Why the Climate Denialists’ Conspiracy Theory Doesn’t Stack Up
Many myths are perpetrated by those who choose not to accept the demonstrable fact that the global warming we are experiencing is predominantly due to humanity's use of fossil fuels (plus land clearing and various industrial processes).
Amongst one of the most ridiculous is the notion that climate change is a hoax involving some sort of global conspiracy dreamt up (alternately) by China to reduce Western competitiveness; or lefties in the United Nations who want to impose a socialist agenda on the world (can you make up your minds, please?)
In criminology, means, opportunity and motive are central to establishing guilt in relation to a crime. So let's break down the case of the alleged global climate change hoax conspiracy.
I'm not a scientist, but I come from a family of them: parents, sibling, a grandfather, aunt, and so on. The rest of my family are academically oriented - university lecturers, sociologists and the like. In fact I'm practically the only member of my family without a PhD - I chose a business degree. I grew up with my parents often hosting dinner parties with other scientists. So I figure I know a bit about the type.
And I can tell you, that in my experience the average scientist is absolutely incapable of the sort of Machiavellian subterfuge that would be required to perpetrate the alleged climate hoax on a global scale. It’s not to say they’re not smart; far from it. But they’re the sort of people who are keen to a) share their knowledge; and b) have other people challenge their ideas in a constructive way. The last thing they would want to do is deliberately spread falsehoods or conceal the truth.
Another thing I know about the scientists is that they’re not motivated by money. They’re passionate about knowledge and discovery.
The scientific method, the set of techniques scientists use to figure things out, involves proposing a hypothesis (what they think should happen in a given situation) and then creating models, conducting experiments and taking observations to prove or disprove it. There are strict protocols around how such activities are carried out, to improve repeatability, and reduce the risk of errors or incorrect interpretations of the results.
To gain any credibility, the scientist must then have their findings published (including a description of the experimental or observational methodology used) in a reputable scientific journal. It’s not just a case of emailing an article to the editor, either. Each paper goes through a rigorous process of peer review, whereby it is sent to several other scientists (who generally work for completely different organisations) with the express purpose of them trying to find problems with the methodology, results, or the logic that forms the conclusion, before it is deemed worthy of publication.*
Despite this, the vast majority, now over 99% of scientists who are actively looking at atmospheric processes agree that humanity’s use of fossil fuels (and our other activities that increase the concentration of greenhouse gases) are primarily responsible for observed global warming.
They’re also unanimous that the effects of that warming will on balance not be beneficial to humans, nor the ecosystems upon which our survival depends. Multiple strands of evidence point to the same conclusion.
There are many thousands of scientists globally that are conducting research studying the causes, effects and implications of global warming and the climatic change it is creating. They work for universities, government and private research institutes in dozens of countries.
I say strike one for “means”: the scientific community are not the right type of people to sustain a planet-wide hoax over the last several decades.
Also, strike two for “opportunity”: the very method by which they go about their business is extremely effective at detecting and calling out anything that doesn’t fit the facts.
So what about motive? Denialists claim scientists parrot the same “climate consensus” line so they can get research funding, allegedly because the leftie UN who give out the grants are pushing a socialist agenda. But sometimes it’s the Chinese who want to reduce US competitiveness through a self inflicted economic depressant in the form of carbon pricing. They can’t even maintain a consistent story.
Back to those thousands of scientists at hundreds of institutions: if they were all relying on research grants from China or the UN then perhaps they could be on to something, but in reality the money comes from hundreds of governments, supranational organisations, student fees, philanthropic donations and the like. Not to mention that scientists employed by fossil fuel giants such as Exxon Mobil came to the same conclusions themselves several decades ago, even if their voices were quickly silenced within their organisations.
While scientists' love of discovery and knowledge perhaps puts them further left on the political spectrum, the scientific method ensures that for most of them their experimental and observational conclusions are not tainted by any political agenda.
In any case, the downstream costs of inaction on climate change (such as trillions of dollars of property losses due to sea level rise) are far more expensive than the costs of addressing it by transitioning to renewables, reversing deforestation and land degradation, and coming up with low emissions alternatives for cement and other chemicals. The latter involves a series of investments in zero emissions technologies, many of which are already achieving or exceeding cost parity with the emissions intensive methods they are replacing.
