The Remarkable Inconsistency Of Climate Denial

Jul 26, 2016

This is a year of politics. That means everyone has opinions about where the world should be headed and how we should get there.

No matter how weird this political season has been, however, there remains a key difference between opinions and facts. That difference comes into the starkest relief when people must face their own inconsistencies in reconciling the two domains.

And nowhere is the gap between opinions and facts more apparent than the subject of climate change. As a recent action by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) demonstrates, for climate deniers there is a chasm between what is said and what is done.

The basic dilemma of climate denial is that, for decades, science has pointed to two very clear conclusions. First is the overwhelming evidence that the planet is warming. Second is the overwhelming evidence that the warming is due to human activity (mostly in the form of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use).

The truth of these claims is getting bolded and underlined as 2016 is on track to be the hottest recorded year ever for the planet. The last hottest year on record was 2015 (you know you're in trouble if the hottest year ever is always this one now). In addition to the temperature records, every climate observatory in the world is now recording CO2 greenhouse gas levels higher than any time in the last 4 million years.

In the face of these facts, climate denialists claim that the science is somehow mistaken or it's a deliberate hoax. So where exactly is their inconsistency? To understand the break between actions and words, consider a June 28 letter to Congress sent by the AAAS and 30 of the nation's scientific organizations urging action on climate change:

"Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. This conclusion is based on multiple independent lines of evidence and the vast body of peer-reviewed science."

So which of the nation's scientific organizations are we talking about here? Some were big and others were small, but let's begin with the AAAS. These are the folks who help maintain the U.S.'s preeminent effort in science and technology. If you are using something scientific or technological, they're the ones pushing for the research efforts supporting it.

Beyond the AAAS, here is a partial list of the other organizations on the letter:

  • American Meteorological Society
  • Crop Science Society of America
  • American Geophysical Union
  • American Institute of Biological Sciences
  • American Public Health Association
  • Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
  • Soil Science Society of America

Just these seven names are enough to expose the problem for climate denialists. If climate science is hoax and the Crop Science Society of America signed the letter, then doesn't that make crop science suspect, too? And, of course, you can't have modern, advanced agriculture without understanding soil. That's the domain of the Soil Science Society of America. They've signed on to the AAAS letter, too. But that must mean we shouldn't trust any of their claims about how to grow food. Then there's the American Meteorological Society. If they are urging Congress to take action on climate change, it must mean they and their science is corrupted as well. If that were the case, then we would do well to ignore things like their hurricane warnings.

Of course, ignoring warnings of an impending hurricane — the result of meteorological science — would be stupid. No one in their right mind would do it. But that is the point, isn't it? Those who espouse climate denial say one thing and then act in an entirely different way if someone tells them a hurricane is coming. Why? Because it would be crazy to do otherwise.

Climate denialists, like everyone else, enjoy the fruits of science. But it's only when those fruits run up against pre-conceived political antagonisms that the cognitive dissonance begins.

When climate denialists get sick, they go to the doctor. They use the results of medical science. But to do so, they must ignore this from the AMA:

"The American Medical Association is working to ensure that physicians and others in health care understand the rise in climate-related illnesses and injuries so they can prepare and respond to them."

When climate denialists need to stay cool in the summer, they use the fruits of chemistry as it manifests in new kinds of refrigerants/coolants. But that means they must also ignore those same chemists who have this to say about climate science,

"...comprehensive scientific assessments of our current and potential future climates clearly indicate that climate change is real, largely attributable to emissions from human activities."

I could go on — but you get the picture.

This is the great dilemma and the great contradiction. People who benefit from science everyday somehow manage to find a place in their heads to simultaneously reject it. Whether its climate or vaccines, the same contradiction between words and action arises.

But here is the really difficult thing about this kind of contradiction for all of us: It always gets resolved in the end. That's because when it comes to science denial, it's reality that always has the last word.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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