Why deniers cling to the “global cooling” myth: a theory

At Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker does an excellent job of retelling the myth that global climate change deniers adore. That's the myth that scientists widely feared global cooling in the l970's.

According to the standard version of this story, everybody in the 1970s thought that the Earth was actually getting colder, and that we were in for a new Ice Age. Animals like armadillos were migrating southward, fleeing the encroaching cold. The Arctic ice pack was unexpectedly thick. Scientists warned of massive crop failures, and wrung their hands over the fate of the millions who would die in our frozen future. They urged governments to take action, either by stockpiling food, or with more disturbingly drastic measures–such as intentionally melting the Polar ice caps. All the same people who, today, tell us that the Earth is heating up were, once upon a time, singing a very different tune. The implicit message about scientists that people get from this story: You just can’t trust ‘em.

It would be nice if the myth of global cooling were a fringe belief. But it’s not.

Influential, big-name talkers push the story. Lots of average people listen to them. The author Michael Crichton worked it into his last novel. Senator James Inhofe told the tale in Congress. Rush Limbaugh believes in the myth. So does George Will. And, consequently, so does at least one of my uncles.

But they’re all wrong.

In reality, global cooling was never a broadly accepted Theory. It’s reasonable to assume that a good chunk of Americans never heard about it at all. And global cooling never had the support of most climate scientists, let alone scientists in other disciplines, like biology and public health, which are linked to climate change in many important ways today.

We know all of this thanks to the work of two scientists, Thomas Peterson and William Connolly, and a journalist, John Fleck. In 2008, they published a detailed history of this myth in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. So that’s another thing that makes the myth of global cooling stand out from the pack. Unlike a lot of myths, the path from fact to fiction is very well-documented.

But why has this exquisitely well-documented and thought-through paper made no impact on the George Wills of the world? Koerth-Baker doesn't really have an answer for that question; in fact, she doesn't really take it on, sticking to the science of the matter.  

An interesting blogger named Steelweaver has a wild theory to explain this clinging. which he outlines in a post called Reality as a Failed State. He writes: 

What many techno-scientists fail to understand – and thus find most frustrating – about dealing with climate change deniers is that the denier has no real interest in engaging at the scientist’s level of reality.

The point, for the climate denier, is not that the truth should be sought with open-minded sincerity – it is that he has declared the independence of his corner of reality from control by the overarching, techno-scientific consensus reality. He has withdrawn from the reality forced upon him and has retreated to a more comfortable, human-sized bubble.

In these terms, the denier’s retreat from consensus reality approximates the role of the cellular insurgents in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the American occupying force: this overarching behemoth I rebel against may well represent something larger, more free, more wealthy, more democratic, or more in touch with objective reality, but it has been imposed upon me (or I feel it has), so I am going to withdraw from it into illogic, emotion and superstition and from there I am going to declare war upon it.

So, from this point of view, we can meaningfully refer to deniers, birthers, Tea Partiers and so forth as “reality insurgents."

Steelweaver has his own lingo, which is not scientific, nor psychological, nor often even comprehensible to outside readers. It's Pynchonesque and a little paranoid. But surely emotional he's right to sees deniers and birthers and Tea Partiers as rebels against a state of reality, and it makes sense that as the state totters under the weight of an economic collapse and political divison, climate change denialism rises.

h/p: Metafilter 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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