Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better

One point that’s come up in discussion of the fire cataclysm is the fact that anti-vaxers are viewed with contempt, and subject to sanctions like “no jab, no play”, while climate deniers are still given respectful treatment, media platforms and so on. The explanation is simple enough: climate deniers are rich, powerful and numerous, including most of the rightwing commentariat and much of the government.

Although both groups are wrong, and present a huge danger to the community, it’s important to observe that most anti-vaxers (the exceptions are charlatans like Andrew Wakefield) are honestly concerned about the health of their children, and have simply latched on to misguided information. By contrast, as I said in this 2013 piece,

The difficulty is that the proportion of tobacco and climate “sceptics” who are honestly seeking the truth is far smaller, while the proportion of paid hacks and culture warriors is far higher. Members of the latter group will seize on any concession made to encourage genuine understanding, and will use it as evidence of weakness in the scientific position.

I’d update now to say that, almost without exception, climate deniers are paid hacks, culture warriors or both.

25 thoughts on “Climate deniers are worse than antivaxers but get treated better

  1. Online, the climate deniers seem to include a small army of useful idiots, driven largely by adolescent contrarianism. In some cases like Rupert Murdoch the syndrome persists into their 80s.

  2. The comparative treatment of antivaxers and (human induced) climate (change) deniers is apt.

    I now propose to expand on the comparative treatment of tobacco and (human induced) climate change deniers. The users of tobacco (who suffer from an addiction, on which the deniers in the industry rely to remain profitable) are taxed heavily (beyond the estimated additional medical expenses).The users of ghg emitting production are not taxed. To the best of my knowledge, smokers of tobacco products (with the possible exception of the two gentlemen on the balcony) had no objection to being restrained from producing a serious negative externality in the form of second hand smoke for non-smokers of tobacco products. The prolonged bushfire smoke is causing serious negative externalities for the physical health of many non-smokers. (Where are the volunteers to cover the costs?)

    The retail sector is apparently not doing very well (as anticipated by the change in ownership of Westfield). The retail sector could benefit from a reduction is excess taxes (definition is implied above).

  3. But there is another interesting if small cohort on the left. That is those who are climate activists and anti-vaxers. For them the science is irrelevant and it is about the political stance – anti- capitalism, anti-business and conspiracy inclined (I.e Pharma companies are seeking to poison our children in order to bolster their profits and have governments in their pocket)
    I don’t know the numbers but in my broader social circle they are anecdotally far from rare (and annoying to have to dinner)

  4. “Climate deniers are worse than anti vaxers.” So why aren’t they being called to account like anti vaxers are ? Which leads to the next question. Who’s afraid of Rupert Murdoch and 2GB. Answer, all our politicians, bar very few exceptions. You’d have to wonder what any Labor politician had to lose by taking on the Murdoch spear throwers or the ranters on 2GB. But they do. Their political careers come first after all. If I’m nice to Bolt or Jones maybe they wont be as nasty to me next time. The same would apply to some on the conservative side of politics. For years climate change was dismissed as an “environmental issue,” something best left to the greenies. Climate change has gone beyond that to being a matter of public health and safety. The planet has warmed by one degree celsius. There is nothing in the short or medium term that can be done about that apart from adapting. If we are not to face a world two degrees warmer or more we need a government that takes seriously global efforts to mitigate climate change. This is less likely to happen when blowhards in the right wing media (dominant in print) continue to peddle misinformation with gay abandon. They should be called out for what they are, a hazard to public health and safety. It is about time those in our community with the power and authority to do so spoke up and took these charlatans on. If it were medical science rather than climate science, like the anti vaxers, they’d be run out of town.

  5. RM: “The planet has warmed by one degree celsius. There is nothing in the short or medium term that can be done about that apart from adapting.”
    Depends on what you mean by “medium term”. There are quite a few sensible-looking proposals for large-scale sequestration, beyond the obviously feasible one of large-scale reafforestation. The list includes biochar, olivine weathering, basalt on farmland, and ocean dumping of biomass, which could include farmed seaweed.

    One silver lining to the current crisis, the fruit of three decades of propaganda and fecklessness, is that the world now has to develop these or other methods to gigatonne scale to keep the temperature from overshooting 1.5 or even 2 degrees. But once we start doing it, there is no reason to stop there. We should aim at getting back to below 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2, when the world was a less scary place.

