Decoding the resistance to climate change: Are we doomed?

Global warming is "Fake News", a "Chinese Hoax". So says a richly funded Conservative movement that's become a world-wide campaign. In her book, "The Merchants of Doubt", Harvard historian of science, Naomi Oreskes traces how this propaganda war started and how to fight it.
Flood waters breach the Gatineau River and flood the neighbourhood in Gatineau, Quebec in May, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

**This episode originally aired September 14, 2017.

 Listen to Part 1 of this series featuring Clive Hamilton

Global warming is "fake news", or a "Chinese hoax". So says a richly funded conservative movement that's become a world-wide campaign.

In her book, The Merchants of Doubt, Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes traces how this propaganda war started and how to fight it. Part 2 of a series on the resistance to climate change science. 

Naomi Oreskes concludes that the battle over climate change isn’t actually about science at all, it’s about the idea of capitalism itself, and its failings.

"It's not an argument about the science.  It's an argument about governance. And how much the government should intervene to protect us from dangers — like dangerous products or the danger of climate change. It's an argument about regulation. And these people's answer is that the government shouldn't — that we're on our own — that it's up to us to protect ourselves.  And if fossil fuels are destroying the climate — well that's the cost of doing business. Oh, well. 

So it's a slippery slope argument. If we accept the science and we acknowledge that we have to do something about greenhouse gases. Well that opens the floodgates to regulations of all kinds. It's the slippery slope to socialism. It's communism by the back door." — Naomi Oreskes

A house slides into the Atlantic Ocean in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. (Florida Times-Union/Associated Press)
The evidence is everywhere: forests retreating, glaciers melting, sea levels rising. Droughts, floods, wildfires and storms have increased five-fold over the past 50 years. It's estimated that rising sea levels will threaten 30 million people in Bangladesh alone. Miami could disappear within a generation. Despite all these dire events and projections, the denial about climate change is widespread and profound. In fact, a term has been coined for it: "climate change denial disorder."

So how did we get here?

That's where Naomi Oreskes enters the picture. She's a Harvard professor and historian of science. In her book, Merchants of Doubt, (which has also been turned into a documentary) she traces the people behind what has become a global industry of climate change denial. Almost 50 years ago, she says, we heard about how the earth was going to be affected by pollution, hence, climate change. The issue was discussed in the Nixon White House.

By the 1970's, studies were piling up around the globe. By the mid-80's, Jim Hansen and his team at NASA concluded in peer review journals, climate change was already underway. By 1988, major media headlines announced, "global warming has begun."

Governments began taking action. Naomi Oreskes says, at that very moment, as scientific consensus emerged, so did a heavily funded and politically motivated campaign to cast doubt on that consensus. 

(Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV/Associated Press)
In her book, Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes takes us back to three famous American physicists — Cold War warriors — with ties to the tobacco industry who created a new kind of propaganda. Since then, climate change skepticism has become a heavily funded campaign, with help from people like American billionaires, the Koch brothers.  Some observers put their contribution to climate change denial at $120 million, with the result that many now believe that stories about climate change are "fake news" or a "Chinese hoax."

According to the Pew Research Center, almost half of Americans surveyed do not believe climate change is caused by humans. And 20 per cent of Australians don't believe in climate change at all. Canadians are divided on the issue, too; however, public opinion research in 2016 shows that two-thirds of Canadians want federal leadership to tackle the crisis.

The journal, Global Environmental Change, refers to a study that lists the factors which connect climate change deniers to each other, no matter their country of origin: overwhelmingly, they're politically conservative, male and hold the environment in low regard. Some far-right groups do agree humans cause climate change but they maintain it's immigrants who are to blame. 

Larry Dimas walks around his destroyed trailer, which he rents out to others, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. His tenants evacuated and nobody was inside when it was destroyed. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Why does climate science face such an intractable problem?

Naomi Oreskes concludes that, "it's not about the facts, not about the science. Underneath all of this is a fear that capitalism has failed.

That new rules and regulations and carbon taxes to fight climate change are somehow an assault on our freedom and liberty — that we'll become Communists. That's why environmentalists are called "watermelons," green on the outside, red on the inside. Hard to believe, but that's the core of the resistance."   

This episode is Part 2 of a series about decoding the resistance to climate change. Naomi Oreskes is the author of Merchants of Doubt, an historical analysis of how climate change denial became a subject of propaganda to sell to the public. She is professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. Her talk was delivered in Vancouver at the Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies.


Web Extra | Watch Naomi Oreskes TED Talk: "Why We Should Trust Scientists"

Further reading:
  • Merchants of Doubt:  How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published by Bloomsbury Press, 2011, New York. 
  • Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder, published by Tim Duggan Books, 2015, New York. 
  • Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us--and How to Fight Back by Clive Hamilton, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 2014.
  • Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene by Clive Hamilton, published by Polity Press, Cambridge, 2017. 
  • Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change by Clive Hamilton, published by Earthscan, Oxfordshire, 2010.
  • Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, by James Hansen, published by Bloomsbury, 2010, New York. 
  • Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas, published by National Geographic, 2008, U.S. 
  • Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben, published by St. Martin's Griffin, 2011.

Related websites:


**This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.