A Harvard historian documents the denialism. She makes, I think, some very important points.
Q: But what is it that you think drives the denial industry? How much of it is just pure self-interest? Is it fear of socialism - a kind of post-Cold War paranoia that you identified in Merchants of Doubt? Or is it ideological fervour like the kind you've witnessed amongst American Tea Baggers?I think it’s a complicated mix. Certainly, there are some very cynical individuals and groups who are protecting their own self-interest, with little or no regard to the consequences for others.
There are also those who have bought into the watermelon argument—that environmentalists are green on the outside, red on the inside—and that climate change is just an excuse to bring in socialism by another name.
Then there are also many people who I think believe, or have persuaded themselves, that climate change is just another fad, exaggerated by scientists who just want more money for their research, or environmentalists who over-react to small threats or are unrealistic about where their bread is buttered.
Finally there is the power of rationalization—people whose bread really is buttered by the fossil fuel industry, or people who are heavily invested in the industry in one way or another, and just don’t want to accept that there is a fundamental problem.
Q: Is that a big issue - do you think? That the nuances of the science aren't that widely understood and so it's an easy job to confuse people about it?Yes I think so. That’s one reason why these disinformation campaigns have been so successful. It’s always easy to find some aspect of the science that is uncertain, or confusing, and focus on that to the exclusion of the larger picture
The last point is very important. There are many parts to the global warming picture that are well established and other parts that are still be worked on. As she states, deniers fasten on the one subject thats uncertain or confusing and chomp on it like a ferocious animal to the exclusion of all of the remaining well established evidence.
One confusing area stated by the deniers, are that carbon dioxide levels over 4 millions of years in the past are uncorrelated with atmospheric temperature. They conclude that
The theory that carbon dioxide concentration is related to the temperature of the earth’s surface is therefore wrong.This conclusion, however, overlooks evidence to the contrary. At the Paleocene/Eocene boundary, dramatic increases in methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than CO2, caused global temperatures to rise and the oceans to acidify causing the greatest extinction of sea life in the history of the planet. We are now pouring more carbon into the oceans and atmosphere than was emitted in at that time.
Another was the Permian-Triassic event, where
a runaway greenhouse effect triggered by sudden release of methane from the sea floor due to methane clathrate dissociation or methane-producing microbes; possible contributing gradual changes include sea-level change, increasing anoxia, increasing aridity, and a shift in ocean circulation driven by climate change.This event is colloquially know as the "great dying", the largest extinction of all life in the history of the planet. And we now have reports of methane bubbling to the ocean surface near Siberia.
What characterized these events was not the absolute level of carbon in the biosphere but the dramatic rate of change of the level. This distinction, which should be easily understood by anyone who has had calculus in school and knows the differences among absolute level, x, rate of change of level, dx/dt, and acceleration of level, d(dx/dt)/dt and would recognize that there might be an important difference between the absolute level and the rate of change of level.
There is an underlying understandable process. When the levels change very gradually, the biosphere manages the carbon without endangering life. However, when the levels change rapidly, the biosphere fails to manage the change and life is endangered, in particular with increases in global temperature and acidification of the oceans.
What we are now pouring into the biosphere, the atmosphere and oceans, far exceeds what happened at the Paleocene/Eocene boundary, and therefore we are in danger of exceeding the events of that time, in particular, a serious loss of carbonate sea life, dramatic increases in temperatures, and perhaps hundreds of feet increases in the sea level.
But because it is difficult for some people to understand the distinction between absolute levels of CO2 and rapid rates of changes in CO2, they are vulnerable to those who for different reasons obfuscate the issue, which makes it unlikely that we will react in time to mitigate the effects of global warming on our biosphere. Our civilization is doomed because on average we are just not smart enough to deal with what is coming.