Climate Skepticism, Denial, and the Question of Belief

April 18, 2017

Ryan Anderson

This post is presented in this week’s series recognizing Earth Day, Saturday, April 22.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to climate change, many talk about it in terms of belief. I hear this from students, pundits, and even academics. One of the first questions that seems to come up is whether or not someone believes in climate change or the veracity of climate science. But is belief really the issue?

A few weeks ago, Scott Pruitt, the newly appointed head of the EPA, went on record saying that he has his doubts about the causes of climate change. According to CNBC, Pruitt said, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Sunrise over Lake Ontario, with a single smoke stack in the distance (photo by veggiefrog via Flick, CC BY 2.0).

Sunrise over Lake Ontario, with a single smoke stack in the distance (photo by veggiefrog via Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

Of course, Pruitt isn’t really looking to get to the proverbial bottom of the situation. His argument against climate science focuses on doubt, which is one of the central tactics that underpins much of the climate denial campaign that currently holds sway in the United States. The 2010 book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway covers much of the history of this movement. As the Frontline documentary Climate of Doubt details, this campaign has been incredibly successful in changing the whole conversation about climate change. Or, to put it more succinctly, since about 2009, the climate denial campaign has successfully managed to turn any mention of climate into political suicide for many Republican politicians. The story of former rep Bob Inglis is just one example.

Pruitt is very much in line with the rhetoric of this long-standing campaign. He frames his so-called skepticism in terms that seem to encourage more discussion and debate: “We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.”

However, when Pruitt and others bring up their doubts and then mention the need for more debate and analysis, it’s hard to take them seriously. Especially when the head of the House Science, Space, and Technology—Lamar Smith—has been on an extended anti-science campaign, and the Trump administration is talking about heavy cuts to the very institutions (the EPA, NOAA, etc.) that are tasked to undertake research on climate change. If you’ve been following this issue, none of this is news.

One way or another, it’s pretty clear that this political campaign of doubt has in fact worked quite well. It has influenced people’s opinions about climate change and pushed many to question whether they believe in climate change. This campaign has also transformed the very subject of climate change into an incredibly polarizing issue.

Many scientists respond to this situation with facts. They emphasize all of the data, research, and analysis behind current understandings of climate change. They show images of melting glaciers, share complex graphs, and talk about “tipping points,” “planetary boundaries,” and the “great acceleration.” Despite all of the information that’s out there, and all of the advocacy of people like Michael Mann (among many others), large swaths of the American public simply do not believe that climate change is a legitimate issue. What’s going on here?

David Roberts over at Vox argues that the focus on facts, science, and belief in particular completely misses the point. When someone like Pruitt expresses his beliefs, Robertson argues, it’s a red herring. Do we really care what Pruitt believes? What we should be paying attention to are the effects of Pruitt’s statements—what his words are intended to do. Roberts writes: “The GOP’s goal is to block or reverse any policy that would negatively affect its donors and supporters, who are drawn disproportionately from carbon-intensive industries and regions. That is the North Star — to protect those constituencies. That means, effectively, blocking any efficacious climate policy (which, almost by definition, will diminish fossil fuels).”

Roberts’s point is that beliefs are not the point at all. Rather, he writes, “The beliefs are retrofit, on an opportunistic and sometimes case-by-case basis, to support the conclusion, which is: do nothing.” His argument is that responding to someone like Pruitt with an avalanche of science doesn’t work because the issue is a matter not of good versus poor data but rather of public trust in science itself. More numbers, charts, and facts aren’t going to help the situation: “Explaining the basic facts of climate science (again) is utterly futile if the intended audience rejects the authority of climate scientists and scientific institutions.” Roberts ends his argument saying that until the “crisis of authority” is dealt with, “more facts and periodic outbursts of outrage are futile.”

What now?

For me, this is where anthropology and social science can and should come into the picture. Climate denial is of course about politics, money, and power … but there are other factors going on as well. We should be asking what makes certain arguments, people, and institutions believable and trustworthy in the first place. This goes beyond the journalistic conundrum of trying to show “both sides” of issues, which, arguably, have only added to the problem. As Nathan Sayre argues in a recent Annual Review of Anthropology article, “Anthropologists have a key role to play in exploring these issues further” (2015: 65).

