New “Folk Devils,” Denials and Climate Change: Applying the Work of Stanley Cohen to Green Criminology and Environmental Harm


This article pays homage to Stan Cohen by applying his work to green criminology. It draws on Cohen’s notions of “denial,” “folk devils” and “moral panic” to analyze and assess “climate change contrarianism”—organized efforts to diminish scientific consensus on the existence and extent of climate change and its potential impact on human and nonhuman life. We begin by arguing that “climate change contrarians” have painted climate change as a moral issue and have attempted to transform climate scientists into “folk devils.” We then contemplate the meaning and significance of media representations of climate change and the way in which such depictions have contributed to the lack of consequential state and international measures, treaties or protocols on climate change.

Introduction and Aims

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Essays of Generalization, T.S. Eliot writes: “Someone said, ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know” (1975 [1919], p. 44). Eliot was suggesting that to know our intellectual precursors is to take their ideas and extend them further. That is our intention in this article with regard to the ideas of Stanley Cohen. But it is a risky proposition. One needs to be wary of trying to “pluck … concept[s] out of [their] intellectual context[s]” (Young 2009, p. 4).

Our aim in this article is to extend insights from the work of Cohen into problematic areas he did not explore—at least in any great detail—sometimes for reasons he made very clear. Various themes can be identified in Cohen’s work but at its heart is a concern for the plight of the marginalised. Cohen applied an intellectual passion and sociological imagination to the cases and causes of individuals and groups suffering ill treatment by agents of the more powerful (e.g., corporations, states, media). He was, however, realistic about the breadth of the political and compassionate engagements that he and, he argued, most people, could or would feel able to prioritise. Hence, in relation to matters pertaining to the environment and animal rights, he observed that, while “The concept of compassion fatigue may be a little shaky [….] each new moral demand makes coping harder” and he acknowledged testing this proposition “by looking at [his] own reactions to environmental and animal rights issues” (2001, p. 289). “I cannot find,” Cohen continued, “strong rational arguments against either set of claims. But emotionally, they leave me utterly unmoved. I am particularly oblivious—in total denial—about animal issues. … [I]n the end, much like people throwing away an Amnesty leaflet, my filters go into automatic drive: this is not my responsibility; there are worse problems; there are plenty of other people looking after this” (2001, p. 289).

This article is both homage to and engagement with Cohen or, to put it another way, homage through engagement: a tribute to the contributions and critical stimulus he brought to criminology and sociology but also an argument about why taking the next step to link abuse of humanity with abuse of our environment, other species and the planet would have been appropriate. We endeavor to show how certain trends relating to the contemporary representation and management of environmental challenges can be illuminated by applying some of Cohen’s insights to them. We begin by considering the importance of denial in relation to climate change debates and the ways in which contrarianism and contestation can be understood in terms of the concepts of “folk devils” and “moral panic”.

Climate Change Contrarianism and Denial

There is widespread agreement among scientists that climate change is occurring and that human activities are driving it. According to McNall (2011, p. 26), 97 % of the top climate scientists hold the evidence-informed view that the Earth is warming and that this is due to human activity. Despite the evidence, many members of nations with a free and fairly informative media nonetheless believe that climate change is a lie (or worse), or accept that is exists but do not see it as a threat to themselves or their families (Milman 2015). In the UK, various commentators with high profiles and influential networks have campaigned on a platform arguing that climate science is wrong, including Lord Monckton (a former policy advisor to Margaret Thatcher when UK Prime Minister; see, Lord Lawson (former Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Matt Ridley, a journalist and also a hereditary peer, who has argued that:

Climate change has done more good than harm so far and is likely to continue doing so for most of this century. This is not some barmy, right-wing fantasy; it is the consensus of expert opinion.

But it is particularly in the USA where similar views are most expansively and vociferously expressed. Consider, for example, the following sample of statements about or descriptions of global warming and climate change:

  • “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” (Senator James Inhoff (R-OK), quoted in Antilla (2005, p. 338)Footnote 1;

  • a “left-wing plot” (Editorial 2010);

  • a “conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth” (Broder 2010, p. A1), describing the perspective of the Tea Party movement);

  • “some fraud perpetrated by scientists trying to gin up money for research” (Friedman 2011), summarizing the views of Governor Rick Perry of Texas and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota);

  • “a twisted fantasy concocted by misguided intellectuals” (Rubin 2015); and

  • “a rich white person’s concern” (conservative commentator Ann Coulter, quoted in Breitman 2014).

