New Study: Climate Deniers Are Emoting--Especially the Conspiracy Theorists

Anyone paying attention these last few years will have noticed that global warming denial simply isn’t a rational phenomenon. And it’s not just that if there were any reason involved, then denial it would have decreased in prevalence—rather than increased—as climate science grew more firm and certain over the past two decades.

No: It’s much more than that. It’s that so many climate deniers are, let’s face it, angry. Try talking about the issue on the radio sometime. Get ready for them to call in, ready to argue with you.

Now there’s new scientific evidence documenting this emotional aspect of climate denial. In a new paper in Risk Analysis designed to tap into the “affective” component of the climate issue, Yale’s Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz report on four separate studies of the public’s emotional associations related to climate change, conducted from 2002 to 2010.

In the surveys, people were asked about the first “word,” “thought,” “image,” or “phrase” that popped into mind in association with global warming. It was the analysis of these rapid fire responses that showed a steep increase in emotional climate denial. As Smith and Leiserowitz put it:

Several significant trends in Americans’ associations with “global warming” over time were identified. Perhaps most notable was the large increase in the proportion of naysayer images (e.g., “hoax”). The proportion of naysayer images rose from less than 10% in 2002 to over 20% of total responses in 2010.

And even as such denier associations increased, associations involving climate impacts like melting ice and sea level rise declined over the same period (though associations related to “disasters” also increased somewhat).  

Fascinatingly, the study also looks more closely at the various associations made by the deniers.

By the year 2010, Smith and Leiserowitz report, 23 % of all global warming associations involved naysaying or denial. And upon breaking it down, they found that the biggest proportion of the naysayers were, basically, conspiracy theorists a la Rick Santorum and James Inhofe:

Associations with conspiracy theories (e.g., “the biggest scam in the world to date”) accounted for the largest portion of 2010 naysayer images with over 40% of total responses for this category. This was followed by flat denials that global warming exists (e.g., “there really is no such problem”), belief that global warming is natural (e.g., “it is a natural occurrence”), and references to media hype (e.g., “media is taking it way too far”). Finally, several respondents doubted the reliability of climate science (e.g., “unscientific theory”).

In other words, there has been an overall “Inhofication” of climate denial—more and more deniers now associate with Inhofe’s absurd 2003 claim that global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated” against the U.S. public.

Moreover, it’s an emotional Inhofication. According to the Smith-Leiserowitz study, the conspiracy theorists were the most emotional of all the deniers:

Mean affect scores for these naysayer image categories also reveal that most of these skeptical and cynical images associated with global warming evoked negative connotations for these respondents. Associations with conspiracy theories and hype evoked the most negative affect, whereas flat denials evoked the least negative affect.

There are plenty emotions on the other side of the issue too, of course. For those who perceive global warming in an “alarmist” or catastrophic fashion, negative emotion also pervades (though to a very different effect).

Nevertheless, this study reinforces something I’ve been arguing for a long time—trying to “debate” with a global warming denier today is really a fool’s errand. This issue is affecting people emotionally, on a gut level, and probably most of all for those who believe that “big government” and “global environmentalists” are pulling the wool over our eyes.

Yes, they’ll make scientific assertions to back up their denial. But if you think it's really about science, then at this point you’re ignoring a mountain of it. 


All those freaking storms can’t be due to global warming – they’re part of the conspiracy. In Colorado the conspirators had a high old time lighting all those fires. In Washington warmists ran around chopping down trees last Friday night. Those Florida fires – ever hear of pumps?

The warmists even invented a new name for the storm in Washington: derecho. Ever hear of it before? But NOAA says those storms happen every 4 years. I heard it on the TV, nothing unusual at all.

its about language. Scientists use exact meanings for words and people are using common meanings.

For example. People use the word theory to mean “they have an idea about something”. Science uses the word theory to mean “a coherent group of tested general propositions, that can explain and predict an observed phenomena.”

People equate ‘climate’ with ‘weather’. I can go on, but you get where Im going.

So right wing fruitcakes raging at the dark conspiratorial forces bent on their personal destruction aside, I think language is a large part of the issue.

Many people have a poor grasp of language to begin with and then science and its essential sibbling mathematics have been thrown to the winds by many in favour of the perceived easier media studies, social studies and other stuff in the humanities.

