The age of scepticism

The ‘Royal Society’ which was born during meetings of scientific minds at London’s Gresham College in 1660 had a motto: ‘Nullius in verba’ meaning – ‘take nobody’s word for it.’ (The Royal Society). Since its inception, fellows of the world’s first scientific society have included Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking to name but a few. Erstwhile fellow Albert Einstein said “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth,”. This suggests that scepticism is an essential component of science and as a welcome cornerstone of democracy, which should not be dismissed. Indeed, the existential question- “how do we know the world, ourselves and those living in it has been a cornerstone of centuries old ontological and epistemological debates,” (Hetherington, 2009). In 2020, a global pandemic coupled with political instability, social injustice and easy access to social media platforms have created a perfect storm for scepticism to spread, not just about climate, but big tech, the pharma industry, governments and mainstream media. (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Despite wildfires, megastorms, droughts, floods and melting glaciers, scepticism about climate change is a pervasive social phenomena. (Niemeyer S). ‘Climate Change Scepticism’ is used to refer to  ‘individuals or groups who reject or dispute mainstream thought that climate is changing primarily due to human activity and that if it is not addressed, ecosystems and human populations will be severely affected.’ (Van Rensburg W, 2017). This research paper will examine the history of climate scepticism and how it has shaped public opinion. It will highlight pivotal events like ‘Climategate’ and study advocates like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro to explore whether or not their scepticism has affected the integrity of climate science. To conclude – it acknowledges that climate scepticism is a broad term encompassing anything from an all out climate denier to someone who questions uncertainties and looks at how scepticism can affect our fragile environment. 

Where there is science there is scepticism – a brief history 

“What sceptics believe is an important question, because their voices are heard in governments, editors’ offices, boardrooms, and – most importantly – the street. (Black, 2007: 1) 

When scientist Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1768–1830) reasoned there is a factor besides incoming solar radiation that keeps the planet warmer, he was unwittingly the early instigator of early climate scepticism. (Skeptical Science 2019) The scientist and mathematician who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt (Britannica) found that the sun was not alone heating the planet. Irish natural historian John Tyndall (1820-1893) established a link between climate change, CO2 levels and global temperature, representing a fundamental milestone in our understanding of climate change. (Tyndall.ie) Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) claimed in 1896 that fossil fuel combustion may eventually result in enhanced global warming.’ (Nobelprize.org). In 1972, the Club of Rome panel of experts published the ‘Limits to Growth Report’, named the problem of global warming and identified that the burning of fossil fuels was the cause. Global warming as we know it, was identified, but its gravity was not yet known. But as scientists identified climate change, so did big oil companies. During the 1980s ExxonMobile and a slew of other corporations joined this war against science. The company would spend $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to fund groups to spread misinformation about climate science (Climate Reality). Spearheaded by ExxonMobile, the Global Climate Coalition lobbying operation, which was launched in 1989, was made up of Shell, BP, Texaco, who were the early climate sceptics in the war against measures that limit greenhouse emissions. Their biggest success was when they convinced George W Bush, that the Kyoto Protocol would cost too many jobs. (Eckersley, R.).

Fast forward to 2020 and the consensus that humans are causing climate change is shared by between 90 and 100 percent of published climate scientists. (IOP 2016). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that ‘human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century’. This consensus is supported by the National Academies of Science from 80 countries (NASEM). Yet on the other end of the spectrum, a document signed by 31,487 Americans with university degrees in science – including 9,029 PhDs stated they are unconvinced by “the existence of a catastrophic human-caused global warming emergency.” (Petition Project 2018). According to the report, these scientists believe the human-caused global warming hypothesis is without scientific validity; “and that government action on the basis of this hypothesis would unnecessarily and counterproductively damage both human prosperity and the natural environment of the Earth.” (Petition Project). Meanwhile in Ireland, an MRBI Irish Times/Ipsos poll found that while people are convinced of climate change, they are less convinced about measures to combat global warming (MRBI 2019). In the US, a survey by YouGov in 2019 found that 30percent of Republicans are climate sceptics, compared with 4 percent of Democrats. In 25percent of over 55s are climate sceptics (YouGov). Until January 2021, Donald Trump s a climate sceptic is in power, while in Ireland, mainstream politicians and public figures have not shown to be sceptical of climate change in Ireland. Does a climate sceptical leader make the integrity of climate science be examined below.

