The roots of the climate denial movement go all the way back to the Cold War.
The surprising history of climate change denial can be traced back to fears over nuclear war. Drums 600 / Wikimedia Commons C.C. 4.0 Attribution-Share Alike License
As the summer of 2023 rolled on, it was clearly shaping up as another season of outlandish, even unlivable weather. At least five California cities sweated through single-day record temperatures—Lancaster and Palmdale broke 51-year-old records, soaring above 110 degrees Fahrenheit—and out in Death Valley, “the hottest place on Earth,” the thermometer topped out at 128 degrees, a few short of the record but blistering nonetheless.
Extreme heat was not confined to California. In Florida, Miami and Fort Lauderdale set or tied one-day records (Miami for four straight days) while in Arizona, Phoenix set a record by topping 110 degrees for 19 consecutive days. San Antonio, Waco and Fort Worth, Texas, all set their own records and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, equaled its all-time hottest day.
The influence of climate denial may be the reason anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change has been allowed to reach the catastrophic point that it has.
Nor was heat the only calamitous weather event afflicting the United States in July 2023. Torrential rains pounded the east coast. Montpelier, Vermont, got slammed with the second “100 year flood” in the region in 12 years. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, flooding claimed the lives of five people.
What caused this outbreak of dangerously extreme weather? The same factor that made 71 percent of 504 recent extreme weather events more severe, more likely or both: climate change.
Why It’s Important to Understand Climate Denial
That answer may seem obvious, at this point—so obvious that the media seem sick of talking about it. But there remains a vocal group of politicians, pundits,and just plain folks who either fail to see the obvious, or see it and simply deny it. Included in this group are a small number of scientists who continue to deny that climate change is real or that it has any detrimental effects. Do they have a case?
In a word, no. In fact, the vast majority of their arguments are essentially misinformation or outright falsehoods. But why is it important to understand a bunch of wrong ideas? Because climate denial is a politically powerful force. The influence of climate denial may even be the reason anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change has been allowed to reach the catastrophic point that it has.
The climate denial movement grew directly out of the campaign by the Reagan administration and its allies to discredit predictions of a ‘nuclear winter’ and defend Reagan’s so-called Strategic Defense Initiative.
As Harvard University historian of science Naomi Oreskes, author of the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, said in an interview, “Discrediting science is ... a political strategy—for example, the fossil fuel industry creating the impression that the science on climate change is unsettled stops action.”
Human-caused climate change is generally accepted as a hard scientific fact, with a dominant consensus of scientists agreeing. So where does the political power of the climate denial movement come from?
It All Started With Henry Kissinger
The origins of climate change denial have very little to do with the climate, and a lot to do with the Cold War. Specifically, the ever-present threat during that era that the decades-long standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union would erupt into a nuclear conflict.
The climate denial movement grew directly out of the campaign by the Reagan administration and its allies to discredit predictions of a “nuclear winter” and defend Reagan’s so-called Strategic Defense Initiative, which was designed to give the U.S. a winning edge in a nuclear war with the Soviets (though Reagan claimed it was intended for defensive purposes only).
Here’s how it went.
Henry Kissinger would later become infamous for his dual role as President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state and national security advisor. But more than a decade earlier, in 1957, he published his first book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. The rather dry, academic dissertation became a surprise bestseller. Kissinger’s ideas outlined in the book became a “template” for U.S. nuclear policy, according to a summary by the Hoover Institution.
Kissinger’s central thesis was that nuclear war did not need to be “massive,” as Eisenhower administration policy held. Nuclear war, the 34-year-old foreign policy wunderkind asserted, could be fought in a “limited” fashion. Therefore, nuclear war need not end in “mutually assured destruction,” but was actually winnable.
The belief in winnable nuclear war proved irresistible to Cold Warriors in the foreign policy establishment, who became enamored with the idea that even though each side possessed weapons of Armageddon, the U.S. could still find a way to crush its Soviet enemy. By the Reagan administration of the early 1980s, however, the theory had evolved. Reagan shifted the emphasis to a scenario in which the country could actually shield itself from incoming nuclear missiles. Reagan christened this concept the Strategic Defense Initiative—SDI for short. The public came to know it as “Star Wars.”
