I’m Cold. Is Global Warming Still a Thing?

South-Eastern Europe had a cold spring this year, with much rain, cool winds, and even snow. While attending a conference on disinformation, I remember having breakfast in my hotel in Sofia watching snowflakes falling outside. It was already April, so I said to myself “climate change denialists will have a field day with this.”

I was not wrong. Many have turned to social media to ask, rhetorically, where is the much-promised global warming since the weather was so much colder than usual. Such messages continued at the start of the summer despite the fact that, in June, temperatures were alternating between being below average and achieving record highs. Internet memes and jokes about how the warming is so intense that we are freezing, have become a trend.

Obviously, the weather is not the same thing as the climate. Just because it’s cold today in one particular place, doesn’t mean there’s no global warming. In order to recognize global warming, it is global average temperatures that count.

As I was contemplating snow in Bulgaria, people in Spain were facing record-breaking droughts, since “April was the driest month on record, and several Spanish cities registered their highest April temperatures yet.”

Heatwaves struck Puerto Rico in the beginning of June, then Mexico, India, China and the south of the US. The start of July brought new heatwaves in most of Europe and it seems it’s only going to get worse.

The jokes about not having enough global warming melted away as temperatures in South-Eastern Europe passed 35° C.

Climate change denialism, however, is still doing well. Partly, this is because accepting that we have a problem requires making changes to the economy, to industry, and, even worse, to our way of life. Partly, however, climate denialism persists as a consequence of a long-running disinformation campaign that was propped up by the fossil fuel industry and their political backers and spread by various influencers who may or may not understand the reality.

They Knew All Along

A research article from Benjamin Franta[1] shows that the American Petroleum Institute (API) was debating the risks of climate change as early as 1980, but chose to downplay the issue. The API was made aware as early as 1979 that fossil fuels would cause global warming, which would lead to “major economic consequences” by 2038 and “globally catastrophic effects” by 2067. However, the API decided against taking action since they also learned that global warming would be barely noticeable before 2005.

Another report, from John Cook et al[2], shows that major companies in the fossil fuel industry (such as Exxon) have known since the 1970’s that burning fossil fuels produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), which leads to global warming and climate change. Exxon internal memos from 1977 show that that company leadership correctly described the issues, while other memos from the 1980’s show that they chose to respond to the documented threat of global warming by attempting to cast doubt on the underlying science, as well as by using bothsideism and greenwashing to confuse people and the media.

Classic Science Denialism

In 2007, Mark Hoofnagle[3] suggested that most science denialism employs the same tactics such as conspiracy theories, cherry-picking of facts, fake experts, impossible expectations, and general logical fallacies. John Cook built upon Hoofnagle’s study to develop a complex taxonomy (FLICC) that explains standard climate change denial techniques. The FLICC taxonomy includes:

● Fake experts: public figures that stand in as experts, though they have no expertise in the field of climate science. Fake experts may have received accolades in other fields and appear to be highly qualified dissenters that can challenge climate science. For example, the Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever, is often brought up as an expert that is skeptical of the current consensus on climate change; however, Giaever was awarded the Nobel for his contribution to the discovery of the tunneling effect of electrons in superconductors and has no expertise in climate science.

● Logical fallacies, such as “ad hominem” (attacking the person, not the argument), “slippery slope” (suggesting that any minor action now will inevitably lead to major consequences) or using ambiguous language to lead to a misleading conclusion.

● Impossible expectations: demands for unrealistic goals to serve as proof of climate change. For example, the argument that “it’s cold outside therefore there is no global warming” is predicated on the idea that if global warming were real, it would means that no place on earth can experience cold at any time.

● Cherry picking: choosing data or facts that support a desired conclusion and ignoring the whole dataset or significant contextual information. For instance, one such claim is that there was no warming during the years 1998-2005. The year 1998 was chosen because it featured a massive El Nino that prompted a temperature spike. In the following years, there was a return to more typical weather conditions, which gave climate change deniers an opportunity to insist that global warming had “paused” or had even stopped.

● Conspiracy theories: claims of secret groups conspiring to meet nefarious goals. For example, some denialists claim that climate change is a hoax that is used by globalists in their quest to control the world.

