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Understanding the Biology and Politics of Climate Change Denial

by Germaine Descant, published

The Climate Science

About 97-98% of climate science experts no longer debate whether anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is real and caused primarily by human activity. Current debates center on how serious, how soon, and what and where specific changes will be.

From time to time, a new phenomenon such as massive waves never seen before in the Arctic Ocean and their capacity to accelerate sea ice melt are described. That indicates that climate science, like the climate, is changing.

Climate science is not a perfect science and no one argues that proposition. Regardless of the uncertainties about details, there is no serious mainstream scientific debate about the reality or urgency of AGW per se.

Published research by the small proportion, about 2%, of climate science experts who deny that human activity is involved and/or that global warming is real has been analyzed. The analysis revealed flaws in most of those publications (e.g., use of inappropriate statistical methods and cherry picking supportive data, while ignoring contradictory data).

Denier science can be self-contradictory, with one denier analysis sometimes contradicting another. More importantly, denier science does not point to any single theory that would otherwise explain polar ice melt, carbon dioxide increase, and other AGW-associated phenomena.

The lack of an alternative theory for AGW from denier science, as is the case for “science” that denies the theory of evolution, undermines its credibility because it offers no hypothesis to explain the current climate situation.

The Politics of Climate Change Denial

Based on September 2015 poll data, about 76% of Americans believe climate change is occurring, while 14% believe climate change is not real, and 10% don’t know what to think.

Public sentiment is mixed about what, if anything, to do about it. Some people don’t think climate change, although real, will affect them. Others think that the free market will take care of the problem and government should play little or no role.

Still others -- e.g., Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- believe that God controls the situation and/or climate change science is a hoax or a liberal plot to impose United Nations control over the world.

The belief among most Americans is that the problem is real and serious, not a United Nations Agenda 21 plot to enslave Americans, which is what the Republican National Committee apparently believed in 2012.

UN Agenda 21, a sustainable development initiative, is apparently known to many AGW skeptics as “the Beast that Threatens the Republic.”

Climate science denial, and even

opposition to climate research, usually comes from a conservative or anti-government ideology that opposes federal government involvement or simply denies AGW is real or caused primarily by humans.

A sufficient number of legislators in Congress adhere to that ideology and that group is usually successful in blocking major federal legislation to deal with climate change (e.g., a carbon tax scheme). Some industries that identify economic threats from admitting the existence of AGW have backed opposition to federal action and actively deny the science, although that situation may be beginning to change.

Some climate change adherents believe that the private sector alone has not and cannot effectively deal with AGW and therefore a significant federal role is necessary.

Some anti-government conservatives have recently begun to acknowledge that there just might be an AGW problem. That manifests as feeble remarks such as those from Jeb Bush that maybe climate science should be accepted, but it is “really arrogant” to claim that the science is settled or from Carly Fiorina, who says only the private sector can deal with AGW.

Such remarks are never supported by evidence or logic to back up their subjective ideological belief.

For example, despite Bush’s claim of scientific arrogance, there is no reasonable mainstream science claim that the science is settled, nor is there any evidence that the U.S. private sector alone can deal with an international problem of this magnitude.

On the contrary, there is evidence that the private sector has intentionally denied and distorted the science for profit. From an objective point of view, Ms. Fiorina’s ideological claim stands on either very thin ice or none at all.

Weak pandering statements like those are as far as many Republican politicians are willing to go. That is the case because the party base includes most of the 14% of Americans who deny that AGW is real and probably most of the 10% who are unsure. In essence, many Republican politicians are either true AGW deniers themselves or fear their own base and have no choice but to pander or suffer the consequences in elections, especially primaries.

The Biology of Climate Change Denial

Social science is clear that personal political beliefs, including false fact beliefs that conform to ideology, are often based primarily on personal morals or ideology (here, here, here). Unbiased logical inferences from objective facts are not persuasive for many people because of contradictory personal political ideology or morals that distort both reality and logic or common sense.

In two-party politics, the

innate irrationality (intuitiveness or subjectivity) of human cognition is routinely played on to advance political and other special interest purposes. That explains why some Republican politicians and oil companies are usually not honest about AGW. Given that such deceptions and misinformation are protected free speech, there is little political or economic downside to pandering to people who deny the reality of AGW.

The political implication of consensus AGW science is that coordinated international action is necessary to deal with AGW. That implication is compatible with liberal ideology. Liberals are therefore generally comfortable with accepting the science.

By contrast, the political implications of accepting the reality of AGW science is incompatible with conservative or anti-government ideology. There is a strong correlation between belief in laissez-faire capitalism and denial of AGW.

Most conservatives are not comfortable with accepting the science. Many or most businesses that see threats in policies to deal with AGW will either reject the science or accept the science but nonetheless deny it in public. The latter is what recently landed Exxon-Mobile in hot water for allegedly deceiving investors about the reality of AGW by falsely denying it in public.

Given the twin realities of subjective-intuitive human cognitive biology and the power of false free speech to play on that biology and distort reality, it is reasonable to expect that America will remain crippled at the national level for some time to come. Even if a Democrat wins the White House in the 2016 elections, there is little or no prospect that AGW deniers will come to see the situation any differently.

Bitter opposition to federal initiatives will continue at least until something really unpleasant happens. That might occur (e.g., when Miami finally succumbs to sea level rise and looks more like Venice).

Photo Credit: Bernhard Staehli /

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