Opinion Change – Judgement and Decision Making

Anthropogenic Global Warming: How Deniers Have Successfully Manufactured Doubt and Disbelief about Global Warming
November 2, 2010, 5:20 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Within any judgment and decision-making environment, there are inherent difficulties and complexities that make it impossible to make fully informed and deliberate decisions. Central to the political decision-making process, anthropogenic global warming has become a hotly contested topic of discussion that faces a great deal of uncertainty regarding the science and the choices to be made as a response. The global warming regime is comprised of a complex and interconnected network of different constituencies and stakeholders with highly diverse interests and end goals. Focusing predominantly on the Global Warming Deniers, this particular group has one interest in common: to manufacture a belief system of doubt in the public eye and delay any action as a result. In this paper, I will discuss the methods employed by global warming deniers and how they have managed to convince large segments of the population that science has yet to prove the earth is warming due to human activity. Where data is incomplete and uncertain and the causal chain is very complex, individuals will be more vulnerable to the manipulation of those who advertise their point of view.

History tends to repeat itself. Although this old proverb is itself subject to judgment by representativeness, it is significant in recognizing how certain outcomes do in fact share a resemblance. There is strong evidence linking the similarities in the strategies employed by the personnel involved in the tobacco industry, acid rain, ozone regime, and finally global warming (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002). These historical events have one predominant similarity: the goal of the industry personnel to manufacture doubt in public’s eye and create uncertainty about the science involved so as to prevent any regulatory action that would call for a discontinuation of these industry’s products and practices (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002).

The decision criterion to the climate change problem has two options: to act or not to act (Froyn, 2005). This decision imposes heavy costs on present generations, while the potential benefits would be enjoyed by future generations. The costs include large economic losses to nations and private companies by turning to more sustainable and efficient forms of energy, while the benefits would be the prevention of devastating climatic impacts to future human and ecological environments (Froyn, 2005).

The decision regarding greenhouse gas abatement is generally confounded with the perplexity of the situation and the uncertainty of scientific information. Climate change is long-term and climate trends can require decades to reveal themselves (Morrison, 2010). Thus, there is scientific uncertainty in predicating the timing and magnitude of future climate effects caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Froyn, 2005). There are also uncertainties related to identifying the ecological, economic, social, and political impacts of greenhouse gas abatement along with the effectiveness and costs of such policy options (Froyn, 2005).

A ‘Global Warming Denier’ can be defined as an individual or organization that denies and dismisses the science and urgency of global warming research as provided for by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Bray, 2010). By forming a kind of network of organizations consisting of corporate lobbyists, front groups and free market anti-government organizations, these individuals appear to be comprised of a large and unrelated constituency, when in reality they sit in on each other’s boards, publish the same writings, and hire the same scientists (Wagner, 2004).

The motivational pressures and self-interest of corporate representatives leads to the systematic distortion of information in the messages they convey (Gilovich, 1991).  It is in the rational self-interest of coal and oil companies to save profits by preventing any regulatory action against their services and practices. Consequently, these industrial polluters hire corporate representatives to manipulate, hide, and at times invent new data to support their claims and to create doubts about apparent “truths” (Sahlins, 2003).

A belief is not merely based on plain data, but is dependent on a good story to compliment the data (Gilovich, 1991). The motivational need and desire to tell a good story can distort the truth and accuracy of secondhand information (Gilovich, 1991).  Since majority of the population bases their opinion on global warming not from studying the science behind the theory but from what they read and hear in the media, there is an inescapable biasing effect of secondhand information.  The media is a powerful tool that is often abused as a means to impose certain beliefs on those who less educated on the matter. Assuming a significant portion of the population is not capable of evaluating the true risks of global warming science, deniers have promoted and exaggerate their counter-arguments in favour of major corporations. Many red-flag arguments are circulating the Internet and media reports, most of which are based on disinformation and false statements.

The motivational influences of deniers to confuse the public are made easier by cognitive problems experienced by the commons. When faced with complex theories and ambiguous data, people will use shortcuts and make inferences on the basis of simplified models and heuristics (GIiovich, 1991). These shortcuts will lead to systematic biases in judgment as a result. Some individuals may fall subject to the availability heuristic when their belief system is influenced by the frequency of an event occurring (Plous, 1993).  Deniers will cherry pick a single study or event and promote it worldwide so as to cast doubt on the entirety of the issue (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002).  For instance, small inconsistencies in the data will be overemphasized and over-publicized throughout blogs and the Internet, so as to make it appear that there is a general inconsistency in the whole theory itself. Furthermore, as the accounts provided by global warming deniers are frequently retold, the further the argument is deviated from the original source and the more likely individuals will start believing it to be true (Gilovich, 1991).

Global warming deniers like Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg have been very successful in manufacturing doubt about global warming. However, it is important to understand that most of these claims are not published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Initially deniers have claimed that global warming was a myth perpetuated by environmentalists (Ayres, 2004). Later, as scientific evidence became stronger and more solid, deniers argued that if the earth is warming it is due to natural causes and not to human interference (Ayres, 2004).  As science further improved showing the connection between human activity and an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, these individuals suggested that although man is the cause of the earth temperature increasing, it would still be economically unfeasible to do anything about it. (Ayres, 2004)

The opinions of others, especially those of experts, are an important source of information to judgment and decision-making. Climate change is a very complex issue and involves expert opinion that is widely dispersed (Bray, 2010). While most global warming deniers have no established position in climate science, their arguments appear to have validity when backed up important figures of the scientific community. The case of ExxonMobil provides an excellent example of how a multibillion dollar energy corporation can leak into  ‘think-tanks’ such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the International Policy Network, funding them to provide seminars dismissing climate science world-wide (Owen, & Bignell, 2010).

