The Irrelevance of Climate Skeptics

Why the Obsession with Deniers Impedes Climate Progress

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Climate campaigners often lament the alleged strength of climate skeptics as a major obstacle to implementing policies that will combat global warming. But the battle over public opinion on climate change has long been won, and not by the skeptics. Waging a continued battle against them is a fruitless fight, and, even more, a barrier to effective climate action. Above, Senator James Inhofe (left) and Lord Nicholas Stern.

May 24, 2013 | Roger Pielke Jr

Earlier this week, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times announced that the "climate skeptics have won." His comments echo those of former NASA scientist James Hansen who told an audience in Edinburgh last year that the skeptics "have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources." The action needed in response to this situation was spelt out by Lord Stern – the eponymous author of the well-known 2007 report on the economics of climate changewho once called skeptics "forces of darkness" who had to be "driven back."

Such comments reflect a conventional wisdom in the climate debate. Climate skeptics, or deniers as they are often called, are presented as all-powerful forces bankrolled by rich corporations who have wielded their awesome power to block efforts to deal with the threat of human caused climate change. How do we know that climate skeptics have such power? As Martin Wolf explains, it is the "world's inaction" on climate policy which reveals their power.

From this perspective then, a key challenge of securing action on climate change is to defeat the skeptics – to drive back the forces of darkness so that the forces of good might prevail. Victory will be achieved by winning the battle for public opinion on the state of climate science.

However, a closer look at the logic underlying such arguments reveals a chain of causality which scholars of the public understanding of science have long critiqued as the ineffectual "deficit model" of science. Even more troubling, there is reason to believe that the focus of attention by climate campaigners on skeptics actually works against effective action.

The so-called "deficit model" suggests that the public lacks certain knowledge that if it were known properly (so closing the deficit) would lead them to favor certain policy actions. In other words, if only you understood the "facts" as I understand them, then you would come to share my policy preferences.

The deficit model helps to explain why people argue so passionately about "facts" in public debates over policies with scientific components. If you believe that acceptance of certain scientific views is a precondition for, or a causal factor in determining what policy views people hold, then arguments over facts serve as political debate by proxy.

Dan Kahan, professor of psychology at Yale Law School, has conducted several studies of public views on climate change and finds that the causal mechanisms of the "deficit model" actually work in reverse: people typically "form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values." Our political views shape how we interpret facts. On an issue as complex as climate, there are enough data and interpretations to offer support to almost any political agenda. Thus we have arguments over the degree or lack of consensus among scientists, and see efforts to delegitimise outlier positions in order to assert one true and proper interpretation. Added to the mix is the temptation to push "facts" beyond what science can support, which offers each side the opportunity for legitimate critique of the excesses of their opponents. These dynamics can (and do) go on forever.

In the first half of the 20th century, the American political commentator Walter Lippmann recognized that uniformity of perspective was not necessary for action to take place in democracies. He explained that the goal of politics is not to make everyone think alike, but to help people who think differently to act alike. A vast body of scholarship supports the limitations of the deficit model, yet it remains a defining feature of debates over climate policy today.

It is bad enough that those operating under the assumptions of the deficit model are wasting their time, or working against their own interests. What is worse is that such strategies fail to recognize that the battle over public opinion on climate change has long been over – it has been won, decisively in fact, by those favoring action.

Data on public opinion on climate change has been collected, in some cases for several decades, in countries around the world. What it shows is remarkably strong support for the so-called scientific consensus, as well as strong support for policy action. Even in the notoriously climate sceptical United States, Gallup finds: "trends throughout the past decade - and some stretching back to 1989 – have shown generally consistent majority support for the idea that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated."

Another Gallup poll of 128 countries in 2007 and 2008 found strong majorities in most countries - including most large emitters of carbon dioxide – believe that global warming is a result of human activities. Public opinion does vary a great deal, often literally with the weather, but it has overall been remarkably consistent over many years in support of action. Far from being an obstacle to action on climate change, public opinion is in fact a resource to be capitalized upon.

Studies of the relationship of public opinion and political action on a wide range of subjects show nothing unique or very interesting about the state of public opinion on climate change. Significant policy action has occurred on other issues with less public support on many occasions (as I documented in my recent book, The Climate Fix). Instead of motivating further support for action, efforts to intensify public opinion through apocalyptic visions or appeals to authority, have instead led to a loss of trust in campaigning scientists and a deep politicization of the climate issue. Citing the ample evidence of the ineffectiveness of such approaches, Dan Kahan complains of climate campaigners: "They keep pounding the data, and with a rhetorical hammer that drives home all the symbolism that generates distrust and resistance in larger parts of the population … Why?"