2.Case Studies looking at Climategate, Donald Trump’s election and Hair Bolanaros popularity examples of where scepticism damaged integrity of climate science

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”. Adolf Hitler. 

This section will examine, if climate scepticism from various actors and situations significantly influenced the integrity of climate science and will examine three case studies.  

2.1 Climategate and science integrity- does anyone still care? 

In November 2009, a server at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia was hacked. Over 1000 emails, dating as far back as 1996 were published in websites run by climate sceptics. These claimed that the emails showed that climate change data was exaggerated. (Russel M). The story was broken by denialists and columnist James Delingpole called it ‘Climategate’. (IOP 2009.) The CRU is one of the world’s leading research bodies on natural and human induced climate change. The emails painted the CRU in poor light. In one particular email the head of the CRU, Professor Phil Jones , related to the preparation of a figure on the status of global climate as: “I’ve just completed ‘Mike’s Nature trick’ of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years … to hide the decline.” The email scandal hit the mainstream media and Phil Jones stepped down from his post, though he would return to his post later. (CNN). He received a slew of threatening emails: One read: “Just a quick note to encourage you to shoot yourself in the head…Don’t waste anymore time. Do it today. It is truly the greatest contribution to mankind you will ever make.” A review chaired by Muir Russell, cleared the CRU of manipulating or falsifying data. “We concluded that these behaviors did not damage our judgment of the integrity, the honesty, the rigor with which they had operated as scientists,” said the review’s chairman Muir Russell.((Independent Climate Review 2010). The scathing verbal attacks on climate science and scientists are actually coming from a relative handful of critics, and they do not reflect a broader resurgence of scepticism. “(Nature 2010). 

The Climate Conference, which began in Copenhagen just weeks later in December 2009 was tarnished as a result, despite the fact that fact checkers confirmed the emails were misrepresented. (Independent Climate Review 2010). The old adage, there’s no smoke without fire comes to mind.   When negotiations over climate change mitigation began at the conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, it ‘undermined’ the conference. (CNN). The incident became headline news and a source of much media interest. But in 2014, some four years after the conference, Oxford University scientists who used Google Trends to track web searches found peaks of interest in stories like ‘climategate’ disappeared within a few weeks. “We found that intense media coverage of an event such as ‘Climategate’ was followed by bursts of public interest, but these bursts were short-lived,” “This suggests no long-term change in the level of climate change scepticism.” (Goldsmith G). “Our results indicate that while such media events are visible in the short-term, they have little effect on salience of skeptical climate search terms on longer time-scales.” Specifically, when the authors (Anderlgess, Goldsmith 2014) punched the term ‘global warming hoax’ into Google Trends, their results showed that the climate ‘sceptics’ did not have a long term effect on the integrity of the scientists and science. They showed that though public and media interest was high at first, evidence shows it fell by 50 percent in six days and by 90percent in 22 days. (Anderlgess, Goldsmith 2014). This shows that despite the fact that scepticism was rife in the media and climate integrity was put under the microscope, people made up their own minds. In this case, ‘Climategate’, though it captured the media’s attention, in the end, the integrity of climate science, was still intact. The findings of the people spoke on this occasion. 

Donald Trump and climate – will his scepticism be his profound legacy?

