Climate Change Scepticism is an Age-old Problem

2010•09•01 Brendan FD Barrett Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Sven Åke Bjørke University of Adger

If you feel passionately that humanity should respond to climate change as rapidly and as effectively as possible you may, at times, feel extremely concerned by the antics of the climate contrarians, sceptics and deniers. The debate between those who warn that climate change is real and those who challenge these warnings has been with us for decades and has gradually evolved over time.

We are not going to provide you with a list of the best arguments for use in a discussion with climate deniers.  But if you want one, you can take a look at the 100+ quick rebuttals to common anti-climate change arguments published recently on Treehugger.

The main point here is that we don’t really expect every contrarian, sceptic and denier to change their viewpoint any time soon. We are not holding our breath waiting for this to happen, though it is always refreshing when it does. For instance, as reported on Climate Progress, only a few days ago the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper shifted from its previously “climate sceptic” editorial line to one that accepts that climate change is “real and deeply worrying”. Even famed ‘sceptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomberg did a bit of U-turn this week.

However, the truth is that those people most concerned with the negative implications of climate change and those people who hold sceptical views represent only a very small proportion of society, working diligently to influence public opinion to support their positions.

Nothing new here

To be honest, the divisions we see around climate change are nothing new. They resemble the divergent views we find around the issues of the environment in general or about population growth. Indeed, we are struck by the fact that similar divisions can be traced back to the days of Thomas Malthus, suggesting it is normal, part of our longer history, part of the human condition.

Malthus himself summed up this situation in the introduction to An Essay on the Principles of Population back in 1798. He began by stating that at any given time we appear to find ourselves facing two diverging futures.

“It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards at accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished for goal.”

Much time has passed since he wrote those words, and great progress has been made, but the statement still rings true. While we have many future scenarios, they often boil down to what Australian political scientist John Dryzek described as Survivalism (i.e., we are reaching the limits to growth, overshooting those limits and societal collapse) and Promethean (ingenuity, technology and markets solve our problems).

But Malthus looked deeply into this age-old dichotomy when he said, “Yet, anxiously as every friend of mankind must look forward to the termination of this painful suspense, and eagerly as the inquiring mind would hail every ray of light that might assist its view into futurity, it is much lamented that the writers on each side of this momentous question still keep far aloof from each other.”

This is clearly the case with respect to the patterns of the current climate debate — where either direct face-to-face interaction is avoided or takes the form of aggressive attacks and counter-attacks, each side looking for weaknesses, but never conclusively ending the debate. The same has held true to environmentalism in general.

As an example, take the 1992 debate between Norman Myers (environmentalist, a survivalist) and Julian Simon (economic professor, a Promethean). In the verbal contest at Columbia University (the transcript later published as Scarcity or Abundance? : A Debate on Environment), the opponents argued about whether the world is at a historical threshold at which we risk dooming ourselves and the planet if we don’t change the way we exploit the Earth’s resources. They sparred over whether environmentalists are alarmists, underestimating nature’s resilience and humanity’s adaptiveness.

Some commentators thought that in the debate neither participant expounded beyond the veneer of viewpoints, and that the debate emerged as superficial, whereas their collective works outside of the debate reflected profoundly deep understanding of the issues.

If anything, and we understand that this is only partially true, climate sceptics, or perhaps we can also call them Prometheans, are as much concerned with the need to maintain things as they are, the status quo, as they are with the actual science of climate change and its limitations. Malthus described the kind of thinking to which they ascribe and we include some of his description below with added commentary in brackets to show the relevance to contemporary debates.

“The advocate of the present order of things is apt to treat the sect of speculative philosophers (by this we suggest climate scientists, environmentalists, survivalists, etc.,) either as a set of artful and designing knaves, who preach ardent benevolence and draw captivating pictures of a happier state of society (or a changed climate), only the better to enable them to destroy the present establishments and to forward their own deep-laid schemes of ambition.”

Today, this discourse takes the form of climate sceptic claims that the United Nations, most mainstream scientists and the majority of democratically elected politicians employ global warming fabrications to conspire against ordinary people, eventually to harm and oppress us all in a new global, oligarch and/or communist and/or world government’. Global warming, some claim is a swindle, a conspiracy, an attempt to undermine our way of life, a trick to scare people sufficiently to make them accept higher taxes that in turn can finance a new global government.

Contempt flows both ways

Again Malthus summarized the view of those who are concerned about the future of our climate and environment when he said, “The advocate for the perfectability of man, and of society, retorts on the defender of establishments a more than equal contempt. He brands him a slave of the most miserable and narrow prejudices, or as the defender of the abuses of civil society, only because he profits by them. He paints him either as the character who prostitutes his understanding to his interest; or as one whose powers or mind are not of the size to grasp any thing great or noble…”

So when looking at the climate sceptic some may wonder if they are somehow connected to powerful sources of information and money. For instance, in the United States, one could look for links to wealthy US ultra-right think tanks, PR groups financed by big multinational corporations in oil, coal, tobacco, arms, etc., and lobbyists financed by the Arab-American-Canadian oil and coal cartels. We also see claims that few climate sceptics have managed to publish their climate research findings in recognized, peer reviewed scientific journals.

