Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand

I recently finished reading Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand by Haydn Washington and Skeptical Science founder John Cook. Given that I am a longtime reader of (and occasional contributor to) Skeptical Science, I didn’t expect to find much in this book that was new to me. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

Right from Chapter 1, Washington and Cook discuss a relatively uncharted area among similar books: denial among people who accept the reality of climate change. Even if a given citizen doesn’t identify as a skeptic/contrarian/lukewarmer/realist/etc, they hold information about global warming at arm’s length. The helplessness and guilt they feel from the problem leads them to ignore it. This implicit variety of denial is a common “delusion”, the authors argue – people practice it all the time with problems related to their health, finances, or relationships – but when it threatens the welfare of our entire planet, it is a dangerous “pathology”.

Therefore, the “information deficit model” of public engagement – based on an assumption that political will for action is only lacking because citizens don’t have enough information about the problem – is incorrect. The barriers to public knowledge and action aren’t scientific as much as “psychological, emotional, and behavioural”, the authors conclude.

This material makes me uncomfortable. An information deficit model would work to convince me that action was needed on a problem, so I have been focusing on it throughout my communication efforts. However, not everyone thinks the way I do (which is probably a good thing). So what am I supposed to do instead? I don’t know how to turn off the scientist part of my brain when I’m thinking about science.

The book goes on to summarize the science of climate change, in the comprehensible manner we have come to expect from Skeptical Science. It also dips into the site’s main purpose – classifying and rebutting climate change myths – with several examples of denier arguments. I appreciate how up-to-date this book is, as it touches on several topics that are included in few, if any, of my other books: a Climategate rebuttal, as well as an acknowledgement that the Venus syndrome on Earth, while distant, might be possible – James Hansen would even say plausible.

A few paragraphs are dedicated to discussing and criticizing scientific postmodernism, which I think is sorely needed – does anyone else find it strange that a movement which was historically quite liberal is now being resurrected by the science-denying ranks of conservatives? Critiques of silver-bullet approaches to mitigation, such as nuclear power alone or clean coal, are also included.

In short, Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand is well worth a read. It lacks the gripping narrative of Gwynne Dyer or Gabrielle Walker, both of whom have the ability to make scientific information feel like a mystery novel rather than a textbook, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. It adds worthy social science topics, such as implicit denial and postmodernism, to the discussion, paired with a taste of what Skeptical Science does best.


17 thoughts on “Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand

  1. Kate: Excellent essay per usual. If you have not already done so, please post it as a review on

    Unfortunately, you can’t post reviews until you buy something from -Kate

  2. The techniques used are pretty much identical from those used by the tobacco industry, and so the same kind of response is likely to work. That means pointing out that the denial side isn’t operating in good faith at every opportunity, and outright demonizing the executives at fossil fuel companies.

    • silence, what really killed off tobacco was a US-wide series of Medicaid lawsuits that resulted in the release of the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.

      I think that climate inactivism will continue as long as the purveyors of climate inactivism can continue to spread lies, misinformation, and insinuations with impunity. The only way to stop such impunity is to use the full force of the law against these liars.

      — frank

      • Frank, it is not quite that straightforward.

        Yes, we should use the full force of the law, but we should use it smartly. What happened in the tobacco lawsuits was not that they went down for lying to the public; unfortunately (or perhaps inevitably) lies are protected speech. No, they went down for, under oath, claiming that they did not know about the habit-forming nature of nicotine, which their own internal research showed. They only avoided jail time by cutting a deal (which I think was an error; jail is the place for these monsters).

        We now see the almost same in the Ed Wegman affair. He is going down also not for telling lies to the public, but for resorting to fraud to fake an expertise he didn’t have. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like he will be doing jail time, but he perjured himself in Congress so who knows. My point is that you have to be smart about how you take folks down most effectively and with the outcomes you want most. Deep Climate and John Mashey smart.

  3. There have been a few articles on the postmodernism of the right. This one, for example.

    If they [climate scientists] are corrupt, we have to consider whether any of the knowledge they’ve generated is trustworthy. We could be operating our medical facilities, economies, and technologies on faulty theories. We might not know anything! Here we are hip-deep in postmodernism and it came from the right, not the left academics they hate.

    Chris Mooney though disagrees.

    saying climate denialism is not postmodernism.

    In the sciences, I think we take for granted that just because we work from an “information deficit model” most other people do too. I’m sometimes still taken aback when I demonstrate to someone that the source they claimed supports them actually says the opposite. They look at the words, black and white, and still hold onto their position. How is that even possible?

    In Flat Earth, Alfred Russel Wallace, takes a bet with a flat earther. They design a test to measure the curvature of the earth along a flat body of water (a canal) by using marked poles and a telescope. Wallace makes his predictions of what will be seen through the telescope. When it is all set-up, he looks through the scope and sees what he predicted, therefore the earth is round.

    The flat-earther then looks through the scope, then stands back and jumps for joy because he claims it is exactly what he should see if the earth were flat. It isn’t what the flat-earther predicted, but he came up with an explanation that allowed him to fit this curved earth evidence into his flat-earth belief despite its contradictory nature.

    Wallace is stunned, flabbergasted, open-mouthed, shocked, Many times now, I find myself sympathizing.

  4. Hey Kate, thanks for the review. I read this book a few weeks back and like that it directly addressed the myths and examples from the deniers.

    Also great blog. It’s pretty cool to see undergrads getting out and contributing to the public sphere. Science communication is the answer and that mean we need people of all levels getting involved. I think as an undergrad you’re in a prime position to reach a public, less technical audience, because you haven’t had the time yet to become dusty and boring like some of us.
    Keep it up.

