The international scientific community is shouting from the rooftops that we have just 11 years to act to avert climate catastrophe. Yet it often seems like nobody is listening — climate denial thrives, and politicians are doubling down on fossil fuels in the face of a global emergency.
And with so many of these politicians justifying their climate-backward policies by doubting basic science, it’s fair to assume that climate denial is fueling the problem, right?
As frustrating as they are, climate deniers aren’t the problem. The real trouble lies with what I call climate liars: the thousands of politicians who secretly accept climate science but publicly deny it for political gain. If the climate movement is going to prevail, we must be crystal clear about this distinction.
According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, only 16% of Americans deny that climate change is happening, a number that has barely changed over the past decade. You might think that 16% is a huge number of people to deny a global scientific consensus — and it is. But plenty of Americans believe lots of patently false things without those beliefs impacting policy. For example, 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, yet that hasn’t stopped NASA from launching satellites. And 16% of Americans are skeptical or unsure of the earth being round, yet the Navy isn’t worried that its aircraft carriers will fall off into space. So what on earth is going on with climate denial?
The truth is that most anti-climate politicians don’t actually deny science; they’re just pretending to deny it because it helps them win elections. The climate movement’s problem is not a lack of scientific acceptance; it’s a lack of political power.
Just over a decade ago, Republican John McCain ran for president as a strong climate leader, and Newt Gingrich joined Nancy Pelosi in calling for bipartisan climate action. But in 2010, everything changed when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision opened the floodgates of fossil fuel industry money and turned climate politics upside down. As Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has described it, “with its Citizens United weaponry ... the fossil fuel industry snuffed out Senate bipartisanship on climate change.” Recently deceased GOP member of Congress Walter Jones agreed, saying that in the wake of Citizens United that “policy is controlled by special interests.”
This explains what’s really going on with the climate liars in our politics: Fossil fuel money is now helping them win elections, so science takes a backseat to electoral math.
However, Sen. Whitehouse said he still has 6–10 secretly pro-climate Republican colleagues who would be eager climate leaders if they could win elections while doing so. Former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed, saying that closeted climate-friendly Republicans deny science for only one reason: “What is the number one issue for a politician? Get reelected.”
Although tremendously frustrating, these revelations offer reason for hope: Climate denial is not some deeply held moral position. Rather, for most politicians, it’s a cynical, politically expedient talking point that changes with the electoral winds.
We recently saw a stunning example of this in Florida, where the National Republican Congressional Committee — which has taken millions of dollars from the fossil fuel industry — ran attack ads against Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell for taking a single coal industry donation. How could the NRCC be so hypocritical? South Florida voters care deeply about environmental issues, so the Republican campaign arm gladly threw the fossil fuel industry under the bus to try to win an election.
This is a critically important lesson for the climate movement: Politicians only care about winning elections, so rather than bemoaning the politicization of climate change, we must embrace it. We must vote, organize, volunteer — and forget about your climate-denying uncle, because he’s not the problem. Our lack of political power is the problem, and flooding the polls on election day may be our only way to solve it.
And here’s the good news: We can’t outspend the fossil fuel industry, but we can certainly outvote it. According to the Environmental Voter Project, 10 million environmentalists skipped the 2016 presidential election. If those people start voting, that’s more than enough to convert the worst climate liar into a true believer.