Climate change deniers like to style themselves as latter-day Copernicuses and Galileos, lone visionaries bucking the established wisdom of the ages embodied back then in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
There is a certain appeal to imagining oneself as isolated and embattled but unbowed. The analogy, however, is specious on its face. For neither Copernicus nor Galileo had giant international oil and coal companies supporting them with tens of millions of dollars of annual public relations expenditures and scores of fake think tanks which would have provided them comfortable and profitable sinecures while shielding them from the attacks of the church.
No, the climate change deniers actually work for the established church of our age, wealthy corporate interests opposed to doing anything to mitigate the ongoing carnage of climate change–the very interests that continue to have a stranglehold on the legislative bodies of the world to such an extent that relatively little has actually been done to address climate. The most compelling evidence is the steady march upward of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels measured at the world’s best known measuring station, the Mauna Loa Observatory.
To hear the deniers one would think that we are already groaning under the weight of carbon taxes across the globe. The reality is that only a handful of countries and jurisdictions have bothered with such taxes, and one of them, Australia, repealed its tax. Yes, yes, there are cap-and-trade emissions schemes in the European Union, northeastern United States, California and Quebec. None of these jurisdictions has collapsed economically as a result. In fact, all are becoming leaders in a technological revolution that is moving us away from dependence on finite, climate-changing fossil fuels.
The real insurgents, the real Copernicuses and Galileos, then are the pioneers in climate research including the originator of the aforementioned measuring station at Mauna Loa, Charles Keeling. Keeling began taking measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in 1958, observations which constitute the longest series of carbon dioxide measurements available and which are now called the Keeling Curve. In the early years, Keeling had difficulty maintaining funding for measuring something that seemed unimportant at the time.
Strangely, we now know that much excellent research on climate change was done by Exxon Corp., the world’s largest oil company, in the 1970s and 1980s. Later the company chose to bury that research and deny the importance of climate change, thus switching sides from climate pioneer to climate change denier. The company threw its enormous financial resources behind a network of advocacy organizations and fake think tanks acting as front groups for its agenda to forestall action on climate change. Talk about inconvenient truths!
What group of well-intentioned Galileos actively tries to thwart discovery, inquiry and debate when that group already knows from its own research that the truth is the opposite of what it is saying? We now know that is what the climate change deniers have done for more than two decades.
What they are sore about is that they’ve been exposed and they’ve lost the fight, at least over whether climate change is real and whether humans have the lion’s share of the blame for it.
Commenters on my climate-related pieces often include deniers who get upset when I refuse to post their comments or delete their comments when they do get through. Deniers protest that I am censoring them and that I’m not interested in a discussion with people holding opposing views. (Never mind that many of those people are paid to hold and propagate those views.)
It is a common tactic to claim that all publications ought to be billboards for climate change denialism and that those that refuse to make themselves available for this purpose are not interested in genuine inquiry and debate.
First, privately-owned publications in the United States and many other countries have the right to publish whatever they please and not to publish whatever doesn’t please them. This is the very essence of freedom of the press–not to be coerced by anyone.
Censorship then cannot emanate from a privately-run publication, broadcast or video service. It can only come from the government coercing such media outlets to run or NOT to run something.
The deniers have their own websites, their own publications, even their own cable news network, namely Fox. No one is preventing these media from denying the human role in climate change. They do it every day.
The second charge, that those who refuse to engage with deniers are not interested in genuine inquiry and debate, is also a trick. There is nothing in my right to free speech and inquiry which obliges me to engage with people I do not wish to engage with. Nothing! Freedom of speech and freedom of association mean that I’m free to research and write about topics in any lawful way that I see fit.
Genuine engagement presupposes one very important thing: that both sides are open to logic and evidence and the possibility of changing their minds. Where that is not the case, the only result can be stalemate.
I would be greatly relieved if bona fide climate scientists discovered compelling and convincing scientific evidence that countermands all that we currently understand about climate change and that shows we are, in fact, about to experience a regression to the climate I grew up with. This is always a possibility even though it seems highly unlikely given what we already know. I am, of course, not talking about cherry-picked data taken out of context from the very climate scientists that deniers despise, but a profound alteration of the contours of climate science as we know it.
