Global warming and climate change have been a topic long debated, especially in the political realm. Several conspiracy theories have developed over time that surround the topic, mainly formulated by those that deny the existence of global warming and climate change. These conspiracy theories have gained a following and have evolved over time through several modes of dissemination, and continue to be debunked using the facts shared by climate researchers.
The theory of human induced global warming was proposed by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in the late nineteenth century (Graham, 2000). He stated that he believed that emissions from industrial processes might cause alterations in the Earth’s climate. Since this proposal, scientists have argued over the issue. Later, Dr. S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric and space physicist, spoke out against the theory of human induced global warming and climate change (“Interview Dr. S. Fred Singer” n.d.). He stated that the process was completely natural and that humans would be able to find a way to adapt to the changes. He sparked a new wave of climate change denial in the mass media. Several theories have been formed suggesting that global warming and climate change are not a real threat. These include that scientists are hiding or altering climate date to push their agendas, climate scientists are using alarmism for their own economic gain, that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to help them outcompete United States manufacturing, that climate change is an elaborate scam against tax payers, and that the theory of climate change itself is an invention of activists, university researchers, and profiteers for their own economic gain. Typically, these theories center around politics and the political and/or economic agendas of scientists and climate change believers. All of these theories have been shared by their adherents through various outlets, including books, newspaper articles, and other internet sources including social media and partisan news websites. Most adherents of the global warming conspiracy are conservatives or lean more toward right wing political association. However, the opinions of these adherents are not shared by a majority of scientists. In fact, multiple studies have shown that approximately ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that the current trends in global temperature are due to human activities (“Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming”, 2016).
In November 2009, it was discovered that over a thousand emails and documents were stolen and/or leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, or CRU (Carrington, 2011). The correspondence was published online, and this caused the public to question science and scientists. This scandal was termed Climategate. This scandal gave climate change deniers the opportunity to give evidence to their claims surrounding the phenomenon. Climategate involved CRU staff that were in correspondence with other leading climate scientists around the world. Phil Jones, the head of the CRU, was one of the staff members principally under investigation for his correspondence. The CRU typically specializes in utilizing past thermometer data and other data sets to aid in reconstructing more accurate and precise records of Earth’s temperature from the past. This scandal was particularly upsetting to the public because it posed questions surrounding access to scientific data and the scientific research review process. Scientific research requires that data be checked by various researchers to see if the results are similar. This requires access to any and all raw data, but in the case of the CRU’s temperature data, not all of it was publicly available. Since their data sets had been put together over a long period of time by utilizing several different resources, the scientists working at the CRU were hesitant to share their temperature data with people that they thought were not going to use the information responsibly. During the peer review process of several other papers, it appeared as though the email correspondence between these scientists also served as a way for them to figure out how to stop other papers from being published. Those papers appeared to critical of the CRU’s research. There were four separate investigations that looked into the issues surrounding Climategate. The House of Commons science and technology select committee was the first to report their investigations. They questioned Phil Jones and other CRU workers in person and ultimately concluded that the CRU’s reputation was “intact” but that they had data access issues that needed to be resolved, which fell on the University (Carrington, 2011). Another report concluded that making the data that was used by the CRU public was the responsibility of the scientists that collected it, not necessarily the responsibility of the scientists that were reconstructing it. The biggest investigation was done by the university, which found that the scientists had not altered results or silenced anyone who disagreed with them, but that scientists needed to be more open about their research. The final investigation was conducted by Norfolk police where they tried to determine how the emails became public in the first place. As far as the content in the emails is concerned, there was nothing that was found that would indicate that scientists were hiding things or attempting to keep other scientists from being published. While some incriminating phrases were used in the emails, such as “trick” and “hiding the decline”, the emails give no indication that climate scientists were trying to keep information from the public (“Debunking Misinformation About Stolen Climate Emails”, n.d.). The term “trick” in these emails, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, refers to a technique that was being used by the climate researchers while pooling data together (“Debunking Misinformation About Stolen Climate Emails”, n.d.). They decided that comparing temperature data that was collected from thermometers to that collected from tree rings would give other scientists and researchers the opportunity to better understand climate prior to the widespread use of thermometers to record global temperature data. Combining these data sets would allow older data to be interpreted more accurately. “Hiding the decline” refers to the omission of data that was collected from some trees in Siberia after 1960 because there were some trees that acted as outliers (“Debunking Misinformation About Stolen Climate Emails”, n.d.). Some trees had thinner rings than the researchers expected as compared to the actual thermometer data, and scientists are still trying to figure out why these trees specifically are outliers in this data set. Overall, there was no conclusive evidence of a violation of scientific integrity by researchers at the CRU.
Climate alarmism is the use of “scare” tactics by believers in climate change to convince people to take action and make changes to slow the effects of climate change on the human population. Some examples of these tactics include reporting lists of things “that could go extinct thanks to climate change” and trying to convince people that without changing habits, we could lose the ability to eat certain foods or do certain things (Williams, 2016). There are some conspiracy theories surrounding the use of these tactics. There is a theory that claims that climate scientists are using this alarmism as a way to make money (Black, 2014). Theorists believe that climate scientists are prolonging the life of the ruse because the grant money that they get to pursue the science is somehow making them rich. However, there is no evidence to support these claims. There is evidence to support claims that climate change in costing money, but not on the research itself. Extreme weather events associated with climate change have already cost millions of dollars on infrastructure. This includes taking precautionary measures against rising sea level. If anything, scientists have worked hard to inform the public about the impending negative effects of global warming and climate change, giving governments the tools they need to implement legislation assisting in reducing these effects.
