Understanding Climate Skepticism

Four hypotheses to explain the endurance of climate skeptics

2015 was the warmest year on record.  Sea level rise has been accelerating in recent decades. To myself and, I suspect, most readers of this blog, human-induced climate change is undeniable in the face of such developments, posing fundamental challenges to human well-being and biodiversity around the globe and into the future. Climate change is here and the scientific evidence is only getting stronger.

So how is it possible that significant climate skepticism and denial continue?

When I first started working on climate change issues over two decades ago, I believed, like many of my colleagues that, as our knowledge of climate change improved, doubters would be persuaded. More and better data would change people’s minds. Truth would win out.

In some respects, this has been happening. A University of Michigan survey in 2015 found that only 16% of Americans believe there is not solid evidence of global warming, the smallest level since the poll started in 2008.  These numbers have no doubt also been driven by the harsh reality of powerful droughts and storms in recent years.

And yet, 16% of Americans is still a big number. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are both vocal climate skeptics presumably, at least in past, because they believe it plays well with their supporters (both voting and contributing).  While 54% of self-described conservative Republicans believe the world’s climate is changing due to human activities, a big percentage still doesn’t.

Climate skepticism is surely controversial and the media is doing a better job portraying contrarians in the proper context, not as an equal and opposing view but as out of the mainstream of scientific consensus. My recent blog on a UCSB course teaching climate skepticism literature generated some heated offline comments about the motivations of climate skeptics, dismissing them as ignorant or venal. I understand the frustration but using a broad brush to characterize skeptics may prove counterproductive. Overcoming climate skepticism remains an important goal because meaningful state or federal legislation will ultimately require political support, ideally broad-based support.

I don’t think there is a single explanation for why strong pockets of climate skepticism have endured, particularly in America. Below, I set out four potential hypotheses and effective responses.


(1)  Climate skeptics are correct

This seems unlikely, given the consensus of scientists around the globe and increasing evidence of climate change, but it’s not impossible. I talked about this fifteen years ago with the famed climatologist, Steve Schneider, who was often asked about this possibility. His response seems as appropriate today as when he said it then – scientific consensus does not determine facts, but it should determine policy.  The appropriate response to possible error lies in testing the evidence through peer-reviewed science. (For a careful assessment of climate skeptics in the scientific literature, check out Steve Schneider’s website at Stanford that has continued to be maintained since his untimely death.)


(2)  Climate skeptics are misinformed or don’t understand the evidence and its implications.

 This hypothesis suggests that dialogue will prove effective.  Skeptics or deniers are well-intentioned and better education / open dialogue will eventually change their minds – hence websites such as this one with useful advice on how to respond to the most common arguments against climate change. This type of education is made more difficult, of course, in the face of misinformation spread by the folks in hypothesis (3), below.


(3)  Climate skeptics are motivated by their economic self interest.

 Recent media stories have linked the Koch brothers and Exxon funding over the past few decades to climate denying organizations. The 2015 book, Merchants of Doubt, made connections between the strategies and actors challenging climate change with the earlier debates over ozone depletion and smoking. In this case, climate skeptics, particularly coal and oil interests, are simply motivated by their financial bottom line. The most effective strategy to address this self-interested group will be public exposure by the media and government. Hence the recent probes by state attorney generals into whether Exxon misled the public about climate change.


(4)  Climate skeptics are neither ignorant nor economically motivated. Instead their views are shaped by strong cultural filters.

As Dan Kahan, a Yale professor who has long studied risk perception, puts it, people’s beliefs about climate change reflect not what they know but who they are. As he describes,

“Social-science research indicates that people with different cultural values — individualists compared with egalitarians, for example — disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is. People with different values draw different inferences from the same evidence. Present them with a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, for example, and they will disagree on whether he really is an ‘expert’, depending on whether his view matches the dominant view of their cultural group.”

So why does this happen? “What an ordinary individual believes about the ‘facts’ on climate change has no impact on the climate. What he or she does as a consumer, as a voter, or as a participant in public debate is just too inconsequential to have an impact… But if he or she takes the ‘wrong’ position in relation to his or her cultural group, the result could be devastating for her, given what climate change now signifies about one’s membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups. It could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between the individual people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

“In these circumstances, we should expect a rational person to engage information in a manner geared to forming and persisting in positions that are dominant within their cultural groups. And the better they are at making sense of complex information—the more science comprehending they are – the better they’ll do at that.”

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has made a similar argument about how cultural priors shape our acceptance and interpretation of facts.

There may well be other explanations, and I’m eager to hear suggestions, but I think that Kahan and Haidt are both on to something that explains the views of many climate skeptics. It certainly seems that for part of the Republican party climate skepticism has become a proxy for membership. The challenge lies in how to disentangle one’s position on climate change from one’s cultural identity or sense of well-being.

