Law & Politics

What do climate denialists do when the facts change?

John Maynard Keynes is widely believed to have said: “Well, when the facts change I change my mind. What do you do?” It was probably actually Paul Samuelson, although Keynes did say something vaguely similar.

The quote always comes to mind when you consider the state of the climate debate in Australia and parts of the rest of the world. The Earth is boiling rather than warming, yet the denialists keep on keeping on. The facts are clear, but they are not changing their minds – just shifting to new denialist positions.

When Tony Abbott joined the UK Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) Board of Trustees in 2017, he said that we needed more “genuine science” and less “groupthink”, and added that he was pleased to join GWPF because it “consistently injected a note of realism into the climate debate”.

In a speech to the GWPF in 2017, Abbott said: “More than 100 years of photography of Manly beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”

Who needs science when you can use anecdotes?

In a recent article in the FT Weekend, Camilla Cavendish pointed to similar views from Rudy Giuliani and former Tory Minister Lord David Frost, who said we shouldn’t worry because more people died of cold than heat.

Cavendish also pointed out that Margaret Thatcher – well before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth – had warned about the growing peril of carbon emissions in a 1989 speech to the UN General Assembly. She noted that modern Tory Thatcher disciples hated being reminded of her comments.

The depressing thing is the extent to which the same old arguments get deployed. Over the years, they have been wide ranging – as documented by the BBC Reality Check team in 2021 – and have included: a ‘Grand Solar Minimum’ will halt global warming; global warming is actually good because it will make more of the world habitable; climate change action will make people poorer; and renewable energy is dangerously unreliable and kills birds and wildlife.

The ever-predictable Danish political scientist Bjorn Lamborg tweeted recently, pointing to a study:

Climate alarmists scare us of ever more fire

But satellites show the world is burning ever 𝙡𝙚𝙨𝙨

In 2022, the world burned the least ever in the satellite era

Why haven’t you seen this?

Up to a point, Lord Copper one might say. The lead author of that study, Professor Louis Giglio, and Dr Grant Williamson, a Tasmanian bushfire expert, confirmed that Lomborg’s claim was ‘misleading’.

And there is always the Murdoch media to come to the denialists’ rescue. In July this year, Adam Creighton, The Australian Washington correspondent, said that most Americans were just getting on with life during the heatwaves and had relied on “the plentiful supply of air-conditioning.”

Graham Readfearn pointed out in response that more people die from heat in the US than any other weather-related event. He quoted Dr Sameed Khatana of the University of Pennsylvania that 1300-2000 people die from extreme heat every year in the US.

Creighton also cherry picked data from the US EPA website heatwave index to suggest that heatwaves were more common in the 1930s than today.

Sadly for Creighton, Professor Kenneth Kunkell, a climate scientist who has helped coordinate national assessments of heat, said that, while it was true that the dust bowl heat of the 1930s was driven by “heat, extreme drought and poor land management”, the “frequency and extent of intense heatwaves over the past 20 years is higher than for any other similar length period going back to 1895.”

Readfern also quotes the UN’s most recent climate assessment in saying that temperatures today are on average higher than at any time in at least the last 100,000 years.

The indefatigable Creighton does, though, use one of the most recent versions of the denialist position with the proviso: “No-one denies that climate changes. It always has, for reasons obviously unrelated to human activity. The question is how much of it is our fault”.

James Painter, a research associate at the Reuters Institute, University of Oxford, addressed this shift in The Conversation earlier in the year, saying that: 

…for some time now, researchers have suggested that the balance of arguments propagated by climate sceptics or denialists has shifted from denying or undermining climate science to challenging policy solutions designed to reduce emissions.

For example, computer-assisted methods applied to thousands of contrarian blogs or websites have found that, since the year 2000, “evidence scepticism” which argues that climate change is not happening, or is not caused by humans or the effects won’t be too bad, has been on the decline, while “response” or “solutions scepticism” has been on the rise.

In the US media and UK media, there is strong evidence too that the prevalence of these arguments may be shifting. By 2019 much less space was being given to those denying the science in newspaper outlets in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, except in some right-leaning titles.

The research found that, in TV news across Australia, Brazil, Sweden, the UK and the US, the presence of  scepticism and contesting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings was much less present than when previous IPCC reports were published. The paper says: “It is of note that right-wing media in four countries (Australia, Sweden, UK and USA) are combining evidence and response skepticism….”

In other words, climate denial tactics are shifting from outright denial to the cost of taking action and ‘whataboutism’ – typically why take action when countries such as China are allegedly doing nothing.

Denial of the need for change is not new – whether it be climate or something else. A recent London play, Dr Semmelweis, focussed on the career of the Hungarian scientist who recognised that puerperal fever was preventable by rigorous hand hygiene. Needless to say, colleagues hounded him out of the profession.

In the play Semmelweis says: “To comprehend the truth and not act upon it – is there a greater sin than this? Knowledge masked is murder.”

We might also take solace in all this with A.E.Housman’s: “The house of delusions is cheap to build, but drafty to live in, and ready at any instance to fall…..It is and it must in the long run be better for a man to see things as they are than to be ignorant of them.”

But then it’s hard to see things clearly if you read Adam Creighton and watch Fox News or ‘Sky After Dark’.

This article was originally published on the author’s personal blog here.

Photo by Fachy Marín on Unsplash.


About Noel Turnbull

Noel Turnbull retired after more than 50 years experience in journalism, communications strategy and issues management. He worked as a Parliamentary Press Secretary and communications head of Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority before establishing his own public relations consultancy.

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