Recently, a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that officials working in Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection had been banned from even using the words, “climate change,” “global warming” and “sea-level rise” under Republican state governor Rick Scott, despite climate assessments that Florida is at risk of an ‘”imminent threat of increased inland flood”’ and is “’uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise’” [McCormick 2015 (quoting a 2014 national climate assessment for the United States)]. As Edward Maibach, Director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, remarks, “There is a ‘major disconnect’ between what the climate science is showing and what the average American is thinking,” ( 2013).

Brisman (2012, pp. 50–54) has speculated that public lack of conviction about the seriousness of climate change and public dismissal of the need to respond to anthropocentric influence on the global climate system could be attributed to a number of factors: (1) “residual effects” of the Bush Administration’s 8-year-long process of systematically ignoring and denying scientific evidence of climate change; (2) admitted (typographical) errors by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007; and (3) the “Climategate” ‘scandal’—in which climate scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were accused—and subsequently cleared of charges—of manipulating data (and the scientific peer review process) to make the case for anthropogenic climate change more compelling. Brisman (2012, p. 55) concluded that the American public’s refusal to accept and act upon the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is occurring and that human activities are causing it could be ascribed to “various corporate-political interests who, wishing to downplay the extent or existence of climate change, have conducted a concerted campaign to try to call the science behind the phenomena into question”—a counter-action not limited to the United States (see, e.g., Booker 2015; Goldenberg 2013a, b; Ridley 2013).

This campaign waged by climate change naysayers with links to the fossil fuel industry and related interests, has included politicians, conservative think-tanks and dissenting scientists who publicly challenge what they perceive as the false consensus of “mainstream” climate science. Their activities have involved: claiming that the scientific evidence is unconvincing or inaccurate; producing anti-global warming studies; holding rallies and creating websites; and generating analyses that purport to show that policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will have devastating effects on jobs and the overall economy—despite evidence to suggest that saving the planet would be remarkably cheap (and might even be free) and that large reductions in GHG emissions could be achieved at little cost to the economy (Krugman 2014a, A27, b, p. A29; Stern Review 2006).

Climate change “contrarians” or “deniers”—people who refuse to accept the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change—benefit from the financial support of the fossil fuel industry and enjoy a certain level of political access but have also garnered considerable attention by exploiting the media’s balancing norm, which results in overstating the actual degree of disagreement and creating the impression that scientific opinion is divided or completely unsettled.Footnote 2 In other words, “balanced coverage” does not mean “accurate coverage,” and journalistic “balance” can equal informational “bias” if the issue that is being discussed is largely agreed within the scientific community. “Balance” and bias are, of course, also seriously influenced by ownership and control of media outlets and in the United States, skepticism has been particularly fostered by media owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox and News Corp. groups. For example, according to Pappas (2014), “[p]rimetime coverage of global warming at Fox News is overwhelmingly misleading … [and] the same is true of climate change information in the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages.”

According to David and colleagues, “where audiences have little or no direct experience of the issue being presented to them in the media, it remains the case that media have a distinct capacity to foster disproportionate beliefs, fears and indeed moral panic in audiences” (2011, p. 223). Because many people have no direct experience of climate change—or, at least, believe they have no direct experience—the media play a major role in how people think about climate change. If media consumers “tend to choose newspapers [and other media] whose views … concur with their own” (David et al. 2011, p. 223) and if those sources are inaccurate, then the media’s role in influencing what and how people think about climate change and people’s affinity for and fidelity to such sources can prove problematic.

Admittedly, “a wider number and diversity of media channels have increased the scope for counter voices which are potentially capable of defusing conservative moral panic messages” (David et al. 2011, p. 225). It is also true that “alternative voices can challenge traditional moral entrepreneurs in a more diverse media landscape” (David et al. 2011, p. 225) but it is similarly the case that “[a]n increased array of experts, counter-experts, victim support groups and other advocacy and campaign groups ensures a never-ending supply of ‘news’ without the veracity of the claims ever being adequately checked” (David et al. 2011, p. 224). As Greenfeld (2014, p. SR6) puts it, “It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything”.

Essentially, climate change contrarians and deniers do not have to convince anyone of anything. They simply have to sow seeds of doubt (Mooney 2014)—and in so doing, they “win” through confusion. They can rely on popular mainstream news sources that have a particular political leaning (e.g., Fox News or various newspapers in different countries) to contribute to uncertainty and advance their objective of maintaining the status quo by obstructing communication of new knowledge about climate science and climate change. For climate change contrarians and deniers, the following equation holds true: assertions = evidence = truth.

