the observatory

Attack of the climate-denial books

Conservative think tanks fuel publishing boom that spreads misinformation
March 12, 2013

If you find Red Hot Lies in an airport bookstore or online bookseller, don’t expect a juicy account of a political sex scandal cover-up. The book’s target is climate science and scientists. Its premise: How Global Warming Alarmists Use Threats, Fraud, and Deception to Keep You Misinformed.

It is one of a growing number of climate-change-denial books in the US and abroad, most of which have “a strong link” to influential conservative think tanks, according to a new study by Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University and Peter J. Jacques of the University of Central Florida. Their analysis found that authors of nearly 90 percent of books from publishing houses (others were self-published) had ties to conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Marshall Institute.

The books help think tanks and others promote conservative causes, raise uncertainty about the threat of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and downplay the need for reducing carbon emissions, Dunlap said in an interview. They are a perfect vehicle for the “top-down diffusion of climate-science denial from elites and conservative think tanks in this country to rank-and-file Republicans and Tea Party members,” he said.

In addition, the books help conservative think tanks in the US “spread the seeds of climate denial to other countries,” including the UK, Canada, and Australia, as well as a number of European nations, said Dunlap.

Climate skepticism books “are especially important for reaching the conservative movement’s core constituency, wider segments of the public, and critical sectors of society such as corporate, political and media leaders,” Dunlap and Jacques wrote in their paper, published online in February by the journal American Behavioral Scientist. “They are clearly a vital weapon in the conservative movement’s war on climate science, and one of the key means by which it diffuses climate change denial throughout American society and into other nations.”

The books “confer a sense of legitimacy on their authors and provide an effective tool for combating the findings of climate scientists that are published primarily in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals,” Dunlap and Jacques noted in the paper.

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Dunlap said that climate skeptics’ books tend to recycle “zombie arguments that are disproven over and over and then pop up again. The books can make any points they want to,” without going through any of the scientific peer-review process that traditional scientific papers require.

Regardless of whether or not they have scientific credentials, the authors, in turn, are often treated as “climate experts” who may be interviewed on television and radio and quoted by sympathetic columnists, bloggers, and conservative politicians, said Dunlap. While they often preach to the converted and are sold by think tanks and conservative book clubs, the books may also be sold by online retailers and chain book stores, often positioned as science books alongside books by climate scientists. Dunlap said that several of the books have been bestsellers among climate change books on Amazon and are, not surprisingly, sold by the Conservative Book Club.

Dunlap has been a leader in sociological studies of climate change. His earlier work focused on defining what he calls the “organized climate-denial machine.” He received considerable media attention for a 2011 paper, with Aaron McCright, published in Global Environment Change, called “Cool Dudes: The Denial of Climate Change among Conservative White Males in the United States.”

For the recent study, Dunlap and Jacques searched for English-language books that reject the strong scientific evidence that global warming is occurring, that human activities are the predominant cause, and that negative impacts to humans and natural systems may occur. They found 108 books published between 1982 (Carbon Dioxide: Friend or Foe) and 2010, half of them between 2005 and 2010, and 15 of them in 2010 alone.

The authors noted that there had been an “explosion” of books since 2007, following a string of high-profile events, including: Al Gore’s 2006 film Inconvenient Truth and its 2007 Academy Award; the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which found “unequivocal” evidence of global warming attributable to human activities); the 2009 United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen; and the push for climate legislation in the US Congress, which was defeated in 2010.

Overall, 72 percent of the 108 books had “a verifiable link” to a conservative think tank, and virtually all of them espoused conservative ideology, Dunlap and Jacques found. Thirty-three books were self-published (mostly between 2007 and 2009). About 40 percent of these books, often by authors with no scientific training, had links to think tanks, but they often relied heavily on other think-tank-affiliated books, according to Dunlap and Jacques.

While 66 of the 108 climate denial books came from American authors (61 percent), another 19 books (18 percent) came from the UK, followed by seven from Canada, and six from Australia. The rest came from nations such as Denmark, France, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Germany, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. Since 2000, four of every 10 denial books have come from authors outside the US–evidence, say Dunlap and Jacques, of “the success of the US conservative movement in helping diffuse denial internationally.”

They also credit a coterie of primarily American contrarian scientists (usually PhDs in natural science or physics with links to think tanks who have authored climate-denial books) with “planting and legitimizing climate-change denial within conservative circles.” These include Singer and Michaels, as well Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow, and Robert Nierenberg (the last three co-founded the conservative George C. Marshall Institute, and are now deceased).

Lawyer Christopher Horner, affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, wrote Red Hot Lies in 2008 and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism) in 2007, both published by the conservative Regnery Publishing.

Dunlap and Jacques’s study will appear in the June issue of American Behavioral Scientist as part of a seven-part special package, edited by Dunlap, focused on “climate change skepticism and denial.” Although their analysis didn’t examine works published after 2010, Dunlap said that climate-denial books continue to be published and may become even more popular if the Obama administration follows up its climate-change rhetoric with new initiatives to control heat-trapping greenhouse-gas emissions.

Indeed, a list of books found on Amazon on Tuesday by searching for “climate change” or “global warming” included two 2012 climate-denial books near the top: Global Warming False Alarm, 2nd edition: The Bad Science Behind the United Nations’ Assertion that Man-made CO2 Causes Global Warming, by Ralph Alexander, an Australian with a PhD in physics who works as a “market analyst in environmentally friendly materials at a small Midwest consulting firm in the USA,” and The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, by James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma–where Dunlap teaches.

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.