Danger behind climate change denial
Travis Malseed is from a small town outside of Columbia, South Carolina.
He has many passions, one being the care of his long curly hair with purple tips, another being the Carolina Cocks.
The love for the team is almost like a family heirloom, he said, something passed down from generation to generation. However, his Dad really turned him to the fan he is today.
In fact, his Dad had a large influence in all of his life, and Travis really values his opinions and beliefs. Including the fact that Dad, like Travis, is a climate change denier.
This belief, similar to the love of football, was passed down. And to Travis, climate change sparks the memory of what his father would tell him throughout his childhood. His father recalls a time back in his youth when the media and officials, he says, would predict an impending Ice Age. This prediction was obviously off, as Travis, now the age his father was back then, hears through the news media that the climate is heating up instead.
This dramatic difference in climate predictions set the tone for the Malseeds to be suspicious and question the legitimacy behind any news o== climate change . He rationalizes this suspicion down to maybe this is just what climate change is, simply natural, unpredictable and never staying the same- not a crisis threatening humanity as we know it.
Climate change and the effects we see today
Climate change is the hot talk of the town (pun intended). What can be done to prevent it? What caused it? Do we have enough time to reverse it? What are the consequences of it? Is it even real?
That last question - “is climate change even real?” - holds a lot of power. It stirs political debates and party preferences, it incites anger within both believers and deniers, it creates conflict over laws and policies that fight for climate reform, and it perpetuates the idea to people that climate change is fake news. It gives reason to both Travis and his father’s disbelief that climate change is legitimate. To fully understand the power that question holds, it helps to first understand the hard evidence that supports that climate change is in fact a real crisis we are facing.
Climate change is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a change in global or regional climate patterns, in particular a change apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels.”
The warming of our atmosphere comes with several consequences that are already being seen today.
Let’s focus on the events we have seen in 2020 and 2021 alone. As the world celebrated the beginning of 2020, Australia’s forests were burning at an unstoppable rate. The heat wave induced fires, over the course of 79 days, burned down 20% of the Australian forest, approximately 471, 971 acres. The fires hit close to home as well, in late August of 2020, California had more than 650 active wildfires. The worst of which burned over a million acres.
The year ended with the most active and intense Atlantic hurricane season on record, with 30 named storms. The increase of both the amount and the severity of the hurricanes can be attributed to the warming ocean temperatures. These natural catastrophes carried into 2021 as well. February of this year, Texas experienced a polar vortex like never before. Lows of -19°F were recorded and left 4.3 million citizens without power for over ten days.
The scary truth behind these natural phenomena is that they will only continue to grow in severity and numbers as climate change continues to worsen. Scientists from NASA said that there is a 95% chance that the change in the climate from the mid to late 20th century is the result of human interactions. This can include fossil fuel burning, deforestation, and farming livestock. These actions add large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and increase the greenhouse effect. NASA graphs show that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest ever recorded.
This atmospheric warming is causing and perpetuating natural phenomenons to occur. The effects of climate change are real and backed up by an “unequivocal amount of scientific evidence” according to the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
According to NASA, several studies that were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and the warming trends seen over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. With such a large amount of scientists agreeing that climate change is in fact real and human perpetuated, a part of the population still believes that climate change is a hoax.
Who doesn’t believe in climate change?
Climate change is at the forefront of pressing issues across the globe today. However, like every crisis, there is a debate over the legitimacy of climate change. To many people, climate change is a black and white issue - as simple as humans needing water to survive, or that brushing your teeth results in good dental hygiene. Some may believe that climate change is real simply because climatologists say so.
According to NASA, several studies that were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and the warming trends seen over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. However, this still does not cut it for some people. This group of people are known as the climate change deniers.
At its heart, climate denial is the rejection of the scientific consensus that humans are disrupting the climate. On a deeper level, denialism is also the complete rejection that there is anything wrong with the climate at all. A key factor to denialism is that there is an abundance of evidence that scientists all stand behind, yet there is still a group of commentators who reject said consensus.
Deniers commonly claim to the public, and sometimes the media, that the consensus is not based on sound science or present false scientific evidence as a rebuttal. It is important to understand just what denialism is, however, there are five important characteristics that are employed during denialism. A study published by the European Journal of Public Health coined the five characteristics of denialism which will be referenced throughout.
Denialism #1: Climate change is 'conspiracy'
The first of the characteristics is the identification of conspiracies. As we have established, an overwhelming amount of scientists believe that climate change is real and due to human activity. They came to this conclusion through endless research that is backed by data and evidence.
However, this is where conspiracy theories come into play. Some climate change deniers argue that climate change is not real because scientists have independently studied the evidence that supports their conclusions. Rather than studying and producing valid evidence, some deniers believe that scientists engage in a complex and secretive conspiracy to produce results that deceive and persuade the public. The nature of these conspiracies range far and wide, however a common one concerns the “liberal extremists." These theories claim that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by leftist radicals to undermine local sovereignty.
Travis Malseed has his own conspiracy theory, one that surrounds Al Gore. During Gore’s time as vice president, he was given authority over the newly created President’s Council on Sustainable Development. In this role, Gore focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But what perpetuated conspiracy theories was his increase in wealth throughout this. When he ended his tenure as vice president in 2001, Gore's net worth was $2 million. By 2013, it exceeded $300 million. Conspiracy theorists attribute this to his movie awards such as The Inconvenient Truth, his Nobel Prize, or even his involvement in various carbon trading “schemes." This dramatic increase in wealth is what gets Travis going.
