The five corrupt pillars of climate change denial
The fossil fuel industry, political lobbyists, media moguls ,and individuals have spent the past 30 years sowing doubt about the reality of climate change -- where none exists. The latest estimate is that the world’s five largest publicly-owned oil and gas companies spend about $200 million a year on lobbying to control, delay, or block binding climate policy.
Their hold on the public seems to be waning. But this means lobbying has changed, now employing more subtle and more vicious approaches -- what has been termed as “climate sadism.” It is used to mock young people going on climate protests and to ridicule Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old young woman with Asperger’s, who is simply telling the scientific truth. At such a crossroads, it is important to be able to identify the different types of denial:
1. Science denial
This is the type of denial we are all familiar with: That the science of climate change is not settled. Deniers suggest climate change is just part of the natural cycle. Or that climate models are unreliable and too sensitive to carbon dioxide. Some even suggest that CO2 is such a small part of the atmosphere it cannot have a large heating affect. Or that climate scientists are fixing the data to show the climate is changing (a global conspiracy that would take thousands of scientists in more than a 100 countries to pull off).
All these arguments are false and there is a clear consensus among scientists about the causes of climate change. The climate models that predict global temperature rises have remained very similar over the last 30 years despite the huge increase in complexity, showing it is a robust outcome of the science.
2. Economic denial
The idea that climate change is too expensive to fix is a more subtle form of climate denial. Economists, however, suggest we could fix climate change now by spending 1% of world GDP. Perhaps even less if the cost savings from improved human health and expansion of the global green economy are taken into account. But if we don’t act now, by 2050 it could cost over 20% of world GDP.
3. Humanitarian denial
Climate change deniers also argue that climate change is good for us. They suggest longer, warmer summers in the temperate zone will make farming more productive. These gains, however, are often offset by the drier summers and increased frequency of heatwaves in those same areas. For example, the 2010 Moscow heatwave killed 11,000 people, devastated the Russian wheat harvest, and increased global food prices. More than 40% of the world’s population also lives in the Tropics -- where from both a human health prospective and an increase in desertification no one wants summer temperatures to rise.
4. Political denial
Climate change deniers argue we cannot take action because other countries are not taking action. But not all countries are equally guilty of causing current climate change. For example, 25% of the human-produced CO2 in the atmosphere is generated by the US, another 22% is produced by the EU. Africa produces just under 5%.
Given the historic legacy of greenhouse gas pollution, developed countries have an ethical responsibility to lead the way in cutting emissions. But ultimately, all countries need to act because if we want to minimize the effects of climate change then the world must go carbon zero by 2050.
5. Crisis denial
The final piece of climate change denial is the argument that we should not rush into changing things, especially given the uncertainty raised by the other four areas of denial above. Deniers argue that climate change is not as bad as scientists make out.
But similarly hollow arguments were used in the past to delay ending slavery, granting the vote to women, ending colonial rule, ending segregation, decriminalizing homosexuality, bolstering worker’s rights and environmental regulations, allowing same sex marriages, and banning smoking.
The fundamental question is: Why are we allowing the people with the most privilege and power to convince us to delay saving our planet from climate change?
Mark Maslin is Professor of Earth System Science, UCL. A version of this article previously appeared in The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.