Dissecting the sceptics (2)

An appreciation of human nature – not just hard science – is needed to fight the rising tide of climate-change denial, argues Bill McKibben.

The climate deniers come with a few built-in advantages. Thanks to Exxon Mobil and others with a vested interest in debunking climate-change research, their “think tanks” have plenty of money, none of which gets wasted doing actual research to disprove climate change. It’s also useful for a movement to have its own television network, in this case US media giant Fox, though even more crucial to the denial movement are a few right-wing British tabloids that validate each new “scandal” and put it into media play.

That these guys are geniuses at working the media was proved this February when even the New York Times, normally sensible on the issue of global warming, ran a front page story, “Skeptics Find Fault With UN Climate Panel”, which recycled most of the accusations of the past few months.

Access to money and the media is not the only, or even the main reason for the success of the climate deniers, however. Their success in the United States can be credited significantly to the way they tap into the main currents of our politics of the moment with far more savvy and power than most environmentalists can muster. They’ve understood the popular rage at elites. They’ve grasped the widespread feelings of powerlessness – and the widespread suspicion that we’re being ripped off by mysterious forces beyond our control.

The passion with which people attack former US vice-president and environmental campaigner Al Gore, for instance, often seems focused on the charge that he’s making large sums of money from green investments and that the whole idea is little more than a scam designed to enrich everyone involved. This may be wrong – Gore has testified under oath that he donates his green profits to the cause and scientists are not getting rich researching climate change – but it resonates with lots of people. I get many emails a day on the same theme: “The game is up. We’re on to you.”

When I say it resonates with lots of people, I mean lots of people. When it comes to global warming, we’re pretty much all easy sells because we live the life that produces the carbon dioxide that’s at the heart of the crisis and because we like that life. Very few people really want to change in any meaningful way, and given half a chance to think they don’t need to, they’ll take it. Especially when it sounds expensive and especially when the economy stinks. As David Harsanyi, a columnist for the Denver Post, says: “If they’re going to ask a nation – a world – to fundamentally alter its economy and ask citizens to alter their lifestyles, the believers’ credibility and evidence had better be unassailable.”

“Unassailable” sets the bar impossibly high when there is a dedicated corps of assailants out there hard at work. It is true that those of us who want to see some national and international effort to fight global warming need to keep making the case that the science is strong. That’s starting to happen. There are new websites and iPhone apps to provide clear and powerful answers to the sceptic trash-talking and, strangely enough, the denier effort may, in some ways, be making the case itself: if you go over the multi-volume report from the IPCC with a fine-tooth comb and come up with three or four lousy citations, that’s pretty strong testimony to its essential accuracy.

Clearly, however, the antiseptic attempt to hide behind the magisterium of science in an effort to avoid the rough-and-tumble of politics is a mistake. It’s a mistake because science can be – and should be – argued about infinitely. Science is, in fact, nothing but an ongoing argument, which is one reason why it sounds so disingenuous to most people when someone insists that the science is “settled”. That’s especially true of people who have been told at various times in their lives that some food is good for you only to be told later that it might increase your likelihood of dying.

Anyone who works seriously on the science soon realises that we know more than enough to start taking action but less than we someday will. There will always be controversy over exactly what we can now say with any certainty. That’s life on the cutting edge. I certainly don’t turn my back on the research – we’ve spent the last two years at my website,, building what Foreign Policy magazine called “the largest ever coordinated global rally” around a previously obscure data point, the amount of atmospheric carbon that scientists say is safe, measured in parts per million.

But it’s a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about it. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge, especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.

So let’s figure out how to talk about it. Let’s look at Exxon Mobil, which, in each of the last three years, has made more money than any company in the history of money. Its business model involves using the atmosphere as an open sewer for the carbon dioxide that is the inevitable by-product of the fossil fuel it sells. And yet we let it do this for free. It doesn’t pay a red cent for potentially wrecking our world.

Right now, there’s a bill in the Congress – cap-and-dividend, it’s called – that would charge Exxon for that right and use the proceeds to send a cheque to everyone in the country every month. Yes, the company would pass on the charge at the pump, but 80% of Americans (all except the top-income energy hogs) would still make money out of the deal. That represents good science because it starts to send a signal that we should park that SUV. But it’s also good politics.

Keep in mind that fear and rage aren’t the only feelings around. They’re powerful feelings, to be sure, but they’re not all that we feel. And they are not us at our best. There’s also love, a force that has often helped motivate large-scale change and one that cynics in particular have little power to rouse. Love for poor people around the world, for instance. If you think it’s not real, you haven’t been to church recently. People who take the Gospel seriously also take seriously indeed the injunction to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. It’s becoming patently obvious that nothing challenges that goal quite like the rising seas and spreading deserts of climate change.

There’s also the deep love for creation, for the natural world. We were born to be in contact with the world around us and, though much of modernity is designed to insulate us from nature, it doesn’t really work. Any time the natural world breaks through – a sunset, an hour in the garden – we’re suddenly vulnerable to the realisation that we care about things beyond ourselves. That’s why art and music need to be part of the story, right alongside bar graphs and pie charts. When we campaign about climate change at, we make sure to do it in the most beautiful places we know, the iconic spots that conjure up people’s connection to their history, their identity, their hope.

The great irony is that the climate sceptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster. We want to remove every possible doubt before we convict in the courtroom because an innocent man in a jail cell is a scandal. But outside of it we should act more conservatively.

In the long run, the climate deniers will lose; they’ll be a footnote to history. (Hey, even OJ Simpson is finally in jail). But they’ll lose because we’ll all lose. Because, by delaying action, they will have helped prevent us from taking the steps we need to take while there’s still time. If we’re going to make real change while it matters, it’s important to remember that their scepticism isn’t the root of the problem. It simply plays on our deep-seated resistance to change. That’s what gives the climate cynics ground to operate. That’s what we need to overcome and, at bottom, that’s a battle as much about courage and hope as about data.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including the forthcoming
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

An earlier version of this article was published by It is used here with permission.

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