Opinion: The New Denialism. What’s That?


I took the above photo of a brook while on a day-hike in Western Massachusetts two winters ago. Photo: Russ Vernon-Jones

Love, Justice, and Climate Change

Russ Vernon-Jones

For many years one of the biggest obstacles to the United States taking meaningful climate action was widespread climate denial. PR campaigns, often funded by the fossil fuel industry, promoted the idea that climate change was not actually happening, and if it was, it was not caused by human activity. These campaigns were remarkably successful in creating widespread doubt about climate change. The Republican Party in the United States became the only major political party in the democratic world denying the legitimacy of climate science.

More recently, as the effects of climate change around the world and in the U.S. have become more extreme and obvious, outright denial of the existence of climate change has decreased. Polling of public beliefs in 2023 shows 72% of adults in the U.S. believe that climate change is happening. Polling shows 62% of the public in the U.S. thinks Congress should do more to address global warming.

A Shift in Tactics
In response, the advocates of climate denial have not gone silent, they have simply shifted their tactics to what is being termed, “New Denialism.” A recent report shows this new denialism is growing on social media and having an impact, especially on younger people.

The new tactics of the climate deniers focus in three major claims:

  • Climate solutions won’t work
  • The impacts of global warming are beneficial or harmless
  • Climate science and the climate movement are unreliable

All of these claims are false. Probably only a minority will endorse these views wholeheartedly. However, there is a real danger that the denialists will succeed in sowing enough doubt to undermine the kind of hearty widespread insistence on bold climate action that we desperately need now.

People Are Being Impacted
I’m writing about this partly because on several occasions recently, someone I thought was committed to positive climate policy and action raised objections to me based on something they had heard or read. Looking back on these interactions, I think the new denialism may have impacted the person I was talking with.

I think it will be useful for all of us who care about solving the climate crisis to become alert to this danger and increase our skills at having conversations with people who may have been misinformed by the new denialism. We will likely need to be patient, respectful listeners and then share how we see things. We may need to get more information and then go back to the person to address the issue again.

Solar Is a Winning Solution
Here are a few of the issues people have raised with me recently that seem connected to the claim that climate solutions won’t work. Someone told me that solar power wasn’t going to work to solve the climate crisis because it would take up more land than we have in the U.S. to install enough solar panels. There are many problems with this argument. First we don’t need to supply all our power with solar. We are already getting some from wind and other sources and will get more.

Secondly there are many rooftops that are ideal for solar panels. In Connecticut analysts found that solar arrays on large parking lots alone could provide more than one-third of the state’s current electricity consumption.

Furthermore, in the U.S. an obscenely large amount of land (40 million acres) is devoted to growing the corn that is turned into ethanol to go into our cars’ gas tanks. Ethanol has a bigger carbon footprint than the gasoline it is supposed to replace and it takes a huge amount of land away from growing food. A recent calculation shows that if these acres alone were turned into solar plus food facilities, they would generate one and half times all the electricity needed by the whole country, provide enough power for a 100% electric vehicle fleet, and grow food crops too. With 100% EVs we won’t need any of that ethanol. No one is suggesting using good farmland this way, but it makes clear we have plenty of land for all the solar panels we will need.

New Batteries
Another person told me that we are doomed to be overwhelmed by exhausted lithium ion batteries from automobiles and will use up the world’s supply of lithium before we make enough vehicles. On the contrary, I’ve learned that the development of sodium ion batteries that use no lithium, cobalt, or nickel, is progressing rapidly. Chinese car manufacturers plan to be selling EVs powered by sodium ion batteries before the end of this year.

It also turns out that when a lithium ion battery, whether from an EV or stationary storage, is exhausted, the lithium and other precious metals have not been used up. As Dave Roberts reveals in a recent Volts podcast, a new clean method of recycling the lithium, cobalt and nickel from these batteries has been developed and is coming online.

We can transition off fossil fuels promptly
Finally, any number of people have told me we are going to need a lot of fossil fuels for a long time. They are correct that we can’t instantly stop our use of fossil fuels. We will need some time to transition to renewable energy. But the highly respected International Energy Agency has demonstrated that we can, and must, stop building any more fossil fuel infrastructure or drilling any new wells anywhere in the world immediately and still meet our global expanding energy needs.

The fuels in the wells and mines already operating is more than enough to carry us through the transition. For global survival we need to eliminate use of fossil fuels worldwide by 2050, and for global equity the U.S. should end all fossil fuel extraction before 2040. This is technologically possible, but will require a dramatic acceleration in our rate of transition.

The Report
The report I mentioned above is titled “The New Climate Denial,” published by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. It debunks all of the new denialists’ claims. The Center works to hold social media outlets accountable for what they publish. Their study analyzed thousands of YouTube videos and found a decrease in traditional climate denial and a significant increase in the new denialism. They are working to get effective policies written and enforced at YouTube and other social media outlets. The rest of us can stay alert for opportunities to challenge and correct the misinformation of the new climate denialism.

Russ Vernon-Jones was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008 and is currently a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: The New Denialism. What’s That?

  1. The problem with solar is that 80% of the world’s solar panels are made in China and that China is building two new coal plants a week. That’s not some right-wing statistic, NPR is saying that: https://www.npr.org/2023/03/02/1160441919/china-is-building-six-times-more-new-coal-plants-than-other-countries-report-fin

    So the Chinese burn coal to make solar panels that we go deeper into debt with them to buy and how does this help the planet when even our coal plants are considerably cleaner than theirs (they don’t *have* an EPA), and most of our coal plants have been replaced with ones burning even cleaner Natural Gas.

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