Websdale and Ferrell (1999, pp. 349–350) employ the trope “cultural silence” to refer to “the socio-historical inattention to phenomena that appear to warrant a deviant label” and argue that climate change denial constitutes a form of “cultural silence.” While this is problematic in and of itself, it is also the case that “the ‘cultural silence’ created by climate change contrarians … runs the risk of rendering science as [a] ‘dismissable endeavour’” (Brisman 2012, p. 63, quoting Carvalho 2007, p. 63). Indeed, as Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, has stated, “If you disagree with the science of human-caused climate change you are not disagreeing that there is anthropogenic climate change. What you are disagreeing with is science itself” (quoted in Chestney 2013). Not only are climate change contrarians and deniers disputing that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and therefore disagreeing with the majority position in science—but they are also attempting to treat proponents of mainstream climate science as “folk devils,” and endeavouring to depict concern about climate change as a “moral panic” and a threat to neoliberal social values.Footnote 3 We consider each of these propositions in turn.

Proponents of Mainstream Climate Science as “Folk Devils”

Cohen (2002, p. 8) defines “folk devils” largely in terms of the ways in which mass media create them as sources of moral panic. For Jupp (2001, p. 124), “folk devils” are “[a] category of persons which becomes defined as a threat to societal values and interests and the embodiment of ‘what is wrong with society.’” For Cohen, Jupp and others working with the concept, the media play an important role in the process of creating “folk devils,” by presenting the category of persons in question in a stylized and stereotypical fashion, and by (negatively) exaggerating and distorting events—especially predictions about (troublesome/troubling) future events—in which the “folk devil” is central (Cohen 1972). Social reaction to “folk devils” often entails pressure for greater vigilance and stronger responses from the forces of law and order but one of the fundamental elements of Cohen’s thesis is that such escalation will increase, rather than diminish, subsequent deviance. In this media-induced process of deviance amplification, a greater awareness of deviance results in more deviance being uncovered (or constructed, as the case may be), giving the impression that the initial exaggeration was, indeed, an accurate representation. In other words, the general public and law enforcement react to “folk devils” based on the images, symbols and stories presented to them in the media, and any behaviour or response by “folk devils” that fits this picture confirms their status as “deviant” and as threat to the “norm.”

Hall et al. (1978) subsequently drew on Cohen’s work in their analysis of the young, black mugger as a “folk devil.” While the identification of an increase in street mugging as a socially constructed phenomenon was similar to Cohen’s approach, Hall and colleagues linked the media portrayals that they examined to “a crisis in hegemony during an economic recession in a capitalist system.” As Jupp (2001, p. 125) explains, Hall and colleagues argued that “public concern about mugging served to distract attention away from the underlying causes and inherent problems of increasing economic decline.”

Taking Cohen’s thesis and Hall and colleagues’ application thereof together, we put forth two arguments. First, we suggest that proponents of mainstream climate science (those who believe that the Earth is warming as a result of human activity) have been demonized and treated in much the same way as (other) “folk devils” by some sectors of influential mainstream media, as well as by powerful conservative think tanks and research centres. A particularly explicit example is provided by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based libertarian research organization, that sponsored a billboard along a Chicago expressway in May 2012 with a photograph of Ted Kaczynski, the so-called “Unabomber,” whose homemade bombs killed three people and injured twenty-three others, accompanied by the message, “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” and the Heartland Institute’s web address. The Heartland Institute’s website information about the campaign indicated that similar billboards would contain the personas of Charles Manson, Osama bin Laden and Fidel Castro and other “murderers and madmen” because what “some of the world’s most notorious killers … have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations … and liberal politicians say about global warming” (quoted in Nuwer 2012, p. A25). The Heartland Institute did acknowledge that “not all global warming alarmists are murderers and tyrants” (quoted in Nuwer 2012), but the implication was that supporting climate science is deviant and goes against the norm (see Sorock 2012). Arguably, while this kind of “demonization” of climate change scientists and their proponents does not bring about “deviance” amplification (in the form of increased mainstream climate science), it might—and here is where the analogy to Cohen’s thesis gets “flipped,” so to speak—contribute to increased environmental harm and “ecological deviance.” In other words, if campaigns like the Heartland Institute’s succeed—if such images and representations accomplish the goal of advancing climate change contrarianism and denial, thereby preserving the status quo (i.e., inaction on climate change)—then environmental degradation and destruction (deviancy and delinquency in environmental terms) is likely to increase (or, at least, is not abated).

