Climate Change Denial

July 24, 2009


George Marshall @ 2:00 pm

george-marshall-012At a recent dinner at Oxford University a senior researcher in atmospheric physics was telling me about his coming holiday in Thailand. I asked him whether he was concerned that this would make a contribution to climate change (we had, after all, just sat through a two hour presentation on the topic). “Of course,” he said blithely, “and I’m sure the government will make long haul flights illegal at some point”.

To be honest the conversation had not just idly strayed into the topic of holidays: I had deliberately steered it in this direction as part of an informal research project- one you are welcome to join. Previous experimental subjects include a senior adviser to Nicholas Stern who flies regularly to South Africa (“my offsets help set a price in the carbon market”), a member of the British Antarctic Survey who takes several long haul skiing trips a year (“my job is stressful”), a national media environment correspondent who took his family to Sri Lanka (“I can’t see much hope”) and a Greenpeace climate campaigner back from scuba diving in the Pacific (“it was a GREAT trip!”).

Intriguing as their dissonance may be, what is especially revealing is that every one of these people has a career that is predicated on the assumption that information is sufficient to generate change- an assumption that a moment’s introspection would show them was deeply flawed.

It is now 44 years since President Lyndon Johnson’s scientific advisory council warned that our greenhouse gas emissions could generate ‘marked changes in climate’. That’s 44 years of  research (now costing, by one estimate (1), three billion dollars per year ), symposia, conferences, articles, documentaries, and now 80 million references on the internet. Despite all this information, polls over the past five years have shown that 40% of people in Britain  resolutely refuse to accept that our emissions are changing the climate. In the US it is over 50% .

I do not accept that this continuing rejection of the science is a reflection of media distortion or scientific illiteracy. Rather I see this as proof of our failure to construct a shared socially held belief in climate change.

I find that climate scientists strongly dislike the word ‘belief”. Writing in The Guardian Vicky Pope, head of the UK Hadley Centre wrote testily “we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence”  (4).

I could not disagree more. People’s attitudes towards climate change, even Dr Pope’s, are belief systems constructed through social interactions within peer groups. People then select the storylines that accord best with their personal worldview.

In Dr Pope’s case (and my own) this is a worldview that respects scientists and the evidence. But just listen to what other people say. Most of them regard climate change as an unsettled technical issue that is still being hotly debated by eggheads. Many reject personal responsibility by shifting blame elsewhere – to the rich, the poor, the Americans or the Chinese- or suspect that it is a Trojan Horse built by hair shirt environmentalists who want to steal their luxuries.

And the climate specialists in my private experiment, immersed as they are in the scientific evidence, have nonetheless developed ingenious storylines to justify their long haul holidays. ‘I work hard on this issue’, they argue, ‘so I need a ‘proper’ break to help me keep going’. Thus their climate change work is not a personal challenge, it is a proof of their virtue and a form of moral offset:

So, with time running out, please humour me and imagine that we focus our efforts on generating a socially held belief. What would change in the way we present climate science?

Well, for one thing we would become far more concerned about the communicators and their perceived trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is an elusive and complex bundle of qualities: authority and expertise are among them. But so too are less tangible qualities: honesty, confidence, charm, humour, outspokenness. The tiny network of maverick self-promoting skeptics play this game well– which is one of the reasons why they exercise such disproportionate influence over public opinion.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done a particularly poor job of promoting itself as an authoritative and trustworthy institution. It should be telling the story of how it achieves consensus on an unprecedented scale, and enabling its most presentable participants to speak directly to the world.. At present, under sustained skeptic attack, it can’t even provide a list of the people involved in the process. It has no human face at all – the only images on its website are the covers of reports or the beach resort where it will hold its next meeting.

The single greatest quality of the people we trust and believe is that they appear to be like us and understand our needs and values. We badly need to widen the range of voices speaking on climate change and, inevitably, this means that climate experts relinquish some of their dominance and become more concerned with enabling others to speak.

