Friday, December 9, 2011

Motivation of Climate Change Skepticism

The following is my final research paper for my writing seminar on environmental ethics. I really enjoyed researching for and writing this paper and look forward to continuing to learn about this subject. I polled LinkedIn and Quora where you can vote for what you think is the biggest motivation behind climate change skepticism and see many skeptics opinions on this topic. This was a great learning process and I welcome any constructive criticism.

Since the climate change movement began in the 1970s, it has been controversial. It was originally supported by often eccentric “hippies,” then a grass-roots campaign, and is now largely mainstream. However, industrialists and capitalist have always countered it. Despite the scientific community’s collective agreement that climate change is occurring and is also human-induced, there is still a passionate movement of skeptics of various backgrounds that refuse to believe this for a variety of reasons. Prominent environmental advocate Christopher Stone denies that climate change skepticism poses a threat to the environmental movement, claiming, in fact, that the American public is well educated on the topic. He writes with respect to the environmental movement that, “As far as ‘educating’ the public is concerned, apparently the US public is getting the message” (Stone 157). Stone believes that the environmental movement is strong (Stone 141) and concludes, “Thus, while the environmentalists might do well to keep image in mind, I doubt they have an image they need to run away from, or for that matter could run away from…” (Stone 156). In spite of Stone’s opinion, solid quantitative evidence shows that this is not the case. According to a recent poll done by Yale and George Mason Universities in May 2011, only 64% of Americans believe that climate change is occurring, and only 47% believe that it is man-made (Lierowitz). When Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale asked citizens how they thought scientists understood global warming, he received the following response: "Only 13 percent of Americans got the correct answer, which is that in fact about 97 percent of American scientists say that climate change is happening, and about a third of Americans just simply say they don't know” (Leiserowitz). In order effectively refute the challenges put forth by climate change skeptics to the environmental movement, it is necessary to closely analyze their motivations.

 The skeptics’ allegations of environmental alarmism arise from a general mistrust of science and challenge the credibility of the environmental movement. In their book Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, Hoggan and Littlemore argue that the scientific process is highly misunderstood by the general public and is leveraged by skeptics to create uncertainty (Hoggan and Littlemore). The scientific process is never one hundred percent accurate or certain, and, in addition, scientific statements that have been sufficiently proven are called theories, despite the fact that the everyday implication of this word is a ‘guess’ (Hoggan and Littlemore). As Bill McKibben states in his article, “Climate of Denial”, political and industrial leaders use the uncertainty of science to their advantage,
“Cloud the issue as much as possible so that voters, already none too eager to embrace higher gas prices, would have no real reason to move climate change to the top of their agendas. I mean, if the scientists aren't absolutely certain, well, why not just wait until they get it sorted out?”
Some believe that although humans are changing the planet, environmentalists are over exaggerating reports or data.  Published in 1990, Dead Heat gives an early look at the destruction that is to come. The second chapter, “The End,” eerily predicts a major heat wave for 2006, a prediction that became reality for France at that exact time. Although the authors concede that the scenario is only one of many that could play out, it is haunting to see how much of the information was known over twenty years ago, and how little we have done about it. Allegations of inaccurate evidence harm the environmental movement by creating mistrust and skepticism of the movement’s validity.

 Another significant threat to the sustainability movement is psychology, namely a tendency to believe what we already believe and a resistance to change.  Psychology plays a large role in the way that people think about climate change, their decision-making process, and habits. In his book Why Aren’t We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist’s Perspective, Geoffrey Beattie explores the motivations behind the belief that climate change is not man-made and people’s everyday attitudes and decisions related to global warming. He presents his experiments on the carbon labeling system that has become more popular in Europe and concludes that, while the labels have significant potential, producers need to carefully consider the format and overall appearance. He also studied reactions to Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and found that people “felt more motivated to do something about climate change, more able to do something and less likely to think that they had no control over the climate change process…” (Beattie 241).  All of these statements are related to people’s emotions, and therefore can be studied with psychology. As Chris Mooney states in his article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” psychology plays a large role in reasoning:
Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call ‘affect’). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it…We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself (Mooney).
This leads to a heated debate against environmentalists, who are urgent in their tone. Their passion riles up those of the opposing side, resulting in the overall passion that we see today. As Mark Catoe states in his answer to the Quora question on the passion of the climate change skeptic movement, people are convinced by “motivated reasoning…a brain reflex that inclines us to believe what we already believe – in spite of new information that comes our way” (Catoe, Quora) Since acceptance of climate change is something that conditionally effects one’s entire lifestyle, people have great subconscious incentive to continue with what they already believe. Psychology plays a large role in people’s opinions of the environmental movement and directly motivates them to continue with previous notions of skepticism. Motivated reasoning limits people from opening up to pitfalls in their argument and keeps them closed to new developments. Overall, it can hinder people from forming logical and rational opinions, and this poses a threat to the environmental movement.

The unique American culture of freedom of choice makes the population resistant to behavior change recommendations, threatening the environmental movement. The authors of Dead Heat describe our history with pollution and the evolution of our materialistic economy, recounting the cultural foundations of industries. For example,
“…coal burning took hold in England in the 1600s after the widespread clearing of forests…In America, however, abundant forests provided both pioneer and city dweller with all the wood they needed for decades after others had turned to coal…This sort of excessive energy use still prevails in America today” (Oppenheimer and Boyle).
As McKibben states, “We had the single hardest habit to break, which was thinking of energy as something cheap” (McKibben). In addition to our freedom of choice ideology, the United States is also deeply driven by consumerism. Americans simply do not like being told what to do, especially when it comes to their consumerism.

