The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deniers club: Meet the people clouding the climate change debate

They've stalled action with a campaign of deliberate misinformation.

(Tom Toles / The Washington Post)

August tied July as the hottest month on record, according to NASA data released this past week. This year we’ve seen half a dozen thousand-year floods, along with epic droughts. Mother Nature is telling us there’s a problem. The long-term trend lines are clear. Yet we have a Republican presidential nominee who has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax.” “Perhaps there’s a minor effect,” Donald Trump told The Washington Post’s editorial board, “but I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.” So it goes in the madhouse of the climate debate. Even as the evidence has become unmistakable, and even though the alarm has been sounded several times, public policy has been paralyzed — sometimes from ignorance, sometimes from uncertainty, but often from a campaign of deliberate misinformation. Here are some of the worst offenders.

S. Fred Singer

“Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.
On the contrary, it makes crops and
forests grow faster.”

Singer is the most prolific of the deniers-for-hire. Formerly a Cold War physicist and an environmental science professor at the University of Virginia, he left academia in 1990 to found a think tank, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, with a mission of debunking the science of ozone depletion, climate change, tobacco and other environmental and health threats. He has received considerable funding from corporate interests, including tobacco company Philip Morris, seed and pesticide company Monsanto and energy company Texaco. His many works include a 2009 report titled “Climate Change Reconsidered,” which concludes that “a warmer world will be a safer and healthier world for humans and wildlife alike.” The report has been dismissed as “fabricated nonsense.”

Steve Milloy

“We don’t agree . . . that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases are having either detectable or predictable effects on climate.”

Milloy is not a scientist, but he’s presented as an environmental science expert when he appears on Fox News Channel and calls out the “junk science” implicating tobacco products in human health ailments, pesticides in environmental ailments and fossil fuels in climate change. He has accepted payments — and, in some cases, talking points — from the likes of Philip Morris, ExxonMobil and agrichemical company Syngenta. In the book “Doubt Is Their Product,” longtime federal health regulator David Michaels called out Milloy’s junk science movement for “denigrating scientists and studies whose findings do not serve the corporate cause.”

Marc Morano

Climate scientists “deserve
to be publicly flogged.”

As a reporter for the ExxonMobil-funded Conservative News Service, Morano helped launch the swift-boat campaign attacking John F. Kerry’s military service in Vietnam. He then went to work as communications director for the leading climate change denier in the Senate, James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), and he brought “swift boating” to climate science. Among his targets has been James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies and an authoritative voice calling for action on climate change. Morano labeled Hansen a “wannabe Unabomber” who supports “ridding the world of industrial civilization,” “razing cities” and “blowing up dams.” He now runs the anti-climate-science website One representative headline from this past week: “285 Papers From 1960s-’80s Reveal Robust Global Cooling Scientific ‘Consensus.’ ”

Joe Barton

“The science is not settled, and the science is actually going the other way. . . . We may in fact be going into a cooling period.”

Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas and a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has an environmental record so dismal that he earned the nickname “Smokey Joe.” He has proved especially proficient in climate change denial, commissioning a now discredited report attacking evidence of the unprecedented nature of modern global warming. He also apologized to British Petroleum for the “shakedown” it received when others sought to hold it accountable for the environmental damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He has received considerable largesse from the fossil fuel industry over the years.

Sarah Palin

“Climate science is to this century what eugenics was to the last century.”

The former Alaska governor has had a close-up view of thawing permafrost and retreating sea ice. While in office she established the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, which she tasked with, among other things, investigating “the potential benefits of Alaska participating in regional, national, and international climate policy agreements and greenhouse gas registries” and “the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” But on the national stage she has referred to symptoms of climate change as “natural, cyclical environmental trends” and generally sought to cloud the consensus on human impact. She was especially unhelpful during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, promoting a laundry list of false allegations against climate scientists in a Washington Post op-ed.

Rupert Murdoch

“Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here. There will always be a little bit of it. We can’t stop it.”

Murdoch’s media empire has been spreading denialist information for years. Indeed, Fox News has constructed an alternate universe in which the laws of physics no longer apply, the greenhouse effect is a myth and climate change is a hoax — the product of a massive conspiracy among scientists, who somehow have gotten the polar bears, glaciers, sea levels, extreme storms and unprecedented droughts to play along. Murdoch himself can deny climate change with the best of them, happily sharing nuggets of wisdom such as, “Just flying over N Atlantic 300 miles of ice. Global warming!” and “If the sea level rises 6 inches . . . we can’t mitigate that, we can’t stop it. We’ve just got to stop building vast houses on seashores.”

David and Charles Koch

“Climate does fluctuate. It goes from hot to cold. We have ice ages.” — David Koch

The oil mogul brothers, the greatest potential beneficiaries of the Keystone XL pipeline, have used their immense financial resources to support groups that advocate delay and inaction on climate change. Indeed, most of the residents in the Potemkin village of climate change denial receive or have received Koch funding. Prominent recipients include Americans for Prosperity, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting climate change-denying politicians; the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which was instrumental in blocking greenhouse gas emission regulations during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations; and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has pushed state bills seeking to undermine environmental regulations, deny the risks of climate change and undermine efforts to incentivize renewable energy.

Bjorn Lomborg

“On average, global warming is not going to harm the developing world.”

A self-styled “skeptical environmentalist” who brandishes a Greenpeace T-shirt as evidence of his unassailable environmental bona fides, Lomborg represents an insidious form of climate change denial. He doesn’t dismiss the scientific evidence outright; he denies the seriousness of the threat and the monumental nature of the effort required to avert it. His arguments often have a veneer of credibility, but he lowballs climate projections and underestimates the potential damage and cost. In one op-ed, he stated that “a 20-foot rise in sea levels . . . would inundate about 16,000 square miles of coastline, where more than 400 million people live. That’s a lot of people, to be sure, but hardly all of mankind.” What’s 400 million people among friends?

Michael Mann is a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University. Tom Toles is a Washington Post editorial cartoonist. This feature is adapted from their book, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.”