Climate Change Skeptics: Their Arguments, Their Motivations, and How to Critically Evaluate the Knowledge at Hand

By: Jacqueline Epstein

Climate change: it’s happening, regardless of how inconvenient it may be to any personal or political agenda. It is not only happening; it is progressively getting worse. To rehash just a few of the many statistics that support these actualities, nine of our planet’s ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest in the past 650,000 years, and the arctic sea ice surface area has been steadily decreasing since satellite observations began in 1979, at a frightening rate of 13.4% per decade (1).

In light of these scientifically demonstrated realities, why are there still global warming naysayers? The categories of climate change skeptics are varied in their logic and motivations, and the ways in which we must respond to them.

Scientific Outliers

While there exists a general consensus among the scientific community that the threats associated with climate change are legitimate, certain accredited scientists continue to support the argument that global warming phenomenon is simply a natural fluctuation in weather patterns, as opposed to a man-made event. These individuals may cite the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a climate event estimated to have occurred around 55 million years ago. Over a period of roughly 100,000 years, global temperatures rose by an average of over 5°C, Artic sea surface temperatures rose considerably over this average, and massive amounts of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. Over time, global temperature and carbon dioxide levels stabilized (2). This large-scale fluctuation occurred millions of years before human beings populated the planet, which can lead to naysayers removing all blame placed on our species in provoking climate change.

Another referenced cause for natural fluctuations in temperature is Milankovitch cycles: the collective effects of the Earth’s circumnavigation of the Sun on climate cycles, responsible for the advance and retreat of the planet’s glaciers (3). Since the end of the last ice age roughly 14,000–10,000 years ago, globally averaged surface temperatures have fluctuated over a range of up to 2°C on time scales of centuries or more. Other cited natural causes include systematic variations in the amount and distribution of solar radiation, and the El Niño– Southern Oscillation phenomenon, a periodical fluctuation in wind patterns and sea surface temperatures (4).

Responding to these Arguments

Fortunately, scientists who claim that climate change is simply the latest shift in the cyclical patterns of a planet’s life are far and few. Providing a counterargument to these claims is fairly straightforward. The climate patterns have observed in recent decades deviate significantly from the outcomes predicted by these cycles. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have spiked alarmingly, and unlike the gradually increase and decrease seen in the PETM, a quarter of this is the result of human activity: chemists can distinguish between the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossils fuels, and that produced naturally by plants and animals (5). Further, a recent study at McGill University applied statistical methodology to determine the probability that global temperature fluctuations since 1880 are due to natural variability, using multi-proxy climate reconstruction techniques to determine the precise impacts of natural versus man-made effects. Their conclusions ruled out the natural warming hypothesis with more that 99% certainty (6). This study directly addressed claims that climate change is merely a perceived threat that can be attributed to natural fluctuations, providing a huge push towards universal scientific consensus.

Fudging the Facts

However, universal scientific consensus eradicate public uncertainty. Over the past few decades, immense pressure has been placed on scientists to downplay the menace presented by global warming. In the late 1980’s, when the rapid rise in global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide began to alarm scientists, the energy industry started to feel threatened by potential impacts these discoveries could have on their profits. These companies adopted a clever strategy, which relied on the media’s inclination to portray both sides of a debate and indulge in false equivalence. By funding non-profit research organizations, energy companies were able to closely monitor the information put forth into public consciousness. A 2003 study questioning the reality of climate change published in a British academic journal was co-authored by scientists from various non-profit organizations, and was underwritten by the American Petroleum Institute, who along with ExxonMobil Corp had helped to fund the research (7). After a “thorough” reanalysis of data from more than 200 studies of the Earth’s climate over the past millennium, the scientists concluded that there exists significant evidence of global temperature shifts more drastic than the late 20th century warming patterns. They specifically refer to a “medieval warm period” between 900 and 1300 A.D. that analysis reveals to have been warmer than recent times. While adding as an aside that “it is clear that human activity has significantly impacted some local environment,” the ultimate conclusion of the study is that global warming in the recent decades is merely an incidence of the Earth’s natural climate fluctuations, and encourages an “objective and bias-free approach” moving forward on climate change research (8).

This was not an isolated incident: industrial agendas have often guided and shaped the information on climate change conveyed to the public. In a congressional hearing in 2007, scientists from seven government agencies reported to have been subjected to such pressure. Evidence came from a survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private advocacy group. A questionnaire sent out to 279 climate scientists revealed two in five had complained that their scientific papers had been edited in a way that changed their meaning, while nearly half of the scientists indicated that they had been told to delete references to “global warming” or “climate change” from a report (9).

In evaluating any scientific analysis on climate change, it thus becomes critical to consider any industrial ties the authors may have, and assess underlying motivations behind the information put forth. Companies involved in the extraction and distribution of traditional fossil fuels may place their own financial incentives far above any concerns for the harmful impacts their industries are causing the environment. If these companies are funding the research on climate change, data will inevitably be skewed or presented in a way to best reflect their interests.

Political Agendas

Climate change is also a topic of immense political and legislative debate. While 97% of climate scientists are in agreement that global warming is both occurring and driven by human activity, over 56% of Republicans in Congress at the moment deny or question the science behind human-cause climate change (10). In a Republican primary debate in 2014, when the moderator asked “Is climate change a fact?”, the audience responded with laughter, while the four candidates snickered and unanimously agreed: no, climate change is not a fact. Of significant concern is the fact that one of the loudest congressional climate change deniers, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), is the chairman of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee (10). In a 2014 congressional hearing, Inhofe infamously declared that the earth “had experienced no warming for the last 15 years.” To make matter worse, 91% of Republicans on the EPW committee have either stated that global warming is not a legitimate issue, or that humans are not the source of recently observed climate changes (10).