A denier never admits the possibility of changing his or her mind. Just ask a climate change denier what will convince him or her that climate change is real and caused by humans. I guarantee that he or she will not have a response. Evidence simply doesn’t matter, so they have never considered what evidence would convince them to change their minds..
The deniers are free to try get people to listen to them. If I were physically to prevent others from listening to them (unless those others are minors under my guardianship), then I would be guilty of coercion. But I haven’t done that and won’t do that. I’m already quite good at convincing the people I can reach not to bother listening to deniers.
Here are the crux of the deniers’ strategy and the horrible implications of it: The deniers want to convince the world that no policy action can be taken so long as there is any disagreement. They somehow pretend that there must be 100 percent consensus one way or the other.
The hypocrisy of this, of course, is that there is no 100 percent consensus that we should continue to burn fossil fuels; yet, by policy we continue to do so in large quantities every day. Would the deniers consent to a moratorium on burning fossil fuels so long as there is a debate about the consequences of burning them? When the shoe is on the other foot, it doesn’t fit so comfortably, does it?
I’m sure deniers will be shocked, SHOCKED, to find out that public policy is always made without 100 percent certainty. Were it not so, there would be no public policy at all. Deniers know this, and that’s what they want, public policy paralysis.
But there is something else that is disturbing about the deniers’ tactics when we look at such tactics through an historical lens.
No doubt there are those who even today might argue that slavery ought to be legal. After all, the Bible, the holiest of books in the Christian world, sanctions slavery. And, the Bible was a frequently used weapon by the slaveholders and their apologists. Perhaps in the interests of honest inquiry we should engage those who argue for the reimposition of slavery.
Too farfetched? How about those who continue to argue for segregation of the races? Today we call them white supremacists. Shall we give them our ear in order to make sense out of the debate over segregation? Should we withhold our judgment about segregation until all the facts are in? (I am generously presuming that a white supremacist could actually give me facts.)
How about women’s suffrage? There are cultures yet today that do not believe women should have a role in governing their own societies. Women, they say, are too immature and weak-minded to participate in such a lofty enterprise. Perhaps we should listen to those advocating the end of women’s suffrage (or its prevention where it does not already exist) so we can try to discern whether we should take the vote away from women in our own societies.
As hard as it is to believe, some debates are actually closed. Yes, there may be a few dissenters left, but they are almost exclusively talking among themselves.
But those are social issues, you may say. Scientific inquiry is never closed off. Ideally, that’s true (although one should note that in the cases cited above scientific arguments were made supporting slavery, the superiority of whites and the inferiority of women).
Scientific inquiry should and does go on even after policy decisions are made. But as a practical matter, we as a society through industry associations, for example, come to common understandings leading to product standards. It would be impossible to produce and use a cellphone without such standards. We could not do such a thing if we insisted that no cellphone be produced as long as there is not absolute agreement about all the aspects of physics thought to touch even remotely on their function (which there isn’t since the science of physics is an open enterprise always subject to change). We do the same through government with regard to clean water and clear air regulations. Our understanding continues to evolve in both areas. But that does not prevent us from making needed policy and product standard decisions.
Keep in mind that the same people who brought us the full-throated defense of cigarettes as a harmless pastime have brought us the well-appointed packaging of climate denialism. I can only say that if they are true to their convictions, they should now all be chain-smoking cigarettes without any mental reservation or fear.
Society as a whole through its government cannot be effective if it must wait for every dissenter to quiet down. In fact, waiting for all dissent to dissipate would be the equivalent of not governing at all.
Representative government is a mechanism for debate, for letting those who dissent from the majority to be heard and possibly persuade. But then it’s time for action, and those on the losing side are not asked to relinquish their free speech rights, but rather asked to accept the will of the majority (at least until such time as the issue is properly placed before the legislature to reconsider).
Those who deny human-caused climate change have been and continue to be free in most countries to say whatever they please. The real problem the deniers are having is that their audiences are getting smaller and smaller. That’s what happens when you don’t have a very compelling argument and the total weight of the evidence is so lopsided against you.
Image: "Ship of Fools" Titel der "Jugend", Jg. 1930, Heft 6, mit Bild "Das Narrenschiff" von Franz Sedlacek. Wikimedia Commons.