Analysis: Liars and Fools: Climate change deniers

I have, somewhat randomly, made it a task to reply to climate change denial comments and articles on NBR.

Thankfully over the years we’ve seen the quality of the environmental writing in NBR and the comments themselves improve but there are still a few writers or commenters who seem to thrive on denying climate change. Denial is a surefire way to incite a good volume of comments but ultimately there are really only two explanations for this behaviour from writers and commentors. They are either liars or fools.

Liars
Over the years I have wondered whether some people were actually being paid not just to write articles but also to make comments supporting climate change denial across a wide range of media. The articles and comments often seemed to be so outrageous in their disregard for facts, spouting of pseudoscience nonsense and reference to other deniers that I could think of no other plausible explanation.

It turns out I was correct – it emerged that there were actually groups (for example in the US but it seems also in Russia) being paid to deny climate change. These groups were and still are not just writing articles and haunting comment sections, but have proven ability to capture mainstream and cable network media time. They do make for much better television – simplistic pseudoscience and strident denial, for example, plays a lot better on Fox News, CNN or in columns than complex science and deep considered discussions of the possibilities.

This systematic media attack, which follows in the footsteps of the anti-tobacco lobby and is often aligned with the extreme right-wing partisan political groups, is arguably one of the biggest civil acts of irresponsibility of our time, and some media (Fox News is the obvious one) have been complicit in that.

It’s hard not to argue these professional deniers deliberately lie to try to present their arguments (and get more airtime), and the fact-checking required to hold them to account is painful and time-consuming.

But it’s over for them – too many people know that there is no basis to their rhetoric, and society is increasingly intolerant of them.

In the US the tobacco lobby was finally stalled by losing substantial court cases, and the same approach is under way for climate change denial. Exxon Mobil, for example, just lost a case where it tried to prevent investigators from Massachusetts and New York from digging into its decades-long systematic climate change denial. Over the coming years we can expect a series of US lawsuits to result in some major behavioural changes, and material loses for the affected companies and people.

However lawsuits take time, and they are a peculiarly American approach to resolving these sorts of issues. Other countries, including New Zealand, traditionally use legislation to lower public harm from private activities like selling tobacco, toxins in food and toxic emissions. Arguably we should see laws against paying for or otherwise supporting deliberate and malicious climate change denial, just as we did against arguments (including via advertisements) that smoking cigarettes was healthy.

The worst of these deniers, I foresee, will not just be seen as pariahs, but may also be condemned and convicted by civil and criminal court systems. As the impacts of climate change become more and more obvious and abhorrent society’s perspectives on these liars will worsen. History will not be kind.

Fools
The purpose of the professional liar deniers is to prevent action against climate change and to preserve the status quo. They do this by using a wide range of media to create and support legions of people in the second category – fools.

I’ve often wondered whether some of the worst deniers in this category just didn’t ever study chemistry, physics and or advanced mathematics, and don’t know how what they don’t know. As the Dunning-Kruger effect explains, they are perhaps so uninformed about the science that they don’t realise how stupid they can sound. This is worse when they are smart and successful in other areas, as that can make them over-confident about their abilities in climate science. My favourite comment from this sub-group is the one where CO2 is breathable so clearly not harmful.

Dumb as that sounds, I would still back everyone’s ability to learn how climate change works but they have to have time and motivation.

I expect most in this group don’t have the time, and even if they accept that they don’t really understand the science, they have put their trust in people who are not credible climate scientists. This rapidly becomes a faith-based argument – my expert is better than yours.

It is, of course, ludicrous to believe that a loud yet uninformed TV personality, a marginal website or extremist politician or columnist knows more than tens of thousands of professional scientists who constantly cross-check each other. But the scientists don’t help themselves either – they are far less accessible, and the deepness of the topic makes for boring columns and TV. It’s also too easy for harried editors or biased platforms to broadcast the loudest voices, and to ignore the quiet boring ones with nuanced but serious messages.

