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The Irrelevance of Climate Change Skeptics

Roger Pielke, Jr.'s picture
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder

Roger Pielke Jr. is a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He also holds appointments as a...

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  • May 29, 2013

climate chang skeptics

Earlier this week, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times announced that the “climate skeptics have won.” His comments echo those of former Nasa scientist James Hansen who told an audience in Edinburgh last year that the skeptics “have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources.” The action needed in response to this situation was spelt out by Lord Stern – the eponymous author of the well-known 2007 report on the economics of climate changewho once called skeptics “forces of darkness” who had to be “driven back.”

Such comments reflect a conventional wisdom in the climate debate. Climate skeptics, or deniers as they are often called, are presented as all-powerful forces bankrolled by rich corporations who have wielded their awesome power to block efforts to deal with the threat of human caused climate change. How do we know that climate skeptics have such power? As Martin Wolf explains, it is the “world’s inaction” on climate policy which reveals their power.

From this perspective then, a key challenge of securing action on climate change is to defeat the skeptics – to drive back the forces of darkness so that the forces of good might prevail. Victory will be achieved by winning the battle for public opinion on the state of climate science.

However, a closer look at the logic underlying such arguments reveals a chain of causality which scholars of the public understanding of science have long critiqued as the ineffectual “deficit model” of science. Even more troubling, there is reason to believe that the focus of attention by climate campaigners on skeptics actually works against effective action.

The so-called “deficit model” suggests that the public lacks certain knowledge that if it were known properly (so closing the deficit) would lead them to favor certain policy actions. In other words, if only you understood the “facts” as I understand them, then you would come to share my policy preferences.

The deficit model helps to explain why people argue so passionately about “facts” in public debates over policies with scientific components. If you believe that acceptance of certain scientific views is a precondition for, or a causal factor in determining what policy views people hold, then arguments over facts serve as political debate by proxy.

Dan Kahan, professor of psychology at Yale Law School, has conducted several studies of public views on climate change and finds that the causal mechanisms of the “deficit model” actually work in reverse: people typically “form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values.” Our political views shape how we interpret facts. On an issue as complex as climate, there are enough data and interpretations to offer support to almost any political agenda. Thus we have arguments over the degree or lack of consensus among scientists, and see efforts to delegitimise outlier positions in order to assert one true and proper interpretation. Added to the mix is the temptation to push “facts” beyond what science can support, which offers each side the opportunity for legitimate critique of the excesses of their opponents. These dynamics can (and do) go on forever.

In the first half of the 20th century, the American political commentator Walter Lippmann recognized that uniformity of perspective was not necessary for action to take place in democracies. He explained that the goal of politics is not to make everyone think alike, but to help people who think differently to act alike. A vast body of scholarship supports the limitations of the deficit model, yet it remains a defining feature of debates over climate policy today.

It is bad enough that those operating under the assumptions of the deficit model are wasting their time, or working against their own interests. What is worse is that such strategies fail to recognize that the battle over public opinion on climate change has long been over – it has been won, decisively in fact, by those favoring action.

Data on public opinion on climate change has been collected, in some cases for several decades, in countries around the world. What it shows is remarkably strong support for the so-called scientific consensus, as well as strong support for policy action. Even in the notoriously climate sceptical United States, Gallup finds: “trends throughout the past decade – and some stretching back to 1989 – have shown generally consistent majority support for the idea that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated.”

Another Gallup poll of 128 countries in 2007 and 2008 found strong majorities in most countries – including most large emitters of carbon dioxide – believe that global warming is a result of human activities. Public opinion does vary a great deal, often literally with the weather, but it has overall been remarkably consistent over many years in support of action. Far from being an obstacle to action on climate change, public opinion is in fact a resource to be capitalized upon.

Studies of the relationship of public opinion and political action on a wide range of subjects show nothing unique or very interesting about the state of public opinion on climate change. Significant policy action has occurred on other issues with less public support on many occasions (as I documented in my recent book, The Climate Fix). Instead of motivating further support for action, efforts to intensify public opinion through apocalyptic visions or appeals to authority, have instead led to a loss of trust in campaigning scientists and a deep politicization of the climate issue. Citing the ample evidence of the ineffectiveness of such approaches, Dan Kahan complains of climate campaigners: “They keep pounding the data, and with a rhetorical hammer that drives home all the symbolism that generates distrust and resistance in larger parts of the population … Why?”

If public opinion is not an obstacle to action on climate change, then what is? The first is a failure of imagination. Conventional wisdom on climate policy has long been that energy prices need to be made more expensive. Dearer energy fits into a complex causal chain of policy action as follows:

Win public opinion via closing the science deficit, defeating the skeptics→then the public will pressure politicians for action→politicians respond by passing laws, and signing international treaties→dirty fossil energy then becomes more expensive→people consequently feel economic pain→not liking economic pain, people demand additional actions on energy efficiency and fossil fuel alternatives→such actions will stimulate innovation in the public and private sectors, as well as in civil society→ these innovations then deliver low carbon alternatives→problem solved.

