Is climate change denial really on the rise?
The headline figure that one third of UK teenagers believe climate change is exaggerated comes from a nationwide poll conducted by Survation. 31 per cent of teenagers polled did endorse that statement. But that doesn’t tell us an awful lot, and, for two reasons, it certainly does not tell us what the Guardian thinks it tells us.
Firstly, the obvious question that comes to mind is ‘exaggerated by whom?’. Do they mean “exaggerated by the IPCC, and by the majority of climate scientists who publish studies in peer-reviewed climatology journals”? Or do they mean “exaggerated by the likes of Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, and the Greta Thunberg movement”? I can’t read their minds, but the latter strikes me as infinitely more likely. The vast majority of voices in the climate change debate endorse robust action to tackle it, and many of the most prominent believe in radically reshaping the economy on the basis that climate change is an existential risk.
Secondly, to believe that somebody is exaggerating a problem is not the same as downplaying the severity of the problem, let alone denying that the problem exists. Take Covid. In 2020/21, Covid was clearly, by any reasonable definition, a very big health risk, and to deny that would be foolish. However, it is also true that some people exaggerated it. According to one survey from the summer of 2020, the average Briton believed that Covid had killed more than half a million people in the UK by then – about ten times the actual figure. So the two statements “Covid is a very serious problem” and “Covid has been exaggerated” are not in any way contradictory. Both are correct.
As are the two statements ‘climate change is real and cause for concern’, and ‘climate change is not an existential risk to humanity’. That is entirely in line with the scientific consensus.
The report only gets worse from there. The authors study YouTube climate videos between 2018 and 2023, finding that the fraction of videos espousing denialism are increasing. Ok, but how exactly is this helpful information? As the report points out, YouTube is an extremely large and popular platform, particularly for young people. But that doesn’t tell us how many of them watch these videos, or any videos about climate change. While it is mainstream, YouTube is also a forum for people with non-mainstream ideas to speak their mind and build a following. It is not, in any way, representative of the whole population.
But here’s the real kicker: the report doesn’t find an increase in climate change denial videos at all. On the contrary, it finds a drop. The authors split the videos described as endorsing denial into two categories – ‘old denial’ and ‘new denial’. Among this subset of videos, the percentage of those endorsing ‘old denial’ (disputing the well-founded and overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human behaviour) has dropped from 65 per cent to 30 per cent over the five years studied.
So, what is the ‘new denial’ that is now on the rise, making up 70 per cent of climate-sceptic videos? It’s a broad category that includes ‘the idea that climate solutions do not work, climate science and the climate movement are unreliable, or that the effects of global heating are beneficial or harmless.’ Most of these descriptions are well within the wide bounds of scientific, economic, and political debate.
Is climate science ‘unreliable’? It depends entirely on what we mean by that. If it means ‘junk science that can be ignored’, then no, climate science is not unreliable. But if it means ‘subject to huge uncertainties, as you would expect from any field of study dealing with the interaction of scores of complex variables’ – then of course it is. As is economics, for that matter.
A 2020 literature review of the 140 studies published since 1970 which estimate the extent of average global warming if we doubled the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere show a wide range of outcomes which carry very different implications for humanity. 115 studies estimate a range between 1.5 Degrees Celsius (an average temperature below the Paris Climate Accords’ target) and 4.5 Degrees Celsius (a much more serious, but still surmountable threat). Clearly intelligent people who are experts in their field disagree about one of the most important issues in the climate debate.
It is also uncontroversial that some supposed climate “solutions” do not work. Government support for diesel vehicles in the 2000s is a classic example. Burning woodchips is a more recent one. There are countless more which may “work” in the narrowest sense of bringing down emissions, but which are terrible in terms of cost-effectiveness. The COVID-19 pandemic brought global carbon emissions down to 2012-levels in 2020, but nobody seriously argues that pandemic lockdown policies would be a good step towards decarbonisation, because it also eviscerated much of the world’s economic and social fabric for a year.
It is precisely that point which sums up the flaws in this research. It is not a serious warning that climate change denial is on the rise, it is an attempt to discredit those who dissent against the alarmist, pro-Net Zero, economics-free consensus that has dominated climate change discourse over the past decade. The creation of ‘new denial’ seems to be straight out of the New Left’s political playbook. Take a concept that all thinking people oppose (racism, sexism, climate change denial) and then slowly expand the definitions of those terms to tarnish their political opponents whose views do not come close to justifying the charge.
I am hesitant to level this claim at the authors, whose motivations are beyond my understanding. But this study is, at best, compromised by the political bias of the authors. Neither the polling or the study of YouTube videos tells us that climate change denial is increasing. Do climate change deniers exist? Of course, but they almost exclusively live in paranoid corners of far-right (and in a few cases, far-left) politics which have little to nothing in the way of political power.
This is a good thing. Climate change is real, and a problem humanity should deal with. But the questions of how much impact it will have is still very much debated among scientists. More importantly, the question of how we should tackle it is more than just scientific, it’s economic, political, and philosophical as well. Disagreement with the mainstream left’s answer to that question is not the same as climate change denial. They know that, so be prepared for the definitions to keep shifting.