Why Die-Hard Climate Change Skeptics Are Unlikely to Change Their Minds

  • Some Republicans say that tackling climate change is going to kill the U.S. economy and take away people's freedoms
  • On the opposing side, unsubstantiated claims are sometimes used to justify taking action
  • So what hope is there—if any—of bridging the tribal divide? Newsweek looks for answers

Die-hard climate skeptics are "never going to be convinced" by the need for policies to combat climate change as they are in "direct opposition" to their ideology, climate experts have said.

Some Republicans frequently push back at what they see as the "climate agenda." Academics said that many of these claims—as well as some opposing views from liberals—feed into existing narratives that serve to shape the conversation towards their viewpoint. According to the Center for American Progress, no Democrats in the 117th Congress have explicitly expressed climate denial views.

Tim Forsyth, professor in environment and politics at the London School of Economics, told Newsweek that on all sides of the argument, environmental issues were being "twisted" to address "older, tribal debates" that engage people by playing on established worries.

"If you're trying to whip up public opinion about this sort of stuff, you'll find that most people will only really attach to these debates when it is presented in terms that already speak to well-known political narratives and divisions," he said.

"Why do climate deniers use certain sentences or use certain statements? My short answer to that is because for them, the battle is about persuading different camps to come to their side."

The Tribal Divide

At one extreme, this means that those who believe ardently in a free market and individualism above all else will always reject climate policy based around state intervention, one expert said.

"Climate change and global environmental issues are directly opposed to extreme neoliberalism," Mark Maslin, professor of earth system sciences at University College London and a climate author, told Newsweek.

"Neoliberalism says the individual is important, markets know best, there shouldn't be any regulation," he said. "But, if you have a global issue with pollution or CO2 in the atmosphere, you have to regulate. You have to regulate to make sure it's fair for everybody. That's in direct opposition to extreme libertarians and neoliberalists. So the thing is, it doesn't matter what you say, they're never going to be convinced."

Forsyth said that there were also liberals who make "weird statements of causality" linking climate change to the war in Syria, for example, as "well-intended ways to try and sell climate change legislation to the Republicans."

A study published in the journal Political Geography in 2017 said that "there is no clear and reliable evidence that anthropogenic climate change was a factor in Syria's pre-civil war drought; that this drought did not cause anywhere near the scale of migration that is often alleged; and that there exists no solid evidence that drought migration pressures in Syria contributed to civil war onset."

However, Forsyth said that there were "lots of people who are opposed to climate change policy because [...] they hate the idea or the state telling them what to do."

Marjorie Taylor Greene
US Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) yells as US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, February 7, 2023. Getty

'Climate Mandates Are the Reason Why Prices Are So High'

In May, Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene told Joe Biden: "All your plan has produced is fuel prices that are brutalizing Americans and draining our reserves." In June, she said that federal climate spending was "killing our economy and hurting all Americans." Then, in July, Greene claimed that "destroying fossil fuels" has "driven gas prices from $1.80 to $5.00+ per gallon." Analysts have attributed this to a spike in the global oil market caused largely by the war in Ukraine.

"Biden's radical Green New Deal policies are sacrificing American energy security on the altar of climate change," Lauren Boebert, a representative for Colorado, wrote for Campfire Colorado in September 2022.

"What are the mandates?" Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy and environment at the University of Michigan, said. "Until the last year or two, there has not been legislative policy on climate in the United States—so therefore it's hard to blame a policy that doesn't exist for problems in the economy."

He added that the U.S. "has been a laggard" compared with developed nations when it came to enacting climate legislation.

According to the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), conducted by the New Climate Institute, in 2023 the U.S. ranked 52nd among nations on its progress to a green economy, rising three ranks from 2022, but still remaining in the "very low" performance category. Biden's climate policies, which have a 20 percent weighting in the ranking, were credited for the rise, but it was noted that America's reliance on fossil fuels and "the obstructing role the Republican opposition plays in climate politics."

Climate-motivated mandates have increasingly been enacted on a state level, albeit with long lead-in times, such as the ban on new gas vehicles in California from 2035.

Critics note that the push towards electric vehicles is itself driving environmentally destructive lithium mining and potential human rights abuses—charges Arizona representative Andy Biggs claimed were being ignored by "climate crazies"—while EVs remain unaffordable for many.

"Right now, no one has actually proposed banning continued use of existing cars," Rabe said. "And we're talking about a future transition or phase-in that's supported and subsidized by tax credits."

A poll by the Pew Research Center in May 2022 found that 55 percent of Americans were against phasing out the production of new gasoline cars and trucks by 2035.

Newsweek has contacted Greene and Boebert for comment.

'China Isn't Going To Cut Its Emissions, So Why Should We?'

References to emissions-heavy nations such as China and India are often used to support claims that U.S. climate policy won't make a difference. In February 2022, Greene wrote: "While Democrats are working to move America to net zero carbon emissions and all green energy, China and Russia could care less about climate change."

