One of the most salient issues arresting the world today is the issue of climate change. While scientists, environmental activists, corporations, politicians and community groups advocate for a drastic change in how humans are living to help prevent further devastation from the consequences of global warming, individuals and groups continue to maintain their skepticism or outright deny climate change. Despite the empirical evidence presented by public bodies, there is a growing number of climate change skeptics and deniers that refuse to believe, or at times, even look at the data.

In an attempt to understand why climate change skeptics and deniers refuse to believe the science, this research proposal suggests to investigate how skeptics and deniers, specifically in third-world countries, understand global warming. Within this main investigation, a series of sub questions will attempt to highlight the following:

  • How do deniers understand global warming?
  • What type of information are deniers attentive to? What is it about the information presented that makes them believe in climate change denial?
  • Is there a type of individual that is most likely to believe in climate change denial?
  • Why are scientists themselves, the knowledge keepers of truths about our world, not enough to convince deniers of concerns around global warming?
  • With the majority of research coming from western countries (particularly in the United States), how is climate change denial understood on an international scale, specifically in BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, Colombia, South Africa)?

As per the last question, much of the literature review looks at WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) population samples (Henrich et al, 2010) as opposed to BRICS countries. Although many claims against global warming began in the United States and has been the most active (Dunlap & McCright, 2011), an important objective to analyze is how non-westernized populations understand and interpret global climate change. As Jamieson highlights (2010), views of climate change and the science behind it has lost credibility in third-world countries as a result of moral and political conditioning in global societies. He further stresses that as a result, third-world countries have not taken the issue of global warming seriously, even though they may be the ones to pay a heavier price.

Literature review

There is no shortage of research as it understands climate change skeptics and deniers. However, as noted above, the majority of research highlights investigations predominantly in the United States, Canada and Australia. Research from Dunlap and McCright (2010), as well as Leiserowitz et al. (2010), Mooney (2011), Rosenau (2012) and Wyatt, T. and Brisman, A. (2016), among others, uses a plethora of examples of the US political system and its involvement in climate change denial. Nevertheless, Dunlap and McCright (2010) argue that there is still a lot more research needed to understand more global perspectives of climate change, as well as the importance of investigating the resources in order to keep updated with knowledge around the denial of global warming. The former point presents a gap in the research, which this proposal seeks to address in future studies.

In light of climate change skepticism and denial, Leiserowitz et al. (2010) contend that the controversies surrounding anthropogenic climate change (ACC) have increased public opinion on the disbelief of science around global warming. Dunlap and McCright (2010) mention Jacques’s (2006) and Clark and York’s (2005) argument that climate change denial is part of a larger motive to defend capitalism in the contemporary Western world, sustained by the fossil fuel industry. Climate change denial is thus seen as a business in and of itself. With conservative philanthropists, right-wing politicians, think tanks, corporate allies, media and celebrity spokespeople fuelling disinformation surrounding environmental skepticism, these groups help shield efforts in exposing global warming; they even go as far as creating public relations campaigns to combat climate change advocacy (Dunlap & McCright, 2010).

Climate change denial activity from these groups also create outlier information that receive a lot of attention from the media, thus swaying debate around policy, even to the point where science education around evolution and biology has been removed from some schools (Dunlap, 2013; Rosenau, 2012). What is even more alarming, he argues, is that the constant onslaught of skepticism surrounding global warming discourages climate scientists from publishing supportive evidence for climate change. This in turn further supports the skeptics and deniers’ argument that global warming is a farce.

Dunlap (2013) observes that there are two types of individuals that are apprehensive about climate change. The first group falls under the idea of the skeptic, where individuals remain open to evidence supporting global warming. The second group falls under the deniers or denialists, who refuse to see any evidence that supports climate change. Science denial is perhaps more significant of the two, as this group is more capable of applying confirmation (or disconfirmation bias) to support their perspectives. For science deniers, fear and personal values surrounding beliefs and identity are threatened (Rosenau, 2012). Without addressing these fears, Rosenau argues, it is almost impossible to correct these scientific errors. Kunda (1990) further expands on this idea with his theory on motivational reasoning, which illustrates how individuals attempting to maintain accuracy will rely on a previously held notions of cognitive processes (i.e. strategies for retrieving, fabricating and assessing beliefs). When an individual or group is searching for a particular conclusion of interest, they will seek these cognitive processes that will likely yield to their preferred conclusion (Kunda, 1990).