Finally- to really push my luck- a belief driven approach would recognise the crucial need for imagination to make this issue real and current.- in polls scarcely 10% of people regard it as a major problem facing Britain today . These risks will never feel imminent, nor the alternatives feel possible, unless we can project ourselves into the future. And that requires a major effort of personal and collective imagination,

Again I am sure this is uncomfortable for many scientists, like Professor Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre who regularly warns against apocalyptic language that “actively ignores the careful hedging which surrounds science’s predictions”(6) . He is quite right that the language of fear can be counterproductive- it must be balanced with a positive vision.

However it is also clear that the moderated cautious language of professional science is inadequate to motivate, empower and inspire concerted change, even in the lives of the climate professionals themselves. Scientists must recognise the need for a far wider range of voices and approaches and that will means a greater respect and productive partnership with the creative arts. And maybe we are now at the stage when scientists can throw down the challenge:” we’ve done the work, we believe the results, now when the hell will you wake up?”

This is a slightly longer version and unedited of an opinion piece written for the 23rd July issue of New Scientist. Link..
For the proof of  the pudding read the bizarre and overwhelmingly sceptic comments that follow it on the New Scientist website.


1.  The growth of climate change science: A scientometric study. G STANHILL Climatic change 48:2-32-3, 515-524, Springer, 2001
2. Environmental Choices study 2008 Haddock Research and Branding, Inc. 2008
3. Survey of 1,000 Likely Voters January 15-16, 2009, Rasmussen Polls link…
4.  Scientists must rein in misleading climate change claims, Comment is Free,, Wednesday 11 February 2009
5. The Environment- How important is it really to the public? Ipsos MoriNov 2008 link..
6. Mike Hulme, Chaotic world of climate truth, BBC News viewpoint link..


  1. In the run up to the Copenhagen climate change conference, it is vital the following information be disseminated to the public as well as to our political leaders.

    A widely cited 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, estimates that 18 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to livestock….however recent analysis by Goodland and Anhang co-authors of “Livestock and Climate Change” in the latest issue of World Watch magazine found that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions!

    The main sources of GHGs from animal agriculture are: (1) Deforestation of the rainforests to grow feed for livestock. (2) Methane from manure waste. – Methane is 72 times more potent as a global warming gas than CO2 (3) Refrigeration and transport of meat around the world. (4) Raising, processing and slaughtering of the animal.

    Meat production also uses a massive amount of water and other resources which would be better used to feed the world’s hungry and provide water to those in need.

    Based on their research, Goodland and Anhang conclude that replacing livestock products with soy-based and other alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change. They say “This approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions and their atmospheric concentrations-and thus on the rate the climate is warming-than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

    The fact is that we are being informed of the dangerous path we are on by depending greatly on animal flesh for human consumption. We still have the opportunity to make the most effective steps in saving ourselves and this planet. By simply choosing a plant based diet we can reduce our carbon foot print by a huge amount.

    We are gambling with our lives and with those of our future generations to come. It’s madness to know we are fully aware of the possible consequences but yet are failing to act.

    Promoting a plant based diet to the public is would be the most effective way to curb deforestation, we hope this will be adopted as a significant measure to save the rainforests and protect the delicate ecology.

    Thank you for your consideration.

  2. Thank you for a post that reflects much of my own perplexity as I seek to understand the interaction of climate science and activities related to climate change. My focus tends to be on the policy makers who fly endlessly around the globe to meeting after meeting in order to hammer out details for Copenhagen. Many of these are committed environmental activists.

    From the policy perspective, the culture of climate change appears as an extension of the development-nexus. United Nations and World Bank programs that funnel cash, line pockets, and produce (perhaps we can hope) some advances in green house gas reductions or adaptive capacities.

    But there are so many glaring inconsistencies. So much cognitive dissonance.

    Your point about people choosing their beliefs and choosing stories by which they live is powerful. We have to remember though that these stories function as much to paper over cognitive dissonance as to resolve it. No where is culture, or the stories cultures tell themselves, purely rational.

    National and international policy has much to do with creating powerful over-arching narratives and it is this battle that pits climate scientists against Inhofe & company.

    But even powerfule green over-arching narratives are not panaceas. As much I want the green policies to win out, I can’t help but wince at the inadequate, inconsistent, dissonant policy processes and remedies.