Shirley Fiske provides one example of how this might look with her recent work on climate skepticism. She calls it a “uniquely American belief system” that includes (1) a broad resistance to science; (2) resistance to using science to inform policy; (3) concerns about government power and overreach; and (4) support for the fossil fuel industries and the lifestyles their products make possible. Fiske also notes that climate skepticism is linked to party affiliation and the growing divide between the two major political parties in the US (2016: 323). She calls climate skepticism a “political force” but quickly points out that it has various meanings and dimensions: “The moniker covers broad territory, and, like most labels, the term itself masks important variability among subgroups … the concept is perhaps best considered to be a continuum of beliefs from climate skepticism to denial, rather than two distinct ways of thinking” (323–324). Before we start labeling people, Fiske argues, we need to understand the underlying belief systems that inform their views. We also need a critical analysis of climate skepticism in and of itself.

“When interpreted through cultural models and consensus,” Fiske writes, “climate skepticism is clearly not an adequate category to explain people’s beliefs, which may stem from a different epistemology of nature and causation” (319). Through ethnographic work on the eastern shore of Maryland, Fiske identified a core cultural model that farmers use to interpret environmental change. This model assumes that environmental changes are all part of natural cycles that have little to do with humans. Adherents to this model see weather as cyclical, ongoing patterns that vacillate over time. Climate change, for these people, is something that has been with them forever, driven by larger forces (327). Importantly, this cultural model is built on years of experience, memories, and family histories. Fiske also found that farmers use a second, related cultural model as a means for interpreting recent environmental change. Such changes include everything from declining oyster populations to outbreaks of harmful algae blooms (328). In this model, climate change becomes an “environmental problem” that requires human intervention, management, and control. These farmers make a clear distinction between anthropogenic change, which can be controlled, and natural change, which cannot. Importantly, most of these farmers said they were not worried about adapting to climate change because they have been “adapting to changes in climate and weather all their lives” (329).

What these farmers did fear, more than the effects of climate change itself, were climate policies and regulations—and the associated financial costs that may come with them (329). Fiske points out that farmers’ cultural models “did not stem from the campaigns of right-wing think tanks, media personalities, or from active doubts about the veracity of data” (331). While it’s easy to lump all people into one large “climate skeptics” (or deniers) category, Fiske’s work demonstrates the value of parsing through the situation to gain a clearer understanding—and potentially create climate policies that may be accepted. In the end, Fiske reminds us of the importance of paying attention to the place-based values of local people, whose knowledge is grounded in history, experience, and memory. She argues, as does Roberts above, that trying to use science to alter beliefs and behaviors probably will not work. Instead, she says, we should focus on talking about problems we all hold in common and try to “meet people where they are” (332).

So both Roberts and Fiske agree that more data, numbers, and scientific proof probably will not solve the problem or bridge the divide. Roberts says it’s a crisis of authority, and a matter of trust. Fiske argues it’s a matter of meeting people where they are. Both are likely right, and their solutions, I’d argue, are linked. One of the most difficult tasks is finding ways to develop an understanding of the politics of climate change (such as the money behind those “merchants of doubt”), while also paying attention to how those politics take shape in local contexts.

It’s easy, if not a little self-satisfying, to view the climate change situation as one in which powerful corporations are corrupting political institutions, shaping public discourse, and fooling a nation of dupes into buying into their lies. In that scenario, all of the ignorant folks who believe those lies are the “real problem,” while those who believe in science are not. Yet Americans of all stripes, attached as they are to certain standards of living and lifestyles, continue to consume at a rapacious rate. Perhaps skepticism and denial take multiple forms and span the sociopolitical spectrum. Maybe culpability for climate change lands a little closer to home than we all like to imagine. This isn’t to deny the political dimensions of this issue, which are real. But in order to cut through it, it’s likely we’ll have to move beyond shallow blaming of supposedly ignorant others. The question of who believes what, in the end, may matter less than a willingness to meet people where they are and find a semblance of common ground. It is here, I think, where anthropology offers a path forward.

Ryan Anderson
is an environmental anthropologist. His research focuses on the politics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky.


Fiske, Shirley J. 2016. “‘Climate Skepticism’ Inside the Beltway and Across the Bay.” In Anthropology and Climate Change: From Actions to Transformations, 2nd ed., ed. Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttal, 319–335. New York: Routledge.

Sayre, Nathan. 2015. “The Politics of the Anthropogenic.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 57–70.

Cite as: 
Anderson, Ryan. 2017. “Climate Skepticism, Denial, and the Question of Belief.” EnviroSociety, 18 April.

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