Climate skeptics, climate and holocaust denial – how do we change minds?

Last night I attended the regular Merseyside Skeptics meeting. The speaker was Neil Gavin, Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and Communication Studies at University of Liverpool. His talk was entitled: ‘Climate Scepticism in the media: gone but not forgotten’.

One of the issues raised in the talk was the view of so-called Climate Skeptics who believe that climate change is not man-made. But should they be called climate skeptics? Should they not, instead, be called climate denialists? Should they not be regarded in the same way as we regard holocaust denialists?

According to the Merseyside Skeptics website:
‘Skepticism is a method for discerning truth from fiction. When presented with a claim, a skeptic reserves his or her right to reject that claim until such time as the claimant produces sufficient evidence to back up that claim. If the skeptic finds the evidence is compelling, then we will provisionally accept the claim as true; provisionally because we may see more evidence tomorrow that proves the claim to be false.’

The fact is that the evidence for man-made climate change in the shape of global warming is compelling. The vast majority of scientists who work in the field of climate change believe that it is man-made and that if nothing is done the effects will be catastrophic.

As with all areas of science there are always scientists who disagree with mainstream thought. This is the way science is and should be.

Some of these scientists have genuine reservations, some have just got it wrong.

On the other hand, a number of scientists who don’t subscribe to man-made climate appear to have a connection with groups that have a vested interested in denying climate change as shown by the links on the Wikipedia article: ‘List of scientists opposing the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming

These groups and their associated scientists tend to be vociferous and get an over-representation in the media – a point made by Neil Gavin. The impression is then created that the climate change/global warming question is still very much open to debate – which is not the view of 95% of scientists who do the cutting edge science.

If man-made climate change is happening and we don’t do something about it then it is quite likely that millions, if not billions, will die. Certainly, more than died in any past holocaust. And doing something about climate change, because of the complicated nature of this problem, requires all of us to be on the same side.

I am wondering whether climate denialists should be thought about in the same context as holocaust denialists – only worse. The holocaust denialists believe that the Nazis did not kill millions of people or that Stalin did not kill even more millions than Hitler.

The climate denialists claim that climate change is not man-made and and/or that any effects of global warming will be negligable, if not beneficial. Either explicitly or implicitly they are claiming that millions will not die as result of unrestrained, man-made global warming.

Admittedly, this is a denial about future events. Holocaust denialists make statements about the past where we know what actually happened. Climate denialists are making statements about the future which, or course, we cannot ultimately know until we get there. The problem is, by the time we get there, it may be too late.

But perhaps we can change their minds. Perhaps we can get them to believe that man-made climate change is and its consequences are true. Perhaps we can get them to join in with the movement to prevent further man-made global warming and avoid its worst consequences.

But just how do we do this?

This kind of question was partially addressed by in an article by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg that I talked about in ‘Why do some people resist science‘.

Bloom and Weisberg conclude their article by saying that ‘one way to combat resistance to science is to persuade children and adults that the institute of science is, for the most part, worthy of trust.’

So, in the spirit of friendly persuasion, should we use the non-provocative term ‘climate skeptic’ rather than ‘climate denialist’ even though the second phrase may be a more correct description of the people to whom the phrase refers?

But will this work with climate denialists?

Perhaps when people have very strong views on something then we cannot change their minds, no matter what is done.

Max Planck, one of the most respected scientists of his time, the man who ‘invented’ the planck constant ‘h’ and the man who quickly recognised the worth of Einstein when others didn’t, had this to say about scientific truths:

‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’

Do we have the time to wait to see if this is a solution?
Do our children have the time?


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  1. #1 by klem on January 21, 2011 - 5:52 pm

    “The vast majority of scientists who work in the field of climate change believe that it is man-made”

    Of course they do, but it’s an absurd statement. It’s like saying that the vast majority of Priests believe in God. It sounds impressive but it tells you nothing.

    here’s how that famous “97% agree” thing happened.

  2. #2 by Michael Jackman on January 22, 2011 - 12:58 pm

    “The vast majority of scientists who work in the field of climate change believe that it is man-made” is not:

    (1) an absurd statement
    (2) neither is it ‘like saying that the vast majority of Priests believe in God.’

    Firstly, the emphasis is on scientists who work in the field of climate change. If the vast majority of them agree then this is important. They would have followed scientific methodology which would have involved, amongst other things, looking very carefully at the data, seeing if the data and interpretations of the data stand up, doing replication studies, etc. So, if they come to a consensus (and 95% or 97% would be a consensus for science) then as non-experts in this field we would really have to take what they said as being true. To do otherwise would be perverse.

    Second, priests are not experts when it comes to whether god exists or not – neither is anyone else. The idea of a god is not something that can be addressed by scientific methodology – it is a matter of faith.

    So, the statement is not absurd and neither can it be compared with what priests believe about god.

    The link:
    points to Lawrence Solomon who raises various questions about whether there is 97% agreement among climate scientists.

    However, Solomon has been heavily criticised for various statements he has made in this article – see, for example:

    A more sober presentation of the data can be found in the paper ‘Examining the Scientific Consensus
    on Climate Change
    ’ by the people who did the survey, Peter T . Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman.

    Finally, even before the survey by Doran and Zimmerman, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that human actions are “very likely” the cause of global warming, meaning a 90% or greater probability.