The debate between those concerned about climate change and those sceptical is intense and completely divisive. In reference to the debates of his time Malthus expressed his concern that “In this unamicable contest the cause of truth cannot but suffer. The really good arguments on each side of the question are not allowed their proper weight.”

To some degree, the emotive exchanges surrounding the so-called climategate affair are in line with the above observation from Malthus, showing that the climate scientists at the University of East Anglia did not feel completely comfortable sharing all their data with those sceptical of their work, and intrinsically highlighting how this situation has undermined the credibility of the science involved, to a degree. But the scandal has not thrown open the door on how climate science or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change work — many may be left with an uneasy feeling and perhaps recognition that change is needed.

Same patterns holds true for solutions

Going beyond the question of whether or not climate change is happening to focus on possible solutions, we see that Malthus also made rather apt observations. He argued that “The friend of the present order of things (e.g., climate sceptics) condemns all political speculations in the gross. He will not even condescend to examine the grounds for which the perfectability of society (e.g., a low carbon society) is inferred.”

Likewise, we can apply the following to our consideration of the actions of those most concerned about climate change. Malthus continues, “The speculative philosopher equally offends against the cause of truth. With eyes fixed on a happier state of society (one with fewer adverse climate impacts), the blessings of which he paints in the captivating colours, he allows himself to indulge in the most bitter invectives against the present establishment, without applying his talents to consider the best and safest means of removing abuses, and without seeming to be aware of the tremendous obstacles that threaten, even in theory, to oppose the progress of man towards perfection.”

To translate this into today’s language permits the argument that many commentators on climate change paint a rather negative picture of the impacts of climate change or a very positive picture of what a low carbon society could look like. This leads sceptics to respond with the criticism that scaremongering is not helpful or that a low carbon society would be too costly.

A just theory will always be confirmed by experiment

Malthus brings this discussion to a close by arguing that “It is acknowledged truth in philosophy that a just theory will always be confirmed by experiment.”

Most climate scientists would indeed argue that, with respect to climate change, we are ‘experimenting’ with our own future. It is an experiment that we can only run once in real life, but that we have been able to model in ever more sophisticated ways over time. Those models have provided enough insights and some may say evidence to inform how the climate would evolve in the future based on the data we have. Uncertainty in the modelling and data should not be accepted as an excuse for not taking action based on these insights.  Indeed, the “wait and see” attitude is grossly irresponsible.

“Yet so much friction,” continued Malthus, “and so many minute circumstances appear in practice, which is next to impossible for the most enlarged and penetrating mind to foresee, that on few subjects can theory be pronounced just, that has stood the test of experience. But an untried theory cannot fairly be advanced as probable, much less as just, till all the arguments against it have been maturely weighed, and clearly and consistently refuted.”

Reading this article, you may be concerned about how the big issues facing human civilization are ever resolved when constantly faced with this dichotomy of views. Obviously, progress does take place on many issues — for instance, on slavery or on equal rights — but this can take decades and even hundreds of years, and even then problems remain. The challenge we face with respect to climate change, however, is that many feel that we are running against the clock and out of time in terms of the need to take action and perhaps this in part explains why the debate is so intense.

We are convinced that we have passed the point where the arguments of whether climate change is real or not have been “maturely weighed, and clearly and consistently refuted.”

We (should now) find ourselves at the next stage, battling over how to respond.

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Climate change scepticism is an age-old problem by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.



Brendan FD Barrett

Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Brendan Barrett is a research coordinator at the UN Global Compact Cities Programme and hosted by Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). His professional career includes work in the private sector, academia and with international organizations. He uses the web and information technologies as a means to communicate, teach and undertake research on issues of environment and human security. Prior to joining RMIT he worked in the United Nations for close to 20 years with UNEP and the UN University (UNU). He is a visiting researcher at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability in Tokyo, Japan, and a visiting associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

Sven Åke Bjørke

Senior Consultant/LecturerUniversity of Adger

Sven Åke Bjørke is a senior consultant and lecturer in the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Agder. Prior to this, he worked at UNEP GRID Arendal in Norway.

Join the Discussion

  • BrendanBarrett

    This is an interesting story at Yale Environment 360 – Climate Change Skeptic
    Changes Stance and Calls for Action
    “In an upcoming book, high-profile global warming skeptic Bjorn Lomborg acknowledges that rising temperatures are “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and calls for investing $100 billion annually to deal with climate change. Lomborg, who has attacked environmentalists and the media for exaggerating the threat of global warming, said that while he has never denied the existence of man-made warming, he has come to believe that it is a serious challenge that must be met by a large-scale investment. ”

    A sign of hope perhaps.

