Debate: Who's to Blame for Climate Denialism?

From liberal activists to conservative naysayers.

Debate: Who's to Blame for Climate Denialism?

It is easy to pin climate denialism on a “decades-long effort by conservatives and industry allies to mislead the American public about the causes of climate change,” write University of Toronto Postdoctoral Fellow Eric Merkley and Colorado State Assistant Professor Dominik Stecula. And while many activists, writers, and researchers do, does this popular narrative actually hold up to scrutiny? Who's really to blame for climate denialism? A new debate in our forthcoming issue of the Breakthrough Journal tackles this question head-on.

According to Merkley and Stecula, there “is relatively little evidence that this misinformation campaign directly reached or influenced the public in a meaningful way.” Rather, they find, observers might pay more attention to the cues Republican voters received from Democratic and liberal elites—people with ideologies antithetical to their own. “That is,” they argue, “the rise in Republican climate denial was not merely a response to denialist messages from Republican elites and their allies in industry; it was also very much a reaction against affirmative calls to action from prominent Democrats.”

In a new response, George Marshall, the founder of Climate Outreach, pushes back. “Oil companies and libertarian think tanks may not have single-handedly generated climate denial,” he notes, “but they certainly did a damned good job of priming the narrative vacuum with their arguments.” And although he agrees with the need to challenge the conventional wisdom about climate denialism, he cautions against oversimplification: “Messages from the two sides are never comparable or equivalent. Reporting of climate science is often technical and dry. Denial operates with¬out the constraints of peer review: it simply steers straight for the most compelling narrative with absolute certainty. On a contested issue, a con¬fident professional performer with a good storyline will always be more persuasive than a nervous scientist who cannot speak without caveats and uncertainties.”

Read more about this contested issue below, and come back next week for the rest of the print issue:

Anthony Quintano from Westminster, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Unbalanced: How Liberal Elites Have Cued Climate Polarization, Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula


Learning to Speak Across the Climate Divide, George Marshall