"I’m often asked whether I believe in global warming. I now just reply with the question: Do you believe in gravity?"
Neil deGrasse Tyson (5 October 1958 -)
“...listen to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, who suffer most because of the unbalanced ecology”
Pope Francis (17 December 1936 -)
According to a 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), while almost 90% of scientists believe that human activity is driving global warming, only half of the American public ascribe to that view. Even more worrying is the fact that while 77% of scientists regard climate change as a very serious problem, only 33% of the general public agree. That’s changed in more recent times, but far too slowly for humanity to be making sufficient progress to save the planet.
Why, when people are mostly willing to defer to specialist advice in most situations, is there such resistance when it comes to the climate? It’s not being melodramatic to say that this could be the most important wrong decision humanity has ever made.
While this discrepancy may be partially connected to political ideology, this is slowly becoming less of an issue. Indeed, in the race for the 2020 United States presidential election, it was gradually becoming clear that aggressive climate change denial is no longer seen as being a politically savvy attitude even amongst most Republican candidates (Donald Trump excluded).
And even the usually conservative Vatican has taken a stand on climate change, with Pope Francis, in an encyclical, calling on all of us—from individuals to government—to curb the “reckless” behavior that has pushed the planet to a perilous “breaking point.” “Doomsday predictions,” Francis warns, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” And this from a Pope who hailed from one of the most conservative papal administrations of all time, until his ascendancy to the throne of Saint Peter.
While climate change denial appears to be linked to psychological and ideological attitudes, it’s getting harder and harder for most people to argue against the mounting evidence. But that’s only most people: there are some weirdly influential skeptics out there who make sure the debate is kept well and truly alive, regardless.
Just who are these climate change skeptics? And why does their influence continue to be so all-pervasive? Let’s have a look at some of the most ardent in the last decade or so.
Lord Christopher Monckton is perhaps the best known and most fascinating of them. A journalist, Conservative political advisor, former deputy leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, and Chief Policy Adviser for the Science and Public Policy Institute, Monckton has become the unofficial British spokesman for climate change denial. He has been invited to testify before the US Congress on four occasions, appearing before the US House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment in 2009 and the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in 2010. He has written extensively on climate change and has given speaking tours in Britain, Ireland, the US, China, Canada, India, Colombia, South Africa, and Australia.
Monckton is a master of the outrageous statement—too many of which are taken seriously by the media, despite constant refutations from the scientific community. For instance, in 2009 Monckton gave a well-attended and highly publicized speech claiming that most solar physicists attribute 69% of global warming to the sun, and that, in addition, the International Astronomical Union predict that global cooling is, in fact, imminent, “because the sun’s turned itself off for a bit.” Despite denials from the president of the IAU, Monckton’s claims were given serious media attention.
He’s also on record as claiming that ocean temperatures rely on data “from ships dropping canvas buckets down as they randomly pass across the oceans.” A claim that has again been denied by the authority concerned. This time, it’s the National Oceanographic Data Centre.
And Lord Monckton’s not afraid of pulling off publicity stunts to get his point across. In 2012 at the COP18 climate change Conference in Doha, Qatar, he sat in the place of the Burmese delegate and began speaking: “In the 16 years we have been coming to these conferences, there has been no global warming at all. If we were to take action, the cost of that would be many times greater than the cost of taking adaptation measures later. So my recommendation is that we should initiate a review of the science to make sure we are all on the right track.” Monckton was very quickly escorted out by security, protesting loudly.
Despite his popular appeal, Monckton has no scientific training— he studied classics and journalism—and he has repeatedly been caught falsifying information, including his own credentials. He claimed to have been science adviser to Margaret Thatcher during her time as British Prime Minister. This last claim was refuted by the environment minister at the time, John Gummer, who stated that “the idea that he advised her on climate change is laughable.”
But his influence isn’t all bad. Indeed some regard Monckton’s public stance as actually furthering the climate change cause. The journalist George Monbiot sees Monckton's climate denial as a “gift”: “The longer this goes on, the better it will be for all those who take science seriously. Lord Monckton is digging his hole ever deeper, and dragging down into it everyone stupid enough to follow him. Those of us who do battle with climate change deniers can't inflict one tenth as much damage to their cause that Monckton wreaks every time he opens his mouth.” I’m a bit more worried than George, for the record: Monckton is in fact feeding a view that wants this message, and it encourages those deniers still holding to unwarranted beliefs.
Senator James Inhofe has been at various times the foremost Republican climate change skeptic in America. From the moment he was elected Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in 2003, he made his position on climate change clear. In one of his first speeches as Chair, on July 28, 2003, Inhofe promised to “expose the most powerful, most highly financed lobby in Washington, the far-left environmental extremists,” referring to man-made global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
In The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens your Future, (2012), Inhofe argues that governments are using climate change as an excuse to increase regulation of people’s lives and raise taxes. The book isn’t exactly scientific: if climate change does exist, Inhofe has no hesitation in laying the blame elsewhere: “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He (i.e., God) is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
Inhofe is most famous for a stunt in which he appeared before the US Congress wielding a snowball along with some very dubious logic. Offering up his snowball as evidence, Inhofe attempted to close down the argument for climate change once and for all: “In case we have forgotten – because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record – I ask the chair, do you know what this is? It’s a snowball from outside here. So, it’s very, very cold out.” It’s a complete misrepresentation of the difference between the weather and the climate.
