Thursday, February 04, 2010

the government causing climate denial

The resurgence of climate deniers is something of a puzzle. Three years ago, as the solid science piled up and the IPCC's predictions came to pass, it seemed that denial was dead in the (glacial melt) water. But, basing our position on reason and evidence, we reckoned without the depth of desire not to have to act.

Dealing with climate deniers used to feel like talking to any other flat earther, and to treat them as somehow sensible was to give them too much credibility. But the cultural firmament has changed. In the same way that sticking to the 'no platform for the fascist' attitude and ignoring the BNP (themselves climate deniers, by the way) is to let them speak for themselves in their new prominence, so we have to take the time to take climate deniers down.

They claim that climate change is a vast conspiracy taking in the Royal Society and equivalent bodies all round the world, and tens of thousands of scientists working on everything from tropical algaes to arctic ice structures, and every government on earth. If only they could prove themselves right. I'd love it. Not least because then I wouldn't have to deal with those nobbers on message boards.

Trouncing them is easily done in many ways - they're demonstrably wrong - but they don't concede or reconsider their position. You show them, for instance, that volcanoes don't actually out-emit humans and they respond with, 'look! Over there! The Medieval Warm Period!'. You can point them towards any number of simple authoritative, referenced sites dealing with their stock arguments (or more detailed ones if they try to get technical) and they still come back.

It comes down to a very simple couple of questions - does carbon dioxide act as a greenhouse gas? What effect will increasing it have?

But even then you can be caught out. I've had a climate denier say CO2's effect on temperature is unproven, even though it can be demonstrated in Blue Peter style with stuff in your kitchen - here's one we made earlier.

They vastly exaggerate the meaning of the leaked UEA emails, even though the precise nature of the dodgy info is public knowledge.

The discovery that one or two bits of data were wrong, even falsified, is nothing new in any area of science. It does not discredit the whole field, any more than a fiddled black box recorder means aviation is an impossibility. So why is this stuff so persuasive about climate science, and especially why now?

George Monbiot suggests that it's a hardwired psychological response to the advancing inevitability, the death of hope that it mightn't be true. Paradoxically, the more we know a catastrophe will happen the more we deny it. It could also just be, as I said, that recently - especially in the run-up to Copenhagen - the deniers have been a lot more active.

But perhaps, in the UK at least, there is another factor right now. Much as we see politics as a broad arena in which Westminster is only a small part, and much as we like to ignore grey politics and think the power of our argument and the urgency of the climate predicament should hold sway, I think it's got a lot to do with the government.

The anti-roads movement in the 1990s was remarkably successful and really caught the public imagination. There were many reasons for that, but one that's rarely acknowledged is the influence of the prevailing atmosphere dictated by grey politics. It was the last days of the John Major administration, that lunatic headless chicken (Sebastian Coe and Gyles Brandreth as MPs in the party of government!), a runaway gravy train of greed and sleaze.

It created a strong generalised feeling that the established professional political order was out of touch and untrustworthy. This meant that campaigns based on integrity that challenged the ruling elite were warmly welcomed by the population.

Today's Labour government is, like Major's Conservatives, a despised lurching zombie, waiting until the last possible moment to call the election in the vain hope that something, anything, will turn up and save their doomed asses. The more they do this, the worse they make it for themselves.

The feeling is compounded and stretched to cover all parties by the MPs expenses scandal, and beyond that into distrust of the establishment in general fuelled by the widespread hatred of the banks and outrageous police violence at the G20 last April.

So when the government tells us we need to take action on climate change, it's easy to tap into a feeling that they're all just lying scamming scumpigs. This leads to anything contrarian being given more credence. As Ben Goldacre points out, there becomes a confusion between 'establishment views' and 'established views'.

The fact that nobody's going to go all Blair-Obama about Cameron; the deepening discomfort of the recession making people want someone in power to blame whilst feeling more penny-pinching and less altruistic; the increasing dexterity of the climate deniers as communicators while scientists still presume science can speak for itself; none of these point to the decline of climate denial any time soon.


Dunc said...

It's only going to get worse, I'm afraid. They're really hitting their stride now that they've basically abandoned scientific argument in favour of pure rhetoric. The strategy now is to claim that any flaw, no matter how minor, reduces the credibility of individual scientists. Whether the actual science is right or not is becoming increasingly irrelevant. They're turning science into The X-Factor.

And it works.

merrick said...

It's worse still, Dunc.

The revelation of any flaw in the science is treated as evidence of deliberate deceit, and undermining the credibility of not just the scientist or even their professional body but of the entire field of their work.

It's kind of like saying the Harold Shipman case proves that Western medicine is big conspiracy of self-serving nonsense.

Martin Porter said...

When they do try big boy science it tends to rear up and bite them on the bum.

Look what's happened to Anthony Watts

merrick said...

Great stuff, Martin, thanks a lot for the link

Danny said...

Now look what you've done - you've only made me go and write another bloody poem:

I just hope you're sorry, that's all.

punkscience said...

Is arguing with climate change deniers actually worth it? Their arguments are inherently ideological and enlightenment thinking rebounds from their tin foil hats like so many BB pellets from a rabid bear. I wonder if we should be concentrating on emphasising the economic benefits of energy security and movements like the Green New Deal. Don;t get me wrong- the neo-classical economic paradigm is very much a part of the problem but movements such as eco-economics and the application of Full Economic Costing have potential to reign in its grosser excesses.

Oh crap. There I go getting all optimistic again and imagining that our society is rational.

merrick said...

Punkscience, i used to leave them to it but at the moment they have such prominence that to ignore them is to let them persuade others.

I argue on message boards not to have them admit they're wrong - they never do - but to win the minds of the reasonable uninformed intelligent third party reading the discussion.

And, secondarily, to make the deniers less confident about saying their bollocks in future because they've had it explained to them why they're wrong.