Global climate change confronts us not only with well-known pragmatic challenges, but also with less commonly acknowledged moral challenges.
As most readers here know, scientists overwhelmingly agree that human-caused climate change is happening. Human activities, like burning coal and cattle farming, cause emission of greenhouse gases, like CO2 and methane. Those gases make the atmosphere more absorbent of infrared rays, which makes it get hotter. And the evidence-based predictions are dire. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) “forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.”
So why do many people deny climate change? A common view is that such people just reject science. But in most cases, it’s not all science they reject. After all, most climate deniers still believe that there’s such a thing as electricity and that the earth goes around the sun. And if Dan Kahan’s research is accurate, greater general scientific knowledge among conservatives is associated with higher levels of climate change denial (the relation is in the opposite direction for liberals). So general rejection of science isn’t an adequate explanation of denial. So what is going on?
In my next blog, I’m going to take a deeper dive into the psychological and sociological literatures on climate change denial. But in this one, I want to do some conceptual framing that will enable us to better understand those literatures once we get to them.
As I see it, there are at least five types of climate change denier. The word “denier” needs to be taken broadly here, because not all of these types are people who loudly proclaim that there is no anthropogenic climate change. But all five types do contribute to the wider phenomenon of denial. The types are these: The Deceiver, The Deceived, The Self-Deceived, The Skeptic, and the Truly Ignorant. These types overlap in interesting way, and it may be hard to tell in practice which type you’re talking to on any occasion. But listing them distinctly provides an intellectual tool for thinking about how to deal with deniers both theoretically and practically. So let’s spell them out.
Type 1: The Deceiver
This is type knowingly spreads misinformation about climate change. That could be denial that there is climate change, denial that humans are causing it, denial that the effects are as bad as scientists say, etc. But what is distinctive is that they are aware of what they are doing. They are willfully mendacious merchants of doubt—often with fancy degrees in the relevant sciences. They make good money from interests like oil and coal. The thing to know about the Deceivers is that they’re clever: they’ll know enough of the evidence for anthropogenic climate change that they can cherry-pick amongst it in order to present a distorted picture to those who are gullible. I think there are two ways to neutralize a Deceiver: (1) expose them for what they are by following the money (this is the one I recommend); (2) pay them more than what they’re getting from oil and coal (you have to have a lot of money for this one).
Type 2: The Deceived
If Deceivers are in business, it’s because their deceptions work on at least some. So The Deceived is a tragic victim—someone who watches the talking heads on conservative “news” programs and concludes that there is no climate change or that it’s not caused by humans (or whatever). One who is Deceived is typically much less clever than a Deceiver, since the Deceived is unable to sniff out the difference between a propagandistic “news” program and a journalistically respectable news source. But there is a grain of hope for this one, because someone in who fits the Deceived type may simply be in error—as opposed to being ideologically committed to the error or otherwise motivated. That means there may be better prospects for correcting their erroneous views with clear and good information, e.g., about mechanisms of climate change.
Type 3: The Self-Deceived
But I suspect that most deniers who aren’t craven Deceivers themselves are also not merely Deceived either. Rather, they take active mental steps to resist drawing the conclusion that human-caused climate change is occurring, and thus they deceive themselves. This may include fixating on alternate explanations for the measured rise in temperatures (Sunspots! Solar winds!), seizing upon the rare lapses of professional ethics on the part of a few climate scientists, or “reasoning” from cold winter days in their hometowns to the conclusion that global warming is a hoax.
The Self-Deceived encompasses many sub-types. But they all have three things in common. First, The Self-Deceived has some awareness of the evidence in favor of climate change; it may be an inkling or it may be substantial. This awareness is a thorn in their side that makes them irritable and petulant when the topic comes up. Second, they have some motivation in favor of denying anthropogenic climate change, which makes them resist the evidence. As Helen De Cruz has recently argued (in keeping with Kahan’s cultural cognition hypothesis), that motivation is often to belong to some social group, which makes having certain views an identity marker. So third, The Self-Deceived must take regular steps to maintain their denial, as outlined above.