Not that mathematecs, and indeed science, have nothing to say for the humanities but even then many find a path through which eschews any attempt at rational thought.

Peter Medawar’s take down of Teilhard de Chardin has just croped up in the latest Tim Curtin thread at Deltoid:

Those with a poor grasp of language and poor analytical skills are easy hostages to the rhetoric of charlatans and montbanks examples of whom can be found in the Research Database here.

Scholars & Rogues has also posted on this:

And what factor does legal training play in the deployment of AGW denial. The arguments in a legal case have a very different purpose - either to convict or throw enough doubt so as to get the case dropped. It is not always about the truth. Am I correct in thinking that many politicians rise from the legal professions often primed within the departments of large multinationals and thus play out their allegencies, for whatever motives that may now be in charge. Others of course come from the clerical and financial arms of such companies.

 There are plenty emotions on the other side of the issue too, of course. For those who perceive global warming in an “alarmist” or catastrophic fashion, negative emotion also pervades (though to a very different effect).”

CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming) makes a great acronym to describe what the arguments are really about. Very few people are denying that CO2 is increasing and causing global temperatures to rise. This seems like pretty basic science. Whether it is catastrophic, is far from settled science. And what to do about it, is policy, not science.

“—trying to “debate” with a global warming denier today is really a fool’s errand.”

If your side does not want to debate, then what do you propose – a ministry of propaganda?

I meet people regulary who deny that CO2 is 1.) increasing, 2.) manmade, and 3.) heat trapping.  The catastrophic part seems fairly obvious if you accept the first three and have any sense of precaution.  The “basic science” you describe also allows us to understand that risk tolerance should be inversely proportionaly to the number of people an event effects.  Thus a risk to a single individual should be much more acceptable than a risk to the entire civilization.

conman said:

“Very few people are denying that CO2 is increasing and causing global temperatures to rise. “

For someone who gets most of his information from denier sites such as wattsuphisbutt this is nonsense. I guess it depends on whether he reads it on an odd day or an even day since the deniers who live and breathe on Watt’s every word deny the science one day, accept it the next and claim that it is just natural variation anyway while scientists show the exact opposite in that once “natural” variation is removed there is a significant relationship between CO2 concentration and temperature rise.

He also repeats more nonsense:

“If your side does not want to debate, then what do you propose?”

It is the large group of scientifically ignorant deniers who refuse to debate. Scientific debate is not carried out in TV interviews or op-ed pieces in right wing rags but in the scientific literature. Saying the science is wrong on blogs like wattsuphisbutt is not how science is conducted. Why have the deniers never actually done any research and have it published in the real scientific literature, not the junk journals such as E & E etc?

The answer to anyone who is really interested in finding out about the science is that deniers are not interested in the science, they are only interested in spreading confusion, misinterpretation, obfuscation and other dishonest fantasies so that their fossil fuel sugar daddies can make and prolong even bigger profits.


‘Scientific debate is not carried out in TV interviews or op-ed pieces in right wing rags but in the scientific literature.’

Absolutely as in this example on Lindzen & Choi (2011) brought to the fore at Skeptical Science:

it is worth studying the reviewers report:

Of course as an adjunct to this the continued attempts by Lindzen (and others) to confuse lay audiences should be challenged with a higher profile than sites such as this and Skeptical Science have, unfortunately, with those same lay audiences.

that dovetails quite nicely with the politics = morality, which in turn plucks the emotional strings with the pick of righteousness, which the disgust I’ve always brought up in the context of the subject of the “rightwing brain” has no rivals in magnitude, other than perhaps it’s evil siamese twin, naked hate.

They should be disgusted alrighty – in themselves, given the likely cost their support for the ignorance of the Inhofes, etc is gonna impose on all of us.

The reality is, all of this is applicable to almost if not every issue of political significance, and goes a long way towards explaining the hugely disproportional amount of hate speech they bring to bear on them.

They are not only hiding from the facts, they are hiding from the shame of being such demonstratable and gullible “morans” — themselves.  Afterall, they have several decades worth of such to hide from at this point that are largely rooted in the efforts of Saint Raygun to paint the gov as the enemy, when it is “us”.  AGW-preventing proposals/regs, etc, is part of that evil which must be denied.  The gov is only good when it say, spends trillions on attacking and occupying countries that posed no threat to us.