But get this: most investments in zero emissions technology (apart from those related to satisfying new demand) are being made in conjunction with the end of life of existing power stations, vehicles and factories. They’re investments that would have been made anyway in the normal course of business. There’s relatively little asset stranding outside of the moribund fossil fuel industry.
Addressing climate change also delivers a host of co-benefits including cleaner air and water, and vast savings in healthcare as a result.
Strike three for “motive”.
On the other hand, finding a motive for denialists to spread myths such as these is far easier. The denialists’ money trail leads inevitably to the fossil fuel industry as has been well documented by others including Naomi Oreskes. Just as the tobacco industry obscured the proven link between smoking and lung cancer for many years through a well funded campaign of misinformation and obfuscation, so is the same thing happening with climate change (even involving some of the very same perpetrators). The industry certainly has the means (money) and opportunity through the network of pseudo-scientific think tanks and publications they fund.
Tragically, not only have climate denialists delayed the widespread adoption of clean energy generation and more sustainable use of our natural resources, by so doing it has also condemned future generations to massive costs of adaptation to a changing climate; greater hardships (think extreme weather, coastal retreat due to the ravages of rising seas, crop failures and food shortages due to drought and dozens of other impacts); and a trashed environment (coral reefs, anyone?) that will take hundreds or thousands of years to recover.
And for what? To ensure the fossil fuel industry remained profitable for as long as possible in the face of overwhelming evidence that it should have been rapidly sun-setted. It’s certainly not about preserving jobs: the clean energy sector already employs more people in the US than the fossil fuel sector and is expanding, but unfortunately too slowly to avert the crisis we now face as a global society.
Since the start of the industrial revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by over 42%. Since continuous, reliable measurement began in the mid 1950s it has increased from about 320ppm to over 400 - more than 25% in about 60 years. Sure it’s only “parts per million” but as with many other chemicals – arsenic for example – a little goes a long way.
So we know that the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing year on year, we know that more carbon dioxide will trap more heat from the sun, and we can look at the global temperature record (several different sets of measurements including thermometer readings and satellite data, independently compiled by different meteorological organisations) and see that average temperatures are trending upwards.
How do we know it’s human activity that is producing the extra greenhouse gases?
The industrial revolution was powered at first by coal and later oil and gas. These are carbon-based substances (remember organic chemistry from high school?) that used to be plant or animal matter. Fire doesn’t burn without oxygen and it’s pretty easy to understand how the combustion process releases carbon dioxide. Burn a kilogram of coal and you release nearly a kilo of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. By looking at the amount of these fuels we’ve used (and we have pretty good records going back many decades) you can spot a strong correlation with the increasing rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
But correlation is not necessarily causation. Maybe it’s other factors such as carbon dioxide expelled during volcanic eruptions? Well, if you recall your high school chemistry classes, atoms have something called isotopes, and then it gets into stuff about half lives and radioactive decay. Anyway, you can look at the carbon atoms in the molecules and figure out how long it’s been sloshing around in the atmosphere or whether it’s come from so-called fossil fuels or other sources. Sure enough, it has the unmistakable isotopic fingerprints of recently burnt fossil fuels.
The huge body of work conducted by the thousands of reputable climate scientists over the last several decades has confirmed that the planet is warming, confirmed the source of that warming, and systematically investigated and eliminated other potential natural causes (volcanos, sun spots, orbital eccentricities and the like).
References and Notes
 For example, global insurer AXA in this report cites global GDP losses of up to 30% by 2100 if climate change is unabated. Personally, I think this is optimistic.https://www.axa-im.com/document/4217/view
*By this method, we first learnt in the 1850s courtesy of American female scientist Eunice Foote that carbon dioxide and various other atmospheric gases display what’s known as the greenhouse effect: they trap heat. It’s an experiment that anyone with a half decent lab can replicate. https://www.audubon.org/news/the-female-scientist-who-discovered-basics-climate-science-and-was-forgotten#:~:text=Instead%20of%20Foote's%20story%2C%20the,yet%20he's%20received%20the%20credit.
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About the author
David McEwen is a Director at Adaptive Capability, providing TCFD-aligned climate risk, and net-zero emissions (NZE) strategy, program and project management. He works with business people, designers and engineers to deliver impactful change and his book, Navigating the Adaptive Economy, was released in 2016.