Controversial Topic: Climate Change

The climate change debate concerns the impact of human activity on the earth’s temperature, as well as its impact on weather patterns, plant-life, wildlife, and human health. On one side of the debate, most in the scientific community believe that human activity is responsible for climate change. On the other side, some journalists, political leaders, and industry advocates argue either that global climate change is not actually occurring, or that shifts in climate are natural meteorological patterns unrelated to human activity. Some also argue that economic imperatives should be prioritized over environmental concerns.

Controversial Topic: Climate Change

The goal of this discussion is to examine the various perspectives shaping the public discussion over climate change, and to provide you with a look at some of the figures past and present who have influenced this discussion. The figures selected may not always be household names, but are instead selected to provide a simultaneously broad and nuanced look at the public discourse on this subject, and in some cases, even to provide you with a list of individuals to contact as part of your research.

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A Brief History of the Issue

According to the BBC, the Earth’s population roughly doubled between 1800 and 1930, growing from one billion to two billion people in a little over a century. That period of time also encompassed an industrial revolution in which steam, coal, oil, and steel powered our world from feudalism into modernity. Cars were invented. Factory production proliferated. Cities grew into towering population clusters teeming with activity. The BBC reports that by 1927, carbon emissions from fossil fuels and industrial activities amounted to roughly one billion tons a year.

As technology emerged and production accelerated, smoke poured into the air, metals seeped into the water supply, and chemicals permeated ground soil. By 1938, a British engineer named Guy Callendar was able to demonstrate using records from 147 weather stations around the world that both temperatures and observable CO2 concentration had increased over the past century.

As technology emerged and production accelerated, smoke poured into the air, metals seeped into the water supply, and chemicals permeated ground soil...and observable CO2 concentration had increased over the past century.

Though meteorologists of the time dismissed his conclusions, Callendar’s findings would be confirmed repeatedly as climate scientists investigated the topic across the 1950s. And in 1965, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, a U.S. President’s Advisory committee became the first American governmental body to acknowledge the potential threat posed to life on earth by “the greenhouse effect,” which denotes that CO2 emissions trapped in the earth’s atmosphere were causing a pattern of global warming.

Ten years later, with the world population topping four billion, a U.S. scientist named Wallace Broecker published a paper proliferating use of the “global warming” terminology. This period of time saw the emergence of an environmentalism movement, largely sparked by public-facing environmental calamities like the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, a number of high-profile coastal oil spills, and a concentration of pollution so severe in the Great Lakes and surrounding tributaries that, in 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire.

As the environmental movement gained momentum in the 1970s, so too did a force of resistance to findings about global warming. In particular, advocates for the fossil fuel industries viewed the environmental movement as a threat to the free market rights of the oil, coal, nuclear and natural gas sectors. Thus began the push and pull shaping today’s climate change discussion. As many scientists, world leaders, and governments grapple to reign in fossil fuel burning and CO2 emissions, fossil fuel lobbyists also enjoy the support of some government groups, world leaders, and select pockets of the scientific community. Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol (1992) and the Paris Agreement (2016) have sought to bring the world together around certain collective goals. But as best demonstrated by the United States’ entry into and exit from both accords, the shape of political leadership has a direct connection to the way that a given global entity aligns on the issue of climate change.

Advocates for the fossil fuel industries viewed the environmental movement as a threat to the free market rights of the oil, coal, nuclear and natural gas sectors. Thus began the push and pull shaping today's climate change discussion.

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of climate change in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our Rankings produced a list of prominent political figures, climate change scientists, and activists who both recognize and dispute the reality or impact of global climate change. Though we typically vet such lists to exclude political leaders, some public office holders—former Vice President Al Gore in particular—have had a profound influence over the climate change debate outside of their formal duties as elected officials. Therefore, no such vetting has been done here.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Climate Change Debate
Rank Person
1 Al Gore
2 Hillary Clinton
3 Michael E. Mann
4 George Monbiot
5 Bill McKibben
6 James Edward Hansen
7 Jeremy Corbyn
8 Fred Singer
9 Bernie Sanders
10 Ban Ki-moon

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of climate change in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is comprised both of texts by climate change skeptics and by those asserting the scientific reality of, and the need to confront, global climate change.