Laid out from start to finish, this entire causal chain seems like a Rube Goldberg invention. If the causal chain founders at the first step where the deficit model shows up, it completely collapses at the point where energy is supposed to become more expensive in order to create incentives (experienced by voters as economic pain) to propel efficiency and innovation.

The idea that higher priced energy can be used as a lever to transform the global energy system may work in abstract economic models, but fails spectacularly in real world politics. As Martin Wolf explains, “A necessary, albeit not sufficient condition, then, is a politically sellable vision of a prosperous low-carbon economy. That is not what people now see.”

A second obstacle to action is the pathological obsession of many environmental campaigners with the climate skeptics. By concluding that the skeptics are the main obstacle to action, campaigners are not only demonstrating a spectacularly circular logic, but they are also devoting their energies to a fruitless fight. Make no mistake, fighting skeptics has its benefits – it reinforces a simplistic good versus evil view of the world, it gives a sense of doing something, and privileges scientific expertise in policy debates. However, one thing that it does not do is contribute towards effective action on climate change.

The battle over public opinion on climate change has long been won, and not by the skeptics. But simply by virtue of their continued existence, the climate skeptics may have the last laugh, because many climate campaigners seem to be able to see nothing else in the debate. Climate skeptics are not all powerful and may not even be much relevant to efforts to decarbonise the global economy. They have, however, cast a spell upon their opponents.


This essay originally appeared at the Guardian and has been republished with permission. Photo credit: the Center for Strategic and International Studies (right) and Neil Palmer/International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

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Bob Lee's picture
Bob Lee on May 29, 2013

The very nature of science requires both supporters and deniers of any proposed theory. Only then will the debate move discovery through emotion and on to logical arguments resulting in a new/revised theory. If the debate were to stop at initial discovery, much of the value would be lost. In the climate change debate, the AGW supporters have come out strong BUT there arguments have proven to have many holes (hockey stick, Climategate, Glaciergate, etc.). Those on the other side of the theory have had to play catch up and, as a result, have required of the supporters better science. In my opinion, I am very much suspect of the AGW concept and find arguments such as Hurricane Sandy to be of such poor quality that I remain firmly on the other side of the argument. There needs to be more research, more examination of the evidence and certainly, less emotion on the side of the supporters. There also needs to be a stronger sense that we have to manage consumption, choose the “right” sources of energy and balance the needs of third world countries to have access to affordable energy in order to move out of their poor economic situations. Pointing fingers at “Big Oil” or “King Coal” will accomplish nothing without viable solutions.  It also wouldn’t hurt if perople such as Al Gore would lead by example rather than saying thou shalt……

J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on May 30, 2013

Interesting way to begin a constructive-influential debate on climate change.  Labeling climate change skeptics as deniers and irrelevant is not a recommended way to persuade the ‘non-believers’ that climate change results from only anthropological causes.  Before politics and special interests dominated the press and most discussions on complex issues such as the climate change, we used to have more balanced discussion-decision processes called ‘intelligent debate’ and the ‘scientific method’.  Before the politically popular concept of supposed ‘scientific consensus’, the scientific community use to debate and challenge all theories in significant detail in order to develop, rigorously test, and improve a given theory.  This process very successfully lead to major breakthroughs and improvements in nearly all areas of science and technology developments.

There’s another group behavior/ psychological characteristic you failed to cover.  It’s called ‘groupthink’.  When groupthink is the only socially/politically accepted process to addressing complex or political issues, no one questions or is allowed to question a given position or belief.  The end result can be less than beneficial to the general good of all involved.

There is little question that climate change is real.  The critical debate needs to surround how much is likely due to anthropologically causes and are feasibly controllable, and how much is natural and uncontrollable.  To blindly assume the extreme positions on either side of the debate such as totally ignoring its development or the fact that most current predictions have significant levels of uncertainty (i.e. based on proxy, less than totally accurate/reliable data) is a mistake and could lead to huge waste of our limited resources.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 30, 2013

Roger Pielke, Jr.

Please tell us Roger how the Non-Deniers intend to decarbonize the economy?

If you your proposals cannot in the end, decarbonize the economy, then what practical difference is there between a Climate Change Believer and an Unbeliever.

Steven Deitz's picture
Steven Deitz on May 31, 2013

The appropriate term for many climate change “skeptics” is in fact denier, as it would be greatly dishonest to label their cognitive process as skepticism. If someone calls themself a “skeptic” but then can’t tell you a plausible future scenario that would cause them to shift their opinion, they are a denier.