  3. balanceact - wayne roth says:

    I’m sure glad I stumbled upon this website as it digs right into the heart of what has been gnawing at me, the hopeless feeling that a few climate skeptics with a deeper understanding of Human needs, and more passion,and catchier phrases are going to overwhelm the science of climate change and leave our Planet a catastrophic mess for the Future. Mr. Marshall, your perceptions of the limited communications skills of scientists to instill the necessary passion and develop a shared social belief in the reality of Climate Change is right on the money. Thank you for your clean clear writing, and your personal commitment to change your actions to match your beliefs. Change is not easy even when we know it is necessary. Knowing is not as powerful as Believing.

    If someone follows this thread I would very much appreciate if they could attach the responses to Mr. Marshall’s opinion essay in the New Scientist. I do not have and can not afford a subscription to that publication but I would really like to read the skeptics response that George talked of.

  4. Tom Scott says:

    More is coming to light about how and why the CRU emails were hacked – see this story from the UK’s Mail on Sunday (a right-wing conservative newspaper):

    There is a bitter irony here. It looks as if all those good folks so eager to expose a grand conspiracy on the part of climate scientists have in fact been playing the part of (very willing, albeit unwitting) accomplices in one of the cleverest pieces of black propaganda of recent years. It seems increasingly probable that the whole exercise has been masterminded by the Russian security services – formerly known as the KGB – who have a proud track record in this respect.

    Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man himself, must be delighted at the ease with which effective action to place curbs on the fossil fuel industry has been sabotaged.

  5. Milan says:

    Adopting a personal ethical position where you don’t fly or otherwise travel long distances because of climate change is rather problematic: it has no upside, and a lot of downside. There is no upside because nobody is willing to copy you. Even people who agree that the science on climate change is compelling, that our emissions harm future generations, and that this creates moral obligations are unwilling to give up the opportunity to travel to interesting distant places, as well as visit friends and family members in far-flung locales (like the other side of this massive country). Tony Blair won’t give up his holidays in Barbados, and people with family, work, and school split between different regions won’t give up the option to cycle between them regularly.

    The downside associated with making this kind of personal example is clear, and goes beyond sacrificing new experiences, family, and friends. Once you have taken the stance, any abandonment will be perceived by a lot of people as proof that environmentalists are hypocrites, that obligations to avoid highly-emitting activities are weak, etc. While the example of being abstinent isn’t forceful enough to make others equally scrupulous, the counter-example of lapses from abstinence provides rich material to rationalize morally dubious actions.

    All this is true regardless of the strength of weakness of the key moral arguments that would underpin such a personal position. They are just undesirable secondary sociological characteristics.

  6. Jack says:

    The reason for the success of climate change denial is an important issue to understand and I think ‘belief’ is the right word to use. I would like to see a poll that compares people’s position on climate change, evolution and the role of government. My guess is these issues will closely align. So, in my opinion, arguing climate change is almost as big a challenge as arguing evolution. Here in the USA approximately 44% of the population do not believe in evolution.

  7. Claire says:

    Climate change is a fact, of how we define it is something that needs to be straightened out. The issue of whether man causes it or not will still be a long debate that even after one wins in the debate many will still fight for an appeal to reconsider the verdict. In short, it will take shorter time to feel the the worsening effects of climate change rather than the resolution of the debate. I guess NGO’s and governments and societies should rather prepare people, and make way for adaptation measures to the changing climate.

  8. Anne says:

    I personally have chosen not to fly or eat meat specifically for environmental reasons, and it has been several years since I have done either, despite being an expat on a different continent than my family. The choice leaves me struggling between developing a superiority complex to frustration over why others can’t do the same. However, I am still convinced that these choices are necessary and I do not regret them.

    To me, climate change is not only scientific fact, but also quite visible, namely from the abnormal weather patterns in all regions of the world.

    I believe that the majority of people suffer from the “human nature” problem; they are unwilling to accept change and unwilling to admit their mistakes or that their beliefs are/were false. Society takes a long time to change, and changes spring from a foundation of education and so clearly a large part of the solution is to spread the word and teach our children the signifance of their actions. Now the only challenge is to do that without coming off as a hippie vegan tree-hugger!

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