In my view, this is the area with the greatest potential for engaging with skeptics and will require thoughtful re-framing of the climate debate. This is already happening to some extent, with the discussion shifting to energy security, green jobs, and strengthening community resilience. Things people from all ideological stripes can agree on.

Reader Comments

8 Replies to “Understanding Climate Skepticism”

  1. Relative to skepticism, a worst case scenario about academic credibility is that Linus Pauling tried to produce Peace on Earth while a UC professor. Pauling won a Nobel Peace Prize but it didn’t prevent even him from being marginalized by UC Powers That Be when he championed peace protests while at UCSD. Pauling failed to continue as a UC professor because his efforts threatened disruptions to research funding by the military industrial complex, as President Eisenhower gravely warned us about in his 1961 Farewell Address ”The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    Professor Pauling did not see things according to the UC establishment so he was marginalized by the establishment regardless of his discoveries in molecular biology that enabled the establishment to create a whole new field of research. http://articles.latimes.com/1996-02-08/news/ls-33798_1_pauling-s-four-children-ted-goertzel-linus-pauling

    Even the UN IPCC continues to fail to have credibility due to never-ending political and intellectual failures to overcome the power of money.

  2. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse keeps talking about the GOP Senators he says are “in prison” on Climate Change because of the conflict between the GOP’s “cultural values” and the increasingly strong scientific reality. He thinks they are looking for a way to break out of prison.

    My expectation is that after this election year, the GOP will quietly begin supporting programs (like extending the renewable energy tax credit) that address climate change without explicitly acknowledging their change of heart. They will call the programs energy efficiency, infrastructure improvements to deal with storms and rising sea levels, and emergency response to deal with disasters and terrorists. But a large part of the climate change agenda will move forward. They might even stop trying to sabotage EPA, but that will be the last domino to fall, and they will depend on the President to prevent their efforts from succeeding.

    At least I hope that is what will happen.

  3. In general, research shows t hat conservatives tend to be more reactive to fear and other negative emotions. The prospect of climate change is an existential threat, so one way of reacting is denial, just as some people might react to a diagnosis of cancer.

    One way to reach such deniers might then be with more hope for a cure.

    This won’t convince anyone whose salary depends on not being convinced, but it at least helps to understand a lot of others. They are hiding under the covers until the monster in the closet goes away.

    1. Christopher said;
      “…….One way to reach such deniers might then be with more hope for a cure……..”

      Best suggestion yet. We educated and informed people know for a fact that regulating carbon dioxide emissions has never had any measurable effect in mitigating climate change and never will. It is a big waste of money on a failed technical approach and that is why we are able to successfully rebuke those who continue to promote such ignorance and incompetence (funding humanities is another failed approach). All of the proposed “solutions” to date do not work in achieving actual reductions in the average global atmospheric temperature and that is why intelligent citizens are skeptical about climate alarmists and their deceptive agenda.

  4. We must focus on the paramount reality that current climate change events prove that time is running out faster than we know, and we have no political, economic, academic, scientific and/or other group that is leading the peoples of the world to produce solutions we can implement in time to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for the human race.

  5. Obama Administration Warns of Deaths from ‘Extreme Heat’ as Weather Service Issues April Snow Advisories:

    The White House published a report Monday warning that “…extreme heat can be expected to cause an increase in the number of premature deaths…” — the same day the National Weather Service issued winter weather advisories for April snowstorms.


  6. Carbon Delusions And Defective Models:

    The relentless war on carbon is justified by the false assumption that global temperature is controlled by human production of two carbon-bearing “greenhouse gases.” The scary forecasts of runaway heating are based on complicated but narrowly focused carbon-centric computerized global circulation models built for the U.N. IPCC. These models omit many significant climate factors and rely heavily on dodgy temperature records and unproven assumptions about two trace natural gases in the atmosphere.

    The models fail to explain Earth’s long history of changing climates and ignore the powerful role of interacting cycles in the solar system, which determine how much solar energy is absorbed and reflected by Earth’s atmosphere, clouds, and surface. Several ancient societies and some modern mavericks, without help from million-dollar computers, recognized that the Sun, Moon, and major planets produce cyclic changes in Earth’s climate.


  7. Kahan has some points but has been criticized (rightly IMO) for being overdeterminative, basically thinking factual education is useless. He came out strong against talking about the 97% consensus, and I think he’s been proven wrong on that.

    I’m guessing psychological approaches will help with some skepticism. I think think evangelical Christian environmentalism isn’t as dead as some people claim and should be promoted.

    It’ll be interesting if economic reality starts affecting people, e.g. whether windpower states in the Midwest might see a decrease in denialism.

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About Jim

James Salzman is the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law with joint appointments at the UCLA School of Law and at the Bren School of the Environment …

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About Jim

James Salzman is the Donald Bren Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law with joint appointments at the UCLA School of Law and at the Bren School of the Environment …

READ more