Climate Truthers: Why Global Warming Deniers Are Conspiracy Theorists, Not Rational Skeptics

The United States is experiencing a golden era of conspiracy theories. From the 9/11 Truthers to the Obama Birthers to the Trig Birthers and, most recently, the bin Laden Deathers, alternate theories of reality are alive and thriving on the American fringes, perhaps more so than ever in the age of digital media.

One group of conspiracy theorists, however, has escaped the label -- and has even succeeded in bringing its theory into the mainstream. These are the people who deny that human activity is contributing to climate change, despite enormous evidence to the contrary -- call them the Climate Truthers, for lack of a better term.

First the facts: the American and international scientific community overwhelmingly agree that carbon dioxide emissions are triggering a slate of harmful effects on the planet. "Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems," declares a recent report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The fact that a small percentage of scientists disagree -- which is also the case with, say, evolution -- doesn't mean the issue isn't settled.

Yet unlike their counterparts, Climate Truthers aren't merely an irrelevant group of rabble-rousers -- on the contrary, the scientific consensus is denied by the leaders of one of America's two great political parties, as well as the majority of its ideological base. Speaker John Boehner, the most powerful Republican in the country, considers the notion that carbon emissions are harming the planet "comical." In recent years, this viewpoint has become something of a GOP litmus test, and today it's difficult to find Republicans who accept the scientific consensus.

Climate Trutherism embodies the lynchpin of conspiracy theories: the belief that a group of influential people is coordinating a wide-ranging cover-up to advance their interests by bamboozling the rest of us. Doubting human-caused climate change requires the same paranoid logic as, say, doubting that the 9/11 attacks caught Bush administration officials by surprise, or that President Obama's birth certificate is authentic. But rather than believing that we're being lied to by the Bush White House or Obama's mother and the state of Hawaii, you're required to believe that we're being lied to by nearly every scientist and scientific institution in the world.

Conspiracy theories are usually traceable back to some small grain of truth, blown way out of proportion. The thinking goes something like this: George W. Bush really did use 9/11 to start an unnecessary war, so he must have had a hand in the attacks. Or, Sarah Palin really does have a habit of making stuff up, so she must have lied about being the mother of her youngest child. Or, Barack Obama really does look different than the other American presidents, so he must be foreign. And in this case, mitigating global warming really does require government intervention in the energy industry, so it must be a left-wing plot. What binds all these conspiracy theorists together is the belief that their ideological opponents are evil masterminds engaged in a cabal. That's when healthy skepticism turns pathological and destructive.

There exists a somewhat tamer brand of Climate Trutherism, which takes a different tack: rather than attack or challenge the findings head on, they merely assert that the science is unsettled, based on a few dissenters. But this is simply obfuscation, designed to exploit misconceptions. A handful of scientists still dispute natural selection and the Big Bang, proving that even the soundest theories retain their share of skeptics, so that's an unreasonable standard. To wit, the scientific consensus is so strong you either believe man-made climate change is real or you believe there's a massive conspiracy going on. No third option.

So why, then, aren't Climate Truthers relegated to the fringes alongside their brethren? Firstly, Climate Truthers have the support of a wealthy, powerful industry dedicated to mainstreaming their theory. Secondly, the Republican Party's anti-regulation policy agenda is threatened by the realities of climate change, so it's better to deny there's anything wrong than cede the argument to their adversaries. And thirdly -- and this is why it self-perpetuates -- the media likes to stay in good spirits with powerful people, so oftentimes it can't quite bring itself to unequivocally pronounce one side wrong.

As with other conspiracy theories, it's the media's job to call out Climate Truthers as such and resist the urge to split the difference. If journalists failed to do this with other paranoid theorists we'd be living in a society where 9/11 Truthers and Obama Birthers were legitimate skeptics rather than outlandish people unable to come to grips with reality. Yes, it takes more courage to call out Climate Truthers, because some of them are very influential. But that's what makes it more important -- because climate change is relevant to our lives and futures in a way that the speculation about Trig Palin's birth-mother is not.

None of this means there isn't room for debate about the path forward. It's completely legitimate to argue over how exactly we should deal with climate change. It's also fair game to ponder the extent to which governments should intervene in energy markets. But, as the vast swath of evidence makes clear, it's illegitimate to write off human-induced climate change as anything less than a serious problem that deserves our attention. That's the difference between rational skepticism and conspiracy thinking.