If public opinion is not an obstacle to action on climate change, then what is? The first is a failure of imagination. Conventional wisdom on climate policy has long been that energy prices need to be made more expensive. Dearer energy fits into a complex causal chain of policy action as follows:

Win public opinion via closing the science deficit, defeating the skeptics→then the public will pressure politicians for action→politicians respond by passing laws, and signing international treaties→dirty fossil energy then becomes more expensive→people consequently feel economic pain→not liking economic pain, people demand additional actions on energy efficiency and fossil fuel alternatives→such actions will stimulate innovation in the public and private sectors, as well as in civil society→ these innovations then deliver low carbon alternatives→problem solved.

Laid out from start to finish, this entire causal chain seems like a Rube Goldberg invention. If the causal chain founders at the first step where the deficit model shows up, it completely collapses at the point where energy is supposed to become more expensive in order to create incentives (experienced by voters as economic pain) to propel efficiency and innovation.

The idea that higher priced energy can be used as a lever to transform the global energy system may work in abstract economic models, but fails spectacularly in real world politics. As Martin Wolf explains, "A necessary, albeit not sufficient condition, then, is a politically sellable vision of a prosperous low-carbon economy. That is not what people now see."

A second obstacle to action is the pathological obsession of many environmental campaigners with the climate skeptics. By concluding that the skeptics are the main obstacle to action, campaigners are not only demonstrating a spectacularly circular logic, but they are also devoting their energies to a fruitless fight. Make no mistake, fighting skeptics has its benefits – it reinforces a simplistic good versus evil view of the world, it gives a sense of doing something, and privileges scientific expertise in policy debates. However, one thing that it does not do is contribute towards effective action on climate change.

The battle over public opinion on climate change has long been won, and not by the skeptics. But simply by virtue of their continued existence, the climate skeptics may have the last laugh, because many climate campaigners seem to be able to see nothing else in the debate. Climate skeptics are not all powerful and may not even be much relevant to efforts to decarbonise the global economy. They have, however, cast a spell upon their opponents.

 

This essay originally appeared at the Guardian and has been republished with permission. Photo credit: the Center for Strategic and International Studies (right) and Neil Palmer/International Center for Tropical Agriculture.


Comments

  • Nice try Roger but the game is over and you lost because the science is against you. All of the predictions made 15 years ago proved to spectacularly wrong because the data was based on the incorrect believe that there was a positive feedback loop. You guys whipped up all this hysteria when we had accurate data for less than 100 years. Long ago it stopped being about science and instead about ideology.  But now it hasn’t gotten warmer for 15 years and the game is over.

    By Stuart Young on 2013 05 26

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  • Roger Pielke Jr is just another academic in search of grant money.

    By Dave Thomas on 2013 05 27

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  • Pity that despite a ~30% increase in atmospheric CO2 the climate hasn’t warmed since the late 1990s, and all the evidence seems to indicate it is probably entering a cooling phase (part of a ~60 year cycle possibly correlated with the NAO), isn’t it?

    Oh, and by the way, the keystone of your whole catstrophist theory is amplification of the relatively insignificant warming effect caused by the CO2 by water vapour driven positive feedback, right?  But unfortunately for that theory, NASA’s NVAP atmospheric water vapour figures show a decline since ~1998.  Is it possible that that may be linked with the warming hiatus?

    Never mind, give it a few more years, you alarmists will be able to dig up the global cooling scare of the 1960s and 1970s, won’t you?

    By Catweazle on 2013 05 27

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  • Interesting perspective. Climate change is a tough nut to crack. No one knows how bad the problems will be. No one knows what the best solution is. It’s a classic risk management situation where the debate about what to do, or whether to do anything at all, becomes so heated that progress becomes impossible.

    While Roger Pielke points out the problems, he does not (in this article at least) offer a solution. I hope we can find one.

    By John Smithson on 2013 05 27

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  • Bjorn Lomborg has offered up a realistic solution that actually makes economic sense. Pretending the the world can be run without large amounts of fossil fuels while simultaneously also being against Atomic Energy shows that ideology rather than science is the force behind this movement.

    By Stuart Young on 2013 05 27

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  • “Has there ever in history been such an almighty disconnect between observable reality and the delusions of a political class that is quite impervious to any rational discussion?” You, sir, are one delusional liberal.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterferrara/2013/05/26/to-the-horror-of-global-warming-alarmists-global-cooling-is-here/

    By Jim Hackett on 2013 05 27

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  • I don’t agree with this argument. Strong evidence for climate change will affect people’s opinions. There are many possible ways to generate energy, some of them carbon-intensive and some of them not. If people don’t see good reasons to switch to low-carbon methods of generating power, why bother? People obviously want to believe in things which are congenial to their values (do we really need an academic study to tells us that!?), but that hasn’t prevented progress in many areas because they are also amenable to having their minds changed if a convincing argument can be made for one side or another.

