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Mike Sandler

Mike Sandler

Posted: April 26, 2010 12:51 PM

Climate Deniers are Polluting the Blogosphere

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Humans have put too many heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, and now the Earth is running a fever. But there's also an increasingly toxic atmosphere in the blogosphere, where climate deniers strategically confuse the issue, delay meaningful government action, and harass scientists and authors.

For decades, the media presented the climate "debate" as two sides that were evenly or closely matched. Then a few years ago, around the time Hurricane Katrina struck and Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar and he and the IPCC were awarded a Nobel Prize, the media began to realize that climate science is real and has consequences, and the "other side" is almost all empty rhetoric.

But in late 2009 the deniers had a public relations breakthrough when some unprofessional internal emails from a British scientist were leaked to the public. Deniers, including Sarah Palin and Fox News, named it "ClimateGate" and claimed, more or less, that a few emails could call into question decades of peer-reviewed rigorous research by thousands of scientists from all over the world. The media picked up on the catchy name and returned to their "he said, she said" coverage of climate change. The timing could not have been worse for the Earth, or better for the deniers: the story dominated the news cycle during the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. Nations failed to reach any substantive agreement in Copenhagen, and triumphant deniers proceeded to launch campaigns to block progress on a climate bill in the U.S. Senate and to roll back climate laws in California.

With climate denial resurgent, and linking into the nebulous populist Tea Party movement, the blogosphere has become even more polluted by deniers. Deniers often pile up comments on climate change-related articles, most of which may be grouped into the following categories:

  1. Humor (i.e. "What's next, cow farts?" or "Since carbonated beverages release CO2 into the atmosphere, will CalEPA be outlawing beer and sodas in California?")
  2. Political (making fun of Al Gore, partisan name calling)
  3. Bullying, name calling, threats
  4. Despair (i.e. "we're all doomed, humans will go extinct anyway")
  5. Junk science -- quoting disreputed sources that reinforce denier preconceptions, or using simple but wrong aphorisms (confusing weather and climate, or saying the climate is always changing)
  6. Obfuscation - burying your opposition under a mountain of obscure but usually irrelevant statistics
  7. Economic fear -- (i.e. "if we take action on climate, all businesses will leave CA, and we'll lose jobs")

California's Climate Delayers

The California version of deniers, "delayers," are trying to suspend AB32 until unemployment goes down below 5%, which many economists say could take years or even decades. Anti-AB32 efforts argue that AB32 is a good idea, but the timing is wrong with the economy so bad (i.e. great concept, but we just can't afford it). This lets delayers claim it's not their fault. Something like, "We'd like to help, but the State is broke."

The "outsiders messing with our stuff" argument has a California version too. In opposing an international climate treaty, deniers claim the evil Al Gore and the communists at the United Nations are stealing our country's sovereignty. In California, some members of the League of California Cities turn the State into an intruder, arguing that the unfunded mandates for better regional transportation planning in the State's SB375 law infringes on the cities' sacred cow, local land use authority.

More sophisticated denier methods often appeal to:

  • Free speech (as if achieving consensus on climate science somehow takes away their Constitutional rights) or
  • The nature of scientific inquiry means always questioning your assumptions (ironically, the people who question the science of climate change, are likely those who question all science).

Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute (the Blogosphere)

Deniers can't win on the facts, and it is tempting to just tell deniers, "Turn off the talk radio and go read a book." Pretty much any book on climate, even a children's book, would do. But no, a pile of pages with Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin on the cover does not count.

But the problem is not just the deniers' lack of facts. The problem is that deniers don't want to change their lifestyles or worldview. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff notes that people will block out facts that conflict with their existing worldview. In Lakoff's framework, many conservatives have a strict father frame that places humans above nature. On the surface, climate change would seem to reinforce this. We are dominating the earth? Great! But if the climate goes out of control, and begins to threaten our current way of life and civilization itself, then this puts humans in a subjugated, reactive mode, which is unacceptable to the strict father mindset.

The real ClimateGate is that we are doing nothing about the greatest threat to the planet and civilization, and we're running out of time. "If there's no action before 2012," says Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel peace-prize-winning IPCC, "that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment." If you are a denier, it's not too late to change your ways...yet. Do some research, but more importantly, open your mind. If you are already working to stop climate change, decisionmakers and the public need your help navigating through the polluted blogosphere and towards real climate solutions. Working together, we can leave a cleaner, more sustainable blogosphere for our children.