What are the motivations behind this large-scale partisan denial of scientific facts? Once again, financial incentives play a central role. Analysis by the Center for American Progress reveals that the 38 climate change deniers in the current Senate have amassed a total of $27,845,946 in donations from the coal, oil and gas industries, while the 62 Senators who haven’t denied climate change science have taken only $11,339,967 in career contributions: an average of $549,886 more per congressional naysayer. Similar trends were observed in climate science deniers and supporters in the current House of Representatives (10).

Further, environmental concerns have often come into conflict with legislative matters. The infamous example is that of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a proposed 1,179-mile pipeline that would have carried 800,000 barrels a day of carbon-heavy petroleum from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast. Both Republicans and Democrats, particularly those with ties to the energy industry, overwhelmingly supported the project, arguing that it would stimulate trade, economic growth, and create many new jobs. Both parties coalesced in February 2015 to send President Obama a bill to speed approval of the project. However, Obama vetoed the bill, citing concerns over the detrimental effects the pipeline could have on the environment. This denial brought the seven-year affair to conclusion, and helped to solidify the United States’ position as an aggressive player in the fight to combat climate change (11).

Future Directions

While this decision marks a major legislative milestone, much progress remains to be made on bringing global warming to the forefront of public consciousness. Why do so many Americans continue to deny the reality of the situation? In 2014, 23 percent of Americans reported that they do not believe in global warming, while 53 percent saying they do not believe climate change is cause by man (12). Denial of global warming is speculated to be largely due to a select few high-profile climate skeptics, and the endorsement they have received from major corporations and political figures. To rectify this large-scale misconception, each individual must be held accountable for critically evaluating information received through the media. Who is responsible for conveying this data, and is it supported by legitimate scientific research? What hidden motivations may they be concealing from the public? Do they have any political or industrial ties that may not be immediately evident?

A psychological analysis of climate change skeptics can also help to provide some insight on their views. Individuals have an innate tendency to seek out information that support their pre-established beliefs, thereby avoiding cognitive dissonance, which refers to an uncomfortable state wherein one must grapple with contradictory or competing beliefs. This helps to explain why industrial and political leaders may support the research of high-profile global warming skeptics over widespread scientific consensus. For example, the CEO of a company invested in fossil fuels is unlikely to admit to the legitimacy of the climate change threat, as this would force him or her to address the challenging issues of how the company may be causing harm to the environment. Each individual must thereby critically evaluate their own knowledge, and be willing to abandon pre-established beliefs in favor of proven scientific fact.

Global warming is a major threat to our planet and our civilization, and must be perceived as such in order to be alleviated.

Jacqueline Epstein ‘18 is a junior in Leverrett House.

WORKS CITED

[1] Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. http://climate.nasa. gov (accessed Sept. 22, 2016).

[2] Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Encyclopedia Britannica [Online], https://www. britannica.com/science/Paleocene-Eocene-Thermal-Maximum (accessed Sept. 22, 2016).

[3] Milankovitch Cycles and Glaciation. http://www.indiana.edu/~- geol105/images/gaia_chapter_4/ milankovitch.htm (accessed Sept. 22, 2016).

[4] Wratt, D.; Mullan, B. Natural Variations in Climate. https://www.niwa. co.nz/our-science/climate/information-and-resources/clivar/variations (accessed Sept. 22, 2016).

[5] How do we know global warming is not a natural cycle? http://www. climatecentral.org/library/faqs/ how_do_we_know_it_is_not_a_ natural_cycle (accessed Sept 22, 2016).

[6] Lovejoy, S. Climate Dynamics 2012, 42, 2339–2351.

[7] Nesmith, J. Foes of global warming theory have energy ties. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. June 1, 2003. http://www.seattlepi.com/national/ article/Foes-of-global-warmingtheory-have-energy-ties-1116097. php (accessed Sept 24, 2016)

[8] Soon, W. et al. Energy and Environment. 2003, 14, 233-296.

[9] Roberts, J. Groups Say Scientists Pressured On Warming. http:// http://www.cbsnews. com/news/groups-say-scientistspressured-on-warming/ (accessed Sept 22, 2016).

[10] Kroh, K. et al. The Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus: 114th Congress Edition. January 8, 2015. https://thinkprogress.org/the-anti-science-climate-denier-caucus- 114th-congress-edition-c76c3f8bfedd#.pp1k3m4te. (accessed Sept 25, 2016).

[11] Davenport, C. Citing Climate Change, Obama Rejects Construction of Keystone XL Oil Pipeline. The New York Times (Online). November 5, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/07/us/obamaexpected-to-reject-construction-of-keystone-xl-oil-pipeline. html?_r=1 (accessed Sept 25, 2016).

[12] Gregoire, C. Why Some Conservatives Can’t Accept That Climate Change Is Real. The Huffington Post (Online). December 4, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ entry/climate-change-denial-psychology_us_56438664e4b045bf3ded5ca5 (accessed Sept 25, 2016).

Categories: fall 2016, Uncategorized

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