What motivates climate change deniers?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a draft summary of a report to the UN. Unsurprisingly, the panel concluded both that the Earth’s warming is unequivocal but now expressed near certainty that human activity is the cause of the observed and predicted climate shifts.

Given the near universality of scientific opinion on climate change, I’ve begun to wonder what motivates climate change deniers. After all, on most topics, reasonable people who are inexpert in a discipline look to the opinions of experts to gain a better understanding. So what’s behind the extreme rejection of scientific consensus among climate change deniers.


Climate change deniers are a particular type of denialist. Denialists form fixed, unshakable beliefs about a subject and are unmoved by contradictory findings. Instead, denialists adopt one of several approaches to undermining the contradictory claims. In the case of climate change, for example, denialists point out that the Earth has not substantially warmed for about a decade and a half. (That’s true, but 16 years in geologic time is short indeed; the long timescale of geologic time, makes short-term leveling of trends basically just noise in the data.)

Climate change denial and the free market

A recent study published in Psychological Science shed light on two important viewpoints strongly held by climate change deniers. In this study Full text PDF, led by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Western Australia, researchers examined over 1000 responses to a questionnaire posted on a blog dedicated to the discussion of climate change. Among the findings in this study was a striking correlation between the rejection of climate science and the endorsement of a laissez-faire conception of free-market economics. Certain responses to questions about free-market economics were even more strikingly correlated with reject of climate science. For example, the correlation between agreement with the statement “The free market system is likely to promote unsustainable consumption." and reject of the accepted theory of anthropogenic climate change was 0.892. Thus, persons who have a strong opinion in the rightness of unrestrained capital markets are very likely to reject the science behind anthropogenic climate change.

Conspiracy theories

The study also found that persons who reject climate science endorse a number of conspiracy theories. For example, the correlation coefficient between agreement with the statement “Area 51 in Nevada is a secretive military base that contains hidden alien spacecraft and or alien bodies." and the rejection of climate science was 0.891. Numerous other conspiracy theories were examined in the study and showed high rates of correlation with the rejection of climate science.

A theory of climate science rejection

The striking correlation between endorsement of widely varying conspiracy theories suggests a deep psychological condition or style of relating to the world that generates suspicion. As Viren Swami, professor of psychology at the University of Westminster, notes: “The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy is belief in other conspiracy theories.” Other studies have shown that conspiracy theorists have high levels of cynicism about the world in general and about politics, specifically. They have lower ratings of self-worth than non-conspiracy theorists; and they appear to be reacting to a loss of agency in the world.

I believe that a high level of distrust and low level of self-esteem leave persons vulnerable to irrational theories that give them a sense of agency in a confusing world. They are ripe for messaging from groups financed by billionaire industrialists such as the Koch brothers who stand to lose if we were to take real action on climate change. Furthermore, the Filter Bubble effect is likely to amplify the opinions of such individuals and create a highly polarized - though errant - viewpoint about climate change.

The climate is unequivocally changing. There is near certainty (~95%) that human activities are the cause.