  • BrendanBarrett

    And also over at World Changing, ” in an exclusive interview with The Guardian, he (Lomborg) called climate change “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and proposed a global carbon tax to help address the issue.

    If that all seems a bit fishy, it’s worth remembering that Lomborg never argued that man-made climate change was a fiction. His point has been that, if you do a cost-benefit analysis, dealing with climate change is just too expensive. You get more bang for your buck by focusing policies and money on poverty, disease, and development aid. These in the end give you more immediate positive returns both in terms of human welfare and the environment.

  • Brendan Barrett and Sven Åke Bjørke manage to be ridiculous, sublime and dangerous at the same time.

    “Ridiculous” when they complain of poor communication between (catastrophic climate change) believers and skeptics after using the odious word, “denier”; and when they say that only extreme voices get audience, and at the same time label all skeptics as vaguely paranoid.

    “Sublime” when they quote the thoughts of Malthus about advocates “indulging in bitter invectives” instead of being practical and solution-focused (obviously, not even Malthus could get it all wrong).

    Finally, “dangerous” when they suggest there is no more time left to debate the causes of climate change. Historically, those who felt there was not enough time to save the world, went on to commit genocide.

  • SME

    You interpret Malthus thusly:

    “The friend of the present order of things ( e.g., climate sceptics) condemns all political speculations in the gross. He will not even condescend to examine the grounds for which the perfectability of society ( e.g., a low carbon society) is inferred.”

    And, there’s the rub. You are
    (1) putting words in Malthus’s mouth and creating a straw man attack on those who you consider your opponents, on grounds which many do not hold. Equally badly,
    (2) you are postulating a basis for seeking to combat anthropogenic climate change which is not the core issue.

    Your error in (1) is in suggesting that climate skeptics are equivalent to Malthus’s “friends of the present order of things”. Some may be, but that is not what defines a sceptic, it is not what is important about a sceptical position and indeed “being a friend of the present order” contradicts the very concept of scepticism.

    The general sceptical position, which you have apparently failed to appreciate, is that people calling for extreme action (at either extreme) seem to be doing so in many cases

    – with inadequate scientifically acquired data,
    – with inadequate scientific rigour (and in too many cases, no rigour at all),
    – by transforming gross uncertainties into apparent near certain probabilities by redefining words (“very likely” and the like have been as transformed in meaning as has “mission accomplished” in another context),
    – seem often to be motivated by concerns which are not the ones that their actions are claimed to be based on and in too many cases appear to have ulterior motives.

    ie the skeptical position is to desire truth, well founded research, open sharing of information and uncertainties and proper scientific methodology (ie a la Popper rather than a la Popeye).

    Your surprisingly revealing error in (2) is two fold – you equate “perfectability” with “low carbon” (a ‘the science is settled’ concept) and you indicate that your primary concern is not the potential negative effects of climate change, but the pursuit of a low carbon society. There have long been those who have argued the merits of a low carbon society, which often enough means low energy use per capita, limited use of hydrocarbons, proper lifestyles and general “right-thinking”. The last is not a logical extension from the rest, but usually comes as part of the package. Such arguments may well have merit, but they are wholly peripheral to the main issue which is , lest it be lost, to determine if we are causing problems, whether we need to do anything about them and whether we can do anything about them and, if so, how hard do we need to try.

    – IF the world is under dire threat due to anthropogenic causes and,
    – IF the stunning correlation of the AMO with long term temperature cycles is just an incredibly unlikely coincidence and,
    – IF the ongoing cyclical decrease of solar activity over a number of past sunspot cycles has no relationship to the events preceding the “Maunder minimum” and,
    – IF the decrease in solar activity does not have a much greater and as yet badly understood effect on climate than solar radiation levels alone suggest.
    – AND if all the other poorly understood indicators that suggest that “Gaia” is a lot better at maintaining its feedback systems than we credit it for prove not to be true.

    THEN we need to be spending our money on real science, best possible cooperation, best possible use of research funds. We need to eliminate the lying, obfuscation and fortune seeking which is an entrenched and primary part of the current climate change industry.
    If we proceed as we are now, then if there is a hazard to be avoided and a means of avoiding it if we act in time, then many will grow rich on carbon credits, cap and trade, alternative energy and their ilk – but we will not avoid disaster. Our children’s children will curse us chapter and verse – if they survive.

    Until we dispense with the politics and start doing real open honest science, the sceptical position seems like a very sound one indeed.

    Godwin suggests that I should leave the “denialist” taunt unanswered.

  • I don’t see how someone who claims to want to promote Peace starts out by labeling his enemies “Deniers”. This automatically creates a division.

    I have always considered myself a Questioner. I think that it should be a Universal Right to be able to Question the bodies that govern and lead us. If this right is “denied” then we are no longer a free global people…

  • Praaaaaa

    Climate change skepticism is an age-old problem. He’s not referring to the origins of the Green movement in the 1920’s, and how the leading European Green party of the 1940’s fought to the death against the imperialist Yankie oppressors and there English friends?