Risk, doubt, and the burden of proof in the climate debate

Risk, doubt, and the burden of proof in the climate debate
Barbara Freese
Sat, 05/16/2020 - 14:20

Excerpted from " Industrial-Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change " by Barbara Freese, published by the University of California Press. © 2020 by the Regents of the University of California. The above is an affiliate link and we may get a small commission if you purchase from the site.

The Hubris of Denial: Risk, Doubt, and the Burden of Proof

There are many reasons why the risks of climate change would not fully register in the human mind. In addition to the denial-provoking gravity of the threat, climate change is not the type of risk our minds evolved to detect. It is gradual, and it derives largely from the familiar and widespread practice of burning fossil fuels. It is something we all contribute to and cannot just blame on enemy evildoers. And it manifests as natural phenomena like heat waves, droughts, fires, storms and floods; we need experts, assessing global data and long-term trends, to tell us if what is happening is truly unusual. As such, climate change just does not provoke the sense of threat we would get from a stalking tiger, a hostile attacker or an eerie and unrecognizably novel situation. All these factors surely make it easier for climate deniers to internally deny the risk and to convince others to do the same.

But what exactly are they still denying? The Heartland Institute has for years hosted conferences where climate deniers talk to each other and the media (events known to critics as "denial-paloozas"). At one such event in 2014, speaker Christopher Monckton surveyed the room and declared that everyone there agreed that humanity’s "emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have contributed to the measured global warming since 1950." His point was to make it clear that "we are not climate change deniers." Monckton also predicted additional CO2-emission-driven warming in the decades ahead, though less than the consensus predictions. (He undermined his bid to appear reasonable, though, when he went on to berate the media for ignoring facts that "go against the climate Communist party line.")

What continues to define these people as "deniers" in my book is their unshaken belief that climate change is simply no big deal and there is no reason to go out of our way to prevent more of it. "There is no need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and no point in attempting to do so," as one recent Heartland document succinctly put it.

One reason people might be confused about how much climate deniers actually accept about the science is the vitriolic rhetoric of so many of them. Only two years before this conference, Heartland had issued its press release saying that manmade global warming was a "fringe" view (held by mass murderers, etc.) and that still believing in...