the debrief on climate denial
by eponine howarth, second year LLB student at LSE
Why are there still so many individuals who do not believe that anthropogenic climate change is taking place? What can we do about that?
On June 1st 2017, the United States (US) decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. This decision emanated from Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign pledge, and his numerous claims that he does not believe in anthropogenic climate change. Why are there still so many people who do not believe that anthropogenic climate change is taking place? This suggests that, against the “weight of evidence” (Maslin, 2014) — current state-of-the-art science and consensus between 97% of scientists (Cook et al., 2016) — it is puzzling that some people continue to deny the existence of man-made climate change. That said, around 78% of people do actually support a global agreement on climate change (Pew Research Centre, 2015).
This piece uses the tweets of Donald Trump, one of the most prominent climate change denier, to explain the position on climate science held by some anthropogenic climate change deniers. The focus is restricted to the US, due to the elevated number of climate sceptics compared to other states (Antilla 2005, referencing Demeritt 2011 and Lahsen 2005). This piece is structured by three main explanations: the science of climate denial, the politics of climate denial and the comparison of climate denial to a conspiracy theory. Following each explanation, this paper offers a solution to the specific issue discussed.
1 The Science of Climate Denial
First of all, some people may deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change due to a deficit in scientific comprehension. Khan et al. (2012) refer to this as the “science comprehension thesis” (SCT). This explanation posits that the limited understanding of the technicalities of the science behind climate change cause people to have limited perception of climate risk. In the case of his tweet, Trump fails to understand the difference between the climate and the weather:
Moreover, Trump’s tweet touches upon a more fundamental misunderstanding of science based on sensorial perceptions. Trump denies the possibility of global warming, because of the cold weather. His world is constructed through his senses, which do not concord with the science presented by climate scientists. The predicament ensues from the fact that “our perceptions don’t accurately represent certain aspects of nature” (Kitcher 2001). There exist objects inaccessible from our sense-organs; a nature of independent objects remote from human observation. “The employment of ordinary referential locutions and their ordinary role in explaining behaviour cannot be extended to the context in which it is assumed that objects are independent of all of us and of all cognition” (Kitcher 2001). Therefore, although humans can perceive the weather through their senses - visually witness the rain, snow or sun - the inability to sense the climate causes them to misrepresent the scientific reality of climate change; which is systemically tested and reproduces concordant results.
However, Kahan et al. (2012) find no support for the idea that science literacy increases concerns about climate change (Figure 2) : “Contrary to SCT predictions, higher degrees of science literacy and numeracy are associated with a small decrease in the perceived seriousness of climate change risks”. Therefore, although science comprehension may apply to Donald Trump’s denial of climate change, it does not explain the widespread phenomenon of the disbelief.
Instead, Kahan et al. (2017) find that 'science curiosity’ is an important predicator for perception of climate risk. Science curiosity is defined as a disposition that “reflects the motivation to seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure” (Kahan et al 2017; 180). The identified causal mechanism is the creation of a preference for “surprising information - that is, information contrary to their expectations about current state of the best available evidence - even when that evidence disappoints rather than gratifies their political predisposition” (Kahan et al 2017; 197). ‘Science curiosity’ is able to counteract dealing with politically biased information, as it encourages open-minded engagement. In other words, ‘science curiosity’ counteracts ‘Politically Motivated Reasoning’ (PMR), allowing ‘Truth-Convergence Bayesian Information Processing’ (Kahan et al. 2017).
Therefore, the initial solution against climate change denial, as suggested by Kahan et al (2017), is to help filmmakers and science communicators increase science-curiosity in individuals, through ameliorated science communication, which helps negate politically biased information processing (PMR). Nonetheless, Khan et al (2017) fail to address the disease of the political predispositions that create the symptoms of an unwillingness to revise factual beliefs, omitting to elucidate why the politicisation of climate change has resulted in a polarisation along the political orientations of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans (Figure 3 and Figure 4 - Pew Research Centre 2016).
II The Politics of Climate Denial
The polarisation of the US on climate change along traditional partisan lines is remarkable (The Guardian, 2017). In the three tweets mentioned above, Trump blames the ‘left’, the people that brought ObamaCare, and those who favour higher taxes for being ‘global warming hoaxters’. He accuses the Democrats of having invented the idea of climate change, thus relying on the polarisation of liberal Democrats versus conservative Republicans (Pew Research Centre, 2016) and the importance of political ideology to draw his electorate away from climate change science. This section explains the affiliation of the conservative Republicans to climate scepticism.
Nerlich (2010) explains that the majority of blogs written after ClimateGate were by affiliates of the conservative right. The rejection of scientific research results serves right-wing interests and presents international efforts to combat climate change as “national sovereignty sacrificed on the altar of environmental extremism” and “oppressive environmental regulation” (Nerlich 2010, referencing Dakota Voice 2009). The right-wing politics of Trump, with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, illustrate a desire for a strong national government, while suffering from an inability to provide an effective solution to climate change due to the non-exclusive nature of the atmosphere. In other words, it is against the interest and ideology of nationalist right-wing politicians to acknowledge the existence of climate change due to the need for environmental regulation at international level to address this global challenge, which also encapsulates the ideological failure of free market capitalism and deregulation (Lewandowsky et al., 2015).
