Climate Change Denial: Why Do Some Deny Global Warming?

A supporter of climate change denial ignoring the raging wildfire behind them.

Do climate skeptics only exist online, or is it a growing issue?

Corporate advertising campaigns bombard us from every angle, and many people lack the fortitude to question them effectively.

So who exactly benefits from this mindset, and why does it hit so close to home for so many of us?

Climate change denial is a strange but somewhat expected consequence of decades of misinformation; a relatively new part of humanity’s long history of environmental violence.

First of all, how do you recognize these climate science skeptics?

What is climate change denial?

The 2022 Calf Canyon Fire in Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico, USA.

Before we talk about why some believe that climate change is a fraud, let’s talk a bit about what climate change denial even is – and this is the first confusing part of the puzzle, as there are definitely different levels when it comes to skepticism of global warming.

The underlying pseudoscientific idea that most climate deniers latch onto is that humans aren’t responsible for the current warming of our planet and environmental disasters that come along with it; or at least, the effects of emissions originating from human activities are greatly exaggerated.

pseudoscientific: ideas or beliefs incompatible with the scientific method

What makes this issue so complicated is that people deny established climate science for different reasons. Some are genuinely convinced, others are conflicted due to cultural beliefs, and others are simply profiting from the idea.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of anti-science attitude extends beyond climate denialism in some cases, overlapping into the territories of other conspiracies like the Flat Earth Theory. In fact, you can even find books now like Lee McIntyre’s How to Talk to a Science Denier that discuss simple strategies for navigating conversations with skeptics.

Why do people not believe in climate change?

The modern scientific consensus of academics working within governmental and nongovernmental environmental organizations across the world is that human activities are warming the planet – and it’s happening faster than previously expected.

Melting ice sheets located in the Arctic Circle.

Almost everyone has been personally affected by these rapidly approaching climate tipping points; extreme weather events like droughts and heatwaves, storms and floods, and even more frequent and intense hurricanes are taking place all across the world.

So why would someone still be skeptical of global warming?

Climate change skepticism is fueled by powerful organizations. Politicians from every nation have been cozying up to the fossil fuel industry for quite some time; an industry that spends vast sums of money to purposefully mislead the public and contradict the consensus of the international climate science community.

A large oil refinery built along a coastline.

For example, 91 different climate change counter-movement (CCCM) organizations funded by 140 different foundations received around $900 million between 2003 and 2010. Close to a billion dollars, all of which can be used to create and spread various arguments against climate change online.

Companies within the oil and gas industries like ExxonMobil have known that climate change would worsen due to the widespread use of fossil fuels – as stated within internal reports put forth by scientists employed by these wealthy organizations.

Climate skeptic scientists are funded by the oil industry. Scientists are often on the payroll of industries like big oil; with both individuals and groups of scientists producing fraudulent and misleading research under funding from organizations like ExxonMobil.

Oil drilling infrastructure situated in California, USA.

Willie Soon, a researcher at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was discovered to have received over $1.2 million in funding from organizations like ExxonMobil and other major energy providers in 2015. Ironically it seems as if some of our most prestigious and reliable bastions of research are producing work for the fossil fuel industry, or have in the past.

Climate change threatens cultural values. One of the more interesting reasons for denying climate change is that some individuals, particularly men who claim more “masculine” values, feel threatened by climate science. Modern industrial society satisfies a lot of traditionally masculine values: easy access to meat and animal products, big trucks and cars to cruise around in, and a general apathy towards the environment.

pair of cheeseburgers

These things don’t represent what every male would consider masculine, but an effort to curb climate change may mean that someone who loves picking up a greasy cheeseburger in their lifted pickup truck, especially in places like the US, would begin to feel threatened.

Public trust in climate science experts has been eroded. All of these issues have led to the fossil fuel industry achieving one of their goals; the world is now divided when it comes to climate change, with a sizable portion of many nations like the US and Canada questioning whether or not their choices affect the environment.

When did oil companies know about climate change?

In 1988, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, told the US Senate Energy committee that:

The greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now.

This call to action was not only ignored by most, but actively snuffed out by those who would suffer financially from policies aiming to slow down or halt climate change.

In fact, within the fossil fuel industry companies like ExxonMobil knew about climate change and the environmental impacts of oil and gas beginning around 1977; employing high-caliber scientists and climate experts to produce still-accurate models of how CO2 emissions would affect the planet.

portland gas station

With the rise of social media, we’re faced with an entirely different beast. The structure and culture of climate denial has evolved – currently involving a complex network of corporate interests, politicians, philanthropists, and individuals working together to profit off a distrust in scientific evidence.

These aren’t new tactics, however, as much of the inspiration for these kinds of skeptic movements are drawn from similar misinformation campaigns pushed by industries like big tobacco in the 1960’s. In more recent years, we’ve seen world leaders like former US president Donald Trump jumping aboard the climate denialist train after receiving donations from the fossil fuel industry.

president trump walking

During his 2016 run for election, Trump was on the receiving end of over $1.3 million in donations from the oil and gas industries, with Hillary Clinton raking in just over $1 million as well. In 2020 big oil tripled its investment in Trump, awarding him with around $4 million in campaign contributions.