  6. I must admit that I have been feeling so angry towards climate change deniers recently that I have been (again) contemplating the ideas of climate crime and anti-science crime. Criminalizing anything is a last recourse and often it can be counter-productive. It’s not the belief that needs criminalizing (impossible and counterproductive) but specified social and material actions possibly do need to be prohibited and criminalized when they lead to harm to others.

    It strikes me that the US model of lax regulation followed by litigation is the wrong model. By the time matters get to litigation too much damage has already been done. As soon as the science strongly indicates to a reasonable degree of probability the dangers of something (tobacco, vaping of unregulated substances, CO2 emissions on an industrial scale and so on) then it must be strongly regulated and/or proscribed as the case may be.

    Spreading scientific disinformation might have also have to become a crime where it leads to harm. They would have to be high tests and very solid proofs but “profiting on deliberate anti-scientific information and misinformation” might need to be made a crime. Also, “creating a public and anti-educational nuisance by repeating and promulgating known falsehoods in communication carrier systems after fair judicial warnings to cease and desist” might also have to become a crime.

  7. “I’m not a climate scientist or anything, but..”

    It is because Howard and others like him are not climate scientists or anything that allows the free choice to believe whatever he likes – or disbelieve whatever he doesn’t like. Because a climate scientist, unlike a politician, has professional ethical standards that do not allow misrepresenting their own work or that of their peers – (though some do appear to get away with it, in the guise of scientific disagreement).

    Misrepresenting their own work and that of others, on the other hand, looks like standard practice for politicians. Aided and abetted by partisan media. Like any whistleblower, a politician telling a truth that upsets comfortable illusions is never tolerated.

    I, like many of those promoting acceptance and action on climate see the terrifying potential for much worse in the future in the present bushfire crisis and see the natural propensity of Australia for extreme droughts, fires and floods as greater cause to be more concerned, not less.

    I want our government to unequivocally acknowledge the seriousness and respond by making Australia proudly more than 1.3% of the solution, not seek, through willfull ignorance, cowardice and short sighted venality, to grow our 1.3% contribution to the problem.

    I don’t think the current lot under Morrison are capable of that. I think that staunch climate science denial underpins all they do and do not do around climate, energy and support for mining – and any rhetorical concessions otherwise are ironically insincere bows to faceless international bodies and ecofascist censorship. That is, when they resort to obfuscation and lies, well, Greenies make them do it – neatly squaring the rhetorical circle.

    Culture warriors indeed, who fight tirelessly for what they believe in – but will fiercely resist examining the basis of those beliefs.

    Climate science denial does indeed have a privileged place in the pantheon of conspiratorial cult beliefs – I think because so many with power and privilege hold the greatest share responsibility and accountability. We are all shareholders as individuals but the major, institutional shareholders have the majority shareholding and, so far, the deciding say.

  8. @ mrkenfabian

    All said and said very well. The people, the recipients of global warming damage, have to take charge.

  9. You say that climate deniers are paid hacks, culture warriors or both. Where do people you previously put in the ’emeritus academic’ category fit? Don Aitken would be an example. Some of the emeritus academics are culture warriors and/or paid hacks, but I would have thought many are not.

  10. I couldn’t believe that JWH was helping to launch the so called ‘anti-warmist manual’ for kids by Ian Plimer. How does he justify ignoring all the quality advice from govt agencies and bodies?

  11. “Where do people you previously put in the ’emeritus academic’ category fit?”

    I think the category should be called “Arrogant, supercilious nitwits”. They have enough expertise in an unrelated field (engineering is a popular one) to make them impervious to evidence, the work of those with expertise in climate science or reality. They are cranky and take offence easily, especially if anyone asks them to back their BS.

  12. I think that the main problem has not been picked up here yet. The so-called climate denialism is framed as a set of ignorant and anti-scientific beliefs or set of positions which are convenient to some morally corrupt people because of their personal interests (“culture warriors” or “paid hacks”).

    Personally I fully agree that climate denialism is a set of ignorant and anti-scientific beliefs but being right is not enough to achieve any practical goals.

    I would expand on the second point – the personal interests. How is it possible that there are European states which block and subvert the global consensus? Let me analyse the case of Poland, the host of the last Climate Summit. President Duda was bragging about the progress Poland had made etc. (What itself is a joke as he spoke in Katowice, https://aqicn.org/city/katowice/ but you need to be Polish or maybe German to understand all of this).

