A Culture of Denial

The upcoming Copenhagen Climate Conference next month represents a tremendous possibility for the U.S. and the rest of the world to seriously commit to sustainable development.  Many questions still surround the Obama administration and whether it is willing to support the needed cuts in CO2 emissions in order to avert climate change disaster.  As the follow up to the Kyoto Protocol, Copenhagen is meant to strengthen European nations’ commitment to the development of renewable energy, as well as to bring in countries such as the U.S., India, and China, which to this point, have not made legally binding global commitments to CO2 reductions.


The Obama administration has stepped away from the extreme intransigence of the Bush administration, which long refused to concede that global warming is a serious problem.  Obama and Congressional Democrats have made a modest attempt to address climate change with their support for “Cap and Trade” legislation, despite the consistent efforts of Republicans to derail the initiative.  Current legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate, opposed by Republicans, will commit the U.S. to a 17-20 percent decline in greenhouse gases by 2020 (from 2005 levels), and a planned reduction by more than 80 percent by 2050.  Such cuts, although a marked break from the Bush administration’s intransigence, fall short of the demands of environmental NGOs, environmental groups, and scientists who call for a 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020.  Cap and Trade has also been criticized for failing to offer a comprehensive vision for the future for how to wean Americans off of the carbon economy, and for failing to address the underlying tension between economic dogmas that assume limitless resources and endless growth on the one hand, and demands for sustainable development on the other. 


One of the greatest obstacles to fighting climate change is the culture of ignorance and denial surrounding the science of global warming in the United States.  First the good news: as of October of 2009, 57 percent of Americans feel that there’s “solid evidence of global warming,” while 65 percent think that global warming is a “very serious or somewhat serious problem.”  The bad news is that just 36 percent of Americans – barely more than a third of the country – believes that global warming is taking place “because of human activity.”  Even worse, the percentage of Americans who believe that global warming is occurring has declined in recent years.  According to the Pew Research Center, although 57 percent of respondents believe there was evidence of global warming as of 2009, that figure has declined from a high of 77 percent of Americans from 2006 to 2007 – a full 20 percent drop in just two years!


Scholars are left to wonder, just what is it that accounts for the increasing ignorance of the American public?  The scientific consensus on global warming certainly has not changed in the last few years.  Scientists continue to agree that global temperatures are closely indexed to CO2 concentrations, and that such concentrations are currently at an all time high for recorded human history.  Scientists also agree that the earth has gotten warmer in recent decades (by about one degree Celsius, with another .6 degrees of warming probably unavoidable), and that much of this warming is the result of human activity.  Furthermore, scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn that if CO2 emissions are not brought under control, it could spell disaster for humankind.  At the current concentration of more than 380 CO2 parts per million in the atmosphere, IPCC scientists warn that the manageable level of risk from CO2 emissions should not grow beyond 450 parts per million, and that action must be taken immediately so that a “peak and decline” in emissions is reached within the next 10 to 15 years.  The IPCC predicts that, if world temperatures increase uncontrollably (for example, by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius in coming decades), that it could lead to the extinction of between 40 to 70 percent of species worldwide.  Other predictions include the flooding of coastal areas, the mass extinction of coral reefs, the melting of the polar ice caps, and an increase in global drought, among other developments.


So what are the major barriers to overcoming public ignorance about the dangers of global warming?  My own review of the Pew Research Center data suggests a number of culprits.  Statistical analysis reveals that some demographic groups are systematically more likely to reject the consensus that global warming is real.  These groups include: older Americans (as compared to the young), Republicans and Conservatives (as compared to Democrats and Liberals), whites as compared to non-whites, men as compared to women, born again Christians, and the wealthy.  Many of these variables have one major thing in common: privilege.  In general, privileged Americans are more likely to be ignorant about the dangers of global warming than those who are less privileged.  This shouldn’t be all that surprising, considering that America’s economic and political elites have benefitted from an unsustainable economic system for decades – one that has presided over the degradation of the natural environment in the pursuit of profit and greed. 


The sad reality today is that our capitalist economic system has blinded America’s privileged elites to the dangers that their actions pose to humankind.  Equally problematic is the industry that’s sprung up in the American press that’s dedicated to questioning the scientific consensus on global warming. 


The power of the mass media to actively foster ignorance should not be underestimated.  Environmental advocates such as Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio have made major contributions to the public consciousness on global warming with documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth and 11th Hour.  However, the backlash against these efforts has been just as dramatic.  Conservative radio and television lead the way in the global warming denying, flat-earther crusade.  A brief review of conservatives’ attack on science is illuminating:


Bill O’Reilly: On the science of global warming – “Who knows?  It’s all guesswork, and I’ll leave the definitive word to the deity…As you may know, global warming is cyclical, and right now is the focus of a ferocious debate.”