    At this point I see no reason to change the general tone of what I said: ‘climate skeptics’ is the wrong phrase; it should be ‘climate denialists’ or ‘climate deniers’.

  3. #3 by Charlie on January 22, 2011 - 4:38 pm

    Whilst I understand where you are coming from and I believe you have good intentions I also think that to call climate sceptics denialists is misleading and dogmatic.

    We must be able to maintain the debate. you even said it yourself in you piece, ‘some scientist have genuine reservations’

    Calling sceptics denialist is not valid, One needs to be careful when presented with the kind of things which Neil Gavin said, he claimed that over 95% of scientists working in the field of climate science believed that not only was global warming a fact but that man had played a significant part in that effect.

    To deny that the world is warmer would be foolish as thermometers measure this impartially, however the word ‘significant’ is open to sceptical debate. What percentage of the problem being caused by mans’ activity is considered significant, are we talking statistically significant? it could be 5% and be statistically significant.

    It is also valid to be sceptical about whether we can realistically do anything about the problem, in terms of trying to put the clock back.

    And it’s valid to be sceptical and question those who profit from the ‘global warming’ dividend. vested interest goes both ways.

    I am personally persuaded that global warming is a reality, and that man has contributed to the problem, how much of it is ‘Our fault’ I don’t know, and I really think this is a red herring, I am not convinced because i’ve not seen any evidence that we can undo it, or that to spend all our efforts trying to ‘solve the problem’ and maintain the status quo is a good use of resources. Who said that the climate as it is now is the ‘right’ climate. Just maybe we should turn our attention to what we can do to mitigate the changes and to help the human race adapt to an inevitably warmer future.

    Claiming that millions or even billions will die as a result of climate change is also emotive and misleading, in fact exactly the same number of people will die as are born regardless of climate change, everybody dies!

    If reducing the total number of human deaths over all time is our ultimate objective, global thermonuclear war is our best way forward.

    One final point the world has in the last decades developed a global blame culture ‘It must be someones fault’ ‘someone has to pay’ what if all the science had been unable to demonstrate a causal link between mans’ activities and and the change in mean global temperature, would that make any difference? I suspect not. As we would still be in the same predicament anyway.

    • #4 by Michael Jackman on January 23, 2011 - 2:56 pm

      In response to Charlie:

      We must be able to maintain the debate‘.

      I agree, but can we debate with climate denialists? I’m suggesting reserving the term for those who don’t debate but dogmatically assert that there is no man-made climate change – c.f. Richard Dawkins on TV when he talks with religious fundamentalists and they ‘debate’ with him.

      For those who are genuinely skeptical then ‘climate change skepticism’ is the right phrase. And anyway, I would expect and hope that scientists at the rock face are skeptics – science could not be done otherwise.

      P.S. We don’t have problem with the phrase ‘religious fundamentalists’ – why should we have a problem with the phrase ‘climate denialists’?

      … man had played a significant part in …’ making the planet warmer.

      The meaning of ‘significant’ in this context is straightforward. It is that we have caused (and are continuing to cause) most of the rise in global temperature.

      The IPCC say this:
      ‘Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely (>90%) due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations.’

      It is valid to be skeptical about whether we can realistically do anything about the problem.

      Here I am inclined to agree with you but only because of psychological factors, not technological factors.

      If global warming is to do with carbon emissions, etc. then we need ‘clean’ energy. One possible solution (and perhaps the only viable solution we have) is to put lots of mirrors in deserts. My understanding is that these mirrors could provide all the energy needs of the entire planet, and the technology for doing this exists. There is a great book on this called Sustainable Energy: without the hot air, by David MacKay, which explains this and everything else we might want to know about sustainable energy. (The book can be bought or downloaded for free from the website)

      But could we get mirrors in deserts supplying all our energy needs?
      This is a matter of getting people to agree. This is the difficult part and here is where I lean toward pessimism.

      My understanding is that climate denialists have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. We cannot change their minds about climate change. But perhaps they can be convinced that there is plenty of money to be made from putting mirrors in deserts. Then everyone can be happy.

      So, perhaps by using the right terminology we might take a step toward using the right strategy. Debate with climate denialists won’t work. Showing such people how to make money by doing something different might.

      Claiming that millions or even billions will die as a result of climate change is also emotive and misleading

      The statement was intended to be emotive and I make no apologies for that. But I do not believe it to be misleading. What I’m getting at here is the idea that global warming will lead to situations which result in massive loss of life. Rising sea levels are likely to lead to less food being available and so starvation for millions. There will almost certainly be wars, etc. etc.

      I would rather see the population of the world decrease through birth control methods rather than see people starve to death or be slaughtered, etc.

      what if all the science had been unable to demonstrate a causal link ….

      If that were the case we wouldn’t be having this debate. And we wouldn’t have been able to see that maybe there was something we could do about it.

      The science that enables us to understanding climate change is a fairly recent tool. I think we need to make use of it.

  4. #5 by skepticCanary on January 22, 2011 - 7:05 pm

    Put it this way, should we call creationists “evolution skeptics” or “evolution deniers”? Are antivaccinationists ‘vaccination skeptics’ or ‘vaccination deniers’?

    • #6 by Michael Jackman on January 23, 2011 - 2:52 pm

      creationists are ‘evolution deniers’

      This would be more complicated. Some may choose, despite the evidence, not to have vaccines. I don’t think they would warrant the label ‘vaccination deniers’ (in the sense meant here.)

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