Climate change denial: why history matters

Megan Raby

While climate change affects us all, the question of confronting climate change denial may seem primarily a matter for scientists and science educators. As a historian who researches and teaches about the history of science and the environment, I think there is also an important role for historical perspectives to play.

Both the long history of climate research and the more recent rise of climate change denial have been well documented by historians of science. Most people mistakenly think climate change is new — a recent discovery that scientists are perhaps still sorting out. In fact, the basic greenhouse effect was understood by the mid-19th century. The first calculation of future global warming from human emissions of carbon dioxide was published as early as 1896 by the Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius. But at the rates of fossil fuel burning that were then occurring, significant warming seemed to be thousands of years in the future. As research by historians such as Spencer Weart shows, by the 1960s and 1970s, the complex puzzle of global climate began to come together more quickly as geophysical research in general became a matter of national and international interest during the Cold War. Independent lines of evidence — ice cores, computer modeling, atmospheric chemistry, etc. — all pointed to a much more fragile climate system than scientists had previously assumed. By the 1980s, scientists realized that they needed to do a better job of communicating the risks to policy makers and the public, resulting in the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 to communicate the scientific consensus. 

The rise of climate change denial is much more recent, and it emerged as a direct attack on this consensus. This attack didn’t take place within the peer-reviewed scientific literature, although it did involve some prominent physicists. Drawing on political connections they forged during the Cold War, Fred Singer, Frederick Seitz and a handful of others pursued a strategy of “selling doubt” to policy makers and the public in the 1990s. Although they were not active climate researchers themselves, they used non-peer reviewed white papers, editorials and TV appearances to create the false impression that scientific opinion was still unsettled, in order to prevent or delay any form of government regulation. They were very successful because they had a lot of practice. As historians Naomi Oreskes, Erick Conway and others have shown, they had previously honed this strategy of manufacturing public controversy over many issues including nuclear winter, acid rain, the ozone hole and the cigarette-cancer link. 

Environmental historians have also explored the far-reaching social effects of past climate events that may foreshadow humanity’s future. Although we’re now facing an amount and, importantly, a rapid rate of warming never before seen by our species, human societies around the world have faced major weather events and regional climate changes in the past, such as the “medieval warm period” and the “little ice age.” While the work of the historians who study climate and society can’t provide simple proscriptive lessons, it seems clear that such events have not usually been good news; they have meant famine, disease, rebellion, forced migrations and the exacerbation of existing social inequalities. They should give us pause when confronted with the last-ditch denialist argument that even if climate change is happening, it won’t be so bad.

Let’s face it: Even if we accept the science, we are all in various stages of denial about what climate change is going to mean for the future of our society, humanity and life on earth. The work of historians not only helps to confront the phenomenon of climate change denialism but, more fundamentally, it can help us all come to terms with the reality of climate change. 

Raby is an assistant professor in the Department of History.