Rush Limbaugh: “Scientists are being intimidated if they disagree with the idea that burning fossil fuels has increased carbon dioxide levels.  The earth has not been warming since 1998, and this year (2009) is colder than the previous year.  It’s cooling.  This is not anecdotal.  It’s scientific, temperature research surveys.  We are actually cooling.  We’re having record cold temperatures in over two-thirds of the country and throughout the Northern Hemisphere this winter!”


Sean Hannity: “You know what’s funny?  I see how the whole global warming debate, everyone’s politicized the whole thing.  It’s funny.  If you look at the industry of temperatures, there’s a natural ebb and flow to all of this.”


Glenn Beck: “Al Gore’s not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them.  It is the same tactic, however.  The goal is different.  The goal is globalization.  The goal is global carbon tax.  The goal is the U.N. running the world.  Back in the 1930s, the goal was to get rid of all of the Jews and have one global government…You got to have an enemy to fight.  And when you have an enemy to fight, then you can unite the entire world behind you, and you seize power.  That was Hitler’s plan.  His enemy: the Jew.  Al Gore’s enemy, the U.N.’s enemy: global warming.”



As recent studies demonstrate, conservative media pundits enjoy a tremendous reach when it comes to perverting public debate on the environment.  Of the more than 220 million Americans who are over 18, an estimated 50 million, or 22 percent, listen to talk radio every week.  According to the Center for American Progress, over 90 percent of talk radio is dominated by conservatives, translating into a massive audience for climate deniers.  Additionally, the Pew Research Center estimates that 23 percent of Americans (or 52 million people) count themselves as regular Fox News viewers.  Fox enjoys a following from across the political spectrum, as 49 percent of its viewers are either Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party, whereas 39 percent are either Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party.


The power of the climate denying industry does not end with conservative media either.  Scholarly studies find that climate skeptics receive significant attention throughout most mainstream media outlets.  A recent study by scholars Jules and Max Boykoff finds that reporting in elite newspapers from the late 1980s through the post-2000 period regularly included the claims of global warming skeptics alongside scientists’ warnings.  53 percent of articles provided equal attention to conclusions that “humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is the result of natural fluctuations.” 35 percent of stories stressed the role of humans while presenting “both sides” of the debate, whereas just six percent of stories provided only the scientific consensus that humans are responsible for global warming.


The practice of placing global warming skeptics – who are often conservative think tank pundits or representatives from fossil-fuel based industries – on par with scientists in terms of their credibility is referred to as “false balancing.”  False balancing mistakenly provides the impression to readers that “the experts” seriously disagree on global warming.  As veteran reporter Ross Gelbspan explains, “The professional cannon of journalistic fairness requires reporters who write about a controversy to present competing points of view.  When the issue is of a political or social nature, fairness – presenting the most compelling arguments of both sides with equal weight – is a fundamental check on biased reporting.  But this canon causes problems when it is applied to issues of science.  It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of view on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when they actually do not.”


The negative effects of false balancing, superficial coverage, and conservative attacks on global warming science are entirely predictable.  Communication scholar Kris Wilson finds that those who rely on television news (a traditionally shallow medium) retain “less cognitive knowledge about greenhouse gases and atmospheric gases…very few of these respondents are equipped with global warming knowledge to partake in global warming public policy” debates.  Another study by Professors Jessica Durfee and Julie Corbett finds that readers who are exposed to articles that discuss global warming as controversial are less certain about the reality of global warming than those who follow news stories providing a context for the scientific consensus.


Media propaganda may not be the only cause of global warming ignorance.  The Pew Research Center speculates that the recent economic collapse may have diverted public attention away from global warming in recent years, and that recent downturns in temperature in nine states (during the summer of 2009) may have played some role.  Such explanations, however, are rather limited in their explanatory power if one fails to take into account the effects of media in fostering ignorance.


There is hope for those who wish to challenge climate change deniers.  As my statistical analysis of the Pew data suggests, increased education plays a major role in decreasing public ignorance about global warming.  Progressives share major responsibility for educating fellow Americans about the scientific consensus on climate change.  While conservative radio, T.V., and think tanks may enjoy a privileged economic position in the mass media, progressives can take advantage of their power in numbers, in addition to the support of the scientific community, in challenging global warming distortions.  The very fate of the Copenhagen meeting and the planet are in the balance.




Anthony DiMaggio teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent (February 2010, Monthly Review Press).  He can be reached: adimagg@ilstu.edu

Leave a comment