    By PAaron on 2013 05 28

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  • “... if only you understood the “facts” as I understand them, then you would come to share my policy preferences.” Heh! Doesn’t everyone think that? The problem isn’t this attitude, it’s what seems to count as facts with scientists these days. Computer simulations are not “facts”. They are “scenarios”. The unwashed, ignorant masses, however, can only look out the window and see what the weather is. what irony! The ignorant masses base their judgments on—wait for it—the real world!  Scientists apparently have forgotten that theories are supposed to be constructed to explain the facts, i.e the real world, not the other way around. 
    And this gem: “people typically “form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values.”” Ya think? (Only an academic could find this revelatory.)  So how about someone explaining why this is supposed to apply to everyone except scientists? We’ve had a whole generation of specialists whose entire careers are built on this nonsense. Ya think there might be a little resistance on their part to admitting that their entire careers have been based on B.S.? The grant money, the tenure, the consulting fees, not to mention the EGOS. I’m sure that has no influence at all. I mean, it’s not like scientists are the same as rest of us. Right?

    By Cornfed on 2013 05 28

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  • How about this, maybe people doubt handing global energy policy over to a bunch of bureaucrats will solve the problem.  Especially as their models prove they have no idea what they are talking about.

    By Paul Bell on 2013 05 28

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  • this is for all those comments that attempt to dismiss global warming.  I note no science data was used.  last time i looked:  arctic and Greenland and Antarctic still net loss of ice;  Oceans still absorbing CO2 and moving acidic;  ocean temps still going up;  climate scientist still consensus.  i suggest these people do not understand how to conduct a risk assessment.  Perhaps they need to look at how tox data is extrpolated from rats to man.  imperfect but better than killing reading entrails.

    By barnacle bill on 2013 06 02

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  • >> I note no science data was used. <<

    Seems you haven’t bothered reading the comments, doesn’t it?

    According to the Met Office, there has been no statistically significant Global warming since 1997, even arch-Warmist James Hanson admits to a decade.

    Plus, there is the NASA NVAP data showing decreasing atmospheric water vapour since 1998 - despite an increase of atmospheric CO2 of ~30%, and without an increase in water vapour, the high sensitivity water vapour driven positive feedback catastrophic anthropogenic Global warming hypothesis - to give it its full title - is effectively dead in the water.

    Warming oceans?  The sea surface temperature has been diminishing for the whole of this century, so it is difficult to imagine how the heat can somehow permeate to the deep oceans without warming the surfaxe - in any case, it would defy the laws of convection.

    As for ocean acidification, one of the original alarmist claims regarding catastrophic positive feedback was that the warming oceans would release yet more CO2 causing runaway warming, strange how the so-called “settled science” seems to be nothing of the sort, isn’t it?

    All of the above can be verified by reference to the requisite authorities via the Internet - Google is your friend!

    By Catweazle on 2013 06 02

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  • Excellent essay. As one engaged in the effort to help translate science into policy, the discussion of the deficit model and its limitations is an important message to the climate science communicators. This is a good, clear articulation of what’s needed.

    In short, well said.

    By Burke Burnett on 2013 06 27

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  • “If public opinion is not an obstacle to action on climate change, then what is?”—fossil fuel tax revenue.

    By G.R.L. Cowan on 2013 07 14

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  • Climate change is real; cause is to some degree irrelevant.  All too often we try to break things down into small bite-size pieces so that we can understand them and make ourselves feel safe by believing we can control them.  Or we use them to push a narrow personal agenda.

    Just on a very localized basis, over the last 20 years we have been observing weather patterns in Central California that we haven’t seen in 150 years of record keeping; and they are getting progressively less predictable.  It is obvious we are in some sort of chaos period compared to a much more stable and predictable “modern” past.  Our ability to predict timing, intensity and duration based on modern historic data is seriously diminished, that is a documented fact.  Is it our fault (anthropomorphic), or just related to the fact that our historical period correlates with “us”.

    It would be great if we could stop making the argument personal and acting like attorneys in a court room “moral advocates”, injecting the dialogue with thinly veiled epithets and instead talk about what we should do to provide the flexibility to meet current risks and a better future for our posterity.  I say that knowing that many on each side are just that and enjoy the fight, being “right”, maybe more than finding real actionable and viable solutions.

    Both sides of this argument seem to be filled with petty intellectual protagonists, worrying too much about themselves (their side) and “winning”, and not enough about others…whether they are here now, or will be in the future.  I don’t know that Dr. Pielke and I share the same personal and political worldviews, but I do like the practicality of just doing something, rather than sitting around and engaging in vain arguing.  His choice of title, might not be what I would have chosen in order to avoid the kind of personal banter that followed.

    I would add one more thing in closing.  Most people would not have a clue in terms of the veracity of the information provided as arguments made on either side in the preceding comments, which I believe is the kernel of Dr. Pielke’s blog.

    By Martin Querin on 2014 03 01

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About Roger Pielke Jr

I am a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I also have appointments as a Research Fellow, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University; Visiting Senior Fellow, Mackinder Programme, London School of Economics; and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes of Arizona State University. I am also a Senior Fellow of The Breakthrough Institute, a progressive think tank.

Click here to view his recent articles.