Star Wars, Nuclear Winter and Global Warming
While his ideas would lead to the climate denial movement, it should be added that the now-centenarian Kissinger has not joined that movement. To the contrary, he has stressed the need to address the climate crisis through international cooperation. Kissinger did, however, strongly support Reagan’s SDI program.
The theory behind SDI was that “directed energy weapons” such as laser beams could be fired from platforms orbiting in space. These sci-fi weapons, Reagan believed, would vaporize incoming nuclear missiles, rendering the United States effectively invulnerable to nuclear attack.
In 1983, the country’s most popular scientist turned the idea upside down. Carl Sagan was the author of a best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1977 book The Dragons of Eden. In 1980 he co-created and hosted the 13-part documentary TV series Cosmos, which along with his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson made him, as far as the American public was concerned, the literal face of science.
A few years after Cosmos, the normally upbeat Sagan fell into a darker mood. He grew fixated on the need to prevent nuclear war. His obsession developed out of the newly developed theory of “nuclear winter.” With a group of colleagues—who did most of the actual scientific heavy lifting while he handled the publicity—Sagan marshalled evidence that any level of nuclear war, even if one of the sides doesn’t get off a single missile, would be catastrophic.
According to the theory, published in December 1983 by the prestigious journal Science, nuclear war of any scale, limited or otherwise, would spew so much smoke and dust into the atmosphere that the sun’s rays would be largely blocked out, causing the surface temperature of the Earth to plummet. Global famine, frigid climate, toxic air pollution and, possibly, the extinction of the human species would follow in this nuclear winter.
In 1998, with funding from the oil industry giant ExxonMobil, the Marshall Institute took up a new cause—climate change. Or as it was then generally known, “global warming.”
This was not what the Reagan administration SDI hawks wanted to hear. Sagan apparently believed he could change their minds. He would use his personal fame and public platform to take his case to the people. Two months before Science published his academic paper, Sagan took to the pages of Parade Magazine—a Sunday newspaper supplement with a circulation of 32 million. His article, “The Nuclear Winter,” was delivered straight to the heart of middle America.
The SDI hawks were not amused and were definitely not persuaded. In reponse, a group of physicists and astronomers who were hardcore “Star Wars” believers in 1984 formed a think tank they called the George C. Marshall Institute. Along with similar groups, the Institute proceeded to launch an attack on Sagan, accusing him of a “notorious lack of scientific integrity.” They also attacked his nuclear winter theory for its “uncertainty,” though as Sagan pointed out, theories about the end of the human race aren’t the kind of theories that can be conveniently tested.
Eventually, however, it became clear that “Star Wars” wasn’t going to happen. President George H.W. Bush cut its funding in 1991 and in 1993 President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, Les Aspin, announced “the end of the ‘Star Wars’ era.” In 1998, with funding from the oil industry giant ExxonMobil, the Marshall Institute took up a new cause—climate change. Or as it was then generally known, “global warming.”
The Early Assault on Climate Science
According to a 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon and its later incarnation ExxonMobil funneled more than $600,000 to the Marshall Institute to back its climate denial efforts—which included circulating a phony “petition” that purported to have 17,000 signatures of various medical and scientific professionals expressing their doubts about climate science.
As fakes go, the “Oregon Petition,” as it was known, wasn’t even an especially good one. Among the bogus signatures were a “Dr. Geri Halliwell,” ripping off the real name of singer “Ginger Spice” from the then-popular Spice Girls. Other “doctors” whose names made their way onto the petition were identified as Burns, Honeycutt and Pierce—names which would be instantly familiar to fans of the long-running TV sitcom M*A*S*H.
The CEO of the Marshall Institute was a man named William O’Keefe, whose previous qualifications included being an executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, a petroleum industry lobbying group.