In return for payment, politicians aid the petroleum industry by striking down environmental regulations and movements like climate lockdowns, policies and actions aimed at reducing our reliance on oil to produce the energy everyone needs to survive.

This three-part PBS Frontline documentary series is a much watch if you’re interested in all of this, in my opinion:

Another excellent read, especially for those in the US, would be Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard.

There’s even been a relatively new call-to-action put forth by individuals, communities, and governments to prosecute climate change deniers and the corporate interests funding them!

How does motivated denial of climate change work?

While the total percentage of scientists who deny climate change may be low, the effect they can have on public opinion can’t be ignored. With rising costs of living squeezing many to their breaking points, many end up denying climate change despite knowing that it’s happening through motivated denial.

motivated denial: relying on evidence that supports current beliefs while rejecting new contradictory evidence

Misinformation is exhausting to deal with; even those who truly care about the environment may end up feeling hopeless in the face of our changing world. Most people simply ignore feelings of climate grief in order to get through their day-to-day, and psychological barriers are a well-studied reason for inaction when it comes to climate mitigating behaviors.

Even if you truly care, you may be unaware of some of these kinds of barriers or you could be misunderstanding why some people choose to ignore issues. Let’s go over a few common types of motivated climate change denial:

Maintaining the status quo. This is the category all the scientists working for oil companies fall under; their lives are improved from receiving payouts and disrupting that or speaking out against the hand that feeds them would lower their quality of life. Simply put, some don’t want to sacrifice anything, especially money, in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

Avoiding disruption in social lives and identity. Another common reason is that in most social circles it’s easy to offend others by criticizing their lifestyle. These kinds of climate deniers are particularly hard to reason with, as strong social ties and forming a concrete identity are some of the most fundamental parts of being human.

group barbeque

Disrupting your social circle and alienating friends or families in the name of something as abstract as the climate is a tough sell for many – calling out others for things ranging from their political affiliation or the hobbies they enjoy can be an incredibly hard topic to bring up.

Preventing the feeling of sunken costs. Because of how important it is for most to have a resilient and reliable self-image, many end up underestimating how much of a role their particular lifestyle plays in terms of climate change.

This could be a simple lie one tells themselves – like some of the more convenient excuses used to justify the environmental impacts of eating meat. It could also be a more deep-seated kind of denial based on the assumption or feeling that it’s simply too late to do anything about climate change.

Is debunking climate change denial possible?

If you care about the environment, it’s tough to see such an insane amount of people who don’t believe in climate change spreading myths and factually incorrect information online.

So, here are some of the most common myths you may come across, and some further resources you can use if needed:

Myth #1: Climate change isn’t that serious

The consequences of climate change extend into every ecosystem and affect every single one of us – some more than others, for now. We’ve covered much of these issues in other articles, so here’s a summary including some links you can explore:

These are really only a few issues out of many, but having a nice knowledge base is important if you really want to try to reason with a climate denier.

Myth #2: Earth’s climate is always fluctuating

Earth’s climate has changed in the past, of course, long before humans were relevant; many of these changes took place hundreds of millions of years ago and were the result of things like heavy volcanic activity or changes in our planet’s orbit.

Even abrupt change has occurred, as is the case with major meteorological events like the hypothesized K-T asteroid impact that ended the age of the dinosaurs – as the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 can be measured using preserved air samples within ice cores.

A chart showing the rise in global atmospheric CO2 concentrations between 800,000 BCE and 2023.

The issue with this idea is that recent changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations have occurred over mere decades, as opposed to millions of years – changes that begin with the start of the industrial revolution.

Myth #3: Scientists disagree on climate change

The notion that excess CO2 in the atmosphere is warming our planet has been tried, tested, and proven over decades of research; nearly all climate scientists – even those working for the oil industry – agree that human activity is responsible for the current state of things.

These communities of experts agree that climate change is the reason hurricanes are more powerful, droughts and floods more ubiquitous, and heatwaves more frequent and intense; we may even begin seeing up to 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 from “climate sensitive disease” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Studies have been conducted solely to assess how common this opinion is; with around 97% of climate experts tending to support the idea of human-induced climate change. Corporate influence corrupts many, however, the good news is whistleblowers are increasingly coming forward about these harmful academic-industry ties.

Myth #4: Our planet is starting to cool off

The warmest temperatures on record since the mid 1800’s were between 2010 and 2020, with heat records continuously being broken; July of 2023 was the hottest month on record since 1880, a record that will surely be broken shortly.

One of the more common ways in which someone may justify their stance on climate change, what many fail to realize is that daily weather events are entirely different from long-term changes to the climate.

Myth #5: The sun causes global warming

It’s true that changes in the amount of solar radiation reaching us can change temperatures short-term; but even if that’s true, the amount of solar energy reaching our planet has been falling since the 1970’s – around the same time corporations like ExxonMobil funding climate deniers became commonplace.

Final thoughts

A segment of the global population continues to deny our role in a warming planet; many of these individuals are corporate shills, but some of us struggle daily to overcome the mindsets of our friends and families.

Our planet needs time to recover if it’s to be preserved for future generations – even if scientific innovation may already have the momentum to make the climate denialist movement irrelevant.

How have you been affected by climate change skeptics?

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