Is climate denialism dead?

End of the road for climate change denialism? Death Valley, seen here earlier this month, is normally the driest place in North America.
End of the road for climate change denialism? Death Valley, seen here earlier this month, is normally the driest place in North America.
Image: John Sirlin via REUTERS
  • It may not be dead yet but climate change denial is in decline in much of the world.
  • The climate legislation recently passed in the US is a sign of related progress.
  • The shift comes as climate change-related catastrophes mount.

One thing distinguishing the US Congress that just passed landmark climate legislation: 7% fewer “climate deniers” than the previous session, and 23% fewer than the Congress convened less than six years ago, according to a running tally.

That may have helped pave the way for the country’s first major climate law since the initial Congressional hearing was held on the topic four decades ago. If denying there’s a problem is no longer an option, and the argument you’re left with is this isn't the right time to act, that may not exactly resonate when people are enduring unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires, and deadly floods linked to climate change.

This shift in approach in the US mirrors trends elsewhere.

An analysis of “right-leaning” UK newspaper editorials found that the percentage naysaying climate action dwindled during the past decade, as the number advocating for more action swelled. In the EU, climate change only ranked third among the most serious perceived problems in a 2009 poll, but advanced to first last year. And voters in every federal seat in Australia now support increased action on climate change, according to survey results published last year.

Climate change denialism may not be an official casualty of climate crisis just yet. But its demise is being hastened by a growing awareness of the cost of complacency.

Climate change denialism may not be an official casualty of climate crisis just yet.
Climate change denialism may not be an official casualty of climate crisis just yet.
Image: World Economic Forum

A few years after a Swedish scientist suggested in 1896 that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide will raise Earth’s surface temperature, his theory was knocked down by a peer and went dormant for decades.

A brief newswire item in 1969 noted that scientists had “warned the human race” about pollution’s impact on the climate. That year, an adviser to US President Richard Nixon argued in a memo that the “carbon dioxide problem” might be one that can seize the imagination of voters “normally indifferent to projects of apocalyptic change.” He suggested the administration get involved.

More climate concern, more climate denial

As people began to realize the scientists alarmed by global warming might know what they’re talking about, denialism gained momentum and generous financial backing.

The benign-sounding Global Climate Coalition appeared in 1989. A few years later the US lobbying group issued a press release emphasizing that some scientists think “the world’s climate is naturally, gradually cooling.” In the lead-up to negotiations for a global climate agreement in Kyoto in 1997, the group placed an advertisement calling it a “bad deal for America.” The US opted out.

Abundant denialism carried into the next century. A form of news reporting that both-sidesed the “debate” by portraying denialists as independent thinkers, despite evidence to the contrary, didn’t help.

As people began to realize the scientists alarmed by global warming might know what they’re talking about, climate change denialism gained momentum and generous financial backing.
As people began to realize the scientists alarmed by global warming might know what they’re talking about, climate change denialism gained momentum and generous financial backing.
Image: CBS/YouTube

More recently, climate change denialism has been undercut by arresting images of the driest spot in North America turning into one of its wettest, or of people wearing shorts in a rapidly-warming Arctic.

It’s also been diminished as farmers are forced to go without irrigation, and shipping firms suddenly lack functional waterways. The climate change-linked drought now undermining trade in Europe comes as the region’s already faced with a looming recession.

Yet, denialism persists. Research published earlier this year found that Facebook was failing to label about half of the climate change denial on the site, even after pledging to crack down.

It’s also evolved; a scientist who once got death threats from climate deniers described a shift in their tactics, from vehement rejection to deflecting blame and delaying action.

A SAP and Qualtrics survey conducted in 2020 looked into global attitudes towards climate change.
A SAP and Qualtrics survey conducted in 2020 looked into global attitudes towards climate change.
Image: SAP/Qualtrics

Ultimately, hard economic realities should make this less tenable – and further vindicate the people who’ve spent decades trying to cut through cynicism and deceit to sound the climate alarm.

In 1988, a handful of US Senators sent a letter about global warming to the incoming Secretary of State, proposing the country “take a lead role on this global problem.” That would not always be the case over the years. But one of those senators is now the President. It was his job to sign the long overdue climate legislation passed by Congress, and promising a historic reduction in emissions.

More reading on climate change denial and disinformation

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Where does healthy critique end and cynical denial begin? The science-denial movement delayed action on climate change for decades, this piece argues, and the same tropes are creeping into coverage of emerging climate solutions. (Ecosystem Marketplace)
  • Exhausted from taking the high road? Think it might be fun to side against the scientific consensus on things like climate change for once? The satirical “Playbook for Science Denial” reviewed in this piece takes a gleeful approach to a sobering topic. (Scientific American)
  • The “Toxic Ten” unchecked – a British watchdog group found late last year that just 10 websites were responsible for nearly 70% of the engagement on Facebook with climate change denial content, according to this piece. (NiemanLab)
  • “Earth is flat; vaccines are bad for you; there is a deep state conspiracy bent on changing the world order; global warming is a hoax.” This analysis breaks down the ways denial and negation are applied in each of these cases. (Big Think)
  • When a new presidential administration took over in the US last year, many thought science would be restored to its rightful place in policymaking. But what is that rightful place? This professor says it’s a more complex question than it seems. (Harvard Kennedy School)
  • “It’s a bad stain.” According to this report, the intergovernmental forum meant to facilitate cooperation in the Arctic was deeply scarred by the impacts of climate change denialism. (Inside Climate News)
  • Reaching across the aisle – results of this survey show that most Americans who’ve experienced extreme weather see a clear link to climate change, and that includes people from both major political parties. (Pew Research Center)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, Science and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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