'Climate zombies' want to infect your brain with misinformation

  • John Cook

    John Cook

  • Rick Knight

    Rick Knight

 
By John Cook and Rick Knight
Guest columnists
Posted4/16/2021 1:00 AM

The zombies are back and they want your brain.

No, we're not talking about Night of the Living Dead movie zombies, nor the '60s British rock band who recorded the hit song "She's Not There."

 

We're talking about the climate zombies.

Let's start with the facts. Climate change is as real as it gets. Thousands of scientists across the world have studied the phenomenon of global warming for decades. Many lines of evidence have established beyond doubt that it's driven by a buildup of greenhouse gases and the principal source is the burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

It should come as no surprise that people and organizations heavily invested in those fuels don't like this information, true or not. Some saw the writing on the wall and, out of some combination of ethical concern and financial self-interest, sold off those assets.

But many others chose a different path: instead of disinvesting in the old energy sources, they invested in disinformation. They saw that creating confusion about climate science could generate political benefits to their bottom line.

After a hopeful period in the early 1990s when the international community appeared ready to grapple with this dilemma, the effort stalled and produced only feeble, ineffective policies. In the U.S., climate-denying think tanks funded by wealthy ideologues managed to scuttle progress by falsely portraying scientists and other experts as "radical environmentalists" and framing a strictly scientific question as a partisan political issue.

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Similar outbreaks of disinformation followed election cycles, especially when bipartisan agreement on climate showed signs of emerging. Climate disinformation firms poured money into media and direct lobbying. One 2013 study identified 91 such organizations with collective annual funding exceeding $900 million.

This prolonged effort, chronicled in the 2010 book and 2014 film Merchants of Doubt, was effective in delaying climate action. Scientists became increasingly dismayed at what their research was revealing about the climate and economists showed that greenhouse gases could be abated without harming the economy. But politics, media and public opinion went in the opposite direction. A 2014 survey revealed that 32 percent of Americans doubted human influence on the climate -- the highest level of denial out of 20 major nations, including fossil fuel-dependent countries like Poland (22 percent), India (16 percent) and China (6 percent).

By 2016, with the election of climate denier Donald Trump to the presidency, the disinformation specialists seemed confident they had won the climate "debate."

However, nature wouldn't cooperate. Global temperature continued to rise, monster hurricanes, wildfires and arctic melting continued to make headlines and people who cared paid attention. Organizations like the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Citizens Climate Education worked tirelessly to inform the public. Since 2014, according to Pew Research, the percentage of Americans who think climate change should be a "top priority for the president and Congress" has grown from 29 to 52 percent.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Now the U.S. has a new set of leaders who seem ready to take serious action on climate. So, of course, just like the zombies of horror movies, the climate contrarians will rise again.

Their target is your brain. Watch for them on TV and radio, in newspapers, and -- most of all -- on the internet, dishing out distortions, falsehoods, red herrings, logical fallacies and plain old lies about energy, weather and the very foundations of climate science.

They'll falsely blame power outages on renewable energy, as they did recently in Texas. They'll claim that "climate has always changed," but hide the fact that it's now changing thousands of times faster. They'll claim that global warming can't be "blamed" for extreme weather, although in reality it contributes more and more each year.

The climate zombies will return. But you can render them harmless by consulting trusted scientific messengers like NASA, the National Academies, Skeptical Science and the American Chemical Society. You can inoculate yourself against misinformation by learning the rhetorical techniques of science denial. Protect your brain from the zombies with science and critical thinking.

• Rick Knight, of Brookfield, is a chemical engineer serving as science and policy research coordinator for Citizens Climate Education and state co-coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby in Illinois. John Cook, Ph.D., of Brisbane, Australia, is a cognitive science researcher, author of several books and papers on public understanding of climate science and founder of the award-winning educational website Skeptical Science. This essay is the third in a series the Daily Herald is publishing in conjunction with Covering Climate Now, a coalition of journalism organizations worldwide devoted to providing information on climate change.

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