Rising Levels of Skepticism

Organized Climate Change Skepticism in the U.S.

By Hanna Thiele

Unfortunately, Climate Science has become Political Science. It is tragic that some perhaps well-meaning but politically motivated scientists who should know better have whipped up a global frenzy about a phenomena which is statistically questionable at best.

Robert H. Austin, U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, March 16, 2009.

These and similar words are heard more often and more loudly around the globe, but the US is the stronghold of so-called climate change skepticism with one of its most prominent representatives President Trump. Twenty percent of the US population believes that there is no evidence for climate change (PEW 2016). Climate change skepticism is a serious problem that must not be overlooked. The term ‘skepticism’ as such is misleading. While the term in relation to research means a healthy and critical handling of new research results, climate skeptics represent their views in an almost dogmatic style (Soentgen/Bilandzic 2014). Climate skeptics assume that the political and scientific study of climate change is an invention of the leftist ecological establishment (Brunngräber 2017). Climate change skepticism encompasses a multitude of different lines of argumentation. Skeptics regard climate change as non-existent, as not human-made, or the assessment of climate change-related dangers as exaggerated (Rahmstorf 2004). The global rise in temperature is either completely denied or dismissed as a natural phenomenon (Brunngräber/Walk 2018). Climate skepticism can be directed against the following four assumptions: against global warming as a confirmed fact in itself or against the assumption that global warming is caused by human-made greenhouse gas emissions. It is also doubted that climate change has more negative than positive consequences for humans and nature. And finally, the efficiency of the measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be doubted. Therefore, the phenomenon itself, the causes, the assessment, and the fight against it can be questioned. (Soentgen/Bilandzic 2014).

These lines of argumentation all exist, notwithstanding the fact that, at least since the mid-1990s, a scientific consensus has been established that most of the Earth’s warming over the past half-century is likely due to increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Already in 1988, James Hansen, a climate scientist, testified before the U.S. Congress arguing that the Earth is warming and that greenhouse gas emissions are very likely one of the causes (Oreskes/Conway 2014). In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Second Assessment Report concluded that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernable human influence on climate” (IPCC 1995), and since that time, the debate within the field of climate science over whether greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to global climate change has largely been settled (comp. Oreskes/Conway 2014).


Skeptical arguments have existed since climate change landed on the political agenda at the end of the 1980s. The term ‘climate skepticism’ was probably first used in 1995 by the journalist Ross Gelbspan (Painter 2012). What is striking in the current form of climate skepticism is that the IPCC and other scientific institutions of climate research are regarded as enemies; their research results are not recognized as legitimate. Climate researchers are accused of carrying out research only in order to obtain large research funds or to restrict the freedom of citizens (Brunngräber/Walk 2018). Intriguingly, climate skeptics are often persons who are rarely real experts in the field of climate research, frequently they are self-appointed ‘experts’ (Leuschner 2012). They are, especially in the USA, often organized in foundations and think tanks, which at first glance, appear like scientific institutions and exert great influence on politics, but actually spread false statements or fake news (Oreskes/Conway 2014).

A peak in the debate about the truthfulness of climate research is represented in an event called ‘Climategate’, which took place in November 2009. A vast amount of emails by climate scientists were published on the Internet without the authors’ consent (Nerlich 2010). The blogosphere managed to take over the discussion, with the mainstream media only slowly catching up (Nerlich 2010). These emails proved to be disputes among scientists about various methodological approaches, something that is not unusual in the scientific arena. Such disagreements on methods are also not new in the field of climate research, but the emails presented climate skeptics with a golden opportunity to attack climate scientists (Nerlich 2010). They picked out specific emails that showed disagreements among climate scientists and used them to question the legitimacy of the research field as a whole.

Organized skepticism

The strengthening of climate skeptics and the diffusion of their positions into society is an expression of the intensifying battles between the actors in the oil, coal and gas sectors on the one hand and promoters of a more sustainable way of producing and using energy on the other. Some want to vigorously prevent the (Western) way of life built on oil from being called into question, while others want a climate-friendly and sustainable way of economic activity and consumption.

