The Roots of Climate Skepticism

Scientists recently discovered a planet made of diamond, an amazing discovery.  One of them has commented on how well that scientific discovery was received, as opposed to research on climate change:

Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.

How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.

Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.

Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.

Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.

What’s interesting is not just that there are different public reactions to climate change than other scientific research.  What’s really interesting that quite often the climate skeptics are not neanderthals who reject all science.  It’s only climate science (and maybe evolution) that they reject.  For instance, Leonard Steinhart writes:

Consider an entrepreneur I know who has a deep reverence for science and enjoys seeing the fruits of chemistry emerge in the products he sells. Yet whenever climate change comes up, he throws up his arms, insults Al Gore, and despite knowing that there’s near-universal agreement among scientists about global warming, dismisses it as yet another fabrication of liberals trying to impose government on the rest of us.

People like this entrepreneur are perfectly willing to believe in astrophysics and to entrust their lives to airplanes designed on the same supercomputers that run climate models. They don’t think that the moon landings were fake or that the sun goes around the earth. They certainly don’t spend their time posting comments on blogs about how “the moon is really made of green cheese, just like the so-called diamond planet.”

But they don’t seem to see the inconsistency.  Of course, some of them are getting paid for their work; maybe if the Big Cheese lobby was stronger we’d see those blog postings as well.  But many of them like  Steinhart’s friend are undoubtedly sincere.

Yet, the ways that we know about the diamond planet or the physics of semiconductors are really no different from the ways that we know about climate change.  Of course, that means that we don’t have complete certainty about any of these matters — in the case of climate change, the IPCC views the science as establishing about 90% probability for the key claims.  (If climate science was a hoax or just the result of groupthink by scientists, we wouldn’t see this degree of care in assessing the strength of claims.)  Climate sciences is based on decades of very hard, sophisticated scientific investigation by hundreds if not thousands of investigators.  It’s a little hard to see why that work isn’t entitled to the respect given other scientific research.

So why the different reaction to climate science?  The answer seems fairly obvious: when scientific evidence becomes sufficiently inconvenient, skepticism suddenly becomes too seductive to resist. But we should dig a little deeper to understand the roots of this attitude.

Steinhart believes that there are several factors contributing to the problem: anti-liberalism, anti-intellectualism, religious conservatism, and corporate self-interest.  Putting aside corporate self-interest for the moment, the other three have a strong strain in common.  They are often associated with belief in the autonomous individual and a corresponding rejection of human interdependence (at least outside the nuclear family).  Anti-liberalism means that people do not need the help of government; religious conservatism (at least of the evangelical variety) means that individuals rather than religious institutions are in charge of their own spiritual destinies; and anti-intellectualism means that we don’t have to rely on specialized knowledge controlled by other people.  And even corporate self-interest fits, being tied with the belief that we can all pursue our own self-interest without worrying about other people, because the invisible hand of the market will iron out any apparent harms.

Climate science is threatening in part because it would require changes in government and the economy that conservatives find distasteful.  But more fundamentally, the basic insight of climate science is that the world has intricate and enormously important webs of interaction and feedback.  The cumulative effect of small and seemingly innocuous actions in one place can contribute to long-term, serious harms halfway around the world.  This degree of interdependency is hard to accept if you have based your entire worldview on a vision of the absolutely autonomous individual.

I don’t mean that the science dictates views about religion or politics.  Obviously n0t.  There’s no logical reason why someone couldn’t be a libertarian, intellectual, evangelical, corporate officer who believes in climate science. No doubt there are such people.  But if you’re a libertarian, an evangelical, a populist, and a corporate officer — or any one of those three — it may be just a little easier to live in a world that lacks the kinds of deep interdependencies highlighted by climate science.

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Reader Comments

5 Replies to “The Roots of Climate Skepticism”

  1. Dear Dan,
    My skepticism is rooted in my education and training as a Chemical Engineer. I understand how carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation and may temporarily store a small amount of thermal energy. But given the fact that carbon dioxide is a trace gas in the atmosphere, this heat effect is miniscule and insignificant when compared to the effects of solar radiation, water vapor, cloud cover, weather patterns, ocean currents, natural cycles and other factors.This is why capping and trading carbon dioxide would have no measurable impact on global atmospheric temperature. Cap & trade is a bad idea that is very expensive and burdensom and does not mitigate climate change.

    Your arguments are political and psychological, and you do not adequately explain the underlying scientific controversy. This is why climate hysteria can safely be ignored.

  2. As a libertarian who accepts climate science, could not one also suggest that orthodox environmentalists who believe that economic development is inherently risky and must be controlled find it that much easier to credit each and every apocalyptic scare story blaming capitalism/corporations/technology for some dire environmental threat? I’m not convinced the conservative-libertarian skepticism about climate science is any more notable than, say, orthodox environmentalist rejection of the scientific consensus on agricultural biotechnology.

    JHA

    1. John–yes, I agree. We all have our biases. The biotech case is a little more complicated, however, since ecologists seem to see greater risk levels than molecular biologists. And liberal politicians don’t seem to feel a compulsion to denounce molecular biology as a hoax or a conspiracy.

      Dan

  3. Liberal politicians don’t need to denounce molecular biology as a hoax or conspiracy because existing regulations already embody an unscientific bias against rDNA techniques — a bias that has been repeatedly repudiated by the NAS. But there’s certainly no lack of conspiratorial claims about Monsanto.

    Further, while ecologists have made various claims, there is still, as yet, no evidence that rDNA organisms pose any distinct or unique ecological threat as compared to their “natural” counterparts. (There are, as yet, no GM invasives; if only we could say the same about non-GM organisms.) This doesn’t mean GMOs are risk-free, but that’s not the claim. Rather, the claim is that the modification technique used tells us nothing about the existence of a risk, ecological or otherwise.

    And, of course, this is not the only example. Given the number of times environmental activists have warned of an impending ecological apocalypse that failed to manifest itself, you can understand why some equate environmentalists with the boy who cried wolf. Of course, as in the original fable, there are wolves out there (and, as you know, I believe climate change is, indeed, such a wolf), but those who have been too quick to raise the alarm in the past don’t have much credibility across the political aisle.

    JHA

  4. I disagree with your assertion that “So why the different reaction to climate science? The answer seems fairly obvious: when scientific evidence becomes sufficiently inconvenient, skepticism suddenly becomes too seductive to resist. But we should dig a little deeper to understand the roots of this attitude.”

    Climate skepticism that I have has nothing to do with connivence or not, its my lack of faith in the science and the large amount of misleading information regard climate science. I am fundamentally against carbon taxes not because I do not want to pay another tax but the fact that no tax in the history of this planet has ever changed the atmospheric temperature of the earth.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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