  5. I don’t completely agree with the premise that the dis-connect from science in the 70s on the left is the same as that on the right now.
    The question was more like “is it all part of a larger plan”, influenced by Eastern thought and so forth. Not so much doubting science’s ability to understand the workings of physical reality, but that there is a a subtler level of reality as well. Metaphysical, philosophical and mystical, rather than dogmatic and devotional, definately not fundamentalist.

    They believed the science about the environmental problems from human impacts and certainly would have been climate hawks, not deniers.

    • (ouch, my previous attempt to post was munged by bad formatting…)

      sailrick, I’ve not read the book, but I guess Cook might have been ‘extreme socialist / left-anarchist’ strain of leftist thought (think, say, the Sokal affair), rather than the ‘multiculturalist / Eastern mystic’ strain of leftist thought. Admittedly, there are so many types of cranks that it can be hard to keep up at times.

      Incidentally, I’ve blogged before about a professor who believes that global warming is a hoax… because he’s a left-anarchist.

      – frank

      • Oops, I meant that Cook might have been referring to the ‘extreme socialist / left-anarchist’ strain of leftist thought.

        And it’s probably worth clarifying that the left-anarchist professor’s opinions on climate change aren’t representative of the views of left-anarchists in general.

        — frank

  6. I think that this is a good book, but I do not agree with its discussion about the runaway greenhouse effect based on Hansen’s “Storms of my Grandchildren”.

    I do not think that that book of Hansen is a good source of knowledge of climate science, though Hansen’s peer-reviewed articles are. Perhaps because he was ill (as mentioned in the foreword), he was more passionate but less careful about logic.

    Andrew Weaver says in “Generation Us” that Venus-like runaway greenhouse is very unlikely. This is also a popular book, but I think that it contains a solid presentation of science by a scientist. (I mean the first half. The rest is a piece of opinion by a citizen who have scientific knowledge.)

    I am not an expert of the issue of runaway greenhouse effect. Though I think I know its basics, it is not easy to explain it. Perhaps the best reference is Ray Pierrehumbert’s Principles of Planetary Climate.

    If my understanding based on a few papers I happened to read is correct, the runaway condition may happen when the global mean surface air temperature comes around 300 K (27 deg. C), which is 12 deg. C above the present level. This level may be attained if all fossil fuel is burnt in a century and several positive feedbacks kick in together. So we can say that it is not impossible, but, in my understanding, it is still very unlikely. A volcanic eruption large enough to cancel the anthropogenic global warming (just canceling the global mean one but causing various regional anomalies) is also not impossible though very unlikely.

    • I never finished reading Hansens book. After all the hype I thought it would be informative. But trudging through his account of dealing with the politicians was to much for me. I know what politicians are like, I don’t need long accounts of getting in taxis, meeting politicians and being disappointed that they say one thing and do something else.

  7. Great review, but I need to take issue with what Washington and Cook write about postmodernism. They really don’t seem to understand postmodernism at all. Climate denialism on the political right is nothing like postmodernism – indeed, it’s quite the opposite.

    Postmodernism is mainly about deconstructing different narratives to explore how people hold and wield power, or are excluded from power. So for example, a postmodernism would critique the language of science where it tends to reflect the viewpoints and language of white, North American or European elites. That’s not the same as saying that physics might be wrong, it just that physicists, being predominantly white privileged males, usually fail to separate their scientific knowledge from their privileged worldview.

    The problem with climate denialism is the same problem that postmodernism seeks to criticize – it’s obsessed with a single, privileged worldview that it incapable of seeing its own privilege.

    Take a look at Lemert’s book “Postmodernism is not what you think” for a good overview of how it has been misconstrued:

  8. Kate, I do think that there still are plenty of information deficits to fill in… not too long ago someone in my circle of acquaintances who is well read and smart, asked if I believed in climate change. I needed to point out that, no, this is not a ‘belief’ thing…

    But perhaps at this point it is true that the information most lacking in people’s minds relates not to the bad things that are going to happen when we do nothing, but to what we can do… i.e., WG3 stuff, rather than WG1. It doesn’t help that both the denialists and many ‘greens’ insist that the only solution is intrusive changes in our way of life — ‘back to the stone age’ — when best knowledge tells us that that just isn’t so. That could be highlighted more.

    BTW Richard Alley did a good job of this in his recent documentary series.

  9. Recommended reading:

    The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science: How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.

    By Chris Mooney | May/June 2011 Issue Mother Jones

    The take-away core of the article is its final paragraph:

    You can follow the logic to its conclusion: Conservatives are more likely to embrace climate science if it comes to them via a business or religious leader, who can set the issue in the context of different values than those from which environmentalists or scientists often argue. Doing so is, effectively, to signal a détente in what Kahan has called a “culture war of fact.” In other words, paradoxically, you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.

    To access this in-depth and informative article, go to:

  10. Well I read Steve’s postmodernism link and my immediate reaction is not Wow! That’s great! Leaving that aside, I don’t think rightists really are postmodernists, instead they recognize PM’s utility as a tool on the way to absolute control. The creationist Phillip Johnson is known for, among other things, introducing PM into ID creationism for just that reason. See for instance
    since I couldn’t readily google up the exact Johnson quote.

  11. You may be interested in Margaret Hefferman’s Willful Blindness. It’s not about climate change, but is a highly engaging read about the psychology behind denial which has led individuals and entire nations down the garden path and, in some cases, to ruin.

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