Speaking in the House of Representatives in 2021, she said: "I find it pretty shocking that people actually think that members of congress and their legislation is actually going to control the earth's temperature."

"Chinese power plant emissions hit a new high in 2022 despite COVID and industrial slowdown," Steve Milloy, an author and former coal company executive who served on the EPA transition team for the Trump administration, wrote on January 10. "Biden policies to cut emission are pointless."

China's greenhouse gas emissions did indeed reach a new high in 2022, at 4.496 billion tons, 9 percent higher than in 2021. The country's coal output also set a record, which is expected to be broken again this year. In 2021, more than half of the capacity of newly commissioned coal-fired power plants globally came from China. The chart below, by Statista, shows which countries are still committed to coal.

Countries Still Strongly Committed to Coal
Countries with the most coal power plants in (pre-)construction as of July 2021. Statista

However, the claim that China was uninterested in cutting emissions is "completely false," Maslin said, noting that it "along with [countries representing] 90 percent of the world's GDP" has pledged to go net zero by the middle of the century.

"Unlike the U.S., they've already put in a carbon trading scheme for the whole country," he added, noting that climate change would impact the whole of China in various ways. "So that just shows ignorance about China, ignorance about their ideas—they want to peak emissions by 2030 and reduce them to zero by 2060."

China ranks one above the U.S. on the CCPI, a drop from 38th in 2022. Analysts said it showed strong renewables development but its "long-term policies are not concrete enough."

Maslin argued that Biden's Inflation Reduction Act—which will divert money into the U.S. green economy—would make a "huge difference" as it would boost an already growing industry and incentivize the move away from fossil fuels.

Forsyth noted that climate activists such as Al Gore did not want to address the need to assist countries like China and India in moving away from fossil fuels because "it's just an untouchable subject in the U.S."

Instead, proponents of climate change policy often talk of planting trees, as it is more palatable than allowing the accusation, whether justified or not, that America was exporting jobs overseas, he said.

Rabe said that, contrary to traditional economic liberalism, skepticism about global climate conventions was linked with an "enormous skepticism of trade," adding that cooperation with other nations was "not as popular as it used to be."

He pointed to the the EU, which will impose import tariffs based on the carbon consumption required for products from October, through the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism.

While "the U.S. is beginning to say we don't want to hear about this from Europe," Rabe said, "this is where this world of climate policy is headed."

Newsweek has contacted Milloy for comment.

'Climate Change Caused a Milder Winter in Europe, Saving It From Running Out of Natural Gas'

"Germany is using coal power again and abandoning climate scam energy," Greene wrote in October. "Face it, fossil fuels like coal actually keep the lights on and houses warm." In January, Milloy tweeted: "If the 'climate crisis' is saving Europe from catastrophe, is it really a 'crisis'?"

"You know who would like to Buy American right now? Europeans who need oil and gas and want to isolate Russia," Rand Paul, Republican senator for Kentucky, wrote in March 2022. "But [Biden] and climate extremists made sure they can't do that."

Newsweek has contacted Paul for comment.

There is an element of truth in the claim. Several EU members have reopened coal-fired power plants and imported natural gas in the face of an energy shortage. However, experts have said one winter does not undermine the urgency of climate change.

"I think it's important to note, in the European case, that they view this need as transitional rather than permanent," Rabe said. "Europe has been more successful in moving toward decarbonisation than any other continent through a series of policies. And they have really faced an unanticipated emergency through essentially a complete cut-off of their largest gas supplier. That was hard to anticipate."

That unanticipated cut-off was the suspension of gas supply by Russia through the Nord Stream pipeline in September 2022, widely seen as a reaction by Moscow to the EU's sanctions on Russia's oil and gas sector over the war in Ukraine.

Before the invasion, Russian gas accounted for around 40 percent of the bloc's consumption; the EU buffered the impact of losing a major supplier with diversification, turning to imports from other nations, along with broader energy efficiency measures. The abrupt unhooking from Russian gas ultimately energized European Commission's efforts to move towards renewables.

While a relatively mild winter spared Europe from higher energy consumption at a time when supply was weakened, most scientists agree that volatile weather patterns are exacerbated by climate change.

From a climate science perspective, Maslin said: "Mild winters are highly variable, because you've just had extreme cold in the U.S.A. Climate change causes winners and losers on a seasonal basis, so yes, Europe has benefited from a mild winter up to now, but the U.S.A. has just had one of the coldest winters and extreme ice storms."

Skeptics looking towards Europe as an example of fossil fuels coming to the rescue may therefore be confronted with a continent that remains committed to transitioning to renewable energy.

It is another illustration of how the facts have often become embroiled in tribal debates. On one side, skeptics seek to divert attention towards existing concerns. On the other, proponents of climate policy use emotive, and arguably sometimes inappropriate, issues to convince Americans climate change is something to be concerned about. As Maslin argues, who will ultimately prevail remains to be seen.