The way in which science and climate change deniers defend their positions, as Hansson (2017) observes, is through the following:

  • Cherry-picking: concentrating on an outlier of evidence and taking that as a generalization from the full body of evidence provided.
  • Neglect of refuting information: the refusal to present new information and ideas based on strongly held beliefs of older research.
  • Fabrication of fake controversies: deniers attempt to convince policy makers that the issue surrounding global warming is subject to scientific debate when there is none.
  • Deviant criteria of approval: the focus on previously unproven research as a source for error in order to avoid looking at evidence to support new claims. This group also tends to introduce new scientific theories.

Mooney adds to these arguments by demonstrating how individuals will apply a fight-or-flight response to misinformation or data that does not align with their values, morals, beliefs or goals (Mooney, 2011). This reaction, he argues, is most often reflexive from a negative response from the subconscious when new information is presented that does not align with our objectives.

In addition to Hanssons’s observations of the types of climate change denialists, Wyatt and Brisman (2016) as well as Cohen (2001) magnify three categories of denial:

  • Literal denial: ignoring the evidence or the fact that something did take place.
  • Interpretive denial: while facts are not denied, information is provided a different meaning as it is understood by others.
  • Implicatory denial: minimizing the significance of the impact information has on psychological, political or moral repercussions.

This research proposal will attempt to identify similar characteristics in the sample population from individuals based in third-world countries.

Methodology for data collection

The intended sample is to survey individuals living in their-world countries, followed by an interview. Part of the recruitment strategy will be to reach out to a personal network, as well as look at online blogs and forums for climate change deniers. The following sites have been located for potential sampling:

In addition to investigating blogs and forums, outreach to personal networks will be applied to inquire if individuals are open to participating in an interview about climate change. As part of the outreach, an introduction to the research question as well as the method will be included.

Interview topic guide

In addition to demographic questions (e.g. how old are you, what country are you from, what is your gender, etc.), the following questions will be considered as a part of the survey:

  • How do you understand global warming?
  • How important is the issue of global warming to your personally?
  • How often do you think about climate change?
  • How sure or unsure are you that global warming is happening? How do you know?
  • How often do you seek out information surrounding global warming?
    • If you do reference sources, where do you get your information from?
    • How open are you to listen to both climate change deniers and climate change supporters?
    • How do you feel about the accuracy of information provided around global warming?
    • How much attention do you pay to information about global warming? What about conserving energy?
    • How often do you pay attention to these sources?
    • How connected do you feel about what’s happening in your local community? What about international communities?
    • Are there reliable sources that you believe objectively portray issues around climate change?
      • How likely are you to listen to these sources on climate change?
      • If there has been an individual or group that you listen to, how have they influenced your stance on climate change?
      • How likely are they to have influenced you (or you influence them) on their stance surrounding climate change?
    • How likely (or unlikely) are you to trust certain resources over another?
      • For example, are you more or less likely to trust scientists, religious leaders, think tanks, friends and family, politicians, media? Why do you trust or distrust one source, if so, over the other?
  • How open are you in speaking with your local community, friends and/or family about the issues surrounding global warming?
  • Is there an issue that you believe is more important than global warming?
  • How do you think global warming can impact humans, plant and animal species? What about future generations? People in other countries?
  • Is there anything else that you’d like to mention or share about global warming/climate change that I haven’t addressed?

Ethics

Drawing on the ethics form, some ethical concerns that may arise. By already observing some of the comments shared across some of the forums on climate change denial, there are some individuals that are shaming and condemning those who do not believe in climate change. An ethical challenge here is that although it is important to listen and objectively evaluate comments coming from participants, it is important as a researcher to mitigate the amount of judgement. If the resulting responses contain attacks on other groups through the form of verbal abuse, the interview will need to end and expletive comments will not be included in the research.

Reflections

The possible challenges for conducting this research is locating enough climate change deniers among BRICS nations, as well as accepting participation in the qualitative research study. Another challenge is determining how open they will be sharing their opinion, as well as the ability for them to feel comfortable with sharing potentially controversial beliefs. Finally, as above-mentioned, the topic of climate change denial is a controversial one, and many individuals and groups are often vehement in sharing their personal views as universal truths. It is important to remain open-minded, while also ensuring respect with regards to those who have diverging (and quite often, contradictory) opinions.

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