Conspiracy theories on global warming: what are they, what is their impact, and how to stop their support.

“Over 37% of Americans currently believe that global warming is a “hoax””

(van der Linden, 2015)

In the last two decades, climate change has become a highly contested and debated topic. Numerous scholars, politicians and activists claim that if societies and governments do not act, our climate will change dramatically which will have a negative consequence for our environment and almost every nation and person in the world. Their claims are strengthened and supported by multiple studies that have been conducted on the influence of people on our climate and global warming. The vast majority of these studies state that human behavior is changing the climate for the worse and that it plays a significant role in the warming of the earth.

Although these studies are clear, well known, and were carried out thoroughly, studies show that over 50% of the Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Not only American citizens, but political leaders all over the world reject the notion that human behavior largely influences climate change. They state that climate scientists are lying, manipulating or using fake data, and that they interpret data in ways that support their own truth. Examples of such rejections include the American President Donald Trump stating that climate change is hoax created by the Chinese, Russia claiming that climate change is a hoax in order to target and damage Russia’s energy sector, and a Dutch member of the parliament, Geert Wilders, who states that Dutch scientists change their facts when convenient. It is important to note that most of these politicians acknowledge that global warming is a fact, however, they deny that this is due to human activity. This development is extremely important as their stance prevents the creation of both national and international policies that can curb the human behavior that causes climate change. Thus preventing an effective solution or policy to climate change.

The main addressed conspiracy theory is that globalists, liberals, scientists and socialists use data on climate change and policies to control the population, undermine sovereignty, and receive extra funding for research. These are seen as conspiracy theories as they have not been backed with actual evidence and are used to show the population that there are people who act for their own benefit against the common good. This creates dangerous situations in which actual science and scientific data is rejected without refuting it with scientific methods. Conspiracy theorists reject scientific findings by creating their own different truth. A truth that according to climate skeptics only they and the population can understand. Believing in these conspiracy theories can lead to a deep distrust in national and international institutions, hostility and, aggression.

The reason climate skeptics support this conspiracy theory can have multiple reasons. Firstly, it can be that they actually believe the theory due to being sensitive to underlying conspiratorial thinking. It is a common phenomenon that people who are exposed to very bad news can go in denial as that is easier than to deal with the real problem. Secondly, it can be a method to oppose any policies on climate change, as it is their only way to be able to reject scientific evidence that has a large consensus. This skepticism leads to the population not being able to perceive climate change as a real danger for their own, their planets future and for future generations, and thus preventing them from taking any measures that could curb global warming. And it is not limited to conspiracy theorists only, studies show that even people who are exposed to so much as articles on climate change conspiracy theories are less inclined to reduce their carbon footprint, relative to others.

In order to prevent these climate skeptics from spreading their ideas and gaining support, measures such as banning conspiracy theories as a whole, imposing financial disincentives to people who distribute these theories, and participating in cognitive infiltration are not very effective. Governments should focus on preventive and therapeutic measures to avoid citizens feeling powerless and uncertain and prevent political cynicism. Moreover, it is important that other political leaders and activists continue to refute their claims with logic and scientific facts. Although the arguments of climate skeptics cannot be refuted by scientific methods, as they do not base their arguments on actual science, it is still important that scientific facts are used in the debate in order to prevent it from being superficial. Overall, it is obvious that climate change is a serious subject that affects all our lives and those of future generations and is a complex matter, therefore it is essential that it is treated like any other important political and societal topic. In addition, scientists, activists and politicians must do their best to ensure that the population understands the dangers of climate change and how their behavior can affect it. The only way to stop climate skeptics is by preventing the population from supporting and listening to their ideas. Therefore, the ideas presented by climate change activists need to be sharper, more easily understood, and backed up with more evidence. Only then will they try and support climate change policies and only then they will alter their behavior in order to combat global warming.