    The reason why Poland plays this sinister role is not because Jarosław Kaczyński (the actual leader), Andrzej Duda (the president) or Mateusz Morawiecki (the PM) are climate change denialists but because they are Polish nationalists. The logic is simple – if Poland closes down coal-fired power stations within the next few years, it will cost more to produce or import the electricity what would dampen the competitiveness the economy. Then the dependency on Germany and Russia will only increase. The loss of “energy security” and linked with the higher costs of energy, potential “loss of jobs” would far outweigh the benefits coming from reducing the pace and scale of the climate change (Poland is not going to be severely affected by its own emissions). We can dig deeper into this and I can provide sources but they will be in Polish. Obviously you won’t read this kind of official opinions in English. The position is “yes of course we want to change but actually not today, maybe let’s talk about carbon sequestration or whatever”. The logic behind this statement is very simple and has been explained as a “tragedy of the commons” paradox. The majority of people (especially in Poland) are anti-collectivists and they don’t care about the big community even if everyone loses this game (think about the “prisoner’s dilemma”).

    I would claim that the real reason people have elected the COAL-ition in Australia is the same, the only difference is that there may be a higher level of hypocrisy in the Anglo culture. The true position of the silent majority of people in Australia is “yes burning and exporting coal is bad but if we stop, we will lose jobs and we will be poor, everything will be expensive, it is a near-zero sum game, someone else will excavate the same amount of coal anyway”. In Australia people need an excuse in the form of “climate change denial”. The demand for this bs comes from the silent majority. Which is provided by Mr Murdoch’s propaganda outlets for a small fee. The bs is not pushed, it is inhaled.Things may change after the bushfires but I would not hold my breath (literally).

    We can obviously see a lot of cranks among the so-called denialists. But naming and shaming these people is waste of time or worse. An increase in the level of political correctness in public debates can only encourage people looking after their own interests (in the specific way defined above) or the interests of their own social group into voting for right wing parties. This already happened with the Bob Brown’s Adani “caravan”.

    The correct way to address the issue of climate denialism is my opinion to start talking about real interests of individuals and groups of people at the social and national level. How can I and my family benefit from closing down the mines in Hunter Valley? There needs to be a very clear strategy, not just wishful thinking. This also requires a change in thinking about fiscal policy. We need more government investment in modern infrastructure. As long as both parties are “fiscally conservative” we won’t get anywhere I am afraid. “Your grandchildren will be paying back your government debt” should be replaced by “your grandchildren will be toasted and may drown if you don’t get the government to spend on decarbonising the economy now”.

  13. Aitken is a culture warrior, even if he doesn’t foam at the mouth like most of them. He’s driven by his aversion to policy intervention, combined with a bad case of Dunning-Kruger (of the “expert in one domain, expert in all variety)

    I was thinking he might be one of the few who would recant in the face of this disaster, but couldn’t be bothered checking.

  14. Adam K, I’m working on a big report on transition from coal. But it’s not actually true that Poland is pursuing its own self-interest. Coal requires massive subsidies, coal-fired power stations kill people and renewables would create more jobs. It’s because Polish nationalism (like all nationalisms) relies on idea of “real Poles”, a stereotype fitted by coalminers but not by solar technicians.

  15. “An increase in the level of political correctness in public debates can only encourage people looking after their own interests (in the specific way defined above) or the interests of their own social group into voting for right wing parties. This already happened with the Bob Brown’s Adani “caravan”.”

    The Greens’ vote count increased and that ‘caravan’ is responsible for some of the increase.
    The ALP vote dipped in QLD due to their own Labor CFMMEU ‘caravan’. Labor named and shamed themselves. They are a hopeless bungling waste of time to date and probably for all time, which isn’t far off now.

  16. Dear Professor,

    I would still claim that what they are doing in Poland is “rational” even if we reject their reasoning. It is not the stupidity and corruption but various conflicts of interests and the way the political system operates.

    It is true that they have to pay massive subsidies to coal industry in Poland (2% of the GDP in the 1990s, 0.2% in 2016) but this is perfectly consistent with the well known idea of buying voters. Actually, this also makes manufacturing in Poland more competitive if they offset lower costs of energy by higher tax on consumption (GST/VAT).