A manufactured controversy about scientific findings gives the impression that there is no consensus within the scientific community when there is one. The global warming theory, as concluded by the IPCC with 90 percent certainty, is that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity have contributed to the increase in global mean temperature and will continue to do so should we run business-as-usual scenarios (Bray, 2010). Why, then, is there still doubt about whether scientists agree or not on the topic of human responsibility for the increase in global mean temperature?

The impression that there is a lack of consensus can be explained by the “attribution theory”. The theory suggests that people make casual attributions based largely on three sources of information: consensus information, distinctiveness information, and consistency information (Plous, 1993). The impression that there is a lack of consensus is essentially a case of neglecting base rate information when making casual attributions (Plous, 1993). Consensus information is not as influential of causal information as that of distinctiveness information (distinct stimuli or entities) and consistency information (same stimuli that arise when same situation occurs) because it is generally comprised of abstract, pallid, and the remote quality of base rate information (Plous, 1993). Therefore, as base-rate information regarding the consensus of scientists about human responsibility for increase in mean temperature is overlooked, there is the impression that there is no consensus on the topic. Attention is drawn to sources of information that are more vivid and salient, such some of the claims made by global warming deniers.  The effects of ignoring base-rate information is evident in the United States, where about half the population believes there to be substantial disagreement among scientists on the topic when in reality there has been a general consensus on the correlation between human emitted greenhouse gases and global warming for about a decade now (Morrison, 2010).

To base an opinion on incomplete and unrepresentative information, one is subject to what is called an “illusion of validity” (Gilovich, 1991).  The problem of hidden and absent data is evident in the industrial polluter’s rational and vigorous resistance of documenting information about the damages they are causing to the commons through their practices and activities (Wagner, 2004). The ability for actors to limit access to information about their products and activities can increase the costs for third parties to research and understand the externalities of such products and activities (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002).

This capacity to hinder third parties from attaining valuable information on the negative externalities of these companies is further exacerbated should the actors decide to actively discredit and obscure third-party research.  In many situations, global warming deniers actively work to discredit third-party research that could result in substantial damage to corporate profits. To attack the credibility of their opponent’s research, some corporate representatives will finance counter-research to produce different result from their opponents or to show that the results of the previous research cannot be reproduced (Wagner, 2004). They will also engage in personal attacks and harassments on individual researchers so as to discourage any further research that would conflict with the interest of these corporate representatives. Therefore, there is insufficient information provided on the effects caused by industries on environmental quality, waste streams, and safety of products (Wagner, 2004). By publicizing only the positive information about a product or activity—keeping the negative externalities a private matter—allows for a misleading and biased account of positive externalities.

In certain situations, individuals may remain “passive but unconvinced” about contradictory data about the global warming controversy. The claimed uncertainty to the data has kept many political figures stuck in this state of mind as indicated by their failure to take the necessary action needed to combat the devastating effects of global warming. By remaining “passive but unconvinced” these political figures are imposing the same effect as that of rejecting the data provided by scientists since the necessary action to combat the effects of global warming has yet to be undertaken (Gilovich, 1991).

Overall, the inherent complexities of the global warming decision-making environment can impose significant difficulties in making fully informed and deliberate decisions. This can be further exacerbated where actors are actively engaged in distorting information so as to promote their own self-interests and those of corporate representatives. In an effort to cast doubt on the entire global warming theory, corporate representatives of industrial polluters seek to stop any regulatory action from disallowing these industries to continue their practices. Global warming deniers employ strategic methods and use systematic measures to discredit the science and to reveal a lack of consensus within the scientific community when in reality there has been one for decades now.  Global warming is faced with incomplete data and uncertainty about the causal chain linking human responsibility to the increase in global mean temperature. The general public must therefore learn to become intuitive statisticians so as to prevent being persuaded by the manipulations of global warming deniers promoting false statements that are based on incomplete, unrepresentative, and misused information.

Works Cited

Ayres, Ed. (2004) Global Warming Deniers Lose a Pet Argument. World Watch, (17)5, 8. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3290480

Bray, Dennis. (2010). The scientific consensus of climate change revisited. Environmental Science & Policy. 13(20), 340-352. doi: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/envsci

Froyn, C. (2005). Decision criteria, scientific uncertainty, and the global warming controversy. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 10(3), 183-211. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828472

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: The Free Press.

Markowitz, Gerald, & Rosner, David. (2002). Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. California: University of California Press.

Morrison, David. (2010). Disinformation about Global Warming. Skeptical Inquirer, 34(2), 48-50. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/44298442

Owen, Jonathan , & Bignell, Paul. (2010, February 7). Think-tanks take oil money and use it to fund climate deniers. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/thinktanks-take-oil-money-and-use-it-to-fund-climate-deniers-1891747.html

Plous, S. (1993). The psychology of judgment and decision making. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sahlins, Marshall. (2003). Artificially Maintained Controversies: Global Warming and Fijian Cannibalism.  Anthropology Today, (19)3, 3-9. doi:: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3695286

Wagner, W. (2004). Health and the Environment. Duke Law Journal, (53)6, 1619-1745. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40040450


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