Is there a hoax related to climate change?

I’m partial to bombastic statements that can easily be taken out of context on social media for shares so yes, there’s a hoax related to climate change, and it’s a big one. The hoax is that climate change is real and dangerous for humanity, but some people want to make it seem like a joke.

A 2013 photo of the Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park by Mike Lewelling of the National Park Service (NPS).
Image credits NPS Climate Change Response / Flickr.

We’re being played for fools by people of wealth and station who couldn’t care less about anyone and anything else as long as they get to keep said wealth and station, come hell or high water (ironically, both are incoming). So many people have been twisted to go against their best interest, that of society, and of life on Earth in general while believing they’re the last ones to see reason.

Just because people debate over something doesn’t mean that it’s up for debate. Public talks on climate change right now don’t aim to find the truth, and they’re not a process in which we decide how to move forward. We already know what’s happening, that we’re causing it, how bad it is, and how much worse it can get. The current discussion around climate change is a meltdown designed specifically to pit us against each other so that we waste our time and energy and nothing gets done. It’s Alexander’s ‘divide and rule’ applied towards the worst possible goal.

Because, and I can’t stress this enough, there is a climate change hoax happening. And its aim is for nothing to change — except, ironically, the climate.

Real talk

A sign seen at the People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington, D.C.
Image credits Edward Kimmel via Wikimedia.

We’ve already had a look at climate change, why it’s happening, and how it’s happening; go give them a read if you want some refreshers. Today, I want to take a more personal approach and look at how the issue is presented to society, rather than hard data.

Andrei wrote about how climate change deniers pull the wool over our eyes here. He focused on the Australian wildfires and the local government’s attempts to shift blame, but they’re applicable to the discussion at large. They’re pretty effective at steering the public away from any sort of productive outcome no matter where or when they’re applied. Andrei calls them ‘strategies’, but I feel they’re more akin to tactics — they’re how deniers fight the battle, not the war.

One thing I do admire about the larger narrative climate deniers weave is how subtle, pervasive, and cunning it is. If you’ve ever read some of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, you’ll find three kernels of wisdom that the climate denial movement has taken to heart: conflict is based on deception; long campaigns break combatants down; and that “breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting” is the easiest way to win.

So find a comfy seat, because here’s how I understand the broad climate change denial strategy in regards to those three of Sun Tzu’s teachings:

1. Disqualification of data (“but you’re not sure”)

Another sign at the 2017 march.
Image credits Douglas Fron via Wikimedia.

How often have you heard the phrase “the data just isn’t in yet?”

But the data is definitely in and has been in for quite some time. The consensus has been reached — climate change is happening and we’re making it happen. People whose whole careers rely on them being competent and knowing what they’re talking about (so, not-politicians) have checked, double-checked, and re-checked the data — it’s solid.

Why are we being lied to our faces, then? Well, if you convince people that the issue is blown out of proportion you a) make them ignore it and b) disqualify it if it ever pops up in the future, as you’ve already set the precedent of it being an alarmist overreaction.

What keeps it going is the way scientists talk. Since there is so much scrutiny on what they say publicly, researchers need to cover their backs. Saying “97% or more of published papers support climate change” doesn’t sound as certain as “climate change isn’t real because I’m holding a snowball“, even if one statement is true and the other one is several shades of stupid. But when people are looking for answers and guidance, rock-solid confidence sells, and “likely”‘s don’t.

I’m a press guy; I know that the way you say something matters just as much as what you’re saying. My training is in geophysics, so I also know that any researcher worth their salt is factual to a fault and won’t say anything for which they don’t have undeniable proof. They don’t have absolute confidence because their whole job relies on them never having absolute confidence in ideas but in the reliability of testing ideas.

2. Contesting the urgency of climate change (“we have more pressing issues”)

Seen at the Youth for Climate march in Brussels, 2019.

If step one fails, you can always kick the can down the road. And what better way to do that than with some good ol’ fashioned weaponized guilt?

We’re all fans of nature on paper; beaches, koalas, that fun Instagram-pic spot in Indonesia, it’s all great stuff. So, morally speaking, “we should safeguard nature” is a very difficult position to contest. Anyone even implying that we shouldn’t is committing PR suicide at warp speed.