Second, in the same way that Hall and colleagues argued that the image of muggings perpetrated by young blacks served to draw attention away from the underlying causes and inherent problems of increasing economic decline, it is possible that orchestrated concern about (the accuracy of) climate science serves to diminish consideration of the inherent problems of free market capitalism and its impact on the global environment. As Critcher (2011, pp. 262, 268) states:

The major effect of fear is that we are led to misrecognize real problems in order to support simplistic solutions that often worsen the problem they are supposed to tackle…. Fear results from uncertainty but is rarely directed at the abstract forces and anonymous groupings that have destabilized daily life. Instead, “we seek substitute targets on which to unload the surplus existential fear that has been barred from its natural outlets” (Bauman 2007, p.11, original emphasis). In particular, we are unable or unwilling to confront the powerful so [we] find the powerless a better target for our fear.

In the context of climate change, it seems more than plausible that disproportionate and hostile reactions to the work of climate scientists and their supporters distract us from an examination of the causes of environmental decline. Although climate change contrarians and deniers often happen to be “the powerful” or represent their interests, it is much easier for the public audience to disregard the messages of climate scientists and supporters than to reflexively examine the abstract force of global capitalist ideology and processes of production and consumption. Key ingredients of a willingness to “shoot the messenger” rather than listen to the message might include a possible sense of existential dread about the end of the world—something no one really wants to hear. In addition, given general and popular investment in tradition, the status quo and its values, mainstream climate science and concern about climate change present a threat that triggers disproportionately hostile reactions. We suggest these also constitute key ingredients of a “moral panic,” as discussed next.

Concern About Climate Change as a “Moral Panic” and a Threat to Neoliberal Social Values

Previous work employing a “moral panic” framework has considered whether concern about climate change could be conceived of as a “good” moral panic, or whether the mere association of climate change with “moral panic” constitutes “climate change denial” (see Rohloff 2013, p. 401). An alternative approach is to analyse the use of the idea of “moral panic” in the responses of climate change contrarians and deniers to concern about anthropogenic climate change. In taking this approach, we lend support to Garland’s (2008, p. 17) claim that there has been a shift away from “[consensual] moral panics as traditionally conceived (involving a vertical relation between society and a deviant group) towards something more closely resembling American-style ‘culture wars’ (which involve a more horizontal conflict between social groups).”

As Cohen (1972) conceptualized moral panics, these relate to events, persons or groups that might otherwise have been viewed as isolated or unconnected but become linked into a pattern and understood as symptomatic of an underlying disease or disorder, leading to a “[d]isproportional and hostile social reaction to a condition, person or group defined as a threat to societal values, involving stereotypical media representations and leading to demands for greater social control and creating a spiral of reaction” (Murji 2001, p. 175).

For Cohen, moral panics produce an increase in social control responses containing three common elements: (1) diffusion (whereby events in other places are connected to the initial event); (2) escalation (in which there are calls for “strong measures” to counter the threat); and (3) innovation (in which there are increased powers—or calls for increased powers—for the police and courts to deal with the threat). In the case of climate change, we see at least two of these elements operating “in reverse.” Instead of “strong measures” to counter the threat of climate change, climate change contrarians and deniers call for the opposite—de-escalation, perhaps?—certainly no “strong measures” because of (misguided) fears that climate policies will adversely affect the economy (see, e.g., Davenport 2014; Fairfield 2014; Krugman 2014a). Just as Critcher (2009, 2011) suggests that with moral panics, elites seek to reinforce dominant regulative practices by means of scapegoating outsiders, we see with climate change, efforts being made by certain corporate-political elites to reinforce dominant non-regulative or de-regulative practices by means of scapegoating those concerned about climate change (and depicting climate scientists as outsiders). Similarly, climate change contrarians and deniers argue for the opposite of Cohen’s notion of innovationstagnation, perhaps?—supporting decreased governmental powers to deal with the “non-threat” of climate change, as seen, for example with the virulent opposition to attempts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promulgate regulations to slash carbon pollution from cars and coal-fired power plants (Davenport 2014). Indeed, as David et al. (2011, p. 221) contend, “[a]t the most fundamental level, the concept of moral panic appears to carry with it a built-in hypothesis: that a given cultural or social reaction or response is irrational and/or disproportionate;” climate change contrarians and deniers maintain that concern about climate change is irrational and disproportionate.

