Two days ago, I wrote about a recent survey that showed that Americans' concern over global climate change had decreased over the last 12 months, and urged the Obama campaign to make it a much bigger priority than it has. Though I did not anticipate this would be a controversial argument, as of now the post has over 300 comments. Even more surprising is the number of commenters who assert that global warming is either a myth or a conspiracy. To cite just a few:
- "If you're lucky to live long enough, you'll see a lot of these "scares" come and go throughout your lifetime. This is just the latest. When the next one comes the chanting crowd will move over and attach itself to it."
- "In a few more years Global Warming will be shown to be the scam and money making scheme that many already know it to be. I'm not going to argue degrees and post link after link showing the falsehoods."
- "Green house gases are a myth. A volcano puts out more green house gases with one eruption than the US puts out in 3 years. Get a new cause - check your facts."
- "All this hysteria about global warming is a ruse to allow governments to tax us more."
- "Americans are finally coming out of the ether. Slowly we are realizing "man made" global warming is one of the greatest lies told to the world. More and more scientist are coming forward with the truth about the flawed science behind it. I'm, as I have been ALL my life, am proud of this country!! We are the best at thinking for ourselves."
There are many more. And these are from readers of The Huffington Post, a group I would have thought would be among the best informed.
However, Huffington Post readers are likely among those Americans who get most of their news from the Internet, and these responses highlight the complex impact of the Internet on public opinion. These commenter are for the most part not uninformed but rather misinformed. They can cite a combination of research that was well-done but is out of date, research that was well-done but has been misinterpreted, research that was badly done, and weird conspiracy theories, all with the support of key conservative institutions and pundits. It is an important reminder that when we discuss how to mobilize our country on the issue of climate change, we must reckon not only with educating the uneducated and mobilizing the inactive, we must also reckon with a surprisingly large group of the active, vocal and miseducated.
The whole stance of climate change denialists has uncanny parallels to that of AIDS denialists, who deny that HIV causes AIDS.
The causative role of HIV in the development of AIDS has been established and is the subject of scientific consensus. Denialist arguments are considered to be the result of cherry-picking and misrepresentation of predominantly outdated scientific data, with the potential to endanger public health by dissuading people from utilizing proven treatments. With the rejection of these arguments by the scientific community, AIDS denialist material is currently spread largely through the Internet. (Wikipedia)
This is a group with whom I have had extensive experience, as they have had a very public activist presence here in my home town of San Francisco. As with climate change denialists, AIDS denialists piece together their arguments from misinterpretations of valid scientific papers, from the comments of respected scientists venturing out of their specialty and writing in non-peer reviewed journals, and the political support of conservative institutions. And again, as with climate change denialism, the whole package gets its momentum and false air of rigor from being endlessly circulated on the Internet.
What is most remarkable about AIDS denialism is how it has persevered through 25 years of the epidemic. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, many of the arguments were not so far-fetched. But in 1996-1997, the course of the epidemic changed with the introduction of highly effective medications. People who started taking the medications stopped dying. One would have thought that would have ended the debate. Incredibly, it did not. In fact, many denialists clung to their misunderstandings right through their own deaths – deaths that in many cases could have been avoided had the deceased taken HIV medications that were readily available to them. Ken Anderlini was a co-moderator of the "AIDS Myth Exposed" message board on MSN. Anderlini died in April of 2007. A fellow denialist wrote a death announcement saying: "Over the past couple of years his health had declined rapidly with a strange neurological disease for which nobody could pinpoint the cause (except doctors who claimed it was HIV related, of course)." Another denialist activist, Michael Bellafontaine died on May 10, 2007. His obituary reported that "According to Andrea Lindsay, a friend and fellow activist, Mr. Bellefountaine died of a sudden systemic infection, though the exact cause has not been determined." (AIDSTruth.org has a web page that tracks the deaths of AIDS denialists.)
The spectacle of AIDS denialists clinging to their views right through their own illnesses and up to their very deaths does not bode well for the future of debate on global climate change. Many of us have been asking ourselves at what point the effects of climate change will be so obvious that debate over the basic facts of the matter will finally cease. The course of AIDS denialism suggests that the answer to the question might be never.