California's record-breaking drought. Britain's record-breaking floods. Australia's unprecedented heat wave. And the polar vortex, times three. The only thing that matched the degree of extreme weather we saw this past winter was the extreme amount of climate denial that arose in response.
The overwhelming majority of Americans, and nearly all scientists, believe that climate change is real and caused by human activity. Yet some very loud, very wrong people continue to insist otherwise. The drought and the floods have both become excuses to debate whether climate change was responsible, and from there, to question the legitimacy of climate science. The heat wave Down Under was ignored in favor of the United States' chilly weather -- and yet, per Rush Limbaugh, the polar vortex itself was a "hoax" created by the left. In the wise words of Pat Robertson, it's "idiocy" to believe in global warming because it's cold outside. In the even wiser (?) words of Donald Trump:
So what gives? Obviously, a great deal. But a few recurring themes that cropped up over this winter's most aggressive denials may give us some idea of what's going on in deniers' heads.
Theory 1: They don't understand science
The most simplistic of climate deniers are those who looked out their windows this winter, saw that it was snowing, and reasoned that global warming therefore can't be real. This speaks to a basic confusion of the difference between weather and climate. (If you'd like a much more thorough debunking of weather-based climate change denial, read this.)
It's also a classic example of confirmation bias: Deniers get giddy when it snows because it appears to confirm their belief that Earth isn't really getting warmer. To understand why that doesn't make sense, one need only look at the average global temperatures. Yes, it was very cold in parts of the U.S., but zoom out and it becomes clear that last month, overall, was the fourth-warmest January in recorded history.
In some cases, it could be a fear of science that is driving this type of thinking. A recent study out of Columbia University delved further into the weather's influence on perceptions, and confirmed that people are far less likely to say they're concerned about climate change -- or even that they believe it's happening -- on unusually cold days. Climate change, the researchers reasoned, is a complex issue. And when faced with complex issues, people turn not to the most relevant source, but to the one that's most accessible: in this case, what's going on right outside.
A misunderstanding of what scientists take as "proof" may also be responsible for this confusion. While scientists generally agree that a warming climate will lead to extreme weather conditions like drought and stronger, more frequent storms, they are unable to say that climate change definitively caused, say, the polar vortex, or California's current drought.
That doesn't mean that climate change has nothing to do with it. On the contrary: According to climatologist James Hansen, “Increasingly intense droughts in California, all of the Southwest, and even into the Midwest have everything to do with human-made climate change.” And scientists do agree that climatic warming is making the effects of the drought worse. However, because we're talking about larger patterns, the drought isn't "proof" of climate change -- just as cold weather isn't "proof" that it's a hoax. But it's still significant, in a way that cold weather, which is still reasonable to expect in the wintertime, is not.
Theory 2: Big industry is pulling their strings
If you want to see the insidious influence that industry has on climate denial, look no further than Patrick Moore, a darling of the conservative media. On the surface, Moore is everything deniers are looking for: a former co-founder of Greenpeace who has switched teams, proclaiming loudly that human activity is not the dominant cause of climate change. And his influence has been felt: CNBC personality Joe Kernen's recent rant -- in which he compared the science of climate change to medieval witchcraft -- was actually prompted by Moore's testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Moore wasn't actually the co-founder of Greenpeace, although he was a leading figure in the group's Canadian and international branches back in the '80s. But while his fans play up his association with the environmental group, they fail to mention his much stronger ties to fossil fuel-intensive industries: For over 20 years, he's been a paid spokesman for companies involved in "mining, energy, forestry, aquaculture, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing."
In a 2008 statement distancing themselves from their former member, Greenpeace explained:
Patrick Moore often misrepresents himself in the media as an environmental 'expert' or even an 'environmentalist,' while offering anti-environmental opinions on a wide range of issues and taking a distinctly anti-environmental stance...He claims he 'saw the light' but what Moore really saw was an opportunity for financial gain. Since then he has gone from defender of the planet to a paid representative of corporate polluters.