If you have yet to be convinced of the existence of human-caused climate change, then you need to list one or more specific events that would be sufficient to change your mind. For example: polar ice cover shrinks to level X, sea level rises X number of feet, global average temperatures or ocean heat content reaches X, X numbers of years pass without another robust explanation of climate change aside from human GHGs, etc. Belief that does not adjust in the face of contrary evidence is juvenile and weak-minded, and should rightly be derided as denailism.

Steven Deitz's picture
Steven Deitz on May 31, 2013

The appropriate term for many climate change “skeptics” is in fact denier, as it would be greatly dishonest to label their cognitive process as skepticism. If someone calls themself a “skeptic” but then can’t tell you a plausible future scenario that would cause them to shift their opinion, they are a denier.

If you have yet to be convinced of the existence of human-caused climate change, then you need to list one or more specific events that would be sufficient to change your mind. For example: polar ice cover shrinks to level X, sea level rises X number of feet, global average temperatures or ocean heat content reaches X, X numbers of years pass without another robust explanation of climate change aside from human GHGs, etc. Belief that does not adjust in the face of contrary evidence is juvenile and weak-minded, and should rightly be derided as denailism.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on May 31, 2013


This has to be the worst representation of reality in the history of the world. I’m embarrassed for attending a school in Colorado given the author’s affiliation with CU. At least my Alma mater in Colorado is honest about its interests in natural resource exploitation.

Here’s the ground truth. Illinois just passed fracking in the state house by 109 to 8 or something last night. And that’s with the help and cover of environmental NGOs and think tanks presumably like Breakthrough Institute and any other individual or group cashing in on playing the center or blatantly shilling as an environmental capitalists communicator.

This lopsided victory for Oil and Gas isn’t because of well research politicians weighing the technical merits of shale gas fracking: w.r.t. energy economy versus environmental protection. NO! This victory for shale gas was due to NO communication of the risk by media like Chicago Tribune and any other newspaper still in print south of I80 and of course the usual political/industrial/agricultural/commodity trading process we all enjoy in Illinois. Even the president, our esteemed community organizer, is pro fracking. 

This post is typical of our current generation of big thinkers: 1) identify who can pay $450/hour consulting and $50,000 speaker fees; 2) perform academic research that doesn’t involve any math, has zero actionable results and allows one to just make stuff up – if of course all is said well; 3) always present your benefactor(s) as the underdog and “true” victim; and 4) paint the environmentalists and Al Gore as an omnipotent force controlling academia and our young and impressionable student’s minds.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on May 31, 2013

Some of the comments here illustrate the very sort of self-defeating behavior Pielke’s critique describes.

It may have been helpful to distinguish between “skeptic” and “denier.” Pielke is right that climate protection zealots often do (as here) try to stick the “denier” label on those who express an appropriately skeptical view of some of the activists’ claims. In one of his Scientific American columns, Michael Shermer emphasizes that skepticism is central to the scientific method:

As I frequently find it necessary to point out in climate policy discussions:

Denial of certainty is not equivalent to certainty of denial.

In studying this subject over a span of decades, I cannot recall encountering any scientist or other moderately informed analyst who has denied that “climate change is real.” Not merely the consensus but virtually unanimous view of geophysical science is that the earth’s climate has been naturally and continually changing for about 4 billion years, and that it will inevitably continue to do so for hundreds of millions of years to come.

To alleviate confusion, it is important to distinguish also between the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming and the essentially established fact of geophysical climate change. As Elliott notes here, there is significant skepticism, discussion, and debate among scientists and other analysts about the extent to which observed recent increases in temperature, and other meteorological variations, can be attributed to human GHG emissions versus other possible causes. To the extent there is a consensus judgment (and to the extent that ‘consensus’ matters), it seems to be that AGW probably has made a significant contribution to observed meteorological changes over the past century or so; and that further human GHG emissions are likely to have a more pronounced impact in the future, possibly over a span of several centuries. These are important insights that deserve serious attention.

As to the policy questions of what should or can be done about that — a subject more of political science than of geophysical science — there clearly is far less agreement.

As Pielke has pointed out elsewhere, political confusion has been compounded by the UN’s climate apparat officially defining “climate change” as equivalent to, and only equivalent to AGW. That political definition contradicts the body of scientific knowledge as well as the view of the IPCC and other scientific groups and individual scientists.

The rhetoric of climate zealots also tends to muddle the necessary distinction between what geophysical science knows about the recent and distant past and what science is capable of forecasting about future climate trends. The fact is that the level of uncertainty about the future is significantly and inherently greater than whatever scientists have been able to induce about geophysical history.

