Are climate skeptics paid undue attention and given too much credit for their efforts? Or are they merely convenient scapegoats?

Earlier this year, during a talk at the UK’s Royal Society, NASA climate scientist James Hansen asserted that climate skeptics “have been winning the argument for several years, even though the science has become clearer.”

This is an oft-stated refrain in climate-concerned circles: That a noisy minority of climate skeptics, their voices amplified by partisan political communicators and lobbyists for fossil fuel interests (the Koch brothers are the new Exxon Mobil in this storyline), have succeeded in sowing disinformation on global warming. Recent books, such as Merchants of Doubt and Climate Cover-Up, discuss the influential players, think tanks, and techniques that advance the climate skeptic campaign. The argument is that the combined efforts by climate skeptics and their representatives have made people — on the whole — less concerned about global warming. And that this, in turn, has significantly contributed to the lack of political action on climate change.


But in a recent Financial Times column titled “Squabbling while the world burns,” Simon Kuper argued that all the attention lavished on climate skeptics has created “a one-dimensional argument about climate change: do you believe it’s real or not?” Kuper says he’s found that “many people can only read articles about climate change as statements of either belief or skepticism. This obscures better questions, such as what exactly we should do about climate change.”

Duking it out with skeptics is “pointless,” Kuper goes on to assert, “because what most people believe about climate change has little to do with science.” He quotes Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change at the UK’s University of East Anglia, who says: “We disagree about climate change because we have different belief systems.”

Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado political scientist, picks up on this theme and Kuper’s argument in a recent blog post, in which he archly writes:

If it wasn’t for the alleged risks that skeptics pose to our future, we’d have to instead be arguing about things like values, goals and priorities, which are messy and carry with them none of the imputed authority of science. It is in the interests of both skeptics and their opponents to argue about science, because it suggests that their debate is somehow directly relevant to policy action. It is not.

Pielke suggests that climate scientists and their spokespersons fail to recognize that they can declare victory and move past all the hamster-wheel arguments about science: “The debate over climate science is over and has been won by those who assert a human influence on the climate system.”

At the end of his piece, Kuper makes a notable observation that might serve as a template for those looking to advance the climate debate:

The skeptics and the apathetic will always be with us. There’ll never be full consensus on climate change. But if governments could only act when there was unanimity, no law on anything would ever be passed. The U.S. invaded Iraq, bailed out banks and passed universal healthcare with much less consensus than exists over climate change. In short, the skeptics are not the block to action.

Do you agree? Are climate skeptics less important and less influential than they — and their counterparts in the climate-concerned community — would have us believe?

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.