”, but rather “choosing not to notice” so we can blend in with our chosen social groups. Humans view and make sense of the world through “frames”, which help us to categorize what we value and what we can also ignore. People build these “frames” based on their social groups including, religion and political affiliation. Viewing the world through the same “frame” as your social groups is important to fit in with your peers. Conformity in regards to climate change is often affected by political affiliation. For example, Republican party leaders and recognized members have publicly expressed skepticism towards climate change, influencing other members to subscribe to the same beliefs.
"Wealthy right-wing ideologues have joined with the most cynical and irresponsible companies in the oil, coal, and mining industries to contribute large sums of money to finance pseudoscientific front groups that specialize in sowing confusion in the public’s mind about global warming. They issue one misleading ‘report’ after another, pretending that there is a significant disagreement in the legitimate scientific community in areas where there is actually a broad-based consensus." -Al Gore
Global Climate CoalitionEdit
Public doubt in climate change was fueled by petroleum and automotive corporations. In 1989, these industries created an international lobbyist group called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Over the following decade the organization spent millions of dollars on advocacy activities to limit greenhouse gas regulation and challenge evidence of climate change. The GCC employed tactics such as exaggerating uncertainty in climatology, launching personal attacks on scientists and environmentalists, and supporting lectures and publications by a few scientists skeptical of climate change.
In general, the group sought to sow doubt in the public about the legitimacy of climate change. This strategy was most notably used by the tobacco industry with regard to the health effects of smoking. In both cases, despite overwhelming contradictory evidence, the ability to spread doubt was a powerful tool in influencing pubic opinion and legislation. Such tactics had "a huge impact on both the public and Congress", according to former Senator Tim Wirth. The efforts of the GCC transformed typical climate change discussion from that of science and data to one of politics and controversy.
Lobbying groups tend to be either political advocacy groups or companies in the oil, coal, and mining industries who might be hurt by climate change laws. As described by Al Gore, these groups typically aim to confuse the public and spread doubt about climate change to delay progress. One such group is ExxonMobil, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. In 1978 (before the 1999 merger), Exxon was warned of the dangers of climate change by James Black, an expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division. Exxon began doing its own research on climate change in the coming years in order to see if their business model would still be viable. Also, researching would make Exxon a reliable source in case the government decided to pass laws on climate change, meaning Exxon could try to influence any such laws.
In 1988, over 300 scientists and policymakers convened at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and demanded reductions in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Due to rising concerns over climate change, Exxon launched a campaign to start spreading doubt about climate change and delay an action that might hurt their business. In doing so, Exxon has spent over $30 million funding think tanks that promote climate change denial. This money could be used, for example, to pay a scientist who contends climate change is caused by solar cycles, even though this idea has been discredited by mainstream science. In 1997, Exxon’s former CEO Lee Raymond claimed "there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond … We need to understand the issue better, and fortunately, we have time."
As support for climate change grew, ExxonMobil declared in their 2007 Corporate Citizen Report that the company would discontinue contributions to climate change denial groups that “divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.” However, since then ExxonMobil has given $1.87 million to Republicans in Congress who deny climate change. In addition, between 2008 and 2015 ExxonMobil gave over $6.5 million to groups disputing the effect of fossil fuels on climate change.
One political advocacy group involved in climate change denial is the conservative/libertarian group FreedomWorks. With roughly 6 million members, FreedomWorks aims to find and educate individuals “who are enthused about showing up to support free enterprise and constitutionally limited government.” The group contends that "the pursuit of alternative energy should not come at the expense of our current prosperity or freedom." Despite claiming to be a grassroots organization, there may be evidence that FreedomWorks is linked to the oil industry. Americans for Prosperity, a similar political advocacy group of 3.2 million members, is funded by the Koch brothers of Koch Industries, a multinational chemical manufacturing company involved in petroleum manufacturing.