Some of the names were real, but all that was required to sign the document was a degree in any science-related field. Undergrad engineering majors could sign the petition, whose sponsors then touted them as climate scientists. The number of “signatories” grew over the years to more than 32,000 and it continued to be cited by climate change deniers for more than a decade after it was first issued in 1998.
The CEO of the Marshall Institute was a man named William O’Keefe, whose previous qualifications included being an executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, a petroleum industry lobbying group. The Oregon Petition came with a cover letter from Frederick Seitz, a prominent physicist who went to work in the 1970s for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company on its “medical research committee,” whose main job was producing work that soft-pedaled or denied the health dangers of smoking. In the 1990s, Seitz staked out a position as a fierce opponent of what by then had become the climate change consensus.
The “Wonderful Gift” of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
In his cover letter, Seitz described the fast-increasing level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emitted by burning petroleum products and the leading culprit in global warming, as “a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution.”
But as with the earlier attacks on Sagan’s nuclear winter theory, the Oregon petition served to create uncertainty over climate change, accomplishing the goal of slowing down action to prevent it.
Taken together, the Trump regulatory rollbacks would allow an additional 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2035.
The Marshall Institute closed its doors in 2015, but its war on climate science raged on. The institute transferred its “work on energy and climate change” to a new think tank calling itself the CO2 Coalition. The new group’s stated aim was to rehabilitate the public image of carbon dioxide and fossil fuels which it accused climate science of “demonizing.”
The largest funding source for the “coalition” was the Mercer Family Foundation, run by the daughter of right-wing hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. The Mercers were major donors to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, as well as to the “alt-right” website Breitbart, whose CEO, Steve Bannon, became the head of Trump’s campaign and later “chief strategist” in the White House.
The Mercers gave about $4 million to various groups engaged in climate change denial, including $150,000 to the CO2 Coalition, making them the group’s largest donors.
The Political Success of Climate Denial
On Dec. 12, 2015, 194 countries signed the Paris Agreement. Under the accord, the countries stated their dedication to reducing greenhouse gas emissions—primarily the result of burning petroleum products—enough to hold the global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius in this century.
On June 1, 2017, less than five months after assuming the presidency, Mercer Foundation beneficiary Trump declared that the U.S. was pulling out of the Paris Agreement.
The pullout wouldn’t take full effect until Nov. 4, 2020, and shortly after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an order for the U.S. to rejoin the accords. But Trump was able to do considerable damage to climate change efforts anyway. According to a New York Times count, the Trump administration rolled back 30 regulations on air pollution and emissions.
An analysis by the private research firm Rhodium Group found that taken together, the Trump regulatory rollbacks would allow an additional 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2035. That amount was roughly equivalent to one third of all U.S. emissions released in 2019, according to the Rhodium report.
Overall, the U.S. performance on slowing climate change has been abysmal. According to the 2019 National Geographic Climate Change Report Card, the U.S. was judged to be “barely trying” to reduce greenhouse emissions. The only other countries to receive that low grade were Saudi Arabia and Russia.
How can this be happening, with such overwhelming research into climate change and its damaging, even disastrous effects on the planet? Climate denial plays an indispensable role in preventing governments, including or perhaps especially the U.S. government, from taking necessary actions.
“The gap between the scientific assessment of climate risks and the actions being taken to mitigate and adapt to climate change is stunning,” wrote Michigan State University sociologist Thomas Dietz in a 2020 paper published by the academic journal Climatic Change. “The active denial of the scientific consensus by some members of the public and some elites is a particularly troubling obstacle to climate action.”
The technology to bring climate change under control already exists, as Time Magazine environmental reporter Alejandro De La Garza wrote in a 2022 report. But the country’s political leaders must make the active decision to use it.
“It’s not necessarily fun to hear that scientific progress isn’t enough—that the world’s fate relies on politicians,” De La Garza wrote. “Scientists and engineers have already created the technologies that can save us. What we need now is the courage to use them.”
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