The 12 Arguments Every Climate Denier Uses – and How to Debunk Them

"But what about China?"
September 25, 2020, 8:15am
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Photo: David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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In Europe, you don’t often rub shoulders with someone who doesn’t believe in climate change. Although climate change denial is alive and well in America – not least in the White House – people here mostly accept that climate change is, to some degree, happening.

But that doesn’t mean climate denialism has gone away. Instead, according to new research from the University of Cardiff, it has simply changed shape, into something they call “discourses of delay”. These 12 arguments, favoured by politicians and industry figures, are a more subtle way of downplaying the need for action on climate change than full-on denialism, but no less corrosive to efforts to mitigate damaging climate effects. And they’re filtering into the public consciousness rapidly. Rather than arguing that climate change isn’t happening, now you hear people arguing that it’s too late, too difficult, too controversial, too unfair, too hasty, to take serious action on climate change.

How do you debunk these arguments when you hear them? Tackling these types of misinformation is no mean feat; often they’re put forward in good faith. But explaining to someone the fallacies behind these common discourses of delay can work as what Dr. William Lamb, one of the authors of the Cardiff paper, calls an “inoculation strategy” against future misinformation on climate change.

Here are their 12 discourses of delay, and what you can say to challenge them.

  1. “Ultimately, it’s individuals and consumers who are responsible for taking action”

This narrative first came from the fossil fuel industry. “They funded carbon footprint calculators,” Dr John Cook, a research professor at the Centre for Climate Change Communication, tells me, “and my hat off to them for coming up with an incredibly effective PR strategy to distract the public from the real need, to transform how we create energy.”

It’s not pointless to try to avoid plastic, or to limit your meat consumption but we’ll never convince everybody to do that, plus there are socio-economic reasons why it isn’t possible for everyone. Even if we did, it would be like trying to drain the ocean with a pipette compared to systemic change in polluting industries. One hundred companies are responsible for 71 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

  1. “The UK’s carbon footprint is tiny compared to China’s, so it doesn’t make sense for us to take action, at least until they do”

The report calls this “whataboutism”. The farming industry points the finger at the car industry, and vice versa. Politicians point out that their nation’s global carbon dioxide output is only small (in the UK it’s between 1 and 2 percent of the world total) and so justify inaction.

Firstly, every country could make a version of this argument, and if they did, there would be no hope to limit climate change. Secondly, that 1 to 2 percent figure is misleading, because per capita emissions in the UK are relatively high – about five times as high as India's, for instance. Thirdly, as a technologically and economically advanced nation, we are more able to take action than many other nations, and we have an additional historical responsibility to do so as a country that has polluted a great deal in the past.

  1. “But if we start to reduce emissions, other countries will just take advantage of that to increase their emissions”

You can challenge the narrative that we are necessarily giving something up by lowering our carbon emissions. “There are a lot of benefits to be gained in our everyday lives from mitigating climate change, in terms of reducing local air pollution, more active travel, not spending so much money on fuel bills and so on,” says Lamb.

  1. “People are developing new, green technology right now, we just need to wait for it”

If only. The aviation industry is particularly good at manipulating this argument, so good in fact that Matt Hancock recently claimed that “electric planes are on the horizon”. 

They aren’t. Or maybe they will be, in several decades time, but the IPCC finding is that we need to half our emissions in the next ten years. “You have to demonstrate that these technologies are going to be available in the timeframe that matters,” says Lamb, and at present, climate friendly planes are a pie in the sky.

  1. “We’ve already declared a climate emergency and set ambitious targets”

Targets are emphatically not policies. As a global community, we are extremely bad at meeting environmental targets. Earlier this month, it was announced that humanity has missed every single one of the 2010 Aichi goals to protect world wildlife and ecosystems.

  1. “We need to work with fossil fuel companies, their fuel is becoming more efficient and we’ll need them as a stopgap before widespread renewable energy use in the future”

This kind of greenwashing is “at the heart of industry pushback against regulation”, says the Cardiff report. It is not a foregone conclusion that we need fossil fuels for now in order to transition into using renewables in the future: “We can leapfrog it straight to renewables,” Cook tells me.

And we don’t have the time for a gentle climb down from fossil fuels: it’s ten years.

  1. “People respond best to voluntary policies, and we shouldn’t try to force people to do anything”

Or in other words, what we need is carrots, not sticks. Things like funding high-speed rail to substitute flights, and not frequent flyer levies.

But restrictive measures are a normal and accepted part of life already. Seatbelts, for instance, are a restrictive measure enforced by law for the safety of drivers and their passengers, and the car industry pushed back against them hard when they were introduced. They also can and should be used in conjunction with incentives, it’s not an either/or.

  1. “Taking action on climate change will generate huge social costs. The most vulnerable people in our society will suffer the most from increased taxation”

These are legitimate concerns if put forward in good faith. But, as Cook says, often this is “a straw man argument attacking a basically non-existent version of climate policies,” which are often designed with social justice in mind to ensure that this doesn't happen. 

In any case, you don’t have to increase taxation on the poorest people in society to mitigate climate change. Reducing the cost of train tickets is a good example. And frequent flier levies are a tax on the wealthiest people in our society, who by definition can afford it.

The most vulnerable in society are also the most negatively affected in terms of their health by continuing to burn fossil fuels – coal plants are near poorer parts of the country – and so in fact have the most to gain from green policy.

  1. “Abandoning fossil fuels would slow the growth that has lifted billions of people out of poverty”

Unfortunately, this argument is often a leveraging of human suffering to protect the interests of fossil fuel giants. If we actually cared about the plight of these people, we would be providing renewable energy technology patent free. And fossil fuels are already causing drastic damage to lives in the global south. 

  1. “We shouldn’t act until we’re sure we’ve got perfectly-crafted policies to address climate change”

We are more sure about the impacts and future risks of climate change than we are about cigarettes harming human health, and yet we enact policy to limit people smoking. We don’t need total certainty about outcomes to commit to climate policy, and we don’t require it in any other field of big government decisions, for example, going to war or, dare I say it, exiting the European Union. Taking decisive action on climate change is going to cause a great deal less suffering than either of those examples. 

  1. “Any effective measure to reduce emissions would run counter to human nature and the way we live now, and so it would be impossible to implement in a democratic society”

This is a difficult one, to be fair. We have failed, so far, to change the way we live enough to avert climate disaster. But searching for a way through the challenges is not as impossible as this argument makes it seem. One way to counter this argument, Lamb says, is to look at historical analogies, social justice or civil rights movements, for instance, which have successfully “shifted opinion and shifted policies in the past”. 

  1. “It’s too late to prevent catastrophic climate change and we should get ready to adapt or die”

Climate change is not a binary, of either having climate change or not. “We have already committed ourselves to some climate impacts” says Cook, “but it's not locked in just how bad it will be.” 

You could also argue that there’s a moral failing in taking this view. We in Western Europe, or North America aren’t the first or the most severely affected by climate change, and giving up is giving up on all the people who don’t happen to live where we do.

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