Anti-science conservatives are stuck in denial; for climate science activists, the reverse is true
The five stages of grief describes “a process by which people allegedly deal with grief and tragedy, especially when diagnosed with a terminal illness or catastrophic loss,” as Wikipedia puts it:
l have been meaning to blog on this since I heard a very brilliant physicist, Saul Griffiths, use this piece of pop psychology to describe climate science activists (CSAs), and I realized that he had it backwards.
And the timing could not be better what with the staggering number of comments over the weekend from the WattsUpWithThat crowd. I let the overwhelming majority of those comments through because every several months progressives and CSAs should see what anti-climate-science talking points are making the rounds. [For the last go round, see “The deniers are winning, especially with the GOP” with 537 comments.]
But first, let me explain why I am still using the word “denier” here, although many deniers don’t like the implication – which I am certainly not making – that they are anything like Holocaust deniers. I have blogged many times on the quest for a better term (for a long discussion see Media enable denier spin 3: PLEASE stop calling them “skeptics”).
I suspect future generations will call them “climate destroyers” or worse – since if we actually (continue to) listen to them, that pretty much ensures warming of 5°C or more this century, 850 to 1000 ppm concentrations, and centuries of what had been purely preventable misery (for the recent scientific literature and analysis of the multiple catastrophic consequences humanity faces on the business-as-usual emissions path, see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water“). But what should we call these people in the meantime, while we still have time to ignore them and save the climate?
As an important aside, I very much draw a distinction between the deniers – the professionals (like Watts, Morano, and Will) who spread disinformation for a living and/or full-time – and the much larger number of people who have been misled by them into repeating their disinformation. It’s much harder to know what term to use for the misled than it is for the misleaders. Let’s call them delayers, for now, since that is their primary impact.
Let’s first note that neither the deniers nor the delayers are skeptics, the term they (and the media) like to use.
THEY AREN’T SKEPTICAL – THEIR MINDS ARE MADE UP
The traditional or mainstream media still call them “skeptics,” as in this NYT headline. As long as they do so they trivialize the problem and render the word “skeptic” devoid of meaning.
All scientists are skeptics. Hence the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the world’s oldest scientific academies (founded in 1660), Nullius in verba: “Take nobody’s word.” Indeed, as Wikipedia explains in its entry on “Skepticism“:
A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation. The scientific method details the specific process by which this investigation of reality is conducted. Considering the rigor of the scientific method, science itself may simply be thought of as an organized form of skepticism. This does not mean that the scientific skeptic is necessarily a scientist who conducts live experiments (though this may be the case), but that the skeptic generally accepts claims that are in his/her view likely to be true based on testable hypotheses and critical thinking.
Skeptics can be convinced by the facts, but not the deniers and delayers. Skeptics (and real scientists) do not continue repeating arguments that have been discredited. Deniers and delayers do.
What are these long debunked arguments and talking points that deniers keep pushing? You can find a constantly updated list – with debunking – at the excellent website Skeptical Science. Many science blogs, including CP and RealClimate, take them on regularly as a quick search would reveal.
As an aside, while I have temporarily relaxed my comments policy this weekend, CP in general does not allow people to post long-debunked denier talking points as I have said many times. Why? Either I have to waste time debunking them for the umpteenth time (and deniers are never satisfied with a couple of sentences and a link) – thus allowing deniers to achieve one of their goals which is to waste everyone else’s time – or I ignore it, in which case a first-time visitor stumbling over a post might think that the disinformation had some validity because it wasn’t debunked. That is a no-win situation that even Capt. Kirk or Mr. Spock in the latest Star Trek movie – which, by the way, is quite terrific (saw it last night finally) – would have trouble dealing with.
As I explained in my post, “Diagnosing a victim of anti-science syndrome (ASS),” you can generally tell a denier or delayer by repeated use of the following phrases, which are connected to the long-debunked talking points:
- Medieval Warm Period
- Hockey Stick
- Michael Mann
- The climate is always changing
- Temperature rises precede rises in carbon dioxide
- Pacific Decadal Oscillation
- Water vapor
- Cosmic rays
- Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark
- Ice Age was predicted in the 1970s
- Global cooling
Individually, some of these words and phrases are quite useful and indeed are commonly used by both scientists and non-scientists who are not anti-science. But when used by people claiming to be “skeptics” – especially in combination with the name “Al Gore” – you know you have a denier on your hands.