As long as someone says “I’m not against environmental safeguarding,” they don’t automatically sound like the bad guy. And then they serve you the hook: “But we have these other problems we need to solve first.” It’s a way of turning the tables on the opposition, and it’s a very effective strategy that blindsides most people. Essentially, you put the onus the other side to either agree with you — in which case you win by default — or attack a strong moral position themselves. The trick is to throw in a topic that most people care about and then force an either/or scenario.

Let’s say the issue is economic competitiveness, and the two of us are engaged in a live debate. If I hold that certain environmental protections need to be lifted so that the US can remain economically competitive, and you disagree, I can immediately counter with, “Ah, so you don’t want Americans to live rich, satisfying lives.” It’s not what you’re saying, but it doesn’t matter. You’re in a very bad position, and all eyes have shifted to you (with indignation) asking for an explanation. I’ve thrown you completely off your track, maybe even made you stutter. The discussion completely moves on from the topic, you’re the guy who hates America, and wham, bam, I get voted into office.

Case study: Mr. Trump. The current POTUS pulled the US out of international climate action and is ‘reviving’ coal; his actions clearly show him being opposed to the idea of climate change. At the same time, he says that “climate change is very important” to him personally, having “done many environmental impact statements in [his] life”, and believes “very strongly in very, very crystal clear clean water and clean air”.

Personally, I remain unconvinced — I think water is a hoax made up by China to steal American jobs. But as long as Trump says he cares about the environment he can get away with anything because he offers people something they actually want more intensely: the illusion of safety. Safety from immigrants, from China, from all the perceived sources of their personal and economic woes.

“[Mr. Trump is] not going to win running on the environment,” Joseph Pinion, a Republican strategist, told the BBC. “In America, climate is not an issue, so the reason it is not an issue for President Trump is because he cares about winning.”

3. Appealing to inability (“we’re just a poor boy!”)

Image via Pixabay.

Steven Turner wrote one delicious poem that I find very fitting for this strategy.

“A poor boy entered the shop
His eyes were ready to pop
Surrounded by riches
With holes in his britches
Only to be handed a mop.”

Steven Turner — A Poor Boy.

The gist of this strategy is to blow the issue so out of proportion that it seems unsolvable. That, despite how rich our shop is, we only have tattered britches and a mop to work with — it’s out of our hands!

But saying that climate change is both false and too big to tackle is a bit rich even for Fox News. One workaround is to frame climate change as a product of natural but immutable phenomena. Blaming natural processes, ice ages, increased solar output — any sort of explanation that shifts the responsibility away from human activity is useful in this regard. But it’s easily debunked as well.

A more desperate approach (because it clashes with the overall narrative) is to admit that climate change is happening and that human activity causes it, but that we don’t have the time or ability to stop it now. It’s a bit more insidious since you agree to the idea in general (so you’re ‘on the right team’) but not to the solution. Denying that climate change is happening and that we’re driving it can be proven false. However, the only way to prove it will be fixed is to fix it. In essence, this step revolves around the idea that you don’t know for sure that you can stop it, so why bother? Why waste your time with the mop? Just enjoy the store, maybe buy some pants.

There is some truth to this — we don’t actually know that we’ll stop climate change. But that’s not because we don’t know how: we do. In theory, all we need to do is reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. We know how to do that, too. We have the tools. We have the know-how. We have the money. The only variable here is our willingness to implement the changes required, not our ability to do so.

The idea is to paint it as a monolithic issue that’s beyond our ability and needs to be fixed in a single move — which is not true; it can be improved by degrees, pun intended. If you make it seem impossible and enough people give up on the idea, it becomes impossible. And even if it doesn’t work, people will argue among themselves over it which, again, kicks the can down the road and divides the opposition.

4. Shifting accountability (the “holier than thou” approach)

Image via Piqsels.

This is a juicy one. Just like that insufferable ex or colleague who won’t do anything in the group project but find excuses understood, there’s never a shortage of other people to blame. And boy oh boy do deniers have a field day with this one:

Is America polluting? Well so is China, so why would we do anything about it and let them pollute more? Did X company lie about their environmental impact? So what, their competition does too. Why would businesses have to safeguard the environment when you don’t either? You don’t recycle all your trash and you drive a car, don’t you? If you didn’t want the climate to change, you’d recycle and walk everywhere. But you don’t. You only care about yourself.