Climate denial on a larger scale -- the misinformation campaigns led by conservative and libertarian think tanks -- is also supported by hefty donations from invested industries. Back in September, before the U.N. released its landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, a top official warned that major corporations were prepared to fund skeptics to undermine the work of climate scientists. That prediction bore out: The Koch brothers-affiliated Heartland Institute released its own report -- tellingly named the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change -- that questioned the IPCC report's validity. The report, like the Heartland Institute itself, failed on almost all measures of credibility, and was written by paid contributors.
Where's that money coming from? Heartland hasn't disclosed the sources of its funding in years (although leaked documents have done some of that work for it), but we know that ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute have been big donors in the past. Most of its money is funneled anonymously through the mysterious Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund -- in 2012, Chicago industrialist Barre Seid was revealed as having used the fund to contribute millions to the institute's "global warming projects."
The Competitive Enterprise Institute is another prime example of industry money muddying the conversation about climate change. Its response to the IPCC report: "We should be worried that the alarmist establishment continues using junk science to promote disastrous policies that will make the world much poorer and will consign poor people in poor countries to perpetual poverty." And its funding: Also not disclosed, although contributors to its annual fundraising dinner provide a hint. According to the Washington Post, the energy sector collectively pitched in $110,000.
Both organizations have a history of downplaying the dangers of smoking, thanks to their ties to the tobacco industry. Their latest activity simply updates the misinformation campaigning for climate change. Tobacco isn't bad for you, they insist, and neither are greenhouse gas emissions. Convinced?
Theory 3: Deniers hate regulations, and they really hate the EPA
Accepting that climate change is a real, human-caused problem requiring drastic, human-driven solutions means embracing the role of government regulation in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. And whether it's due to fears that regulations will drive up prices, or just impede on our freedoms, they know that the best way to challenge the EPA's recent attempts to do so is to undermine the legitimacy of their reasoning.
Seventeen out of the 22 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology are climate deniers, a position that, as ClimateProgress notes, "dovetails with their open disregard for the EPA and the work it does." The committee most recently backed the so-called Secret Science Reform Act, which Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., characterized as "an attempt by climate change deniers to stop the EPA from doing its job.”
Just watch Fox News rail against the agency's efforts to spread "propaganda" to children about climate change. The way Stuart Varney incredulously says, "The EPA," you'd think the lesson plans he's talking about were being sponsored by the Heartland Institute:
Theory 4: They're unable to grasp the big picture
Just as they can take one cold day and say it contradicts the decades-long, global pattern of climate change, climate deniers are constantly prioritizing the here-and-now over the future. How else to explain why Newt Gingrich found it so hard to understand why John Kerry would call climate change “the greatest challenge of our generation”? Kerry's claim actually threw the former House speaker into the Twitter equivalent of a nervous breakdown:
We saw the same thing recently on Fox News, which used plenty of snowy footage to emphasize the ridiculousness of Obama spending money now to combat a problem that will only "maybe" affect us later:
Theory 5: They just don't want to believe it
Climate change is a terrifying prospect, one that scientists warn will change, and potentially destroy, nearly everything about life as we know it. Is it any wonder that some people just refuse to accept the idea of that happening?
Putting forward a theory of his own, Chris Hayes posited that it's just "sexier and more fun" to mock climate change than to admit how screwed we are.
Even worse, of course, is admitting that it's our fault. That's why deniers will continue to insist that observed climate changes are "natural" and "cyclical," and why young Earth creationists Tony Perkins and Ken Ham attribute them to an act of God.
All that really matters now, of course, is what we can do to, if not convert the deniers, then at least push them back into the margins where they belong. Toward that end, it's possible that this awful winter may turn out to have been a good thing. The "silver lining" of the extreme weather we've been seeing, U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres suggested Wednesday, is that climate change is now becoming too real to ignore: "It's unfortunate that we have to have these weather events," she told the Guardian, but they're also a reminder that "solving climate change, addressing climate change in a timely way, is not a partisan issue."
The weather "is giving us a pattern of abnormality that's becoming the norm," Figueres continued. "These very strange extreme weather events are going to continue in their frequency and their severity … It's not that climate change is going to be here in the future, we are experiencing climate change." And sooner or later, it's going to become impossible to deny.