Climate Deniers: Is Climate Change Actually a Conspiracy?


Climate deniers or climate skeptics are on the agenda. Climate deniers, who put forward pseudoscientific information that the climate crisis does not actually exist, often rely on conspiracy theories. However, can climate change really be a conspiracy? Üsküdar University Environmental Ethics Forum President Prof. İbrahim Özdemir discussed the issue in Perspective.

I have been teaching courses on environmental philosophy, environmental ethics, and climate ethics for over thirty years. I have attended hundreds of scientific meetings on the subject in Türkiye and abroad. I had the opportunity to listen to and read the world's best experts on climate change. A topic we were often asked at these meetings was about climate deniers and conspiracy theories. Like many of my colleagues, I first try to understand the concerns and questions in conspiracy theories about climate change. I think that some conspiracy theories – when properly understood – can sometimes bring some benefits by breaking the mold in society. That is why I do not agree with the demonization and humiliation of those who believe and adopt conspiratorial theses. Moreover, some conspiracy theories may raise societal issues that need to be addressed. It may even be possible to see the conspiratorial mind as an important element of democratic debate, provided that we do not neglect to use the analytical and critical thinking skills that the philosophical heritage offers us. Climate denial or skepticism also refers to doubt or disbelief about the consensus on the climate crisis. The arguments put forward by climate deniers can generally be classified as denying, or at least questioning, the evidence of climate change, the seriousness of its effects, the role of humans in climate change, and the effectiveness of proposed solutions. Let's first look at the conspiracy aspect of this issue.

Understanding Conspiracy

Scholars describe the conspiracy as "a secret plan by two or more powerful actors." In general, conspiracy theories attribute blame to a group of powerful individuals who operate in secret to create secret schemes that benefit them and harm the public. Conspiracy theories sometimes arise when official explanations fall short or when social insecurities are rising. These theories may also be a product of people's efforts to make sense of complex events in times of uncertainty. In addition, some conspiracy theories can bring up issues that are often ignored or not discussed enough. In this sense, instead of ignoring them entirely, it may be more useful to examine why they are popular and what gaps they fill in society. There are epistemic, existential, and social reasons underlying the spread of conspiracy theories. From an epistemic point of view, people have a desire to create meaning and order about the world. They seek simple and intuitive explanations, rather than laborious analytical and critical perspectives, to ascribe meaning to seemingly chaotic and incomprehensible events. Existential motivations, on the other hand, stem from the need to make sense of the world and cope with uncertainty, especially in situations such as lack of control or threat perception. Such theories also work psychologically to provide a sense that individuals have some degree of control over the events that occur in the world. Conspiracy theories reinforce the distinction between "us" and "them," especially during periods of intense social tensions and conflicts, and in some cases, can become a tool to blame certain groups or individuals. In the face of complex social and political problems facing modern societies, conspiracy theories offer an attractive alternative, as individuals seek easy and explanatory answers. They also spread rapidly under the influence of social media. Even scientists who do not have a background in philosophy and critical thinking can be part of the appeal of conspiracy theories. In the face of widespread misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding climate change, tapping into tools such as critical thinking that philosophical heritage offers us can serve as a powerful antidote to combating falsehoods and promoting informed discourse. What's more, it can encourage rational inquiry, logical analysis, and moral thinking, enabling individuals to distinguish fact from fiction and gain a deeper understanding of complex issues. Here are some thoughts on how critical thinking and philosophy can help us overcome or at least minimize the impact of rumors of climate denial and conspiracy theories.

Evaluation of Evidence

Critical thinking encourages individuals to critically evaluate the evidence supporting various claims, including those related to climate change. By assessing the reliability, validity, and credibility of sources, individuals can distinguish between reputable scientific research and unsubstantiated rumors or conspiracy theories. Socrates (399 BC) can help us with this. More precisely, his injunction to "follow the evidence wherever it leads" has been a powerful source of appeal throughout the history of Western philosophy. His method of thinking critically and questioning everything has influenced many philosophers and scientists throughout history. Socrates had decided to follow the evidence, even if it meant admitting his own ignorance or changing his views. He believed that the search for wisdom and wisdom was the ultimate goal of human life, and that the only way to achieve it was through careful reasoning and questioning. In his philosophy, he emphasized the importance of self-examination and questioning one's own beliefs until his last breath. This approach to philosophy has had a lasting impact on Western thought as well as on other philosophical traditions. I think "following the evidence" is an important tool to understand the conspiracy-generating mindset. The first Muslim philosopher Al-Kindi (c 873) interpreted Socrates' understanding with Islam's understanding of "the search for wisdom" and adopted the following principle in his book Felsefetü’l-ula: "We should not be ashamed to accept the truth as beautiful and to protect it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from distant nations and societies different from ours. For there is nothing more precious to the seeker of the truth than the truth." I think that the influence of these words in shaping the Islamic tradition of thought has not been emphasized enough.

Underestimating the seriousness of the danger

Some skeptics acknowledge climate change but argue that its effects are exaggerated or too uncertain to take action. They may even suggest that warmer temperatures may bring benefits, such as longer growing seasons in some areas. However, this perspective ignores the broad consensus that negative impacts such as more frequent and severe natural disasters, biodiversity loss, and sea level rise far outweigh local benefits.

