Why do some people think climate change is fake?

Path leading to the Athabasca Glacier, where it once stood

You don’t have to look far during extreme weather, or when a damning report is published, to find people who truly believe climate change is fake. As a scientist, that point of view seems unfathomable to me. I am more curious than a cat and I wanted to understand why people think climate change is fake.

This post was inspired by a number of commenters on Twitter talking about how the recent horrendous hurricanes were not caused by climate change. That, I absolutely do not disagree with because we simply cannot prove it either way. It’s a whole other topic, but The Week has a really interesting article on this topic and how climate change could impact hurricanes. What I was so intrigued by was people adding that climate change is fake anyway, so it definitely couldn’t have caused them. 

People have been arguing against the existence of climate change for years and years and years and years; it’s nothing new. It’s easy to dismiss views that seem so unrelatable to us, which is why I wanted to try and understand why some people think climate change is fake. After researching for this blog post it became pretty clear to me that there are issues with the way science is communicated to the public, and a lack of trust.

Why some people think climate change is fake

“There have been many ice ages, so ice melting is natural”

This is perhaps the argument for climate change being fake that I see most often. It’s factually correct and is an easy way to dismiss climate change. I think that is a really easy argument to make to dismiss it and not have to think about it. Combating climate change is going to result in changes to our lifestyles and dealing with some big issues which are overwhelming. Saying it’s natural is a good way to not have to deal with those issues.

Our planet has been through many ice ages in it’s history. So yes, that’s right. However, that argument dismisses the rate at which ice is melting. Us kicking out more greenhouse gases than would naturally occur is warming the planet up and causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt faster.

 

“This study says it’s not true”

People pick and choose data that fits their ideals and beliefs and discount those that don’t, this is called cognitive bias. Every single one of us has done it at some point in our lives. We want to find evidence to support our ideas, and sometimes that means we dismiss the truth.

However, cognitive bias is a problem in science too. While scientists are supposed to be unbiased, not all of them are. They might carry out their research in a way that could subtly (or not so subtly) change the results to fit their beliefs or what they want to see from the study. As we’re about to see, that can cause big problems because it can lead to the public being fed lies.

One of the key things in science is to be able to reproduce data. That means that anyone who understands the theory should be able to carry out exactly the same test, under the same conditions, and receive the same results. 

A review of all journal articles covering global climate change and global warming between 1991 and 2011 found that 97.1% of them agreed that humans are causing global warming (Cook et al., 2013). That means 2.9% of papers covering the same topics were either uncertain or did not agree that humans were causing global warming. Benestad et al., (2016) were curious about why those 2.9% disagreed with 97.1% of papers. In their study, they reviewed 38 journal articles that disputed global warming to try and replicate their results. The study found that flaws in the method, ignoring data that didn’t fit their expectations, and a lack of contextual information.

“Shouldn’t there be something to stop biased papers being published?” you may ask. Yes. It’s called a peer review process. That should stop biased papers being published However, the Benestad et al., (2016) paper discovered that some of the papers they looked at were submitted to journals which were not specialists in the area of the paper. It highlighted that this might mean the journals did not have reviewers who were experts in the area who could have picked up on those issues.

That isn’t something the general public would probably even consider. If you read an article about research that had been carried out, would you question it’s validity? In the past, I know I wouldn’t have. It’s only through studying science that I’ve learned to be so critical. This is not a problem that should affect the general public. Journals should only be publishing properly reviewed unbiased papers. Additionally, the media have a responsibility to report correctly, which we’ll discuss in a minute.

While the next three sections link together, I’m going to address them in three sections to explore each area in detail without it being a wall of text.

Snow on the Icefields Parkway

Some people just don’t believe it

Some people simply do not believe or understand the facts. This is nothing to do with a lack of education. Psychologists call it the “anti-enlightenment movement“, which explores some of the things we’ve spoken about in this blog post.

We probably all know people flat out don’t believe some things we believe in. Maybe you’ve even tried to show them facts and had a debate to no avail. It doesn’t matter how many facts or studies they are presented with, they won’t believe it.

Katherine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist who worked on the Benestad et al, (2016) paper I mentioned earlier on. She recently reshared the results on her Facebook page in a post that went viral. The comments section makes for a truly interesting read because she’s been very active in replying and sharing further research papers and facts.