The idea of moral panic theory operating “in reverse” with respect to climate change gains further traction when one considers the five key characteristics of a moral panic set out by Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994): disproportionality of reaction; concern about the threat; hostility to the objects of the panic; widespread agreement or consensus that the threat is real; and volatility (in that moral panics are unpredictable in terms of scale and intensity). These characteristics are manifested in the reaction of climate change contrarians and deniers to concern about climate change. For example, climate change contrarians and deniers frequently refer to supporters of mainstream climate change science as “global warming alarmists” (disproportionality of reaction); assert that climate change is not a threat or that concern about the threat is unjustified; have likened those concerned about climate change to “rogues and villains,” like Kaczynski, bin Laden, Castro, and Manson (hostility to the objects of the panic) (The Week 2012); and dispute the widespread agreement or consensus that the threat is real.

Cohen did himself briefly contemplate climate change and other environmental harms in relation to moral panic theory, and used climate change denial “to illustrate how certain newer features of moral panics appear in the shell of the old” (2011, p. 241). As Cohen (2011, p. 241) explains:

The rhetoric about climate change draws on the classic moral panic repertoire: disaster, apocalyptic predictions, warnings of what might happen if nothing is done, placing the problem in wider terms (the future of the planet, no less). The climate change movement tends increasingly to construct any scepticism, doubt, qualification or disagreement as denial. And they mean not just the passive denial of indifference but also the active work of “denialists.” Sceptics are indeed folk devils: treated like retarded or crazy persons, people who just don’t get it—like flat earthers—or who are on the payroll of oil corporations. Some entrepreneurs have suggested that climate change denial should become a crime like Holocaust denial; deniers should be brought before a Nuremberg-style court and made responsible for the thousands of deaths that will happen if the global warming alarm is not heeded.

As suggested above, “climate change sceptics” (see footnote 2) are not in fact treated as the “crazy persons” that Cohen claims. Rather, they, along with other politico-corporate elites, have elicited “balanced” media attention and have, certainly in the U.S., been quite successful in depicting proponents of mainstream climate science as the “folk devils.” In addition, climate change contrarians and deniers have claimed that climate science is itself a reflection and cause of panic (Evans 2014). As Muller (2013) writes, “[f]ear of expected global warming is leading to desperate and perhaps even panic-triggered action, including the delay of the Keystone pipeline in the U.S., cancellation of coal to oil conversion projects and the stall of shale gas development in Europe. … The problem with panic is that it often triggers wasteful and ineffective measures. People turn from analysis toward fundamentalism that substitutes ideology for careful analysis.” Returning to Critcher’s (2011, p. 262) observation that “fears are constructed to provide protection against other, more unmanageable or inconvenient fears,” we argue that fear of climate science is constructed to provide protection against other, more unmanageable or inconvenient fears—the fear of having to make significant changes to our individual and collective lifestyles and consumptive practices—to our social and environmental relationships and to our economic systems—in order to mitigate the effects of global climate change. Cohen (2011, p. 242) believed that while “environmental issues will be [important] as potential sites for moral panics, … the most important site will be anything connected with immigration, migrants, multicultural absorption, refugees, border controls and asylum seekers. This subject is more political, more edgy and more amenable to violence.” What Cohen did not consider is that, in the future, climate change is likely to be one of the principal causes of increased migration, increased social conflict and severe challenges to multi-cultural cosmopolitanism (see, e.g., Agnew 2012a, b; Brisman 2013; Lee 2009; Parenti 2011; South 2012).

As we conclude this section, it is worth considering Rohloff’s (2013: 404) assertion that:

The very idea of moral panic research on climate change raises several possible problems, including the following:

  1. 1.

    The focus on the science of climate change may lead some to argue that it cannot be regarded as a moral panic as it is a risk-based issue.

  2. 2.

    The disproportionality and “debunking” commonly associated with moral panic may lead some to judge moral panic research on climate change as an example of climate change denial.

  3. 3.

    The apparent absence of an easily identifiable and marginalized folk devil may be problematic, in some people’s minds, for classifying reactions to climate change as “moral panics.”