This approach is related both to nr.2, in that it uses guilt to dodge responsibility, and the next contender on the list in that it turns the issue of climate change into an ‘us vs. them’ scenario.

We do all contribute to climate change through our lifestyle. Everyone in a developing or developed country uses a lot of energy and goods, which have a direct environmental cost in the form of emissions. So, yes, we all can pitch in to help.

But that kid buying avocado for his toast sure as schist doesn’t have the environmental footprint of an Abrams battle tank. And that lady deciding between a cheap car or a more expensive hybrid doesn’t have as much power to address the issue as someone who shapes policy on car manufacture standards or power plant emission levels.

Let’s be real here. We vote people into office to handle stuff like this so that we don’t need to. We pay companies to provide us the products and services we need so that we don’t have to produce them ourselves. We delegate part of our authority and autonomy to these bodies in a social contract, a good-faith agreement that they will serve our interests in return for the political or financial power we invest them with. We do it because for us as individuals, these issues are too big to tackle.

Those interests include protecting the environment because that’s where we live. Having such institutions then break that trust, place their part of the responsibility on us, and blame us or China or whomever for not being better just isn’t acceptable, and it’s insulting — especially since they fund efforts to maintain the status quo. Politics exists to serve the citizens; markets exist to serve the citizens; never the other way around.

That being said, please recycle — with love, the ZME Science team.

5. Artificially increasing apparent costs (zero-summing it)

Seen at the People’s Climate March in Washington DC, 2017.
Image via Wikimedia.

A zero-sum game is a situation in which one actor’s gain directly translates to another’s loss. Poker is a zero-sum game, where each token won by a player has been lost by another.

Deniers like to paint climate change as a zero-sum game because people innately don’t like to lose anything. Usually, the way they go about this is to frame it as a competition between the environment and the economy, in which protecting one has to destroy the other. This technique forces the perception that environmental action must translate to economic loss, which people intuitively understand as a threat to their resources and lifestyle and react against.

Simply pressing the ‘off’ button of the economy and going back to living in the middle ages would definitely reduce our environmental output, but that’s a bit like burning the house down to kill a spider. Advances in technology are already pushing productivity and generating extra wealth while reducing our overall carbon footprint. Wind farms, solar panels, cleaner transport, and more advanced manufacturing actually make it a non-zero-sum game in which both the climate and our pockets can benefit at the same time. In fact, the development of clean energy and production methods actually drives our overall quality of life by lowering costs and disseminating profits in the wider economy and society.

6. Ad-hominem attacks (reviewing the messenger, not the message)

Seen at the Sydney climate change march in 2019.
Image credits UNICEF.

If you can’t debate them, by all means, start badmouthing them.

You probably know who Greta Thurenberg is. But did you know that if you googled her name on ‘images’ you’ll get memes? Lots and lots of memes? Some are quite amusing. Some are meant to discredit her message by discrediting her personally. If you’re bored, trying to sort between the two categories is mildly entertaining and good practice for spotting ad-hominem attacks in other debates.

“Ad hominem” is the shorthand for “agrumentum ad hominem”, a Latin phrase that translates to “debating the person”. The idea is that if you can make someone look like they have a hidden agenda, make them a laughing stock, or make them seem incompetent or hypocritical (any sort of character flaw works, really) you can use that to discredit them personally — and from there, you can discredit their message. It’s a famous fallacy in philosophy, and it’s actually pretty effective. If the public isn’t aware of how it works or lacks critical skills, an ad hominem can be quite devastating. Even if you do know what’s happening, it can still influence your perception of the one it’s being aimed at.

Just keep in mind that the ad hominem is the last bastion of the defeated. Someone who can defend their position in any meaningful way won’t need to use it — in fact, they will avoid using it since discrediting the opposition would diminish their own victory later on. Cries of ‘leftist’, ‘fearmonger’, ‘hippie’ — they’re all ad-hominems.

When you hear them being thrown around, keep your cool (especially if they’re thrown at you), and rest assured — one side is already losing the debate badly, but they’re too immature or have too vested an interest to admit it.

