Climate Denial 101

A User’s Guide to the arguments of global warming skeptics

No reasonable doubt remains that human activities, particularly greenhouse gas emissions, have significantly altered global climate. Over the last two centuries global land, sea, and atmospheric temperatures have increased to a degree that cannot be accounted for by historical natural variability alone, and the world’s climate scientists are in general agreement that this warming may already have passed a point of no return. At a bare minimum, there is at least another century of warming “in the pipe” so to speak, even if we implement draconian mitigation measures today. But of course, this has done little to dampen climate change skepticism among anti-environmental special interests and the lawmakers beholden to them. Since the early 90’s the fossil fuel, coal-fired power, and automobile industries, and various Far-Right foundations have sunk millions into front organizations advertised to the public as “think tanks” or “research” institutions, but whose express behind-the-scene purpose is to lobby against climate change mitigation efforts on behalf of their benefactors. Originally these groups focused on denying the reality of global warming, but in recent years that approach has all but become a lost cause, so the emphasis has been shifting toward denying that we have anything to do with it.

It must be remembered that these organizations aren’t merely lobbyists, they’re fronts that employ some of the best public relations people in the game. No matter how unreasonable their claims may seem to many, they know how to sell themselves to lawmakers and the public as “science-based,” and they’re anything but stupid. Anti-environmental special interests funnel millions to these folks because they’re the undisputed masters of spin, and with the evidence for human-cause global warming mounting daily, the need for spin has become increasingly central to their activities.

Now, every masterful spin job has at two key components;

  1. A compelling, and slickly presented straw man.
  2. An emotionally charged scapegoat to pin it on that can be used to push the target audience's buttons.

The latter is easy enough. As the 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated all too well, if people are angry enough you can all but throw an election with made-up fake news stories, tweets, and other red meat. The real art of spin lies in crafting a good straw man, which in turn achieves two primary goals of its own;

  1. An argument that's as impressive and compelling as possible, without reveal the underlying errors and omissions.
  2. A conclusion that tars and feathers the intended scapegoat with maximal apparent idiocy.

If the apparent idiocy fruit is low-hanging and juicy enough one can go straight to d). Case in point, religious extremists, who routinely provide anti-religion secularists with so much dry tinder that a thimble’s worth of dog-whistle revisionist history is usually enough to ignite a continent-wide prairie fire. For global warming skeptics however, the task is not so easy. Respected climate scientists are far worthier opponents than Pat Robertson or ISIS, so the emphasis must be on c). In this they are favored by the fact that climate science is complex, and more than subtle enough to give them plenty of grist for the mill. But even so, there are recurring conceptual errors that underlie all their arguments, and once these are revealed the entire climate denial platform collapses.

Before jumping into these errors, let’s start with a few climate science fundamentals that will give us the bricks and mortar we’ll need to evaluate them.


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