We have avoided such problems by examining climate change from a different perspective. Instead of contemplating concern about climate change through the moral panic lens in the ways directed by Rohlof and Cohen, we have considered how conservative reactions have constructed concern about climate change as a “moral panic” and assigned the “folk devil’” label to those who support mainstream climate science. Moreover, just as “[m]oral panics have been seen as inevitable and periodic occurrences for societies undergoing a reaffirmation or re-definition of moral boundaries” (Murji 2001, p. 176), we have observed climate change contrarians and deniers emerge at a time when there have been various challenges to and attacks on “a cherished way of life” (Garland 2008, p. 11)—undoubtedly strengthening a belief in the need to defend the individual freedoms perceived to be associated with neoliberalism, free-market capitalism and minimal state intervention. Moral panics used to be “criticised from the Left as being right-wing conservative reactions to social change” (Yar 2008, p. 442). With respect to climate change, we are witnessing right-wing conservative reactions to attacks on the status quo by those concerned about climate change that suggest—indeed, require—social (as well as economic and political) transformation.


Cohen’s self-confessed denial (whether partial or total) about environmental matters seems based partly on feeling “emotionally… unmoved” by them but also attributable to his own value position which appears critical of the “success of the environmental movement” because this has partly been “achieved at the expense of humanitarian causes” (Cohen 2001, pp. 289, 288). Indeed, Cohen (2013, pp. 72, 75), while recognizing the “near-universal agreement that something like denial plays a central role in assessing the prospects of the climate change movement”, still felt that “[t]he ideology of the 1960s gave rise to many of the concerns and conflicts reflected in the climate change debate. The concerns of the original environmental (‘ecological’) movement (pollution, energy policy, climate change) do not obviously belong to the categories of either human rights or humanitarianism.” One point to emphasise in response is that, frequently, environmental crises will be accompanied by humanitarian crises and impingement on human rights and that the impact of the two should be considered together (Kippenberg and Cohen 2013; McInerney et al. 2011; Tuana 2014; see generally Brisman and South 2013; South and Brisman 2013). Furthermore, those same media forces that deny or dismiss the significance of climate change are exactly the same as those that disagree with arguments to extend human rights or to diminish certain traditional “rights,” most notably in the United States for example, as related to gun ownership.

Cohen takes a focus on human rights to be a sufficient and daunting challenge. He would probably agree with the proposition that “mainstream human rights are restricted to the protection of human beings—that that is their point and that the protection of Nature is not in their purpose, and nor is the recognition of Nature as a living being” (Gianolla 2013, p. 64). But against this, we would join with Gianolla (2013, p. 64) in arguing:

that humans cannot be protected without protecting Nature – and that this truth is particularly stark in the contemporary context….The cultural commitment of mainstream human rights to anthropocentrism is… likely to become even more inadequate as a response to the current challenges facing both Humanity and Nature alike.

Climate change might be the most evident of these current challenges and it is worth noting how central to the dismissal of climate science is the assertion of neo-liberal individualism as preferable and superior to support for human rights or environmental protections.


  1. 1.

    In a painfully perverse irony, Inhofe recently became chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee—the very committee charged with dealing with the issue of climate change. In an effort to “disprove” climate change, in early March 2015, Senator Inhofe brought a snowball into the Senate chamber (Cosier 2015; Rubin 2015; Speckhardt 2015).

  2. 2.

    We refer to “climate change contrarians/contrarianism” and “climate change denier/denial” rather than “climate change sceptic/scepticism” because, as a number of scholars have pointed out, scepticism is a part of the scientific process (see, e.g., Anderegg 2010; Antilla 2005; McCright and Dunlap 2003). While scepticism can be both a healthy part of the scientific process and an excuse to present political or value-laden perspectives (that are masked behind a scientific façade), contrarianism suggests an ideological, rather than scientific, impetus for disagreement. And it is this element or characteristic that we wish to highlight.

  3. 3.

    In this way, we make the exact opposite argument of Rohloff (2013, p. 410), who states that “climate change provides us with new types of folk devils: (1) climate skeptics/deniers, (2) big corporations (including, but not limited to, those of the energy industry), (3) governments, (4) the affluent, SUV driving, gas-guzzling customer with a large carbon footprint, and (5) the extremely rich who consume to ‘excess’ in sites of excess consumption” (citation omitted). For us, “climate skeptics/deniers” (or climate change contrarians and deniers, as we call them), are not the “folk devils.” Rather, those who deny mainstream climate science regard those who support it as threats to traditional societal values and interests.


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Brisman, A., South, N. New “Folk Devils,” Denials and Climate Change: Applying the Work of Stanley Cohen to Green Criminology and Environmental Harm. Crit Crim 23, 449–460 (2015).

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  • Climate Change
  • Climate Science
  • Anthropogenic Climate Change
  • Compassion Fatigue
  • Moral Panic