The Dangers of Climate Change Denial

by JP Kiefer

While conspiracy theories are relatively common and well-studied, very little research has been done investigating climate change conspiracy theories and their especially harmful nature. According to Douglas (2015), conspiracy theories tend to develop around global-scale events with enormous significance that individuals have trouble believing can be explained by mundane or ordinary details. Climate change fits this description perfectly, as science has shown that it is caused by small, common actions such as driving a car. Because of this, a number of climate change conspiracies have developed, such as that scientists have made up climate change for political reasons, to get research grants, or to help those who invested in green energy technology profit.

People have multiple, deep-seated reasons to believe in climate change conspiracies. Most people have an innate desire to believe they are moral beings with a bright future, a belief that is challenged by climate change. This problem is compounded when individuals who have a conspiracist view of the world are exposed to scientific evidence about climate change; researchers have shown that such exposure is more likely to polarize opinion, rather than informing it in the rational way. Climate change conspiracies are also more effective due to the few authoritative personalities who have backed them, such as professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, Bill Gray, or US Senator James Inhofe.

An additional unique factor of climate change conspiracies is that they exist on two different fronts. The better-known front of denying climate change exists on one side, while some conspiracies claim that climate change is underreported and covered up to some extent. No matter how plausible, the very existence of counter-conspiracies displays the corrosive and recursive nature of conspiracy theorizing.

Climate change conspiracies create a climate of uncertainty and mutual distrust, which undermines the possibility of rational debate and discourse about the appropriate policy response to scientific findings. At an extreme level, such conspiracies can paint a picture of being forced to pick between one of two extreme climate change conspiracies. While the average person might scoff at conspiracy theories, research has shown that people can be influenced by such theories without being aware that they have been persuaded. Exposure to conspiracy theories reduces people’s intentions to reduce their carbon footprint. To help prevent this, Douglas suggests altering the factors associated with conspiracy belief. By removing the feelings of uncertainty, powerlessness, and political cynicism the reliance on conspiracy explanations could greatly diminish.

Douglas, K., and Sutton, R., 2015. Climate Change: Why the Conspiracy Theories are Dangerous. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 71, 98-106.

 

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