“I would say it is a bit of a conspiracy theory for me,” he says, “because when things are so corrupt and all about money and power, how could it not have an underlying agenda or something more to it to make it a conspiracy theory.”
Travis believes there is always more to the story because he believes reporters and officials twist the stories they portray in the news media. Despite the science and scientists who backed Al Gore’s demand for climate change attention, to Travis it was just another intricate act by the media and politicians to deceive the public.
Denialism #2: Fake experts create desired result
The second characteristic is the use of fake experts. Deniers will believe or promote individuals who claim to be experts in climate change, even if their views are completely inconsistent with the majority of findings.
An example of this can be seen in a claim made by 31,000 scientists at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. They created a petition to sign the claim that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate.”
However, the petition only requires the signer to check a box that says he/she has a Ph.D, M.S., or B.S. degree. So quite literally anyone could have signed it and claimed to be "a scientist." The use of fake experts is a deceiving tactic that feeds into the cycle of fake news and misinformed citizens.
Chris Romasco, another climate change skeptic, greatly resonated with this characteristic of denialism. Romasco believes that the government heavily incentivizes the production of evidence that backs up climate change in order to feed into the propaganda.
“Every government puts together reward grants for people that believe in climate change," Romasco says, “so then they’re set out with an agenda to prove whatever it is that they’re trying to prove so they get their government grant money.”
The government incentivizing science leads to, as Romasco believes, only desired answers that may not necessarily be the right answers.
Denialism #3: Selectivity of data
The third characteristic is selectivity. Choosing to only pay attention to certain science and news media that promote the believed conspiracy theories is built into this third characteristic as it continues to perpetuate denialism. Selectivity is essentially closing your eyes when you see something you do not like. Selectivity in the case of climate change deniers could be only drawing on evidence that supports their own beliefs or solely acquiring news from a biased source.
People will often rely selectively on information about climate change from partisan leaders who they trust or with whom they share the same beliefs.
Travis Malseed, almost subconsciously, brought up selectivity and indirectly proved its danger. He just doesn't want to believe it, so he doesn't.
“There is a massive amount of evidence that points to the other position," said Malseed, who believes there are valid sources and science to support climate change, but he chooses not to listen to those.
But Malseed considers the two sides of climate change to be on equal playing fields, seeing the "science" as going both ways rather than distinguishing between fact and non-fact.
As a result, he sees no difference between the two interpretations.
"It goes both ways," he says. "If I was to start digging for statistics and such, both of us could go home and write a paper and have smart scientists names listed in our resources. It goes both ways. It’s so skewed and twisted."
This kind of view not only ignores truth in science it also can result in an information “blind spot" - if you ignore the information you don’t believe in, you only know part of the story.
Denialism #4: Deniers hold science to an impossible expectation
The fourth characteristic is the creation of impossible expectations of what research can deliver.
An example of this could be a denier's reference to the fact that there are no temperature records from before thermometers were invented. Their conclusion - we don’t know if the warming and cooling periods are normal or not.
Chris Romasco has set some impossible expectations of science. He strongly believes the Earth has existed for far too long for any data collected by humans to begin to have any sort of relevance.
“We have only truly been charting the earth’s temperature for the past 140-150 years with any significant data.”
To Romasco, this time period is not long enough to determine if one creature, specifically humans, has definitely impacted and changed the climate. The planet has existed for 4.5 billion years, so science is not old enough to understand how the climate truly functions.
Although modern technology was not tracking Earth’s temperature, there are ways to use nature in order to track it back before technology even existed.
According to NASA, ancient evidence can be found in “tree rings, ocean sediments, coral reefs, and layers of sedimentary rocks” that shows the current warming of the climate is happening about 10 times faster than the average rate of ice-age recovery warming. This increase in warming is attributed to human activity that mass produces carbon dioxide 250 times faster than natural sources did after the last Ice Age.
Climate change deniers often refer to the lack of modern technology in the past to track the climate, however that is an impossible expectation to hold when there are other ways to track the temperatures.
Denialism #5: Use of misrepresentation and changing the argument
The fifth characteristic is misrepresentation and logical fallacies. Logical fallacies include the use of red herrings, or deliberate attempts to change the argument. Another tactic is the use of straw men, where the opposing argument is misrepresented to make it easier to refute.
Malseed often attributed his disbelief in climate change to the corruption of politicians, scientists, the government, and money.
But interestingly, when presented with the possibility that he could be wrong about climate change, he put the blame on the people he's trusting now to have misled him and the people he doesn't believe to not have done enough to convince him.
“It wouldn't be my sole fault. But I would feel that I was provided with bad information, that I was misled, that I was let down by leaders and people in power that are supposed to control these things,” he said.
The danger of climate change denial
Climate change deniers pose a dangerous threat to both the greater community and the well being of our planet.
Kathleen DeHaan, communication professor at the College of Charleston, teaches about environmental communication. Educated in the realm of climate change, she cares deeply about the danger it poses to our society.
DeHaan believes that climate change deniers and skeptics can possibly be a gateway into more scientific subjects being questioned.
“The debate surrounding the legitimacy of climate change has normalized the questioning and skepticism of science." - Dr. Kathy DeHaan, CofC communication professor
DeHaan pointed out that widespread disbelief in the COVID-19 vaccine is already proof of that problem. Deniers of climate change have set the stage for a wholesale questioning of the legitimacy of science - a door that has been opened and may not be able to be shut.
Denialism has created a false rhetoric around a topic that requires massive collective action to address. And the climate crisis we face today can only be stopped if we work together for the greater good of humanity and the planet. Denying a problem exists will be an even bigger problem.
by Emma Gosselin