Top Ten Historical Influential Books in the Climate Change Debate
Rank Person
1 Merchants of Doubt
2 Deploying Renewables 2011
3 Agenda 21
4 Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation
5 State of Fear
6 Silent Spring
7 The Skeptical Environmentalist
8 The Carbon Diaries: 2015
9 The Revenge of Gaia
10 The Weather Makers

The Current Controversy

The push and pull, particularly waged between the scientific community and the energy industries, as well as political allies on both sides, effectively captures the current controversy.

In 2006, with the earth’s population exceeding seven billion people, carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industry activities topped eight billion tons per year. Those who recognize climate change as a consequence of human activity argue that the use of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, which get trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and have caused a gradual (and increasingly rapid) warming of the earth. This warming, say many scientists, is producing a wide range of negative ecological impacts from growing deserts, more frequent wildfires, more severe tropical storms, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and various deleterious impacts on wildlife habitats in rainforests, oceans, freshwater, and woodlands. Humans are also suffering the impact of climate change, argue climate change scientists, from diminished air quality and tainted drinking water to food shortages and increasingly deadly weather events.

Many fossil fuel companies, lobbyists, and business-sympathetic public office-holders publicly deny the existence of global climate change or alternately acknowledge that while global warming may be occurring, it is not demonstrably the result of human activity.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are fossil fuel companies, lobbyists, and business-sympathetic public office-holders, many of whom publicly deny the existence of global climate change or alternately acknowledge that while global warming may be occurring, it is not demonstrably the result of human activity.

There are select members of the scientific community—though they are not part of the majority consensus on the topic—who argue that today’s patterns of climate change are consistent with the varying climate patterns that have occurred naturally over the course of the earth’s history. Sometimes referred to as “climate change deniers,” or “climate change skeptics,” this group may include petroleum engineers, technologists, and geologists with practical, ideological, or professional ties to the fossil fuels industry.

Collectively, these groups are likely to hold the position that claims about the existence and danger of global climate change are false or exaggerated, and that they do not justify curtailing economic activity, production, and industry through environmental regulation. By contrast, environmental activists, conservationists, climate scientists, and many others in the scientific community argue that global climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity, that we are already feeling it’s increasingly severe consequences, and that preservation of the planet and life on this planet requires immediate mitigation through meaningful environmental regulation.

Many others in the scientific community argue...that preservation of the planet and life on this planet requires immediate mitigation through meaningful environmental regulation.

Learn More about the current issue with a look at the Top Influential Earth Scientists Today.

A Quick Overview of Our Method

Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.

On the subject of Climate Change, this requires us to consider environmental activists, conservationists, and climate scientists just as it requires us to consider global warming deniers, fossil fuel advocates, and climate change skeptics.

Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the climate change issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either to the bottom of this depth or to the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.

For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our our methodology.

Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:

Key Terms:

Global Warming Awareness

Global Warming Awareness refers to the ongoing public campaign—which largely emerged in the late 1960s—to create greater recognition and understanding of climate change, its causes, and its impacts. Figures involved in the push for greater awareness are supported by broad scientific consensus that human activities are leading to climate change and its degrading effects on the environment. Most influencers in this area advocate for mitigation through changes in industry and everyday human activity.

Influencers:

  • Reese Palley, Merchant to the Rich, was a flamboyant entrepreneur, gallerist, inventor, art dealer, businessman, author, adventurer, blogger, record-setting world circumnavigator, polymath, environmentalist, art impresario, airline creator, economist, and public scold on matters as diverse as nuclear energy, global warming and how to revive Atlantic City. An advocate of global warming awareness, Palley published a blog, 2DegreesCentigrade, in which he elucidated the need to hold global warming to 2°. Learn more…
  • James Edward Hansen is an American adjunct professor directing the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is best known for his research in climatology, his 1988 Congressional testimony on climate change that helped raise broad awareness of global warming, and his advocacy of action to avoid dangerous climate change. In recent years he has become a climate activist to mitigate the effects of global warming, on a few occasions leading to his arrest. Learn more…
  • Robin Russell-Jones is a medical doctor with an abiding interest in environmental pollution and the way it impinges on public health. His activities have influenced several key areas of environmental policy in the UK, including the decision to ban lead in petrol, introduce catalytic converters in petrol driven vehicles, and change official guidelines on exposure to ionising radiation. His letters and articles have raised awareness of ozone depletion and global warming. Learn more…