My personal experience is that no amount of scientific evidence can convince the well-known “skeptics.” I have debated Lomborg and he is very well versed in the science – he just chooses not to believe most of it. Indeed, if the overwhelming evidence of the last five years – if the analyses and warnings from a growing number of uncharacteristically blunt scientists – doesn’t convince someone of the dire nature of the situation, then they simply aren’t open to scientific reasoning, the basis of true skepticism.
The media – and everyone else – should stop using the term. It makes a mockery of the English language, it is an insult to real scientific skeptics, and it feeds the overall disinformation effort that makes humanity’s self-destruction more likely.
The deniers and delayers, as CP uses the terms, are those who aggressively embrace one or both parts of a two-fold strategy. First, they deny the strong and growing scientific understanding that the climate change we are witnessing is primarily human-caused, that the human component of the climate forcing will increasingly dominate the climate system, and that we face multiple catastrophic impacts if we don’t reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends sharply and soon. Second, they work to delay this country from taking any serious action beyond perhaps investing in new technology (although even that is mostly lip service since the overwhelming majority of deniers and delayers are conservatives and libertarians who oppose all serious efforts to accelerate the development and deployment of low carbon technologies).
Such is the road to ruin. Those who advance such a view, including Anthony Watts of WattsUpWithThat, deserve a strong label. No doubt many delayers (and even a few deniers) are sincere in their beliefs, but many are not. Sincere or insincere, they spread misinformation or disinformation that threatens the well-being of the next fifty generations of Americans, indeed of all humans. Deniers like Watts are also not content merely to dispute the work of climate scientists–they are actively engaged in smearing the reputation of those scientists. Such folks deserve the very strongest of labels.
That said, the term “delayer” is more accurate, I think, since so many deniers now realize how untenable their position is. As result many don’t fully deny that the climate is changing and that humans are contributing, they just say the whole thing is very overblown and who knows what the perfect climate is and the actual climate sensitivity is an order of magnitude smaller than all the science (including the paleoclimate science) says, so let’s just wait and see … blah, blah, blah. So I will still try to use the term delayer here, mostly for the misled.
But “delayer” never caught on, or any of the other narrower terms, like “disinformer,” that I sometimes use at CP for the people who make it their full-time job to spread disinformation. So if for no reason than for clarity’s sake – as well as for the sake of people doing web searches – we seem to be stuck with denier for general usage.
I understand that some of the deniers take offense at the apparent implication that they are like Holocaust deniers. I am not trying to make that connection – since climate science deniers are nothing like Holocaust deniers. Holocaust deniers are denying an established fact from the past. If the media or politicians or the public took them at all seriously, I suppose it might increase the chances of a future Holocaust. But, in fact, they are very marginalized, and are inevitably attacked and criticized widely whenever they try to spread their disinformation, so they have no significant impact on society.
The climate science deniers, however, are very different and far more worrisome. They are not marginalized, but rather very well-funded and treated quite seriously by the status quo media. They are trying to persuade people not to take action on a problem that has not yet become catastrophic, but which will certainly do so if we listen to them and delay acting much longer.
THIS IS ABOUT DENIAL
And fundamentally this is about denial – denial of climate science. The clearest evidence is that a great many climate science deniers accept the science of evolution, such as Charles Krauthammer – who wrote in “”Phony Theory, False Conflict,” that “Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological “theory” whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge – in this case, evolution – they are to be filled by God.” And yet he is a hard-core climate science denier (see, for instance, Krauthammer’s strange denier talk points, Part 1: Newton’s laws were “overthrown”). Similarly, another hard core climate science denier, George Will, also believes in evolution – he actually called it “a fact.”