In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted that he believed that China is using the “concept of global warming” to reduce and/or eliminate manufacturing competition in the United States (Wong, 2016). He has since said that it was a joke and that he just believes that it is “just a very, very expensive form of tax” and that China “couldn’t care less” about what carbon wastes they put into the environment (Jacobson, 2016). Trumps claims about China have caused the country to come forward to explain that they plan to continue trying to put an end to the negative effects of climate change, no matter what (Wong, 2016). This seems to be a role reversal for the United States and China, and China may need to take on a leadership role in worldwide efforts to slow the effects of global warming and climate change. Despite saying that he was joking, Trump has continued to question the existence of global warming several times since he posted this tweet, and even claimed that colder weather patterns forced people behind the hoax to coin the phrase “climate change” as a way to be more inclusive of all changes in temperature (Scherer, 2016).
Some conspiracy theorists have shared beliefs that global warming is a tax scam that is costing taxpayers over $1.5 trillion a year. In his speech published to Breitbart News, James Delingpole explains how global warming is negatively affecting taxpayers (2016). He first calls global warming an “industry”, saying that the money we spend on the global warming industry is “roughly the amount we spend every year on the online shopping industry” (Delingpole, 2016). He goes on to say that the difference between online shopping and global warming is that the former provides people with something that they want, while the latter is a con. If the government were to stop funding the global warming industry through grants and taxpayer subsidies, then it would be worth almost nothing, according to Delingpole. He uses wind farms as an example, saying that they’re expensive, hazardous, and environmentally unfriendly because they kill birds and bats and utilize “rare earth metals from China” (Delingpole, 2016). Later in his speech, he asks his audience if they truly want to live in a world where those that work hard for their money have it taken from them to be spent on frivolities like the global warming industry, and then he says that this use of funds is causing harm in other ways as well. These include his beliefs that teaching climate science in schools is a sort of “brainwashing of schoolchildren” and that “the misallocation of resources” is similar to that of Communist countries (Delingpole, 2016).
Steve Bannon and Breitbart News have claimed that global warming is actually invented by activists, scientists, and climate researchers to gain economic and government power (Lavelle, 2016). Bannon has said that government bills and other legislation that combat climate change are “madness” (Lavelle, 2016). At one point, Breitbart News actually suggested that a group of Marxists had taken control of the Vatican after Pope Francis urged people to work toward stopping climate change and protecting the environment. Bannon blames capitalism for causing so many issues with alternative energy, saying that members of private businesses have been receiving government subsidies for investing in or utilizing forms of alternative energy. However, subsidies for fossil fuels are actually higher than those for alternative energy sources. Fossil fuel subsidies are currently totaling at almost $500 billion, which is more than four times the amount spent on subsidies for renewable energy sources. Breitbart News has also claimed that the recent signing of the Paris climate agreement is a “threat to U.S. sovereignty” because it was created to “evade the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that treaties must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Senate” (Pollak, 2015).
There are several ways in which the issues surrounding global warming and climate change have arisen in pop culture and society, other than typical arguments on social media and rants from partisan news sources. Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth highlights the impacts that humans are having on average global temperature rise, which is having devastating effects on the planet. Leonardo DiCaprio released his own documentary on climate change in late 2016 in which he discusses the ways in which humans have affected global climate, and also the ways that humans can help to resolve the issue. Coined by Science Friday, the “cli-fi” genre is a genre of movies, books, and even some music that utilize climate change as an integral part of the plot. Some examples of the movies from this genre include The Matrix and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Echter, 2016).
The long debated topic of global warming and climate change has sparked the creation of several conspiracy theories. These theories have been disseminated by conservatives or right-wing groups that deny the science behind climate change, or believe that liberal or left-wing groups are using the science to push their agendas. While many of these theories have been debunked, people continue to believe that the government is wasting tax money on research, most likely because of a constant distrust in government.
Black, D. (2014, May 20). Vast global warming conspiracy exposed: Column. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/05/20/climate-change-blame-effects-column/9325981/
Carrington, D. (2011, November 22). Q&A: ‘Climategate’ Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jul/07/climate-emails-question-answer
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Delingpole, J. (2016, March 28). Climate Change: The Greatest-Ever Conspiracy Against The Taxpayer. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/03/28/climate-change-the-biggest-conspiracy-against-the-taxpayer-in-history/
Echter, B. (2016, April 8). 16 Pieces of Pop Culture About Climate Change, From Atwood to Spielberg to the Pixies. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/16-pieces-of-pop-culture-about-climate-change-from-atwood-to-spielberg-to-the-pixies/
Graham, S. (2000, January 18). Svante Arrhenius. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Arrhenius/
Interview Dr. S. Fred Singer. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/warming/debate/singer.html
Jacobson, L. (2016, June 3). Did Trump say climate change was a Chinese hoax? Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jun/03/hillary-clinton/yes-donald-trump-did-call-climate-change-chinese-h/
Lavelle, M. (2016, November 16). Steve Bannon’s amazing trip from climate conspiracy theorist to a Trump White House post. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/16112016/steve-bannon-trump-white-house-climate-conspiracy
Pollak, J. (2015, December 13). Climate Change Deal Is a Threat to U.S. Sovereignty. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/12/13/climate-change-deal-is-a-threat-to-u-s-sovereignty/
Scherer, J. (2016, November 17). China tells Trump climate change is not a Chinese hoax. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/11/17/china-tells-trump-climate-change-is-not-a-chinese-hoax/?utm_term=.8ac0a22e8a55
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Williams, T., Ph.D. (2016, November 7). The Real ‘Politics of Fear’? Climate Alarmism. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/11/07/real-politics-fear-climate-alarmism/
Wong, E. (2016, November 18). Trump Has Called Climate Change a Chinese Hoax. Beijing Says It Is Anything But. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/world/asia/china-trump-climate-change.html?_r=0