The Lying Politics of Climate Science Denial

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The politics of climate denial and climate greenwash share much in common — both are ways of denying reality. The comeback of climate denial is out of step with views on climate change in most of the world.

By Simon Butler
Climate Change Social Change, Feb 4, 2009

It might seem bizarre that although the science of human-caused climate change is more conclusive and worrying than ever, climate denial could enjoy a resurgence. But it’s happening — at least in Australia and a handful of other developed nations.

The comeback of climate denial is out of step with views on climate change in most of the world.

A BBC poll, released in December, said concern about climate change has risen sharply worldwide. Sixty-four percent said climate change was “very serious” — 20% higher than a similar 1998 poll. In Brazil and Chile, the figure was 86%. Eighty-three percent of Costa Ricans and Filipinos agreed.

But in Australia, Britain and the US, the trend appears to be running the other way.

A recent US poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that less than 50% of adults found global warming “worrying” or “somewhat worrying.” This is 13% less than an October 2008 poll.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they believed global warming was happening, down from 71% in 2008. Those who felt global warming was caused by human activity dropped from 57% to 47%.

A November poll by the London Times said only 41% of Britons now believed climate change to be an established scientific fact.

An October poll by the Lowy Institute said concern about the threat of climate change was weakening in Australia too. Fifty six percent said climate change was very important, down 19 points from a poll two years earlier.

So if climate denial is finding new supporters here, why is this the case? After all, no climate denier has published a peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal in the past 15 years.

Among climate scientists there is no debate about the reality of global warming any longer. The research of many hundreds of scientists has proved that climate change is real, that greenhouse gases released by human activity cause climate change, and that climate change represents an immense danger to human civilisation as we know it.

But there are reasons why a political space for climate denial remains open. The first of these is that climate deniers have it easy.

Climate scientists are required to deal skeptically with facts and measurable data before drawing firm conclusions. Climate deniers have no such constraints. They don’t have to prove or justify anything, but merely have or throw enough mud in the hope some of it will stick. This gives deniers an advantage in public debates.

NASA climate scientist James Hansen explained something of the problem in his recent book on the science of global warming Storms of my Grandchildren.

He said climate deniers

“tend to act like lawyers defending a client … presenting only arguments that favour their client.

“This is in direct contradiction to my favourite description of the scientific method, by Richard Ferryman: ‘The only way to have real success in science … is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good about it and what’s bad about it equally. In science you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty’.”

Hansen continued:

“The scientific method, in one sense, is a handicap in a debate before a nonscientific audience. It works great for advancing knowledge, but to the public it can seem wishy-washy and confounding.

“The difference between scientist-style and lawyer-style tends to favour the [denier] in a discussion before an audience that is not expert in the science.

“I long ago realised that the global warming ‘debate’, in the public mind, would be long-running. I also noted that [deniers] kept changing their arguments as the real-world evidence for global warming continued to strengthen, conveniently forgetting prior statements that were proven wrong.”

Australian paleoclimate scientist Andrew Glickson has referred to another typical denier tactic.

Typically, deniers “scan the field for real or imagined, major or minor errors, inferring such errors undermine major databases, theories, or even an entire branch of science,” he wrote on ABC’s Unleashed blog in July.

Glickson compared climate deniers approach to “the eternal search for errors and gaps in Darwin’s evolution theory by creationists, based on their belief in a supernatural creator.”

A recent example of this strategy was the hype about a small error in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the predicted timeframe for Himalayan glaciers to melt completely.

A paragraph in the IPCC report said that chances the glaciers would “disappear … by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high”. On January 20, the IPCC announced this particular prediction was wrong after leading glaciologists drew attention to the mistake.

However, it said:

“Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century … This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.”

The loss of meltwater from retreating glaciers could affect the water security of up to one-sixth of the world’s population.

But this hasn’t stopped deniers from seizing on this one small error to allege the whole 938-page IPCC report is fraudulent and the entire science of climate change is bogus.

A second reason climate denial is winning some new support is that it exploits peoples fear of change and the unknown. The science of climate change is frightening. It makes plain that unless radical changes are made in our economy and society, humanity faces an uncertain future.

People are responding differently to such an all-encompassing threat. A growing number are determined to win a safe climate for future generations and want to force governments to deal with the problem. But some have become despondent and assume runaway climate change is inevitable and cannot be stopped.

Others respond with denial — finding it easier to believe nothing is wrong at all, rather than accept modern capitalism is driving humanity to a precipice. For many, climate denial is a soothing psychological balm and reflects a desperate need to escape from a troubling reality.

A third reason for the recent rise in climate denial is that denial is now a well-funded industry in its won right.

PR consultant Jim Hoggan, author of the 2009 book Climate Cover-up, has said he has found it “infuriating … to watch my colleagues use their skills, their training and their considerable intellect to poison the international debate on climate change.”

“Few PR offences have been so obvious, so successful and so despicable as this attack on the science of climate change. It has been a triumph of disinformation — one of the boldest and most extensive PR campaigns in history, primarily financed by the energy industry and executed by some of the best PR talent in the world,” he wrote on the Desmogblog in June.

The mainstream media’s coverage of climate change must also share some of the blame. Despite the scientific consensus, “journalists continued to report updates from the best climate scientists in the world juxtaposed against the unsubstantiated raving of an industry-funded climate change denier — as if both were equally valid,” Hoggan said.

The highly publicised Australian tour of prominent British climate denier, Lord Christopher Monckton, laid bare this problem.

Monckton is not a scientist, but a former journalist, a semi-professional eccentric and a one-time advisor to the conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Yet despite his lack of qualifications his climate denial speaking tour generated a vast amount of media coverage.

Monckton lies at the most kooky end of the climate denier spectrum. Even National Party leader Barnaby Joyce, himself an uncompromising climate denier, has said Monckton’s views are on the “fringe.” Even so, federal opposition leader Tony Abbott met with Monckton to discuss climate policy on February 4.

Among Monckton’s most absurd claims are that the Copenhagen climate conference was “a sort of Nuremburg rally,” that US President Barack Obama wants to use climate change as an excuse to set up a world communist government, and that the young protesters calling for strong climate action outside the Copenhagen summit were akin to the Hitler youth.

While in Australia, he even claimed NASA sabotaged the launch of its own multi-million dollar satellite a year ago because the satellite, designed to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, would have given evidence that climate change is untrue.

Monckton has a history of making wild claims. In 1987, he wrote that AIDS victims should be locked away to stop the spread of the disease. He claims to have found the cure for diseases such as Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis and influenza. In a letter to US senator John McCain he also falsely said he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A final reason for resurgence of open climate denialism in Australia is the federal ALP government’s closet climate denialism.

PM Kevin Rudd is fond of ridiculing climate denial, but his own climate policies do nothing to address the climate crisis. The proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will cost taxpayers billions and reward the big polluters. Yet it will do nothing to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions.

By promising to take strong action on climate change, but failing to do so, the Rudd government has opened the door for climate deniers to make ground. In the face of obvious government greenwashing, some are concluding that the threat may not be all that severe after all.

The politics of climate denial and climate greenwash share much in common — both are ways of denying reality. To win against the climate deniers also requires victory against the business-as-usual policies of the major parties, which acknowledge the science in words but betray it in practice.

One Comment

  1. Gerard February 10, 2010 at 12:00 am |

    Now this is an astute and timely critique of the why and wherefore’s of why the world isn’t rising up against the infamy of our current direction. But where does it leave the rest of us – what really can be done to turn this around apart from wringing our hands in despair?

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