It is also important to address the economic motivation, which, according to a recent poll taken on LinkedIn, is the biggest motivation behind the skeptic movement (Allan, LinkedIn). Big businesses, with invested interest in unsustainable operations, invest money in convincing the public not to move away from over-consumerist culture.  McKibben proposes that the Kyoto Protocol was not taken seriously by the United States, because big business and lobbyists got in the way of any real potential the U.S. had to act. This is countered by the positive changes the Kyoto Protocol set into motion in Europe. McKibben looks critically at motivations behind industry that keep the U.S. so far behind Europe on climate change issues, looking at motivations behind industry. “But in any given year the payoff for shifting away from fossil fuel is incremental and essentially invisible. The costs, however, are concentrated: If you own a coal mine, an oil well, or an assembly line churning out gas-guzzlers, you have a very strong incentive for making sure no one starts charging you for emitting carbon” (McKibben). Many companies fail to look at bigger picture costs such as health effects and irreparable degradation of the environment and instead only focus on profits for the current quarter.  As Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney once said, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. We are here to make money.” Businesses reap monetary benefits from denying climate change and convincing their customers to do the same.
 In recent years, the progress of the environmental movement has been greatly hindered by skeptics.  Only some of these skeptics are motivated by selfish reasons, primarily those with economic incentive. Others are motivated by innocent trains of thought. It is often difficult to reason with them because their beliefs are extremely strong but are rooted in psychological and social patterns that are more covert. “In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers” (Haidt). It is important to analyze the roots of their motivations in order to be able to better reason with them. It is this population that can potentially be convinced and mobilized to help environmentalists save the planet.

Sources Cited
"Why Is the Climate Change Movement so Passionate?" LinkedIn. Ed. Sara B. Allan. LinkedIn, 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <>.
Beattie, Geoffrey. Why Aren't We Saving the Planet?: A Psychologist's Perspective. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Catoe, Mark. "Why Is the Climate Change Denier Movement so Passionate?" Quora. 22 Oct. 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. <>.
Eisenberger, Robert, and Linda Shanock. "Rewards, Intrinsic Motivation, and Creativity: A Case Study of Conceptual and Methodological Isolation." Creativity Research Journal. The National Association of Chid Development, Nov. 2003. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <>.
Hoggan, James, and Richard D. Littlemore. Climate Cover-up: the Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver: Greystone, 2009. Print.
Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Smith, N. (2011) Climate change in the American Mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Anthony Leiserowitz in Harris, Richard. "Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure : NPR." NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. NPR, 21 June 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. <>.
Bill McKibben, Climate of Denial, Mother Jones, May-June 2005.
Monckton of Brenchley, Christopher. 35 Inconvenient Truths: The Errors in Al Gore's Movie. Washington, D.C.: Science and Public Policy Institute, 2007. PDF.
Mooney, Chris. "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science." Mother Jones. Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, May-June 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.
Oppenheimer, Michael, and Robert H. Boyle. Dead Heat: the Race against the Greenhouse Effect. New York: Basic, 1990. Print.
Stone, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing?: Law, Morality, and the Environment. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.


  1. This is a very thoughtful paper. I am perhaps repeating what you said. One of the biggest motivations for climate change skepticism, I believe, is economic. Corporations contributing to climate change – oil, agribusiness etc. do not wish to cut back on production because they would earn less profit. It would be costlier for them to change to other, less polluting forms of production. The average individual does not want to give up their lifestyle. They do not want to be forced to consume less. They do not take the time to look beyond the physical discomfort caused by hotter summers to the wider implications of rising temperatures: destruction of species’ habitats, creation of new vectors of disease, melting of the permafrost which will release more methane etc. Perhaps the media is contributing to skepticism by not reporting enough on these implications because it is influenced by powerful corporations.

    Climate change science is complex and difficult to understand for the average individual. Maybe we cannot bear the truth that climate change is man-made, that it is we – in our everyday gestures - who are responsible for the degradation it is causing, through our consumption, waste, selfishness. Then, there is the population in other parts of the world – the emerging economies of India and China - who wish to achieve a standard of living comparable to that of the West – which means more cars on the road, greater meat consumption, production of more goods.

    You made a very good point about the need for people to feel in control. The climate change scenario is catastrophic. Perhaps those persons who actually do believe in it feel overwhelmed by the fact that their positive actions towards alleviating its impact would make no difference. It will take collective international action to lessen impact and if some nations choose not to do so, how can we as individuals make a difference?

  2. Thank you for your comment Meris!
    I received an interesting comment on one of the polls I put up - which was that the polarized phrases climate change and global warming are paralyzing the environmental movement, and that we need to move away from those if we want to get anything done. It really made me reconsider what aspects of the environment I focus on when talking to skeptics and apathetic students.

  3. Sara, A few days ago, "Common Dreams" signaled out Brendan DeMelle's blog for revealing released internal documents from the Heartland Institute -- "the heart of the climate denial machine" -- that discuss "its current plans, many of its funders, and details" confirming years of suspicion and reporting on their goals and machinations. URL: