The denial of climate change. How the 3% became the mainstream

April 29, 2017
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The proposed excerpt is taken from Cambiamento climatico. Una piccola introduzione (“Climate Change. A small introduction”) by Marcello Di Paola, published by LUISS University Press.

«Over 97% of scientific publications on climate change agree that it is real and that it is caused by human action. There is less agreement on how harmful it will be, but it is widely agreed upon that harm will be. 97% of scientific works focus on how likely certain risks are to take place in different scenarios. Only a few speak of “uncertainties” – that is, things that might not even happen or that we have not yet formed an opinion on.

Only 3% of scientific papers on the subject do not agree that climate change is real, denying everything. There is the same level of disagreement in the humanist community as to the fact that Shakespeare actually existed and that he was the author of the works attributed to him. But if these are the numbers, it is quite accurate to say that there is a great scientific consensus on both Shakespeare and climate change. Yet, regarding climate change, that 3% was incredibly effective in disorienting the public opinion.

The United States have been at the forefront of climate change denial. In 1989 the Global Climate Coalition, formed by oil companies, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, produced The Greening of Planet Earth, a film in which the Coalition itself expressed the hope that the doubling of carbon dioxide would cause the planet to be lush with vegetation. In 1995, the year of the second IPCC report, the Global Climate Coalition directly attacked the IPCC, slinging mud at its work, its motivations and the credibility of its members. The main goal was to undermine the confidence in climate science and to pass on the message that there was no consensus among scientists on this subject. It worked in the United States. The Coalition’s activities continued over the years, with only a slight decrease in 1997 following the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol – the first binding international agreement on emissions reduction – as many companies, who believed that de-carbonisation was now inevitable, left the GCC.

However, they were greatly reassured from 2000 onwards, with George W. Bush’s administration. We must not confuse climate change deniers with those who, while acknowledging reality, still argue that nothing should be done to counter the phenomenon, arguing that any policy of conflict would benefit the future, generating opportunity costs for today’s poor. This is true and is a serious political and moral theme that deserves further consideration. It is not, however, an argument that’s favored by the deniers, who belong to groups that care little about both future generations and the poor of today. Nor should deniers be considered as carriers of a healthy and critical skepticism, rightly sensitive to the possible failures of science. Deniers are not skeptical thinkers, they are dogmatic thinkers: they pursue their truth regardless of the amount of scientific evidence that contradicts them, dismissing such evidence as part of a conspiracy or a scam (from 2010 onwards, between 8,000 and 10,000 scientific articles to support the existence, the anthropogenic nature and the malignancy of climate change have been published every year). What deniers have done and continue to do is simply overrunning the mass media by devising ad hominem attacks with great insistence, targeting scientists, politicians, intellectuals and activists without differentiating them so much from one another and giving the idea that there is a “climate front” rather than a climate issue. The pinnacle of negationist rhetoric is the scientific uncertainty mentioned above. I have already noted that climatology is a probabilistic science: given different possible temperature rise scenarios, climatology assigns more or less high probabilities of the occurrence of different types of events and phenomena. Climatology is not, however, uncertain in the sense that there are doubts about the reality of climate change, its anthropogenic origin, and the malignancy of the risks it generates or exacerbates. When climatologists refer to uncertainty they do so with very strict criteria, that are indeed scientific: what is not 100% certain is, by definition, uncertain. But that does not mean that something is not real and (when speaking about climate change) that it does not pose any risk, nor that it is completely impossible to assign probabilities to those same risks or, of course, that such chances are not high. Politics, when it comes to making decisions, normally does not apply scientific certainty but rather cost / benefit criteria and, indeed, risk criteria. A terrorist attack being not 100% certain doesn’t prevent actions being taken to stop it, beyond a certain risk threshold and given the potential costs derived by it being successful, it will not act to prevent it. Countries spend billions of dollars on defense and security on the basis of cost / benefit and risk considerations: this is why the fundamental role of government policy is, in democratic systems at least, to protect and promote the well-being of the citizens. To do this, there is no need for scientific certainty – in fact, waiting for it before making public decisions would in many cases be severely criticized by the population. The main objective of negationism is to obscure all this and buy more time. In the words that Republican political consultant Frank Luntz addressed to his employers in 2002 (being intercepted by the press): “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” […] The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. You need to be even more active in recruiting experts who are sympathetic to your view”. In all likelihood, this is where that 3% of scientific disagreement we discussed comes from».

"Cambiamento climatico. Una piccola introduzione"

The author

Marcello Di Paola

Marcello Di Paola teaches Political Philosophy and Sustainable Development at LUISS

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