Global Climate Change

What initially began as a campaign to create greater awareness of the phenomenon called “global warming” eventually became a full-scale movement around the concept of global climate change. This phrasing denotes that global warming is merely one symptom of a broader set of effects on our climate, weather patterns, and ecological balance. Those who acknowledge the negative impacts of global climate change include climate scientists, ecologists and public health experts, who largely align with the general scientific consensus that human activity has impacted the earth’s climate in myriad negative ways. This is the prevailing view also informing widely shared global agreements on curbing CO2 emissions such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

Influencers:

  • Drew Shindell is a physicist and a climate specialist and professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. His H-index is 94 and he is listed as an ISI Highly Cited Researcher. He was a chapter lead of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change October 8, 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC as well as on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013. He has testified on climate issues before both houses of the US Congress, at the request of both parties. His research concerns natural and human drivers of climate change, linkages between air quality and climate change, and the interface between climate change science and policy. He has been an author on more than 200 peer-reviewed publications and received awards from Scientific American, NASA, the EPA, and the NSF. Learn more…
  • Ottmar Georg Edenhofer is one of the world’s leading experts on climate change policy, environmental and energy policy, and energy economics. Edenhofer currently holds the professorship of the Economics of Climate Change at the Technical University of Berlin. He is designated director and chief economist of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research as well as director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. From 2008 to 2015 he served as one of the co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III “Mitigation of Climate Change”. Learn more…
  • Christopher B. Field is an American scientist and researcher, who has contributed to the field of climate change. The author of more than 200 scientific publications, Field’s research emphasizes impacts of climate change, from the molecular to the global scale. His work includes major field experiments on responses of California grassland to multi-factor global change, integrative studies on the global carbon cycle, and assessments of impacts of climate change on agriculture. Field’s work with models includes studies on the global distribution of carbon sources and sinks, and studies on environmental consequences of expanding biomass energy. Learn more…

Climate Change Denial

Climate change denial is a position staked out by a variety of academics, journalists, public office-holders, and advocates for the fossil fuel industries. Those who hold this position reject scientific consensus that the earth’s climate is undergoing changes or, alternately, reject the idea that these changes have been caused by human activity.

Influencers:

  • Willard Anthony Watts is an American blogger who runs Watts Up With That?, a popular climate change denial blog that opposes the scientific consensus on climate change. A former television meteorologist and current radio meteorologist, he is also founder of the Surface Stations project, a volunteer initiative to document the condition of U.S. weather stations. The Heartland Institute helped fund some of Watts’ projects, including publishing a report on the Surface Stations project, and has invited him to be a paid speaker at its International Conference on Climate Change from 2008 to 2014. Learn more…
  • Timothy Francis Ball is a Canadian public speaker and writer who was a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Winnipeg from 1971 until his retirement in 1996. Ball then became very active in promoting climate change denial, giving public talks and writing opinion pieces and letters to the editor for Canadian newspapers. He has been a member of energy industry funded lobbying groups, and wrote for the climate change denial website Tech Central Station. Learn more…
  • Sir Samuel Brittan is an English journalist and author. He was the first economics correspondent for the Financial Times, and has since been a long-time columnist. He is member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a non-profit organisation “restoring balance and trust to the climate debate” that has been characterised as promoting climate change denial. Learn more…

Climate Change Skeptics

Like climate change denial, the group referred to as climate change skeptics refute the scientific consensus surrounding global climate change. Those who consider themselves skeptics often argue that there is compelling scientific evidence contrasting the dominant theories on human-caused climate change. In particular, climate change skeptics often argue that while climate shifts have occurred, these are consistent with climate shifts throughout the earth’s history, including those predating human history. This suggests, according to skeptics, that claims about the impact of human activity on climate patterns are either overstated or inaccurate.

Influencers:

  • Sherwood B. Idso is a climate change skeptic and the president of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, a 501 nonprofit that disputes the consensus scientific opinion on climate change. Previously he was a Research Physicist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory in Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked since June 1967. He was also closely associated with Arizona State University over most of this period, serving as an Adjunct Professor in the Departments of Geology, Geography, and Botany and Microbiology. His two sons, Craig and Keith, are, respectively, the founder and vice president of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. Learn more…
  • Craig D. Idso is an outspoken global warming skeptic and the founder, former president and current chairman of the board of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change - a group which receives funding from ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy and which promotes climate change denial. He is the brother of Keith E. Idso and son of Sherwood B. Idso. Learn more…
  • Lucia Liljegren is an American mechanical engineer who has worked at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and as an assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Iowa State University. She is best known for her global warming/climate change skeptic blog The Blackboard, online since 2007. Professor Judith Curry, a climatologist at Georgia Tech, calls Lucia “probably the least controversial person in the climate blogosphere, because of her cheerfulness and sense of humor, honesty, and open mindedness.” Learn more…