Once the liar perspective has conned someone into believing in climate change denial, it’s very difficult for them to change their mind. That’s just human nature.

It’s especially difficult if they have a legacy of denial statements, private or public. After all, it’s hard to admit that you’ve been conned – and that you have been acting like a fool.

But while avoiding embarrassment is a powerful motivation to pretend to believe that anthropogenic climate change is not real or a threat, it pales before the genuine existential threat we are facing.

So let’s encourage those who have found themselves on the wrong side of truth to please stop behaving like fools and either do their homework or to put their trust in the world’s top scientists. We can point them to the clear and present evidence of climate change, like disappearing glaciers, and to the most obvious fallacies that they are spouting, but ultimately we need to point to the liars who have duped so many.

Happily, millions of people are changing their minds. One good example is Jerry Taylor, who was thoughtful enough, during his previous job as a professional climate change denier at right-wing think tank ALEC to dig into the facts – and then strong enough to change his mind.

We should appreciate just how difficult this is, and reward those who do have the courage to learn and change, especially those who do so earlier.

Deniers with a political cause
Some deniers, from either of the above categories (liars or fools), are active deniers primarily because they are supporting a particular political agenda. They deliberately ignore the “other side’s” arguments and preponderance of evidence.

However we are seeing a generational shift in political parties, and increasingly doing something about climate change is becoming table stakes to get elected. As a society, a world even, we need to help all politicians and their supporters understand that climate change is well beyond politics.

Hobson’s Choice: Liars or Fools?
All climate change deniers, whether they accept the label or not, are stuck between two poor choices – admitting that they are smart and educated enough to believe climate change is real but that they have been deliberately lying, or admitting that they are not smart or educated enough or that they have listened to the wrong people and have been taken for fools. Most are in the second category.

Old Fools
Sometimes the latter is tied up with age – where people are just too old to care about learning something new, and are content to be foolish. (On the other hand climate change from CO2 emissions was reported in New Zealand well before anyone alive today was born). We generally accept that older people can have outdated views, and tolerate the occasional slip-up, and most are smart enough to accept that times have changed and understand that a few of their perspectives are dated. (I hasten to add my own parents are well ahead of the times.)

But sometimes we see well-known people from another era suddenly emerge in the press as climate change deniers, perhaps with a dose of racism and/or sexism. While their rhetoric may be great for generating page views and controversy, it’s sad for all of us to watch.

Unfortunately, the required speed of response to climate change is faster than the speed of generational change. So let’s make sure they are told, gently via their editors and friends, and firmly by society, that their statements are not just foolish, but dangerous to all of us and damaging to themselves. Let’s give nothing to denial.

What about the deliberate liars, or even those who just say they are trolls looking for a reaction? Let’s stop tolerating them, and start digging into their motivations and funding while ensuring we capture the evidence for those future lawsuits.

Those who get it
There are two other categories of people when considering attitudes towards climate change. The first is those who acknowledge the established facts and science, and understand that we need to lower emissions and mitigate the climate change that is upon its and emerging. They know it’s important, and relatively urgent, but there are competing priorities as well. This is the consensus view.

The second group also has some grasp of chaotic systems, positive response and exponential growth, and has read some of the work concerning the ocean currents, ocean acidification, trapped methane and the lubrication effect of the melting ice/water interface. Those people are terrified our ecosystems may become uninhabitable, at the very least our lifestyles irrevocably destroyed, and many are increasingly (and not at all usefully) moved to the point of despair on whether we can do anything at all. They know we need to act immediately, and dramatically, to have a chance of a normal future. This is a more marginal view but if we are going to create great TV and articles, those are voices we should be hearing more of. They are not just credible but it’s increasingly concerning that they may well be right.

Punakaiki Fund manager Lance Wiggs posts at LanceWiggs.com. This post was not commissioned or paid for by NBR.

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