References

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M. (2015). Climate change: Why the conspiracy theories are dangerous. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 71(2), 98-106. doi:
https://doi.org/10.1177/0096340215571908

Linden, van der, S. (2015). The conspiracy-effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about global warming) decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 171-173. doi:
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.07.045

Uscinski, J. E., Douglas, K., Lewandowski, S. (2017). Climate Change Conspiracy Theories. Oxford Research Encyclopedias.
doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.328

Pilkington, E. (2019). Harrison Ford: leaders who deny climate change are ‘on the wrong side of history’. The Gardian. Retrieved from:
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/feb/12/harrison-ford-world-government-summit-climate-change-trump

Weart, S. (2016). Global warming: How skepticism became denial. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 67(1), 41-50. doi:
https://doi-org.proxy.uba.uva.nl:2443/10.1177/0096340210392966

Wong, E. (2016). Trump Has Called Climate Change a Chinese Hoax. Beijing Says It Is Anything But. Retrived April 10, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/world/asia/china-trump-climate-change.html

3 thoughts on “Conspiracy theories on global warming: what are they, what is their impact, and how to stop their support.

  1. Hi Dania, in light of the recent lecture we had on the scientific debate, what kind of role do you think the scientist has in refuting conspiracy theories? You mentioned that we need to be more clear and understandable when presenting information on climate change, whilst scientific literature often is dense and complex. Do you think scientist need to be more vocal about their findings? Or does the problem lie more with the media, politicians, governments etc.

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  2. @0LOUIE0 The lecture on how vocal scientists should be about their view on global warming has shed some interesting light on this topic indeed. I think that people, who aren’t experts on global warming, often obtain their knowledge through information provided by media, politicians, and governments. These platforms surely have the potential to be legitimate sources, IF they were to present the scientific consensus in a more accurate way. With this I mean that whenever someone advocates their ideas about climate change or global warming, it should be clear that their views belong to the scientific consensus, that they are advocating an opposing view, or something in between.
    What I meant with being more clear and understandable when presenting information on climate change is that we should distinguish between facts (e.g. human activity is effecting global warming), correlations, and theories (e.g. global warming is increasing worldwide domestic abuse). Because, the general public is not correctly informed about the certainty with which we know these facts/theories, it is difficult to know what to consider to be facts or not.
    Furthermore, politicians advocating their views on global warming is also a very powerful and dangerous matter, as it has been shown, for example, that people supporting the conservative/republican parties are less likely to consider global warming to be a serious problem. The danger in using Global warming in the political debate, is the motive of the politicians presenting their ideas, as their incentive is to gain votes instead of informing the public in an objective way. The deep rooted belief and support for these parties are influencing the perception of the voters on global warming, which is of course alarming as they are now being influenced by strategic views instead of facts and independent ideas of scientists.
    The above-mentioned issues, are in my opinion three major issues and are partly due to the fact that internet and media have caused the scientific and global debate to present in the same platform making it difficult to distinguish between them. As we have read in the article by Bart ‘The public debate on climate change’, these two debates have very different people participating, different motives, different methods of obtaining their facts, views, and policies. Therefore, we should keep them separated to be able to clearly understand what the facts are, what to take as people their personal views, and what deviating findings are from scientists who find results conflicting with the scientific consensus. Whether people believe in conspiracy theories because social media misrepresents the facts or because the scientific community is presenting their findings in an unclear way is not that black and white, in my opinion it are all factors which contribute to the same thing. In conclusion, we should make an effort to address these problems to reduce the ambiguity around global warming and climate change.

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  3. Hey Dania, I think you make a very interesting argument. You say “The only way to stop climate skeptics is by preventing the population from supporting and listening to their ideas.” At the same time you say, that it is not an option to ban conspiracy theories as a whole, and you give activists and ‘good’ politicians the responsibility of being more articulate on defending climate science. There is a middle way between those two things though, which is de-platforming/censuring. I wonder if you have a strong opinion whether we should start censuring people who produce and reproduce messages that sow confusion and conspiracy against the reality of climate change? Are you not afraid that this will stir ‘backlash’ against the elites that they are already rallying against? Right-wing media pundits and politician always emphasize how important the ‘holy grail’ of free speech for them is. For example, I wonder if you would agree with the current policy of Nu.nl to delete all comments that deny the reality of climate change and replacing them with an explanation why the comment got deleted. This leaves no place for the ambiguity you refer in your answer to 0Louie0. Will they not just switch platforms, leading to even more bad news consumption? Is that the right direction? Would be very interested to hear your opinion on the matter.

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