Climate change counter-movement confuses the populace and slows climate change action

  • Published on January 27th, 2017

By Carolyn Fortuna

97% of the scientific community agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. They’re published their research in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have disseminated public statements around the importance of climate change as a human crisis. NASA has issued a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources.

So, why are there so many climate change deniers if there is such consensus and a body of research to support anthropogenic climate change?

climate change deniers

Climate change counter-movements arise from the fossil fuel industries

When a community such as climate deniers want to promote a particular perspective, they will point to different “communities” of papers and cite each other. In network terms, the community shows higher modularity and forms a type of consensus. As the structure of the community evolves from distinct groups into a single, united community, a body of literature and supporting evidence accumulates and is later reproduced by some media as fact.

For example, the fossil fuel industry has placed more emphasis on PR campaigns through think-tanks and political leaders than the original research on which the concept of climate denial is based. Indeed, peer-reviewed research rejecting human-caused global warming has had a negligible presence in the scientific literature over the last few decades. The science consensus around climate change has been formed for a long time, but the public consensus — comprised of multiple ideological viewpoints — is not yet fully formed.

A very brief chronology of the climate change “scientific” counter-movement

  • Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist and pollster, found that when people learned about scientific agreement on global warming, their views on climate change corresponded. In a 2002 memo to the George W. Bush White House, Luntz advised Republicans that, in order to win the public debate on climate policy, they should cast doubt on the scientific consensus. He wrote that “you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” (Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
  • Analyzing the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, a group of scholars found that, among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. Their analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research. (Source: John Cook et al 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 DOI
  • An analysis of the financial resource mobilization of the organizations that make up the climate change counter-movement (CCCM) in the United States, including advocacy organizations, think tanks, and trade associations for the time period 2003 to 2010, reveals 91 CCCM organizations funded by 140 different foundations.Their annual income was just over $900 million, with an annual average of $64 million in identifiable foundation support. The overwhelming majority of the philanthropic support comes from conservative foundations. Additionally, there is evidence of a trend toward concealing the sources of CCCM funding through the use of donor directed philanthropies. (Source: Brulle, R.J. Climatic Change (2014) 122: 681. doi:10.1007/s10584-013-1018-7)
  • Long before they supplied millions of dollars to conservative think-tanks who misinformed the public about climate science, Exxon’s own scientists informed company execs of the scientific consensus that fossil fuel burning would cause disruptive climate change. ExxonMobile climate denial funding from 1998-2014 totalled $30,925,235. (Source: Inside Climate News, September, 2015)
  • An analysis of more than 40,000 texts by contrarian sources found that organizations who received corporate funding published more climate misinformation, a trend that increased over time. (Source: Farrell, Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change, Publishings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 12, 2015, vol. 113 no. 1, 92-97, DOI10.1073/pnas.1509433112)
  • A Greenpeace undercover activist exposed how some fossil fuel companies pay academics at some U.S. universities to write research that creates doubt about the authenticity of climate change. Posing as representatives of oil and coal companies, reporters from Greenpeace U.K. asked professors to write papers promoting the benefits of CO2 and coal in developing countries. In the cases cited, the authors were not required to disclose their funding sources and were paid about $15,000 for a 6-8 page white paper and $6,000 for an op-ed piece. One professor was called to Congress to deliver evidence as a witness for Senator Ted Cruz. (Source: Greenpeace, December, 2015)

  • In a paper published in Environmental Research Letters, a meta-study of meta-studies synthesizing the research into scientific consensus on climate change. (A meta-study combines the findings from multiple studies.) Among climate scientists, the estimates of consensus varied from 90 to 100 percent, with a number of studies converging on 97 percent, the very figure derided by Cruz, Santorum, and others opposed to action on global warming.
  • Peabody Energy, America’s biggest coal mining company, has funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on human-made climate change and oppose environment regulations. The funding spanned trade associations, corporate lobby groups, and industry front groups as well as conservative think tanks. One coal company also gave to political organizations, funding twice as many Republican groups as Democratic ones. (Source: The Guardian, June, 2016)
  • As Donald Trump transitional to the White House, officials instructed employees at multiple agencies to cease communicating with the public through press releases and social media, heightening consternation that federal employees will be able to convey only information that supports the new president’s agenda.The new limits on public communications appear to be targeting agencies that are charged with overseeing environmental and scientific policy, prompting criticism from officials within the agencies and from outside groups focused on climate change.  (Source: New York Times, January, 2017)

Conclusions about climate change counter movements

Institutional review boards exist not only to protect subjects from unethical experimentation but also to validate research. Scientific results should not be relegated to political decisions; after all, politicians have a primary duty to act to make citizens safer. Scientific data linked to anthropogenic climate change must be made available to the public.

But a very public and political tug-of-war has resulted in an often confused populace. Even if the science behind climate change is presented clearly and accurately through a variety of academic, scientific, political, and popular culture channels, those efforts can be still be undone by misinformation. Sites like Breitbart compromise climate change advocacy  through overt misinformation.

So maybe it’s not enough to inform the public about the overwhelming scientific consensus. Maybe we need to educate them as well about how the mainstream media often covers climate change, granting equal weight to both mainstream scientists and contrarian voices who are in a tiny minority. This form of false-balance media lowers public acceptance of climate change science.  And it’s really harmful to the future of our planet. Let’s advocate for peer-reviewed climate change research, shall we?

Photo credit: ItzaFineDay via / CC BY


About the Author

Carolyn writes from her home in RI, where she advocates with her lake association for chemical-free solutions to eradicate invasive species. She’s an organic gardener, nature lover, and vegetarian (no red meat since 1980) who draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+