    My line of thinking about the costs is different. In the short run let’s say in 3 years (until the next elections) the overall costs of maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat is lower than the de-carbonisation. The long run is a sequence of short runs. It is obvious that if all the costs and profits are evaluated in let’s say 20 years time horizon, burning coal costs more than the renewables (especially because what’s left in Poland is brown coal, black coal has been exhausted). Politicians need to deliver quick results even in a semi-democratic country like Poland. I claim that the inherent short-termism is the reason the politicians don’t want to transition to the renewables and the current trajectory may be stable despite being sub-optimal in the long run.

    Now the main point. Let’s consider Australia, Poland is different due to the exhaustion of deposits. From the (neo) Ricardian – Marxian Labour Theory of Value point of view, if renewables are to create more jobs this means that the cost of wages (and possibly the capital that is crystallised labour + past profits, at the prevailing interest rate), involved in the process of generation of energy is higher than with coal (assuming the same wages here and there). Prices of production = cost prices + profits. Cost prices include the cost of labour and fixed capital. (Pasinetti, 1977. Lectures on the Theory of Production)

    We also need to acknowledge that the capital for coal based energy generation is already in place. Unless the state offsets the costs by introducing a carbon tax and subsidies (or a carbon trading mechanism) we may still have to wait for the transition to happen on its own – until the price of renewables falls even further. From the environmental point of view we may not have enough time to waste as the climate has been already destabilised enough. It is not the cost of an “externality” because there is no obvious way to calculate it, we need to keep artificially tweaking the pricing system until it delivers the results required by the need to save us and the environment.

    If the cost of labour involved in the generation of power using renewables is higher than with coal, we may expect a period of higher inflation as the whole pricing system of the economy will have to adjust and wages are sticky. The price of energy is an important component of the prices of the final products and services.

    When the cost of generating power by using renewables becomes lower than by burning coal on its own due to technical progress, it is very likely that this will generate less employment overall because the cost consists mostly of the wages. There might be one flaw in this line of thinking if the cost of solar panels includes “crystallised social labour” from China which is still massively cheaper than in Australia mainly due to the exchange rate. In this case we may generate more jobs but we would need to look at the actual data.

  17. I just checked Don Aitken’s website John, and he hasn’t recanted. And his latest post is really hoping for the privatisation of the ABC – which backs up your cultural warrior comment.
    I think there are exceptions to the Dunning-Kruger law. You do a pretty good job of being expert in almost all domains!
    But that’s not so surprising given you are a mathematician – and mathematics is the queen of the sciences.

  18. I spent about a year commenting on Don Aitkin’s (not Aitken) website and I am convinced he really does believe his own nonsense. In Don’s case, it really is a matter of Dunning-Kruger. The man is utterly convinced that he is a wise old sage who understands science better than the trained scientists, who he believes are tainted by self-interest, i.e. climate “alarmism” equals more funding and more career opportunities in climate related science.

    Now that Don is rather frail and in a nursing home and no doubt drawing comfort from the echo chamber, I don’t see how he could change his decaying mind.

  19. I corresponded a bit with Aitkin and came to the same conclusion as Hugo. As Smith9 says in another thread, he was once one of Australia’s sharpest public intellectuals. My analysis of denialism fits him perfectly

    It’s not that hard to understand the basic mechanism, and then accept the implications as spelt out by scientists.

    It’s effectively impossible to scan a description of the basic mechanism, and discover a fundamental error that has been missed by thousands of scientists working full time for years, or to assess a “refutation” circulated through mass or social media, especially one that panders to your prejudices. That’s what denialists imagine they can do.

    Sadly the same was true of Ian Castles, former Australian Statistician, who commented here for a long time, pushing steadily more absurd claims. The last decade or so of his life cancelled out all the contributions he made before that.

  20. Ernestine, Emily Townsend pointed out dinosaurs the balcony; “with the possible exception of the two gentlemen on the balcony”…

    Thank you Emily, a reputable ex reptile;
    “I find it unconscionable to continue working for this company, knowing I am contributing to the spread of climate change denial and lies,” she said
    “The reporting I have witnessed in The Australian, the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun is not only irresponsible but dangerous and damaging to our communities and beautiful planet that needs us more than ever to acknowledge the destruction we have caused and start doing something about it.”
    News Corp has come under fierce criticism for its coverage of the bushfires and is seen by many as pushing a climate change denial agenda…”…
    https://www.afr.com/companies/media-and-marketing/news-corp-employee-lashes-company-s-bushfire-coverage-20200110-p53qfh

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