Back in the 1970s, both the oil and the coal industry were well aware of the effects burning fossil fuels has on the atmosphere. But, despite knowing that their activities are causing global warming, they didn’t tell the world — instead, they launched a campaign to sow doubts about the veracity of climate change, a campaign that is still prevalent today and is largely responsible for the present extent of the climate denial movement.
Fossil fuel companies are not alone in this. Political lobbyists, media moguls, and profit-motivated individuals have spent the past 30 years making people doubt that climate change exists, that it is bad, and that we are causing it.
But the jig is up, or at least it’s starting to be. Two recent polls suggested that over 75% of Americans think humans are causing climate change. We see that all around us in social movements: school climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests, national governments declaring a climate emergency, and so on. More and more media coverage of climate change and an increasing number of extreme weather events have all contributed to this shift, and there is a growing consensus that we need to act on climate change.
But this doesn’t mean that the lobby has stopped — it has merely changed. Instead of flat out denying climate change, it is taking a more subtle approach, with things like mocking protests or activists such as Greta Thunberg and spreading doubts about the potential of renewable energy.
Spreading climate change denial is still massive business. Companies invest tens of millions directly into this and pump additional resources indirectly, by funding flawed studies and misinformation campaigns.
So, here’s how these companies are trying to change your mind and have you believe their story, according to Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, UCL.
- Science denial
This is the first and oldest approach: try to convince people that the science is just not settled. These are the very familiar arguments: there’s too much uncertainty, the scientists aren’t sure yet, it’s a natural cycle, the models are unreliable, and so on.
All these arguments are false and there is a clear consensus among scientists about the causes of climate change. The models are consistent, and while there is bound to be some uncertainty, that’s only at the detail level — we know climate change is happening, we know it’s because of us, and we know how the heating will happen in general terms. There is no debate about that.
The positive thing is that this sort of argument is increasingly ineffective. Simply put, science just makes too strong a case to be dismissed. More and more people are starting to realize that, but science denial is still as dangerous as ever.
- Economic denial
Economic denial is a bit more subtle than straight-up science denial. Its core argument is that it’s just too expensive to fix global warming, so why bother? More and more deniers are saying that we have a lot to gain economically by not addressing climate change, which is flawed on multiple levels.
Economic studies suggest that we could fix climate change now by spending 1% of the world’s GDP. If you add the benefits to human health into the mix (tackling global warming would save lives and improve the health of millions). Considering that every year, global GDP grows by around 3.5%, a 1% cost sounds like nothing — it’s much less than what we gain in a year. The subsidies awarded to the fossil fuel industry alone are much larger than that: 6% of the world GDP.
Furthermore, global warming is already causing massive economic loss through rising sea levels and extreme weather events.
So in the grand scheme of things, addressing global warming doesn’t really cost that much, despite what some groups would have you believe.
- Humanitarian denial
Something deniers also like to do is pretend that global warming isn’t really bad for us. They’ll say things like “oh, warming is actually good, who doesn’t like a long summer”, or “warmer winters can are good”. Climate change deniers are keen to point out that cold kills more people than heat.
Yet again, this is misleading and manipulative in more ways than one. For starters, it’s not factually correct — at least not in the US. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Cold kills more people because of poor housing — most people suffering from extreme cold are either homeless or living in improper conditions. It’s not that climate kills those people, it’s more that society failed them. In addition, climate change is causing more extreme events, and that can include cold events, as we’ve recently seen happen in the US.
In terms of global impact, 40% of the world’s population also lives in the Tropics — where any additional heating can have devastating impacts and no one really wants a hotter summer. The world’s poorest areas will also be disproportionately affected by rising temperatures and many areas will struggle to cope with it. From a humanitarian perspective, this is a brewing disaster.
A heating climate is also facilitating the spread of dangerous pathogens by expanding the habitats of vectors such as mosquitoes. All in all, climate change will make things worse from a health and humanitarian perspective.
- Political denial
Political denial takes a few different shapes. Climate deniers love to pass blame and take an adversarial angle, saying things like “why should we take action when other countries aren’t” — but the reality of it is that with almost no exception, rich countries are rich because they’ve burned a lot of fossil fuels. Countries such as China and India are some of the world’s largest emitters nowadays, but historically, the US accounts for 25% of all the planet’s emissions. Countries in the European Union account for another 22%. China and India together barely make up 15% together. In addition, per capita emissions look much worse for the US, as well as other countries with abundant fossil fuel resources (such as Saudi Arabia or Russia).
Deniers thrive when they can push nationalism and us-versus-them situations. They dislike global coordination and action, and they want to make everything seem like a zero-sum game: if someone else wins, then we lose, and in order for us to win, someone must lose. But climate management can be a win-win situation. We can reduce emissions while also having economic benefits and more jobs. Improving the environment and reforestation provides protection from extreme weather events and can in turn improve food and water security, and we can help other countries while also helping ourselves.
- Crisis denial
The last thing deniers do is to make it seem like the situation is not urgent. How many times have we heard that climate change is a problem for the future, for the next generations to tackle? Scientists blow things out of proportions, we should wait a bit and then act. We are living in the best of times, so let’s just see what happens and then work things out.
Well, it’s happening now, and we will have the world to lose if we don’t act soon.
If there’s one thing we know about scientists, it is that they take their time and they are almost always on the conservative side of estimates. Scientific evidence is overwhelming and we mustn’t allow mal-intentioned people with money and power to win their disinformation campaign.
In the end, even if you’re still unconvinced after all this, we can only refer to a famous comic: what if we just make a better world for no reason?