Long before he declared his intentions to run for President, Donald Trump was stating his belief that global warming was a myth, posting scepticism about climate change from as early as 2009. (Twitter). “Climate Change is a concept created by the Chinese to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”, (Trump, D, 2012) “In the 1920’s people were worried about global cooling–it never happened. Now it’s global warming. Give me a break!”(Trump, D, 2012), ” “They changed the name global warming to climate change because the concept of global warming just wasn’t working!” (2013), “Do you believe this one – Secretary of State John Kerry just stated that the most dangerous weapon of all today is climate change. Laughable.” (2014). “It’s really cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!” (2015). Climate denial was a guiding principle of Donald Trump’s administration and his election to the highest office in the US in 2016 was a referendum on climate change. His winning the election was a triumph for climate change denial itself. His lack of concern over climate meant it wasn’t prioritised over four years, while climate challenges were disqualified. Trump’s policies, which erased or loosened nearly 100 rules and regulations on pollutions in the air, water and atmosphere and saw him pull out of the Paris Accord, which was signed by world leaders in 2015 to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees. (Davenport C, 2020) made global news. At a rally in Nevada in 2018, Donald Trump criticised the Paris accord for being ‘very, very expensive, ‘unfair,’ killing jobs and ‘income killing.’ He famously called climate change a hoax, claimed that the Green New Deal would cost the economy $100 trillion, when in fact the Green New Deal (US congress 2019) lacks specifics that would allow economists to determine what it costs. When he came into office, the independent research firm Lux Research estimated that by 2024, Trump’s proposed policies would increase US carbon emissions by 16 percent- or 3.4 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. (Lux 2016).

The media and Trump- a marriage of sceptics

In 2009 Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon sent an email to the network’s reporters instructing them to always follow worldwide temperature changes with a note about planetary warming “are based upon data that critics have called into question.” (MediaMatters for America, 2010) the email elicited a Stanford survey, which found that higher exposure to Fox News was associated with more rejection of mainstream scientist claims about global warming. 13% of respondents who did not watch Fox News said addressing global warming would hurt the U.S. economy, and this number increased to 27% among people who watched Fox News every day. Likewise, about 14% of Americans who did not watch Fox News said addressing global warming would increase unemployment in the United States, and this number increased to 42% among people who watched Fox News everyday. (J Krosnick 2010). Once Donald Trump ran for president and Fox News became bedfellows, scepticism in climate change consensus became rife in the US. (POS 2019). But how did it damage integrity? Professor of environmental law at Harvard Jody Freeman said; “You can put rules back in place that clean up the air and water. But climate change doesn’t work like that.”  (C Davenport 2020). Despite Trump’s anti climate rhetoric, the American people have not listened en masse. In 2019,  Six in ten American are now either ‘alarmed’ or ‘concerned’ about global warming. (Yale 2019). Alarmed is the most worried, while dismissive is the least so. (Yale 2019.). In their latest survey, the Alarmed segment was at an all time high- 29percent, double the size it was in 2013 and an 8 point increase since March 2018. The Dismissive (9percent) and Doubtful (9percent) have both decreased at the time of survey. 

Donald Trump is no longer president and has left public life. In the Republican party, GOP Senators Lindsey Graham and Cory Gardner launched the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus to advocate “market-based approaches” to environmental issues. Meanwhile Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, who has been known to defend Trump’s rhetoric, proposed a “Green Real Deal” (House of Representatives). as an alternative to progressive calls for a Green New Deal. In Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander suggested a new “Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” to fight climate change. (Worland J 2020). This shows that climate scepticism in these examples, did not shape integrity to a large degree. Though Trump still has loyal followers (Berkely 2020), he has lost his political clout and platform and this will dilute his power.  Joe Biden has pledged to reenter the Paris Agreement. (The Lancet 2020) and pledged to put the US on a path to net zero by 2050. To conclude, this means that Trump’s scepticism will have less clout, though Joe Biden is newly elected and has yet to make a mark on his bid to tackle climate change and the USA’s impact on it. As far as public opinion goes, American people are less sceptical to climate science, than they were when he was inaugurated, which shows that in this case, though scepticism damaged the integrity of climate science, it is slowly being restored. 

2.3 Bolsonaro’s popularity says otherwise.

Before Jair Bolsonaro was elected to office in Brazil, the Amazon rainforest was disappearing at a lessening rate. In 2004, 27,772 square kilometers of rainforest were disappearing. By 2012, it dropped to 4,575 kilometers – a fall of more than 83 percent in eight years. (Sotaroni 2018). The Brazilian government pledged to reduce GHG emissions to 37 percent by 2025, and 43 percent by 2030- a promise made at the COP21 in Paris in 2015. (Boucher 2018). But the people – for a myriad of reasons, mostly disenfranchisement, inequality and injustice voted for Jair Bolsanaro in 2018 despite the fact that Bolsonaro pledged to shut down Brazil’s environment ministry, relax environmental law enforcement and licencing, open indigenous reserves to mining, ban environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and the WWF and back out of the Paris climate accord. (Hunter W).  Under his rule, Amazonian deforestation and carbon emulsions would cause huge loss and destabilise the global climate. (Hunter W). He was vocal about his climate scepticism and still, people voted for him (Lahson M). Since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, deforestation has surged. In September 2019, the National Institute for Space Research said it’s satellite data showed an 84percent increase on the same period in 2018.  (INPE).

Since his presidency,  nearly 30 percent, mostly from illegal logging and forest set by loggers and developers. In July 2020, there were 6,803 forests in the Amazon, up from 5,318 in 2019. In August 2020, there were 15,000 forest fires in the Amazon. (INPE 2020). 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest is in Brazil (WWF). It plays a vital role in absorbing harmful CO2. Its loss has an unprecedented effect on  destabilising the global climate. (Terroni A, Romos F 2018) yet, more people have more faith in Bolsonaro than those who don’t. On top of the climate change issue, and despite dismissing the coronavirus as a ‘little flu’, and opposing measures that would affect the economy, while experiencing over 183,822 deaths (Worldometer Dec 17), he remains popular with the Brazilian people. (Datafolha 2020). This shows that it did shape integrity. The poll shows that 37 percent of those surveyed saw Bolsonaro’s government as ‘great or good’, while 32 percent saw it as ‘bad or terrible.’ His approval ratings remain at their highest since he took office in 2019. This demonstrates that scepticism of integrity in climate science in Bolsanoro’s case, has damaging effects. This in turn, as the Amazonian rainforest is being destroyed at a heightened rate, the statement that scepticism in damaging integrity of climate science does not ring true in Brazil.

The Future

In 2020 climate change became a tangible thing. People saw and felt its repercussions. Wildfires in Australia and US, Brazil’s rainforests burning, rain in the Alps in winter, snow caps melting, meant less people are buying the theory that  ‘It’s all a hoax,’ (O’ Sullivan K). People have watched the news and have realised that in a year that brought us wildfires, drought, and a pandemic that climate change is real. Climate deniers have evolved from hoax callers to having more subtle arguments. As soon as Donald Trump lost his presidential race for a second and thereby lost his political and scientific clout – almost overnight. In his acceptance speech, (Nov 2019) president elect Joe Biden vowed to engage with climate activists and promised to sign the Paris agreement on his first day in office. As more people are experiencing climate change, they are also becoming more sceptical of big oil companies and actors with vested interests. The future will reveal more demand for clarity on climate.

Conclusions- climate change is happening and sceptics are having less impact 

Climate Scepticism is an umbrella term that encapsulates everything from those who call climate hoax to others who question uncertainties and assumptions. In the US, 6 out of ten people are alarmed by climate change (Yale EU). The past summers, the US has been hit with some of the worst wildfires  of the past century. (Global Change.org) Such cataclysmic events are difficult to deny. On top of that, their ringleader will depart in January, and climate change is tangible to more people, the argument for all out scepticism (denial)  is being muted. In 2020, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere was 414 parts per million, the highest in human history. This followed 2019, which was the hottest year on record, with temperatures at 1.8 degrees higher than the 20th century average. (NASA). With these startling statistics, the realities are speaking for themselves and therefore the integrity of climate science, is not by and large not damaged by sceptics. The balance in the future will be to implement means to stop the juggernaut of climate change, but at the same time,  welcoming scepticism about ways of addressing earth’s most pressing issue. 

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