The etiology and taxonomy of climate change denial

Not everyone who doubts either the reality of climate change or its human causes, or both, is being paid by someone. No doubt many are sincere in their doubts. But the doubts of those who are sincerely uncertain must be, to an overwhelming degree, fed by the disinformation produced on a massive scale by an extremely well-funded, well-concealed and effective propaganda movement, a movement described again in an important article from Jeffrey Sachs this week in the Guardian. Reporting on an imminent book, Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Sachs outlines how:

today’s campaigners against action on climate change are in many cases backed by the same lobbies, individuals, and organisations that sided with the tobacco industry to discredit the science linking smoking and lung cancer. Later, they fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired power plants were causing “acid rain.” Then, when it was discovered that certain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere, the same groups launched a nasty campaign to discredit that science, too.

Later still, the group defended the tobacco giants against charges that second-hand smoke causes cancer and other diseases. And then, starting mainly in the 1980s, this same group took on the battle against climate change.

What is amazing is that, although these attacks on science have been wrong for 30 years, they still sow doubts about established facts. The truth is that there is big money backing the climate-change deniers, whether it is companies that don’t want to pay the extra costs of regulation, or free-market ideologues opposed to any government controls.

Some will leap forward immediately, and say that there is big money behind climate science and environmental groups advocating changes in public policy, such as Greenpeace. This is absolutely true. The difference is that these groups are open about their agendas and their funding. And that their agenda is people and planet, not profit and pollution.

I would say there is a pyramid of climate change denialism and scepticism. At the bottom of this list, amongst the vested interests of big oil and dirty politics, there are no doubt many who actually do believe in the reality of human-induced climate change – but believe even more in protecting their own selfish, short-term interests, and cynically fund appropriate propaganda.

Here, then, my proposed taxonomy of climate change denial, leading with the (probably) most numerous and ignorant*, and ending with the most influential and cynical:

• Honest sceptics (ordinary folks who genuinely and sincerely don’t understand the science, and raise questions accordingly)
• Independent deniers (ordinary people who just don’t understand the science, and choose to be very noisy about their ignorance)
Astroturfers, as described by George Monbiot (these are apparently ordinary members of the public, in fact paid by PR companies to swamp websites with misinformation and inaccuracies, they hide behind anonymity and post furiously in comment threads, and only on climate change issues)
• Media deniers (Fox News, even though Rupert Murdoch himself is not a denialist; Melanie Philips, etc)
• Scientific deniers (almost invariably, denialist scientists are not climate scientists; some are no doubt paid to be sceptical, and others are sincere; the overwhelming majority of working climate scientists do not doubt the fundamentals of human-induced climate change science)
• Proxy interests (Think tanks: Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, George C. Marshall Institute, Senator James Imhoffe, etc)
• Industry associations (American Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute)
• Vested interests (Big oil, big coal: the likes of Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, and possibly the Russian intelligence services)

*I use the word “ignorant” in its purest sense of “not knowing the true facts”, not as an insult or synonym for stupidity.


This series of articles shows how these dynamics and manipulations are played out in Australia.

Bullying, lies and the rise of right-wing climate denial
Who is orchestrating the cyber-bullying?
Think tanks, oil money and black ops
Manufacturing a scientific scandal
Who’s defending science?

The sheer nastiness of these people is extraordinary.

On DeSmogBlog, ex-PR man Jim Hoggan details the cynical and destructive work of his former peers to create doubt and confusion over climate change.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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