Climate Change Denial 101

An online course teaches students how to debate climate change deniers (and win).

April 13, 2015

Photo: CollegeDegrees360/Flickr

Keeping ahead of climate change deniers is exhausting. The problem is that the simple question “What is causing climate change?” has an infinite number of wrong answers and only a few correct ones. Almost every week deniers cook up some new theory, each more ludicrous than the last: The sun is getting hotter. The thermometers are in the wrong places. It’s all part of a natural cycle. Scientists are liars. Something about cosmic rays. The multiplicity of this claptrap gives climate change deniers an advantage in debates—they know exactly what scientists are going to say, but scientists have no idea what cockamamie theories to prepare for.

For this reason and others, climate change denial has become its own field of academic study, separate from the science of climate change itself. And, like any legitimate field of study, climate change denial has its own massive open online course, or MOOC.

John Cook, a climate communication fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia and the creator of the excellent website Skeptical Science, is coordinating the course. It will feature climatologists, modelers, chemists, computer scientists, meteorologists, and glaciologists—real scientists talking about science, rather than economists, politicians, and media personalities all shouting at the same time. What a crazy idea.

The eight-week course will give students a grounding in the science of the greenhouse effect and climate change (which will hopefully be a review), as well as explain why the most common climate denial theories are wrong. The instructors will address the alleged “pause” in global warming and the role the sun plays in changes to the earth’s temperature.

The teachers will also discuss the psychology of climate denial. Al Gore famously attributed climate science resistance to people’s fear of losing their jobs. Social scientists now tell us that it’s far more complicated than that. Climate change denialism is linked more strongly to political conservatism and dislike of government regulation than to economic vulnerability. This is called “motivated reasoning,” the tendency to accept evidence selectively based on a preexisting belief. As David Robert Grimes pointed out last year in the Guardian, the best quote to describe the situation is not Upton Sinclair’s quip “It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” but rather Leon Festinger’s observation that “a man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

Motivated reasoning is just one of many explanations for the phenomenon. There is also evidence that climate change denial is a form of tribalism or nearsightedness. The psychology of climate deniers is a fascinating topic.

With a virtual diploma from the upcoming MOOC, you can turn a debate with a climate change denier from an argument over science into a deep exploration of your opponent’s motivations and psyche. That’s a lot more interesting than the climate “debate” itself, which is, you know, settled.

The course begins on April 28. Register here. I’ll see you in class.  

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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