The Self-Deceiver is frustrating, because she can’t be won over with simple solid evidence (that differentiates her from The Deceived) or with financial incentive (which might work on a pure version of The Deceiver). The Self-Deceiver, especially the identity-based one, is possibly the most tenacious obstacle when it comes to fighting climate change denial. Note also that The Self-Deceived may wind up in the same social role as The Deceiver: that of being a public mouthpiece of denial; in that case, The Deceiver will find the Self-Deceived to be an easily manipulated and useful ally.
Type 4: The Skeptic
This type technically doesn’t deny anthropogenic climate change in the sense of positively saying that it doesn’t exist. The Skeptic just argues that we don’t know one way or another. Effectively, however, The Skeptic plays into The Deceiver’s hand, because The Skeptic’s position leaves people uncertain and hence (in point of psychological fact) immobilized, which is exactly what The Deceiver is paid to produce anyway. The Skeptic can be more or less sophisticated. The unsophisticated Skeptic is unaware of large fragments of the evidence, but they think they know more of it than they do. As a result, the evidence appears inconclusive. The sophisticated Skeptic is someone like Richard Lindzen, a professor emeritus at MIT who makes a big deal out of emphasizing that scientific consensuses have been wrong in the past and that not every alternate explanation of warming has been conclusively ruled out.
The Skeptic, especially the sophisticated one, is also a frustrating figure. That’s because for anything that is not logic, mathematics, or straightforward perceptual fact, it’s very easy to argue that we don’t actually know something. For example, I could argue: you don’t actually know that Mongolia exists, because you’ve never been there… you’ve only heard about it, and you don’t know if your sources were telling the truth! But that’s cheap. You actually do know that Mongolia exists through multiple converging independent channels, but that kind of socially grounded knowledge is hard to explain. The problem with The Skeptic’s stance, then, is that it’s biased: it exhibits a level of doubt toward the consensus on climate change that, if applied universally, would undercut much other knowledge that we all take for granted. For the record, I think the best way to deal with The Skeptic is to point out that some level of uncertainty is no excuse for inaction, and action should rest on the best science we have, even if it’s in principle possible that it’s in error. Importantly, “possibly in error” doesn’t mean “likely in error,” and the likelihood that climate science is wrong goes down each year the global temperature goes up.
Type 5: The Truly Ignorant
This type really just doesn’t know anything one way or another. Their saving grace is that they know they don’t know. But like The Deceived, The Truly Ignorant is a victim of The Deceiver’s (and probably Self-Deceiver’s) propaganda. This type is aware of conflicting information channels, but they are unsuccessful at discriminating which one is the good one. So The Truly Ignorant just feels stuck, not knowing whom to believe or how to escape their predicament. Alternately, another way to be truly ignorant is just to be unmotivated to find out more information. So we can distinguish two sub-types of The Truly Ignorant: The Bewildered and The Lazy. The former would like to know more but is just overwhelmed by apparently conflicting information and so doesn’t achieve knowledge about climate change. The latter just doesn’t care.
The Truly Ignorant differs from The Skeptic in the following way: The Skeptic claims that the evidence doesn’t demonstrate that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, which is actually a strong claim. The Truly Ignorant really just doesn’t know what the evidence demonstrates, and they don’t trust themselves to figure it out or care to. To me, The Truly Ignorant is the saddest type of all: a victim of those merchants of doubt who feels helpless or unmotivated to escape their epistemic hole.
Those are the five Types. So that’s all for now. Next month I’ll apply the Types in untangling some thorny data in the empirical literatures on climate change denial. But in the meanwhile, try asking yourself—next time you confront a climate change denier—which Type (or mix of Types) you’re addressing. Doing so might help you develop more nuanced tactics.