And just in case global warming is a reality, Inhofe has managed to put a positive spin on any changes that might occur. According to Inhofe, thus far, “the one-degree Fahrenheit rise coincided with the greatest advancement of living standards, life expectancy, food production and human health in the history of our planet. So it is hard to argue that the global warming we experienced in the 20th century was somehow negative.”
Dr Ian Plimer is one of Australia’s most prominent climate change skeptics. In Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science, (2009), Plimer, a mining geologist, argues that “the climate has always changed,” and that “rising sea levels and disappearing ice-sheets are not only normal historically, but actually less severe than in previous eras.” Plimer writes, somewhat ironically, about trying to convince non-skeptics: “Trying to deal with these misrepresentations is somewhat like trying to argue with creationists, who misquote, concoct evidence, quote out of context, ignore contrary evidence, and create evidence ex nihilo.”
Plimer’s evidence is the most dodgy of all the sceptics, and this amongst a lot of dodgy arguments: he claims, for instance, that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than human activity, when, according to the US Geological Survey, humans produce 130 times more CO2 than volcanoes. Plimer also has a reputation for not answering questions directly. George Monbiot, who had the opportunity to interview Plimer on ABC TV in Australia in 2009, writes that, “In my quarter century as a journalist I have never seen anyone go to such lengths to avoid answering a simple point.”
Unlike Monckton and Inhofe, whose aims aren’t entirely obvious, Dr Plimer’s motivations are a little easier to comprehend, and are clearly related to mining interests. He sits on the board of a number of mining companies.
Lord Nigel Lawson is a British Conservative politician and journalist. He is the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for Energy. His An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, (2008), attacks what Lawson regards as the alarmist response to climate change and calls for gradual measures to be implemented.
In 2009 Lord Lawson, along with fellow skeptic, Dr. Benny Peiser, established the think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). According to its press release, the GWPF is an “all-party and non-party think tank and a registered educational charity which, while openminded on the contested science of global warming, is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.”
The Board of Trustees and Academic Advisory Council of the GWPF is, according to Bob Ward, Communications Director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, a veritable Who’s Who of climate change skeptics, and there’s little likelihood that their findings will be as ‘open-minded’ as their PR suggests. Like Ian Plimer, with his mining connections, Lawson maintains close ties to the oil industry: as well as being Chairman of the GWPF, he chairs and has significant holdings in the Central Europe Trust Ltd, who represent BP Amoco, Texaco, Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Total Fina Elf.
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to see a pattern.
A climate contrarian rather than skeptic, Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, (2001), is the only scientist on this list. The controversy surrounding Lomberg’s book saw him become one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the world in 2004, and earned him a comparison with Adolf Hitler by Rajendra Pachauri, then chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg states that he accepts the reality of man-made global warming, but “questions the way in which future scenarios have been arrived at and finds that forecasts of climate change of 6 degrees by the end of the century are not plausible.” After publication, a group of scientists accused Lomborg of scientific deceit. The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), ruled in 2003 that the book was indeed scientifically dishonest, but that as Lomborg did not have expertise in the fields in question he could not be found guilty.
In a subsequent work, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, (2007), Lomberg concedes that while global warming is real and man-made, he doesn’t think the threat is imminent or that the effects will be profound enough to warrant the current state of alarm. He argues that "the cost and benefits of the proposed measures against global warming ... is the worst way to spend our money. Climate change is a 100-year problem—we should not try to fix it in 10 years." In a 2010 interview with the New Statesman, Lomborg summarized his position on climate change thus: “Global warming is real—it is man-made and it is an important problem. But it is not the end of the world.”
The motivations of climate change skeptics, deniers and contrarians range from the political to the clearly monetary. Often the two are interchangeable: the US Congress reportedly has almost 170 representatives who have received some kind of financing from the fossil fuel industry—funding which adds up to many millions of dollars.
Whatever their motivations, and despite their relatively small numbers, the sceptics are clearly effective campaigners, wielding a surprising degree of power, disproportionate to their plausibility. It’s partly down to their influence that governments around the world, instead of building policies that may help to combat the effects of climate change, continue to waste precious time debating whether it is a problem at all.
But now, with the most recent IPCC report, we can no longer hide our heads in the sand. The sixth report spells out the Armageddon we are facing if we don’t address this problem. Now, we are heading for the “COP 26” UN Climate Change Conference, hosted by the UK in partnership with Italy, which will take place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow Scotland. If we do not get mobilized, fully, and planet-wide soon, it really will be too late. And the deniers and crazies will have won—but at what price?
Inhofe, James (2012). The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens your Future. Washington, DC: WorldNetDaily Books.
Lawson, Lord Nigel (2008). An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming. London, UK: Duckworth Overlook.
Lomborg, Bjørn (2001). The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lomborg, Bjørn (2007). Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Plimer, Ian (2009). Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science. Ballan, VIC: Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd.