Environment

I Was a Climate Change Denier – This Is Why I Changed My Mind

Inside one man's journey to the dark side and back.
February 18, 2021, 9:30am
climate denier illustration
Illustration: Joel Benjamin

Oscar*, 36, didn’t believe global warming was real until his late twenties. Here, he explains why – and what finally opened his eyes to the problem. 

Before climate change denial, there was economics.  

Shortly after starting my economics major at a US college in 2001, I fell in with a group of libertarians. For those who aren’t that familiar with fringe US political parties, libertarians believe in complete individual freedom – they’re often described as “economically conservative but socially liberal”.

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In my case, it meant I believed that the government shouldn’t get involved with economic issues. One of my professors told me where I could find like-minded people and explore these ideas more deeply; he felt like a trusted authority, so I didn’t see what harm there could be in his recommendations. 

He pointed me to a website he wrote for, run by a right-wing organisation called the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. At first, I just read articles related to free-market economics, but there were pieces on all sorts of subjects, including climate change. I blanked out some of the more unsavoury things contributors posted that, in hindsight, scare me now – like apologism for the Confederacy – but the skepticism about climate change seemed to make sense to me. It had to; because I believed what they were saying about economic conservatism, this seemed like the logical next step. And to pick holes in it would mean I would have to question my other beliefs in turn. 

So I became a climate change denier. My position – drawn from scrolling articles hosted on creaky early-2000s HTML pages – rested on a refutation of the basic science. Writers I read were obsessed with something called “the hockey stick graph”, which was data showing the sharp increase in the Earth’s temperature. They were obsessed with proving the graph’s conclusion – that the Earth was getting warmer – was wrong and that the science behind it was flawed.

If someone were to be drawn into an argument with me about the existence of climate change – and this was a frequent occurrence – I would parrot ideas I’d read about the samples used to prove global warming being statistically insignificant, or claim that the scientists who raised the issue were only doing it so their research got funded. I’d also counter argue that experts had been wrong about global cooling in the 1970s – so what’s to say they hadn’t got this one wrong too?

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If people pushed back hard enough and I ran out of arguments, I would resort to a cop out and say, “Well, maybe the Earth is warming… but I don’t think people caused it.” Then I’d quickly change the subject – but not my mind. 

I felt like I had access to secret information. What’s so seductive about these spaces – especially if you don’t feel like you fully fit in anywhere else – is that suddenly you belong to a group. And it comes with knowledge: you feel smart, as if you know things that others don’t – or that people in power have tried to cover up. Plus, when you hold minority beliefs, there’s an element of perceiving yourself as persecuted. Your guard is constantly up, your hackles raised, because you know that what you think is not popular and may make others view you negatively. 

I still had friends outside of these groups, but I argued with them a lot on topics like climate change. I alienated myself without realising it. They couldn’t seem to change my mind on these ideas; I saw myself as the radical one. I would pick verbal fights with people in bars whenever the conversation turned to subjects like politics and climate change. A lot of it was argument for argument's sake. 

The stakes just didn’t seem high enough for me to really care. I thought even if the Earth did start heating up, the worst that would happen would be a little more flooding and we’d all move to Canada, which would have heated up into a tropical paradise. Simple.

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It wasn’t until 2010 that the first turning point came, when I was at my lowest. I moved to Washington DC for a woman who left me the day I arrived. Suddenly, I found myself in a dingy basement apartment, totally at sea. I was surrounded by a much more diverse mix of people, places and cultures, which interacted with each other in a completely different way to the city I’d been living in before. And I realised: everything I had believed ideologically, for the past six years, wasn’t making me happy. I didn’t feel like a good or decent person. 

I began re-evaluating who I was, from putting every stitch of clothing I owned into a pile and re-doing my whole wardrobe, to diving into news stories and political writing from vastly different perspectives. I actually examined the impact that the economic policies I’d previously espoused had when they were enacted, and started questioning everything I knew. And as those foundational economic beliefs fell apart, so did the ones that had gone hand in hand with them – like my denial of climate change.

The second major shift in my attitude to climate change came in 2013. Along with my now-wife, I took a trip to Saint John, in the US Virgin Islands. It was my first time in the Caribbean; I was awed. One night I was sitting outside, gazing up at the Milky Way stretching across the sky. No light pollution, just stars as far as the eye could see. The next day we went snorkelling; I was able to reach out and touch a sea turtle that was lazily swimming beside me and chase the little cuttlefish that gathered around the corals. It suddenly hit me that a lot of this could be gone, or so ravaged by hurricanes that the environment was completely destroyed. I came back from that trip thinking very hard about what the consequences of climate change really looked like – now they had become horribly easy to envisage.

Climate change is happening. Now, it makes me sad to think that the incredible nature I get to enjoy might not be preserved for my two children if we don’t do something. I try and do my bit; I have a quarter acre suburban tract where I plant the flowers and shrubs that bees, butterflies and other critters will flock to. I recycle, compost, do as much as I can to make the family business sustainable and help my employees reduce their carbon footprint. I aim to make my segment of life as beautiful and natural as I can. 

I’m an optimist, though; I don’t think the outlook is hopeless just yet. If I did, I wouldn’t have brought my kids into the world. I have faith we can come together and fix things. But on an individual level, if you can’t – or won’t – lobby for change, you have to do all you can to make the world a better place. 

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The tricky part about climate change denial is that, for me, I didn't alter my thinking because I stared at data until my eyes bled or was shouted out by someone who disagreed. It came from being vulnerable and open, re-examining my beliefs and understanding what was at stake. Holding the sand in my hand, petting that turtle. It’s hard to recommend a policy prescription that can be applied at large to angry young people who have often gone down a rabbit hole of views like this via more “acceptable” entry routes, such as economics. 

What frightens me is when I look at where a lot of people who wrote for the websites I sourced my views from have ended up. Many of them are prominent figures in the alt-right now. At the time, I wrote off that stuff, ignored it, but now I see that a lot of what I was reading about – the right-wing economics, climate change denial – was window dressing for other people who are now selling a racist agenda. That’s very appalling to me, to think of how close I got to that, and how, if things hadn’t been different, my beliefs could have mutated into something much, much worse.

If I was to encounter my past self at a bar, I would try to have a respectful conversation with him about climate change. I wouldn’t argue, per se – knowing the kind of attack dog I was, fighting fire with fire would just entrench my views more. I would ask who his sources were, where are they from, why he trusts them. I’d develop a dialogue that goes beyond the barstool. If you haven’t got a turtle to hand, you’ve got to start somewhere.

*Names have been changed

@mlothianmclean / @_joelbenjamin_