Debate on climate pits scientists against skeptics and deniers

The senator wanted no more of it.

The climate change debate had raged on, and despite overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is a major factor in climate change, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., left the Senate hearing in denial.

“The science is far from settled,” he said as he collected his things and left.

As dramatic as Johnson’s exit was in March 2014, climate change denial is not so unusual. Numerous blogs, websites and books claim that climate change is a worldwide hoax.

Ralph Heredia, a climate change denier living in South Florida, says scientists make money by creating propaganda.

“If we say that there is no climate change and there is no issue with that, nobody benefits from it or is affected by it,” Heredia said. “But by creating a chaos, someone will benefit from it.”

Climate change might be a fairly new debate in the political forum, but the denial of scientific findings is an age-old idea.

Prior to 1492, people thought the world was flat. In 1633, Galileo was exiled for stating that the Earth revolved around the sun; in 1859, Charles Darwin released his theory of evolution, which is still not accepted by some religions. To this day, many believe that the universe is thousands of years old rather than billions.

Climate change science might eventually prevail over deniers. The difference between this issue and past topics, however, is that it may be too late, scientists say.

In a report issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in November 2014, co-author and Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer stated that the disastrous effects are coming sooner than we believe and that the “window of opportunity for acting in a cost-effective way — or in an effective way — is closing fast.”

Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale University, has studied public attitudes on climate change. Based on his studies, Kahan said that a major problem is a climate change skeptic’s reasoning.

“What we believe about the facts tells us who we are,” he said.

According to Kahan, most people don’t know enough about climate change to support their opinion. If given a climate change assessment test, neither supporters nor deniers would do better than the other, he said. Both would do “horribly.”

“Both sides don’t know what they are talking about,” he said. He added that they “are processing information in a way that is biased.”

The motivation for many climate change deniers lies in combating potential political policies that could be adopted as a result of Earth’s rising temperatures. Other deniers have been given misinformation from fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil. These companies downplay climate change to prevent new environmental legislation from passing.

In July, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report stating that Americans were misinformed for nearly the past three decades and that scientific fraud potentially took place.

The report stated that ExxonMobil funded a supposed independent climatologist from the Smithsonian Institution who denied the effects of climate change. Information such as this gives skeptics ammunition for their denial because their arguments rely on so-called scientific findings that may not be true.

Many people are saying politicians need to do something about climate change, said Riley E. Dunlap, a professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University.

“For many it’s easier to deny the truth than accept government relations,” Dunlap said.

Most politicians opposed to climate change do not refute that the climate is changing. Instead, they have shifted their focus to whether these changes are man-made. In fact, the typical climate change denier doesn’t identify as a denier but rather a skeptic, someone who believes the changes are natural and will do minimal damage.

Despite this opinion, Kahan is not surprised that the public’s initial reaction is to avoid a new scientific finding. Kahan said deniers do not want to change their belief system or identity because it is a “psychologically brutal process” that is terrifying to most. The Identity-Protection Cognition theory, as Kahan calls it, is the reason why science deniers appear to reason in a way that will support their case instead of find the truth.

Kahan wrote that he is more surprised that people are expected to act in a rational way. His research states that an individual’s ability to reason cannot be trusted because it is typically used to protect one’s own identity. But empirical research operates in an entirely different way from how people usually think.

“Science is about what the weight of the evidence is,” he said.