But that raises the obvious question. Why do so many apparently intelligent conservatives and libertarians – ones who accept the science of evolution, ones who take medicines prescribed by doctors based on the scientific method, ones who rely on science and technology every day, indeed, every minute – why do they deny climate science?
My book discusses this general question at length, and offers the answer (see here):
The answer is that ideology trumps rationality. Most conservatives cannot abide the solution to global warming-strong government regulations and a government-led effort to accelerate clean energy technologies into the market. According to the late Jude Wanniski, Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker articles [on global warming], did nothing more “than write a long editorial on behalf of government intervention to stamp out carbon dioxide.” His villain is not global warming, but is the threat to Americans from government itself.
George Will’s review of Michael Crichton’s State of Fear says: “Crichton’s subject is today’s fear that global warming will cause catastrophic climate change, a belief now so conventional that it seems to require no supporting data…. Various factions have interests-monetary, political, even emotional-in cultivating fears. The fears invariably seem to require more government subservience to environmentalists and more government supervision of our lives.”
As the NYT‘s Andy Revkin explained about the recent skeptic denier conference in New York,
What unites these people is their desire to delay or stop action to cut GHGs, not any one particular view on the climate.
It is nearly impossible to win an argument with a conservative or libertarian who hates government-led action. Yes, you can try to point out all the great things the government has done (the Internet, anyone?) and try to point out that they invariably support government-led action for military security, and, of course, government subsidies and regulations to promote energy security, at least as it applies to oil industry and nuclear energy pork.
I have a different argument – if you hate government intrusion into people’s lives, you’d better stop catastrophic global warming, because nothing drives a country more towards activist government than scarcity and depravation. The catastrophic impacts the country faces on our current emissions path by 2100 – 10 to 15° F warming over much of the inland U.S., 4 to 6 feet of sea level rise, and 1 to 2 inches a year after that, a Dust Bowl over much of the area from Kansas and Oklahoma to California, and hot, acidic ocean deadzones – will lead to far more government intervention in the lives of Americans than preventing those catastrophes ever would.
But most conservatives and libertarians can’t hear that argument. Again, they can’t stand the cure – a government led effort to sharply sharply increase the use of clean energy and sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions – so they deny the diagnosis.
And so, for better or worse, the word “deniers” stays with us. As I’ve said, I will try to reserve that term for the professional disinformers and their work. And I’ll try to remember to use the term delayers for those who have been misled.
THE FIVE STAGES IN REVERSE
And now let me end with what I promised – the five stages of grief in reverse.
Climate science activists begin with accepting the science. What else can one do? Science is the reason so many of us survived childbirth and childhood, science has fed the world, science is the reason computers and the blogosphere exist at all. And yes, science gave us our fossil-fueled wealth. I’m a scientist by training, but I just don’t see anyone can pick and choose what science you’re going to believe and what not. The scientific method may not be always be perfect in single studies – since it is used by imperfect humans – but it is the best thing we have for objectively determining what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. It is testable and self-correcting, unlike all other approaches.
Once CSAs accept the science, many quite naturally get depressed – see “Dealing with climate trauma and global warming burnout.” The situation is beyond dire, and we aren’t doing bloody much about it, in large part because of the successful efforts of the deniers and delayers. Climate science offers a very grim prognosis if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.
After depression, comes a serious effort at bargaining: CSAs try to figure out what they can do to stop the catastrophe. Taking actions and making bargains at a personal level and a political level – depending on their level of activism.
Then comes anger. Once you’ve been at this for a while, you get very very frustrated by how little is happening – by the status quo media, the many anti-science politicians, and especially the deniers, the professional disinformers.
Finally, you end up in a kind of denial. It just becomes impossible to believe that the human race is going to be so stupid. Indeed, my rational side finds it hard to believe that we’re going to avoid catastrophic global warming, as any regular CP reader knows. But my heart, in denial, is certain that we will – see “How the world can (and will) stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution (updated).” The great New Yorker write Elizabeth Kolbert perhaps best summed up this form of denial. Her three-part series, “The Climate of Man,” which became the terrific book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, famously ends:
It is impossible to believe. I myself can’t believe it.