The Role of the Human Person

Climate deniers often debate the extent to which human activities contribute to climate change, suggesting that factors such as solar radiation and volcanic activity play a more important role. While it is true that these natural phenomena affect the climate, scientific research has revealed that the dramatic increase in greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution, that is 1840, is the primary driver of the current warming trend.

Critiquing Solutions

There are also doubts about the effectiveness and economic impact of climate change mitigation strategies. Critics argue that the proposed solutions, such as the transition to renewable energy, are too costly and could harm economies. They often promote adaptation rather than reduction. While economic concerns are valid, the cost of inaction due to the effects of unchecked climate change is projected to be much higher. Climate deniers and conspiracists often argue that scientific data on climate change is unreliable or manipulated. They can argue that climate has always been changing throughout Earth's history and that the current changes are part of natural cycles. But this argument ignores the overwhelming evidence from ice cores, layers of sediment, and other geological data that shows that the current rate of climate change is unprecedented in the context of human civilization. Moreover, numerous independent scientific organizations confirm the upward trends in global temperatures.

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and caused by human activities and agrees that it poses significant risks to the environment and humanity. The studies of James McDonald of Stanford University on the subject confirm this. According to him, decades of research are almost in complete agreement on the reality of global warming, although few studies say otherwise. Surveys conducted among the authors of related articles reveal that 99.96 percent of the authors accept global warming, while 97 percent believe it is human-caused.

Professor Naomi Oreskes, who is a historian of science at Harvard University, examined the ISI (Institute for Scientific Information) database in 2004. Oreskes' review showed that none of the 928 papers written on human activities and global warming were against the prevailing scientific consensus. These data were also supported by examinations carried out in the following years. For example, independent studies conducted in 2016 and 2021 likewise revealed a consensus of over 97 percent.

Climate deniers often tend to misunderstand the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is an organization established by the UN in 1988. Governments and climate experts around the world are nominating scientists for IPCC authorship. For example, the Sixth Assessment Report published in 2021 was put together by 751 experts (31 coordinating authors, 167 lead authors, 36 review editors, and 517 contributing authors) from more than 60 countries. The authors collectively cited more than 14,000 scientific papers. In other words, the IPCC reports themselves are a comprehensive and credible statement of consensus on the state of climate science.

Supporting Climate Skepticism by Big Companies

The role of capitalism and big corporations in financing and supporting climate denial movements has always been a critical element in shaping public discourse and policy on climate change. Historically, some large corporations, especially those in the fossil fuel industry, have invested heavily in campaigns to cast doubt on climate science. They set up delegations of scientists. They fought hard to protect their economic interests and delay policy changes that would affect their profits.

These companies contribute to the spread of misinformation about climate change in a variety of ways, including funding research that questions the scientific consensus on climate change, supporting think tanks and NGOs that promote climate skepticism, and lobbying against environmental regulations. The book titled Merchants of Doubt (Pegasus, 2021), co-authored by Prof. Naomi Oreskes with Erik M. Conway, documents how a small but influential group of scientists, funded by corporate interests, conceals the truth about various public health issues, including climate change. Moreover, it illustrates how these industries are trying to undermine the public's trust in scientists by spreading the idea that there is significant disagreement among scientists about climate change, contrary to the overwhelming consensus that actually exists. They are doing the same campaign on climate issues as they did on tobacco products before.

Potential Benefits of Conspiracy Theories

As I have said before, I do not agree with the demonization and belittling of those who produce and believe in conspiracy theories. When we listen to them carefully, I think they have some merit and positive aspects. When used effectively, these theories can allow people to challenge and question existing power structures and hierarchies of authority. Therefore, demands for transparency over the policies of powerful groups such as the state may increase. It can also expose contradictions and inconsistencies in official statements, bringing into question issues that are often ignored. They can expose the collusion and deception that has been reached behind closed doors with large corporations, the main perpetrators of climate and environmental problems. Conspiracy theories can function as cognitive tools that help individuals understand complex social and political orders and can sometimes be considered as a means of holding authorities accountable. In this context, we should be able to discuss conspiracy theories with a critical understanding and on a transparent and democratic basis with the understanding of "following the evidence" with all parties. However, the harmful effects of conspiracy theories should not be ignored. When these theories spread, they can have negative consequences in the social, health and political fields and cost people's lives. An important point here is to distinguish the fine line between denial and doubt. Methodical doubt is the first step in philosophy and science. But denial is a matter of faith and ideology.

As a result, analytical and critical thinking can provide us with invaluable resources for confronting climate denial and conspiracy theories. Intuitive thinking, on the other hand, can help us sense the invisible, recognize dangers, and react first. One is the reaction of our mind, and the other is the reaction of our heart. In an age plagued by misinformation and polarization, taking advantage of the power of critical thinking and philosophy, interpreting it with the heritage of our wisdom tradition, and taking science as a basis; It is essential to advance scientific understanding and address the pressing challenges posed by climate change.

Long before the emergence of modern environmental problems, Muslim societies built a civilization based on compassion in peace and harmony with nature and all creatures on the axis of the Qur'an and Sunnah. I see it as the duty of Muslim intellectuals to find solutions to the problems facing Muslim societies and the world today with a new spirit without being captive to the conspiratorial mind.