Some of the commenters are purely looking for reasons to disprove the results she and her team found. While that is part of science, and should be, it’s happening in an unconstructive and damaging way. Some of the commenters simply did not read the article or don’t believe it. This causes problems though if other people see the post pop up, don’t read the article, and then believe what those commenters have said.

 

A lack of trust

For one reason or another, some people do not trust scientists. Maybe it’s to do with their personal beliefs, religion, the media, or something else.

Going back to the post on Katherine Hayhoe’s page, one comment really stood out to me:

“I get that the climate has changed on earth over the years. But here is the thing scientists get paid to prove said hypothesis either side that person is getting paid to prove their point. So unless we take the money out of this then why should anyone believe these papers?”

This is a false view of how research works. Research is not where the money is in science and technology. Getting funding is hard work, and I’m not exactly sure how we’re supposed to “take the money out of this”. If there was no money, no research would be carried out.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that no scientist has ever tried to sway his or her data to ‘prove’ something. Just look at the Benestad et al., (2013) paper. Bias exists in science. I understand why that might lead some people to distrust scientists.

 

Media & political spin / “fake news”

On a related note, the media and politicians use facts and studies as weapons against the ‘opposition’. The problem here is that it potentially lessens the impact and urgency of legitimate studies and facts. Think about how frustrated and sick of politics and arguing we all get during election campaigns. In the end, you tune it out and write off what politicians are saying.

Additionally, it doesn’t help when people in power dismiss climate change issues due to misinformation. Let’s look at America. In 2012, Mr Trump famously tweeted:

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive.”

In 2014, he tweeted:

“Snowing in Texas and Louisiana, record setting freezing temperatures throughout the country and beyond. Global warming is an expensive hoax.”

At the start of this year, he appointed Scott Pruitt to head up the Environmental Protection Agency. Problem? Mr Pruitt isn’t entirely convinced about climate change either.

When you have people in positions of power who dismiss climate change so easily, I completely understand why people think they’re right. While a lot of people know Trump spreads fake news, there are still a lot of people who believe him and I can understand why.

The majority of people don’t have the time, or interest, to read a journal article. Some of them can be incredibly boring and overwhelming for someone who is as scientist, let alone those who aren’t. The media play a huge part in disseminating the results of research to the general public. If it’s done the wrong way people perceive it as being overhyped and blown out of proportion.

Similarly, the rise of “fake news” seriously discredits legitimate news that is published along side it. In addition to that, how is the public to know what is fake news? The purpose of a media outlet is not to share fake news, yet some of them do; how do the public distinguish what’s fact or fake? How do we get around that?

There are media outlets who report in a non-biased and non-sensationalist way. Unfortunately there will always be newspapers and websites who thrive off trying to cause hysteria and publishing fake news. I don’t really know how we fix that kind of problem.

 

The retreating Athabasca Glacier

They’re not affected in their every day lives

Out of sight, out of mind. A good chunk of us don’t see, or aren’t inconvenienced, by climate change on a daily basis. Sure, there are huge climate related issues going on all over the world but it can be hard to truly grasp it until you see it yourself. One of the first times I was really hit by the reality of climate change was when I visited the Athabasca Glacier. When I saw for myself how fast the glacier had retreated in recent years I was shocked. Before that, I had never really seen the impact of global warming for myself.

I can completely understand why people don’t believe it, or simply push it to the back of their minds, when they aren’t affected by it every day. We all have a million and one things going on in our lives, dealing with something that doesn’t impact us day in day out is not always top of our list.


Seeing something from another person’s perspective has always interested me, so this was a fun post to write. It is wrong to dismiss those who believe climate change is fake as “stupid” because it isn’t true. We all believe what we believe for a reason. Name-calling and treating people like idiots never works because it isn’t any kind of educational tool.

It’s clear that people’s beliefs and the way science is relayed to the public are two of the biggest reasons why some believe climate change is fake. I don’t know how we get around that. Maybe it’s schooling and teaching people to question what they’re told. Maybe it is more eye-opening documentaries or films. I do think that our governments have a responsibility to step up as well and encourage everyone (businesses included) to make changes in our lives. Maybe it’s punishment for news outlets who publish fake news.

What do you think?

Why do some people think climate change is fake?

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