Climate change deniers: betrayal or just plain wrong?

Paul Krugman's column yesterday on climate change politics was particularly pointed, even for Paul Krugman.

He writes:
Indeed, if there was a defining moment in Friday’s debate, it was the declaration by Representative Paul Broun of Georgia that climate change is nothing but a “hoax” that has been “perpetrated out of the scientific community.” I’d call this a crazy conspiracy theory, but doing so would actually be unfair to crazy conspiracy theorists. After all, to believe that global warming is a hoax you have to believe in a vast cabal consisting of thousands of scientists — a cabal so powerful that it has managed to create false records on everything from global temperatures to Arctic sea ice.

Yet Mr. Broun’s declaration was met with applause.

Given this contempt for hard science, I’m almost reluctant to mention the deniers’ dishonesty on matters economic. But in addition to rejecting climate science, the opponents of the climate bill made a point of misrepresenting the results of studies of the bill’s economic impact, which all suggest that the cost will be relatively low.

Still, is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason? Isn’t it politics as usual?

Yes, it is — and that’s why it’s unforgivable.

Do you remember the days when Bush administration officials claimed that terrorism posed an “existential threat” to America, a threat in whose face normal rules no longer applied? That was hyperbole — but the existential threat from climate change is all too real.

Yet the deniers are choosing, willfully, to ignore that threat, placing future generations of Americans in grave danger, simply because it’s in their political interest to pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what is.
But here's the thing: Conservatives and some Libertarians actually believe this conspiracy theory. Even serious academic ones. They are like the Vulcans of the Bush administration who thought invading Iraq and establishing a seed of Democracy in a predominantly Islamic country would be the key to solving middle east problems. It wasn't just politics as usual. The WMD thing might have been oversold for political reasons, but in their hearts they thought they were doing the right thing. I thought they were crazy, but I think it can be hard to get anywhere in these debates if we always think the problem is bad incentives rather than bad ideas.

Another case in point: Here Krugman is debating John Taylor. John Taylor thinks the financial crisis and global recession were due to Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson scaring the public and the financial industry by going to congress and asking for the TARP funds. Taylor thinks government caused the crisis by overreacting. This view seems little short of bats insane to my eyes, but I do believe that John Taylor believes that what he is saying is true.

Sometimes I think both sides attribute much more to bad motives or political economy than is reality. The climate scientists are not corrupt as many Republicans believe. Nor are many of the Republicans fighting against climate change policy. They just have strong and perhaps ill considered beliefs.

In reality I think political conflict stems mainly from differing worldviews and ideologies. Paul Krugman's intellectual arguments are quite strong. But I think he'd be more persuasive if he refrained from accusing the other side of bad motives.


  1. "Given this contempt for hard science, I’m almost reluctant to mention the deniers’ dishonesty on matters economic. "

    I see a couple of problems:

    1) Like you mentioned, Krugman's tone is not only unhelpful, it could actually work against the very aim he wants.

    2) I can see numerous reasons why people don't believe the "hard science," starting with Krugman's very own article. For one, he highlights research from MIT that moved it's estimates up by nearly 125%. Such drastic changes don't help inspire confidence in the " hard science." In addition, if you read the conclusion of the report from MIT, its reasons for changing it's estimates don't exactly jive with Krugman's interpretation.

    3) Environmentalists have been crying wolf for decades and have often claimed that dire things would happen if radical policies were not exacted. A prime example is Paul Erlich. In the 60's he wrote the Population Bomb and garnered wide spread media attention -- thankfully we didn't follow his radical advice. Also, since your an economist, you should be very familiar with his bet with Julian Simon where he claimed that the price of several raw materials would go up -- none in fact did.

    In sum, environmentalists need to be honest about what the science can actually tell -- which isn't much! That doesn't mean that climate change isn't real and doesn't deserve urgent action -- it does -- but the movement has been crying wolf for years and then expects people to believe them...


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