Never the Twain Shall Meet

The debate between climate skeptics and those who subscribe to the climate orthodoxy that human activities are creating a climate apocalypse because of consumption of fossil fuels has been on going for close to three decades and shows no signs of abating. On a range of topics, debates among reasonable people lead to greater understanding and common ground.

That has not happened in the climate debate even though empirical evidence in the form of the climate’s behavior has rebutted a number of the advocate’s claims. Temperature increases essentially halted after 1998. Extreme weather events, like hurricanes, have not increased. And, sea level rise has not accelerated. Why is it that contrary evidence has not led to advocates moderating their position?

Psychologists and some communication experts have done research on why some people refuse to accept evidence that is contrary to their beliefs. They label this phenomena “confirmation bias”. Climate advocates want to believe that human activities that produce CO2 emissions are the primary cause of global warming or climate change. The climate orthodoxy leaves little room for reflection or reassessment.

Researchers have concluded that when someone wants a concept to be true, they often stop searching for information that would refute their belief. Shaman Heshmat, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, has written, Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions”. This is characteristic of environmental zealotry.

More recent research on confirmation bias demonstrates the difficulty of getting some people to accept corrective information and facts. Attempts to counter confirmation bias often backfires and actually strengthen the biases. This is confirmed in a research paper, When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, by Nyham and Reifer. Based on their experiments, they conclude that “corrective information in news reports may fail to reduce misperceptions and can sometimes increase them for the ideological group most likely to hold those misperceptions” and “responses to corrections about controversial political issues vary systematically by ideology”.

A related article in the Harvard Business Review, Why Debunking Myths About Vaccines Hasn’t Convinced Dubious Parents by Christopher Graves, a communication expert, reinforces the conclusions of Nyham and Reifer about why it is so hard to change strongly held views. Graves concludes that arguing facts makes a situation worse for some who will only accept evidence that is consistent with their beliefs. He also believes that people who hold incorrect views will be more likely to change their minds through a process that does not challenge them and that makes it easy to replace their incorrect narrative with an alternative one. In the case of climate advocates, that would require an epiphany by some who subscribe to the climate orthodoxy.

The research on confirmation bias makes it clear that common ground on that the climate change is to illusive and the debate will continue for some time to come. The continued accumulation of evidence that CO2 emissions are not THE primary cause of climate change may be necessary but it won’t be sufficient.   Since the Club of Rome and Limits to Growth movement, environmental elites have moved from one catastrophe to another. In time some other narrative is likely to come along to replace climate change but that will not change the deeply held belief that human activities are threatening life on earth. Climate change proves that dread is wealth generating.


Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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