There’s nothing special about climate change denial

Posted on April 28, 2012

Climate scientists and environmentalists are all in a tizzy about ‘climate change denialism’. They seem unable to understand how there is still a vocal minority that refuses to believe.

My question today is – why is anyone annoyed or even surprised about this?

In a recent email list I belong to, someone asked why there was this resistance to climate science when, for instance, nobody would think to deny the science associated with the health effects of smoking.

Well, I beg to differ.

As a teen I remember picking up out of curiosity an issue of my father’s British Medical Journal and reading an editorial which was an angry excoriation of the outrageous suggestion that smoking was harmful to health. It was described as ‘quack medicine’. This was a time when population based epidemiology was in its infancy. I’m not quite sure why this episode sticks in my mind but it does.

It has taken over 50 years to get a degree of acceptance of the science behind the health effects of smoking. And even then, I’m not quite sure how the individual smoker sees it even today. Many of those I speak to accept the abstraction of health effects at a population level but have reasons to keep believing that they do not apply to them. And how do policy makers see it even today in those countries where smoking rates keep increasing at rapid rates and where there are few or none of the policy initiatives we see in Western countries? So, in effect, there is still a substantial degree of ‘denialism’ (if we want to call it that) about smoking both at the individual and policy making levels.  And this over half a century later for a science that is much simpler than climate science and for effects that are much easier to understand and much more personally relevant to people than those of climate change.

Also bear in mind that the science behind smoking and the communication of that was happening in a different era. It was an era where the eminent scientist was highly respected. Today we live in a post-modern world. The time is long gone when the words of the eminent scientist or the public letter signed by a collection of the Great and the Good actually got some attention. Today, it is more likely that such a public pronouncement will be the subject of debate and even derision throughout the blogosphere where everyone has an opinion and where every opinion seems equally valid. New times call for new visions and new ways of acting and exercising influence.

Debate and denial of what is the scientific consensus is not something that has suddenly appeared with climate change. It is still the case today with smoking – 50 years on. So let’s get over it. There is nothing special about climate change denial. We need to focus on finding ways to be effective in what is the real world. We know that preaching from on high is not only ineffective, it has simply become an unacceptable annoyance in today’s world. While explaining the science is necessary, it is, and always will be, insufficient.  We need to explore ways to be effective in a fast moving, cyber-connected, post-modern world of many opinions. A world which refuses to bow to the received wisdom of ‘the expert’. To persist with attempts at imposing from on high while refusing to accept today’s reality constitutes what might reasonably be called ‘real world denialism’.


A short discussion paper comparing smoking and climate change issues can be downloaded here