The inherent uncertainty in what scientists who study climate can say about the future has at least two methodological roots: (1) As the IPCC acknowledged in its early reports, the terrestrial climate is a ‘chaotic’ system — the mathematics of chaos makes the future states of such systems intrinsically unpredictable. (2) The scientific method requires that hypotheses be tested by replicable, empirical observations — but there is no way to so test the future until it becomes the present or past.

As Pielke suggests, acknowledgement of uncertainty need not be a barrier to devising practical policies to address climate trends and potential hazards (also opportunities). Decision scientists and policy analysts have extensively studied and developed methodologies for both risk management (where probabilities can be judged from actuarial data) and decision making under uncertainty (when facing possible contingencies that are hard or impossible to predict).

In an essay published in 2002, the late climate scientist Stephen Schneider and Kristin Kuntz-Duriseti presented a defensible climate policy strategy predicated on the acceptance of uncertainty in what science knows and can predict:

Military strategic planning, investment strategy, and other practices routinely have to plan actions in the face of uncertainties about causes and effects and future developments. Attempts to assuage decision makers with false illusions of certainty — such as George Tenet’s ill-starred “slam dunk” assessment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD inventory — only serve to subvert effective action and to increase the chance of unintended, often countrerproductive consequences.

Peter Shepherd's picture
Peter Shepherd on Jun 1, 2013

If Foreign Affairs lists Roger Pielke Jr himself as a climate skeptic,2, is he a moderate to be heeded, or skeptic/contrarian to be ignored?

It would be nice if contrarian/deniers could be ignored, however their energetic interpretive and implicatory denial of the scientific consensus does not help the collective to understand the need for climate mitigation.

For a more objective view of the points (hurricanes and costs) in climate science that obsess Pielke Jr, see climate scientist Dana Nuccitelli’s review at where he points out that “Pielke Jr. uses an oft-repeated strategy that involves misdirection, bait and switch and knocking down strawmen arguments that he has constructed.”

Energy Collective readers would be better served by reading the sources Pielke cites directly.

 In addition to Kahan, I’d recommend Kari Marie Norgaard’s work and  

“Climate, class and culture: political issuesas cultural signifiers in the US” by  




Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jun 2, 2013

Re the Foreign Policy piece you pointed to, it includes this note:

Pielke has informed the editors of FP that he strongly objects to being included on a list titled “Climate Skeptics.” The aim of the list was, as the introduction states, to separate “the noise from the serious concerns” with regards to those offering critiques of either climate science or institutions charged with presenting climate science to the public or policy-makers; the article was explicitly not intended to equate the viewpoints of all people contained on the list

The Laidley piece is evidently based on interviews of 40 people in the Boston area — it is hard to imagine what this sample is supposed to represent.

I scanned Norgaard’s chapter but I could find no consistent definition of what the author considered ‘denial’ or ‘skepticism’ — making the bulk of the discussion of dubious value.

She suggests that wealthy communities/countries, and capitalism generally, find denial of environmental hazards comforting because acceptance of their reality would be emotionally distressing. There are at least two problems with that notion. One is that historically the extent of environmental ruin has been no less and often greater greater in socialist economies — e.g., the Soviet Union — than in capitalist ones.

Another is that her view fails to account for the popular emotional attraction of millennialist visions. The introduction to a special issue of Scientific American on “The End” notes:

We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet—with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. “It’s part of the fundamental limited perspective of our species to believe that this moment is the critical one and critical in every way—for good, for bad, for the final end of humanity,” says Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special. (

Mary Hartman's picture
Mary Hartman on Jun 3, 2013

This debate is less about climate and environmentalism and more about politics and power.  It is arrogant to believe that we can effect planetary cycles.   The earth has gone through more severe warming cycles in the past – before the dawn of man and well before the Industrial Revolution.  We can’t control others and we certainly can’t contol Nature.  Adapt or die….

Mary Hartman's picture
Mary Hartman on Jun 3, 2013

Thank you, Peter Shepherd.  


Peter Shepherd's picture
Peter Shepherd on Jun 3, 2013

According to 34 National Academies of Science humans are indeed affecting our planet’s climate cycle,

and are recommending action. Better to trust experts who recommend mitigation and adaptation than to dispute their opinion. People in many countries won’t be able to adapt to the high wet-bulb temperatures

that are predicted to occur.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 3, 2013

Unable to make a sound and mathematically provable case for their position, Pielke et al resort to smearing those with whom they disagree. Classical approach of the radical left school of politics. If we were to apply this same principle to the advocates of global warming, they would be termed liars.

When, and if, “man-caused-global-warming” can be proved using actual science (as opposed to “consensus”), then perhaps we should consider more pro-active actions. In the interim, try using and producing energy more efficiently because it saves money with the happy by-product of lower emissions.

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