Conservationism

An early and important exponent of the environmental movement, conservationism concerns protection of our natural surroundings including land, ocean, freshwater, air, and wildlife habitats. The conservation movement is a significant front in the effort to stop and reverse global climate change. Conservationists offer firsthand knowledge of the impacts of human activity and global climate change on wildlife and their habitats, and provide supporting evidence of the mitigation strategies that might offset these impacts.

Influencers:

  • Sue Anschutz-Rodgers is an American rancher, conservationist, and philanthropist. Owner of the Crystal River Ranch in Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado, she is a strong proponent of conservationism and preservation of the heritage of the American West, and helped implement the legal concept of conservation easements in the state. She is the chair and president of the Anschutz Family Foundation, which funds nonprofits, and also heads the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Fund, which funds projects promoting women’s self-sufficiency. She is an active member of many state and national boards. She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Colorado Business Hall of Fame in 2017. Learn more…
  • John Thomas Miner, OBE , or “Wild Goose Jack,” was a Canadian conservationist called by some the “father” of North American conservationism. Learn more…
  • William Willard Ashe was an American forester and botanist. He was known as a prolific collector of plant specimens and an early proponent of conservationism in the Southern United States. Learn more…

Environmental Activism

Environmental Activism is something of a catch-all for the many groups, agencies, and segments of the population that have worked toward stronger regulation, oversight, and enforcement around activities that they argue are causing environmental harm and climate change. Activism can include public demonstrations, protests, public information campaigns, policy engagement, and a wide range of other activities designed to improve public awareness, lifestyle decisions, and legal environmental protections.

Influencers:

  • Peter Willcox is an American sea captain best known for his activism with the environmental organization Greenpeace. He was on board as captain of the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed and sunk by the DGSE in New Zealand in 1985. In 2013, he was aboard the MV Arctic Sunrise when the Russian military boarded it and arrested him and 30 other activists in what became known as the “Arctic 30.” He was detained for two months before being released. In 2014, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Guardian for his environmental activism. Learn more…
  • Max Oelschlaeger is an American ecological philosopher, active in the study of Environmental Ethics, Environmental Philosophy, Ecofeminism, Deep Ecology, Philosophy of Ecology, Contemporary Environmental Issues, Postmodern Environmental Ethics, and the Philosophy of Wilderness. Learn more…
  • Sunny Ofehe is a Nigeria-born, Dutch environmental rights activist and political candidate whose activities focus on the environmental degradation in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Learn more…

Fossil Fuels Industry/Oil Lobby

Among the most vocal critics of the prevailing scientific research on climate change are representatives of the fossil fuel industries. This includes energy scientists, political lobbies, and corporate leaders, who collectively argue that the CO2 emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels like petroleum and coal are not the cause of global climate change, that the impacts of global climate change have been exaggerated, and that the economic imperatives driving these industries supersede claims about the impact of these industries on public health or the environment.

Influencers:

  • Alexander Joseph Epstein is an American author, energy theorist, and industrial policy pundit. He is the founder and president of the Center for Industrial Progress, a for-profit organization located in San Diego, California. Epstein is also the New York Times best-selling author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, in which he advocates the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, for which he has been praised in The Wall Street Journal and criticized in The Guardian. Epstein is a former adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and a former fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. He has called into question the degree of consensus among climate scientists regarding climate change and stated that he does not believe humans are the primary cause of climate change. Learn more…
  • Amory Bloch Lovins is an American writer, physicist, and Chairman/Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute. He has written on energy policy and related areas for four decades, and served on the National Petroleum Council, an oil industry lobbying group, from 2011–2018. In 1983, Lovins was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for “pioneering soft energy paths for global security.” He was named by TIME magazine one of the World’s 100 most influential people in 2009. Learn more…
  • Matthew Roy Simmons was founder and chairman emeritus of Simmons & Company International, and was a prominent figure in the field of peak oil. Simmons was motivated by the 1973 energy crisis to create an investment banking firm catering to oil companies. He served as an energy adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush and was a member of the National Petroleum Council and the Council on Foreign Relations. Learn more…
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Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the climate change debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:

Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!