Politics in Climate Change DenialEdit
In the context of American politics, the climate change denial movement has largely been a product of neoliberal deregulation politics (favoring free market laissez-faire and privatization). The threat of climate change regulations also drove the fossil fuel industry to promote anti-environmentalism. However, the issue of climate change denial runs deeper than just corporate involvement in American politics. Though climate change denial in the U.S. is commonly attributed to the fossil fuel industry attempting to prevent governmental regulations on their operations, neoliberals support climate change denial because climate change regulation would allow the government to have a rationale to intervene in the economy, and subsequently give more power to the government. As a result, many neoliberals as well as conservatives support and fund "climate skeptic" news and right-wing think tanks. During times of economic insecurity and recession, more Americans are receptive to these ideologies. To these Americans, regulating the fossil fuel industry would result in increasing energy prices, killing jobs, violating the individual's freedom of choice, and threatening the liberty of everyday people. Some climate change deniers see the issue as a menace to the American lifestyle, one filled with material fortune and high consumption. In essence, their belief in climate change denial stems from their alternative priorities and values, and not completely from the rejection of scientific truths.
Between 2007 and 2009, the partisan divide over climate change increased. For example, 58% of Americans did not want to pay higher prices to help mitigate climate change. This has paved the way for people to choose to believe in climate change denial. Only 16% of Republicans believe that there is substantiated evidence of man-made climate change. After Republicans gained majority in the midterm elections in 2010, the Republican House leaders claimed that they would use the Committee on Energy Independence and the Climate Change Committee to investigate the climate change hoax. They later announced that their plans changed to shut down the committees.
2020 Presidential ElectionEdit
In the 2020 presidential election, climate change was an important issue for both candidates. Donald Trump does not believe in climate science and does not acknowledge the role of human activity in global warming. Joe Biden does believe in man-made climate change, and proposed policies to mitigate it. Though he is a moderately liberal Democrat, many have described his climate plan as the most ambitious of any president so far. Climate change deniers aligned themselves with Donald Trump, and vice versa with Joe Biden. Though Joe Biden won the election, on November 10th Donald Trump put David Legates, a climate change denier, in charge of the National Climate Assessment, which assesses the science of climate change and its effects. Legates is an affiliate of the Heartland Institute, which seeks to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change. The president's belief of climate science can ultimately shape years of progress in mitigating climate change.
Impacts of Climate Change DenialEdit
The spread of the climate change denial movement will have impacts on future generations. Intergenerational justice, the idea that present generations have responsibilities towards future generations, raises pressing issues with respect to climate change. The public's concern about climate change varies significantly by age group. According to a 2018 Statista study, 70% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 worry a significant amount about global warming, while only 56% of people over the age of 55 share this concern. Lack of concern among older generations is due to the limited risks climate change will present during their lifetime. Only 29% of people over the age of 55 believe global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. Older age groups are also less likely to acknowledge human influence on the progression of climate change. While 75% of people between the ages of 18 and 34 believe global warming is caused by human activities, only 55% of people over the age of 55 share this belief. 
Older age groups have the upper hand in this generational debate, as climate action (or lack thereof) is often pursued through policy changes. Compared to younger generations, older age groups have more eligible voters and are more likely to vote. While it is reasonable to assume that climate change denial will lose momentum as younger generations inevitably replace older ones, the planet is warming faster than the human population ages. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, significant action must be taken by 2030.
Denial of climate change by older age groups will have severe consequences for today’s younger generations and their successors. The 60-year-olds of today have an influence over the state of emission levels in 2030. Consequently, today’s 20-year-olds will spend the rest of their adult lives enduring the impacts of their older counterparts’ actions. The prevalence of the climate change denial movement today and its ability to delay policy action will determine younger generations’ ability to deal with climate change in the future. Mitigation of climate change issues involves long-term thinking across generations and closing the generational divide will likely require numerous institutional changes.
Social perception is an extremely important factor at the social interface of technology. Public opinion directly impacts the development of legislation -- or lack thereof -- with regard to controversial technology. This was observed in both climate change and the tobacco industry, largely due to the propagation of doubt by advocacy groups. The importance of social perception and its susceptibility to manipulation cannot be neglected in any sociotechnical case, regardless of the amount of technical evidence.
When dealing with controversial topics, people have a tendency to react more to evidence that supports their view. This confirmation bias helps explain why so many people can blatantly disagree with a scientific consensus. Additionally, groups can abuse confirmation bias to impede their opposition by spreading doubt and uncertainty. In the end, people can only be expected to act according to their own agendas, even when the stakes are as high as they are with climate change.
Further examination of the regulatory capture experienced by the EPA during the Reagan administration is needed. Additionally, expansion of the list of companies and advocacy groups involved in spreading climate change denial is necessary. For example, coal mining companies may have an interest in delaying climate change laws. Finally, the scope can be expanded to address climate change denial in other countries, as compared to the United States.
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