• Politics, Fake Science, and Climate Change Denialism

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.


    Politics, Fake Science, and Climate Change Denialism by Kristopher Thompson

    When I set out to investigate current influences on the public’s opinions regarding climate change, I made the assumption that nearly all of the influential players at the surface level of this debate would be politicians who have, in one way or another, interest in the continued, and unforeseeably increasing, use of oil. Maybe this seems like common sense to you as well, and I can understand how many would assume that most of the conflict regarding this issue resides in the scientific realm. In reality, though, whether or not man-made climate change exists is of little disagreement in the scientific community. Given that, overwhelmingly, the scientific community agrees not only that climate change is occurring, but also that it is largely the product of human activity, it is all too clear that most current conflicts involving climate change fall in the realm of politics. The twist is that political rhetoric casts doubt on the topic of climate change, creating the appearance of conflict in scientific understandings of climate change.

    Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma)

    Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that global change is man-made, there are politicians like Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that push absolute disbelief in its existence. According to Inhofe, the idea of climate change is a hoax pushing the liberal agenda, exploited by scientists and environmental policy reform advocates for the purpose of generating income. This is interesting considering that he generates income in the form of donations from oil conglomerates like Koch Industries, pushing the oil and gas industry’s agenda in a way that exemplifies the political corruption surrounding issues involving environmental protection. When speaking on the matter of emissions regulations, for instance, Inhofe presents an argument that if carbon dioxide is pollution, then breathing creates pollution, therefore, carbon dioxide is not pollution. Needless to say, his argument completely disregards differences in quantities of carbon dioxide produced, not to mention that arguments involving emissions should not be singularly reduced to carbon dioxide, given the range of other hazardous compounds emitted when burning fossil fuels like coal.

    Inhofe’s position, in particular, is ironic in light of the potential link between extreme weather events and climate change. Oklahoma experiences its share of tornadoes, which could increase in both size and frequency as climate patterns shift, yet Inhofe vehemently opposes the idea of any such associations. Following a series of devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma earlier this year, talk of the possibility of climate change playing a role in the increased severity of storms led Inhofe to suggest that the creation of such connections did a disservice to the affected victims. Of course, Inhofe is also proud to be presented as one of the faces of the fossil fuel industry’s bolstering of climate change denialism, so such a response from him is to be expected.

    There is a fairly short link between big oil and the politicians swaying public opinion on this issue in the scientifically wrong direction. It is abysmal that our politicians openly accept donations from oil and gas companies so that they might vote in their favor on matters like multi-billion dollar tax breaks, but acknowledging such alliances helps to make sense of the political conflict surrounding climate change. Where are the politicians’ interests when they collect tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from oil and gas lobbyists? When you look at the sheer number of politicians who receive donations from the fossil fuel industry, it becomes clear why climate change is not more actively addressed. It also helps to explain why wildly illogical, purportedly scientific arguments arise.

    Consider the argument that since plants use carbon dioxide in respiration, more carbon dioxide is actually beneficial for the environment. While this argument is staged in a way that appears to involve scientific evidence, it is really no more than misleading political rhetoric. Carbon dioxide supplied directly to plants in a contained, controlled environment, such as a greenhouse, does increase their growth, but this is minimally applicable to real-world environments. Large-scale simulations of with elevated levels of carbon dioxide demonstrate that the stimulated growth of plants seen in greenhouse environments is much larger than what would actually occur in real-world environments.

    As science helps us to better understand the ways in which we influence climate systems, it becomes more difficult to deny humanity’s role in global climate change. If deniers of climate change are met with scientific evidence conflicting with their claims, then they must produce evidence of their own, even if this evidence is fabricated and is, therefore, not really evidence at all. This brings to point a matter, possibly more insidious than corrupt senators, that also characterizes the landscape of man-made climate change denial. There now exist a number of groups presenting as scientific institutes and associations that are all too clearly not what they claim to be. Though these climate change denial groups claim to be grounded in science, their funding from Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, amongst other fossil fuel interests, says otherwise. In reality, climate change denial groups like the Heartland Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute are conservative think tanks functioning for the sole purpose of perpetuating disbelief in man-made climate change.

    An actual billboard that the Heartland Institute paid for. Others had Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden on them (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/05/04/1088758/-Heartland-Institute-compares-belief-in-climate-change-to-Unabomber-Charles-Manson-Osama-bin-Laden)

    These climate denial groups desperately attempt to appear scientific, but simply because their materials contain assortments of graphs and claim to be peer-reviewed does not mean that they are. If most scientists studying climate change agree that it is man-made, then where are the peers reviewing these groups’ claims? Apparently only the scientists working for these fossil fuel funded groups peer review one another’s work, which is reflected in the repetition of names in their list of climate change literature. If you were mis- or ill-informed about the scientific consensus regarding global warming and were to stumble upon the Global Warming Petition Project, though, you might be led to believe that a significant portion of the scientific community is opposed to such measures as emissions limiting regulations. This petition advising against the Kyoto protocol lists thousands of scientists’ names, but makes no mention of what their credentials for signing such a petition are. Although it flaunts that a third of its signers have doctorates, there is no indication of what fields these involve. Interestingly, this petition is associated with the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, which just happens to produce cooperative work with the George C. Marshall Institute.

    While these institutes each tout their own share of “research,” if it can be called such, a particularly notorious document, titled Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, is widely circulated amongst climate change denialists and can be found alongside the aforementioned petition. Once again, this article attempts to base the entirety of the global climate change debate in carbon dioxide levels. Further, while its’ data is legitimate, its’ interpretations of data are extremely misleading.

    At this point, the discussion comes full circle.  Why would fossil fuel funded “scientific” groups purposely produce and distribute misleading research if climate change denial is legitimate? Perhaps it is because their argument is illegitimate, being little more than political rhetoric and corporate interests disguised as science.

    Category: ConspiracyPoliticsPseudoscienceScienceTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com