Climate Change Scepticism is an Age-old Problem

2010•09•01 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University, 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 F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008. 

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.