Politics, Polarization, And Culture Wars

Business interests usually look for political backing and the “dirty energy” sector is no different. Changing the business model for large corporations is not easy and returns from investment have not been a sufficient incentive so far: solar and wind energy have efficiency issues, small hydro is frowned upon since it affects local habitats, and nuclear or large hydro energy infrastructure are expensive and take time to implement.

Typically, policies to fight climate change have been considered “left wing”, since they imply limitations on industrial activity, taxation of emissions and other interventions. Right-wing politicians, on the other hand, have found no solutions that would be ideologically palatable, so they tend to deny that the problem exists in the first place and embrace the industry-backed disinformation campaigns.

Conservative think-tanks, lobby groups, and various foundations that claim to be research institutes but that do not actually do any research are used to connect politics and fossil fuel companies. For instance, the Heartland Institute was founded in 1984 and claims that its aim is “to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” The organization has spread misinformation about climate science, attacked climate scientists, and is known to have been partly funded by Exxon and the Koch foundation. A Nature editorial from 2011 concluded that “the Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower and are happy muddying the waters.”

Heartland is also connected to the European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE), an association (not a research institute) that works closely with AfD – the extremist right-wing political party in Germany.

A myriad of similar organizations exist, such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Institute for Energy Research or CLINTEL. Most of these are happy just to sow confusion, to convince the public that the science is not clear and that the dangers are not imminent so we should just wait and see.

Recently, political polarization has brought the topic of climate change under the umbrella of “culture wars”, next to other ideological stances such as anti-LGBTQ propaganda, the anti-vaccine movement, restrictions on access to abortion, religious fundamentalism and various conspiracy theories about globalist cabals that want to decimate the population. Among the new narratives and mechanisms that support disinformation about climate change, we can highlight:

● Appealing to generic conspiracy theories (e.g., The New World order) or referring to climate change as a new religion.

● Emphasizing the hypocrisy of the rich, who speak of limiting the carbon footprint while traveling in their private jets (this is sometimes connected to conspiracy theories).

● Claiming there is no use in Western countries to act on climate change before China and India do so.

● Misinformation on renewable energy and electric cars.

The Industry Is Still at Work

As more information becomes available on climate change and the consensus of climate scientists gets stronger (it is now estimated at 99.9%), industry communication on the topic has shifted from plain disinformation to more subtle manipulation.

The new techniques of manipulation include “a systematic fixation on consumer energy demand rather than on the fossil fuels that the company supplies and the systematic representation of climate change as a ‘risk’ rather than a reality.”

Companies have also claimed they are going to invest in renewable energy, as they are best equipped to launch projects that help tame emissions. However, they also plan to invest billions in hundreds of “gigantic oil and gas projects that would each result in at least a billion tons of CO2 emissions” and “are on track to spend $103m a day for the rest of the decade exploiting new fields of oil and gas that cannot be burned if global heating is to be limited to well under 2C.”

How is it even possible for corporations to have such an impact? Through the magic of lobbying: over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists attended the 2022 climate summit, “a rise of more than 25% from last year and outnumbering any one frontline community affected by the climate crisis.”

What Can Be Done?

  • Lobbyists matter, but political leaders care about their voters, so we need to keep up the pressure.

  • Let’s not get confused about the reality of our situation: climate change is a real issue.

  • Let’s not get bullied into silence: recognizing the reality of climate change is not alarmism, nor is it a religion.

  • Let’s not get distracted: the hypocrisy of rich people doesn’t mean there’s no climate change or that we should not act.

  • Let’s not get complacent: corporations will not solve the problem for us.

  • Get familiar with the common arguments used by “climate skeptics.”

  • Speak up at family dinners, at meetings with friends or coworkers.

  • Post or comment on social media.

You will see that the arguments of climate change deniers are shallow and can easily be debunked. Sometimes it’s as simple as just stating and restating the obvious, like the weather is not the climate.

💡 If you want to become a more conscious advocate of truth, boost your skills, stay alert in the face of online disinformation and enroll in our free, self-paced course on Countering Disinformation today!

[1] Founding Head of the Climate Litigation Lab and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.

[2] John Cook, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University. Geoffrey Supran, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University. Stephan Lewandowsky, School of Psychological Science, University of Bristol, and CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Naomi Oreskes, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University. Edward Maibach, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University.

[3] American surgeon, skeptic and blogger known for his commentary on the phenomenon of denialism.

Background illustration: Photo by Jean-Christophe Andre from PEXELES license