Climate researchers have been, and still are, under massive pressure from organized climate skepticism and oftentimes subjected to personal attacks. They are exposed to slander and open hostility. The climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann can be cited as a prominent example of this. In his numerous publications, he has criticized the actions of climate skeptics and has himself provided evidence for man-made climate change through meaningful studies. In return, he was massively attacked in public by politicians and think tanks, but also personally by threatening letters and the like. Other climate scientists are even afraid of a new McCarthy-like era, which was characterized as a time of insinuations and unproven assertions by leading politicians for whatever purpose. The hostile atmosphere created by President Trump and his critical attitude towards the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are also causing unrest among climate researchers (Milman 2018). This can lead to climate researchers formulating their findings more cautiously or representing their position less strongly in public. As a result, the consequences of climate change might be perceived as less threatening and that scientific communication could be restricted.

On top of that the media is giving skeptics a powerful stage. The supposed balance in reporting by allowing scientists from both sides to speak gives the impression that there is no consensus among scientists and lends legitimacy to the skeptics. Often, one skeptic and one non-skeptic are presented, which feigns a balance among researchers that is not true. The media thus contributes to the distortion of the overall picture and to the confusion of the audience. This phenomenon can be called “[b]alance as [b]ias” (Hoggan 2010: 21). As scientists have become increasingly convinced of the evidence and concerned about the risks of climate change over the last two decades, citizens have become confused by contradictory statements that minimize the urgency of the problem and exaggerate the cost of solutions (Hoggan 2010).

In addition to that, scientific approaches find little respect and application in the climate skeptical literature. Climate skeptical statements almost never get peer-reviewed; when this is the case, they typically do not stand up to scrutiny (Cook et al. 2013). Instead, blogs and other social media channels tend to deny climate science. In contrast to mainstream science, which is regularly summarized in IPCC assessment reports, opposing positions are more diverse and spread across a variety of sources – from blogs to think tank reports to popular books. Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that the rejection of climate science is a component of conspiratorial discourse. Pseudoscientific arguments promoting the rejection of climate science are incoherent among themselves, which is a well-known attribute of conspiracies (Lewandowsky et al. 2016).

The actors of organized skepticism can be very diverse as well: politicians, lobbyists in the gas, oil or coal industries or employees of think tanks. They have a clear political agenda that is usually driven by ideological factors. Think tanks are a fundamental and highly effective component of the denial machine. They form the institutional basis for climate skeptics, host anti-IPCC conferences, sponsor ‘educational events’ for politicians, and produce and disseminate a wide range of anti-climate change material through various channels: radio, press conferences, podcasts, videos, newsletters and TV interviews (Dunlap 2011). An example of this behavior is the Cooler Heads Coalition, which consists of conservative think tanks centered in the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This think tank recently published a paper with the title ‘Citizens Have More to Fear from Alarmists’ Agenda than Climate Change Itself’, which argues that the planetary emergency narrative is just a political doctrine and not a scientific finding based on research (Lewis 2019).

Once again, the U.S. seems to be exceptional. Not only is the U.S. one of the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, it has also become a hub of climate change skepticism. This proves to be a serious issue, especially if it is as organized as in the U.S. Skeptics manage to influence the debate about climate research in the US, and foster denial of man-made climate change on an international level. While climate researchers increasingly have to deal with attacks by skeptics and have to defend the results of their research, the climate continues to change, ice caps continue to melt, and sea levels continue to rise.

Hanna Thiele is an MA student at the Goethe University Frankfurt in International Relations. Hanna received her BA in American Studies from Heidelberg University and is interested in sustainability, security and climate change.


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Klimawandel Freiheitsstatue schwarz-weiß, Pixabay 

Klimawandel Apokalypse, Pixabay

Thermometer, Pixabay  

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