7. Forcing the appearance of grassroots support (denying the denial movement)

Seen at the People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Most climate change deniers, I think, are just misguided, misinformed, or willfully manipulated, not malevolent.

But for those who actually know what’s up, denying any wrongdoing is immensely important. One of the artifices the denial movement likes to use to discredit climate change is to claim the ethical high ground. The easiest way to do that is to pay some researchers to falsify some findings, use those to create a false narrative, then accuse other researchers of falsifying their findings.

It’s a pretty neat little bow. If you’re not caught, everything goes swimmingly, and you keep harping on and on about the lack of a consensus. If you are eventually found out (hey, Exxon), it actually reinforces your message that science isn’t reliable in the public mind. Falsified research shows that it’s possible for research to be falsified, which effectively gives you an in to criticize any researcher and their work even if you’re literally the one who paid for false science in the first place.

Whatever happens, the climate denial agenda is pushed forward. You have ‘science’ on your side at first, so you can guide the conversation, and later on, when you’re discovered, science and scientists lose authority — so nobody can use it against you. It’s evil, but it’s quite brilliant.

You have to keep in mind that science is done by people, who are just as flawed as you and me. They’re trained to be good at what they do, which is studying the world around us, but they’re still people. Money means the same thing to them as it does to us, as well as fame, recognition, and all other sorts of temptations.

The nice thing about science is that it eventually finds inconsistencies in faulty research and corrects them. People in science are fallible, but the methods they use are designed specifically to remove our shortcomings from the picture.

8. Claiming conspiracy (the wolf crying wolf)

Seen at the 2017 DC Climate March.
Image credits Mark Dixon / Flickr.

If all else fails, you can always yell out ‘conspiracy‘.

It’s a bit of a nuclear option, as most people steer well clear when the craziness starts being lobbed around. But conspiracy ideas have a certain allure, and they can gain a lot of traction. Their greatest asset is that once released into the wild, it’s almost impossible to ‘un-conspirafy’ something. Since there’s a reported conspiracy afoot, anyone and anything claiming the contrary can just be chalked off as being part of the conspiracy.

The absolute funniest thing about it all is that the definition of conspiracy is that of “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful”, and certain actors in the fossil fuel industry (hey, Exxon) tick all the boxes in that definition. Will I call them out on it? Nah. I’m more partial to flowery terms such as “ethical barrenness”, “profit-fueled cowardice”, and “the willful endangerment of human-, plant-, and animal life on a planet-wide scale”.

Of course, I could just be part of the conspiracy. Spooky stuff.

Where does that leave us?

Seen at the People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington DC.
Image via Wikimedia.

Personally, I feel that if you need to recruit social media bots to support your view, you’re 100% on the wrong side of the argument (and too morally bankrupt to care). If you need to lie to prove your claims, in my eyes, whatever you have to say is worth less than the air you’re saying it on. So, for me, Andrei’s article pretty much dismantles any hope deniers have of ever being taken seriously.

But our societies are so damn divided right now that trust is hard to come by and to extend. People don’t know who to believe anymore, and they’re wary of experts, scientists, and (especially) media telling them what to think. In my view, as I’ve already shown you, that’s by design. Polarization, radicalization, and conflict over the issue ensure that it is never addressed; which is exactly what climate deniers want.

Against that backdrop, I can’t ask you to believe in what I’m saying — but I can ask that you take these ideas and judge for yourself. I’d like for this to be a discussion between us, not an argument.

No matter which side of the fence you’re on, I want you to be your own personal little scientist. Take my ideas with you out to whichever corner of the Earth you call home and try to prove them wrong. Take all the time you need. If you’re still unconvinced then, by all means, come back and call me a fearmongering hippie leftist in the comments; we have a Facebook group and several dedicated social media pages, too, so you can insult me on any of them for a more direct (and satisfying) experience. But I think you’ll agree with me.

The Cesar of history showed us the effectiveness of ‘divide and rule’. But another, fictional Cesar (Planet of the Apes) taught us that ‘ape together strong’. We’re the apes. We decide. I’d rather be strong than be ruled, but we can’t un-divide unless we do so together. And for that, I need each and every one of you.

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