The attempt to politicise science on climate change as leftist was concocted mainly by fossil fuel industries and free market think tanks, with the support of ideologically aligned media. The solutions to climate change are not in the interest of large oil producers and other important polluting entities, such as ExxonMobil, which benefit substantially from the exploitation of fossil fuels (Antilla, 2005). The creation of an ‘Industry of Doubt’ (Washington, 2011), a reduction of public trust in the science of climate change, functions as a defence of fossil fuels. Oreskes and Conway (2010) argue that the entities defending tobacco industries are also the creators of climate change denial. These ‘Merchants of Doubt’ serve the interest of these powerful industries by casting a shadow of doubt over the certainty of climate science. For instance, the Institute of Public Affairs defended the tobacco industry and pushed for the denial of climate science. In 2002, ExxonMobil contributed 10.000 $ to the Independent Institute and the same amount in 2003. This results from an ideological drive and interest in opposing state intervention: “discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion and promote doubt” (The Guardian, 2010).
Antilla (2005) conducted a quantitative analysis of 251 US newspapers between March 1st 2003 and February 29th 2004, showing that climate science is communicated with an emphasis on disagreements between scientists, thus demonstrating the importance of ‘framing’ an issue. The ‘framing’ of the science of climate change as uncertain and ambiguous is a concerted effort and exercise of power by conservative think tanks (Antilla, 2005). The false presumption is that “the language of journalism is conceptually neutral when in fact it can reinforce certain value system” (Antilla, 2005: 339). The corporate control of the media in the US is able to shape the news.
Furthermore, in our ‘post-truth’ era, ignorance is produced deliberately, and facts do not matter anymore (Financial Times, 2017). The Guardian (2015) references a 1969 memo from the Brown and Williamson tobacco company:
The idea is to distract public attention and ‘keep the controversy alive’, because repeating a false claim perpetuates it, even when attempting to debunk it (Financial Times, 2017). As argued beforehand, the framing is deliberate to create uncertainty about scientific consensus. For example, the word ‘belief’ in climate change, which draws on the realm of ‘faith’, is now widely spread, as per in the question ‘Why are there still so many people who do not believe that anthropogenic climate change is taking place?’.
Sunstein and Vermeule (2009) offer compelling solutions to conspiracy theories that equally apply to climate change denial. On the governmental stratum, there are five solutions:
Banning these theories
Pressing financial sanctions against those that spread these theories
Employing counter-speech to challenge these theories
Contracting private parties to develop counter-speech
Informally communicating with parties that spread these theories, using cognitive infiltration.
The issue with the government employing counter-speech is that attempting to rebut a theory can also serve as a tool of legitimisation and increase the amount of believers. The government therefore plays a ‘wait and see’ strategy that only rebukes theories after widespread popularity has been achieved. Nevertheless, the issue with the US is that the government itself, headed by Trump who denies climate change, will have no interest in engaging in rebutting. There thus seems to be no adequate response that can be taken on the governmental level.
Instead, it seems that non-governmental organisations have to battle climate change denial. With regards to post-truth and alternative facts, the solution is to debunk false ideas. The compelling solution proposed by Lewandowsky, also author of The Debunking Handbook, is ’techno-cognition’. The idea is to use technology to reduce the known psychological effects of misinformation, through the maximisation of the quality of information. It proposes that non-governmental organisation rate the accuracy of information, such as Climate Feedback and Snopes. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to assess whether this convinces climate deniers of a neutral facts arbiter (The Guardian, 2017). The perceived untrustworthiness of the institutions that produce knowledge is indeed avoided by the use of non-governmental organisations. But, it does not ensure that people shall not be equally sceptical of other knowledge producing institutions, given the political polarisation around the topic. Nonetheless, this solution is able to address some of the symptoms produced by polarisation and deliberate misinformation.
III Climate Denial & Conspiracy Theories
Climate denial functions similarly to a conspiracy theory, defined as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role” by Sunstein and Vermeule (2009: 205). In his tweets, Trump claims that climate change is a machination of the Chinese, the powerful rising Great Power, in order to conceal its increasing economic dominance.
The ongoing shift in the Balance of Power explains the underlying assumption by Trump that climate change is manufactured by the Chinese against the Americans. Neorealists in international relations theory, such as Waltz (1979) or Mearsheimer (2001), would argue that the Americans fear of the rise of China is a result of the anarchic nature of the international system. The US’ prime concern is to ensure its self-preservation in the absence of a Leviathan, an overarching power to assure peace and stability. Nation-states therefore accumulate power, economical, political and military, to ensure their own survival in a self-help system. Hegemonic Stability theorists would add that the prime way to guarantee self-preservation is thus to become to global hegemon, through a preponderance of power and leadership. Hegemony allows one State to “single handedly dominate the rules and arrangements (…) [of] international political and economic relations.” (Goldstein, 2005; 83). As China continues to amass economic power, the shift of power in the international system proceeds to threaten US security.
Furthermore, Popper argues there is a human tendency to attribute effects to intentional actions. Individuals are unwilling to accept that consequences can be the result of a perceived ‘invisible hand’. The attribution of US decline to Chinese intentions is a way to circumvent this issue of unattributed causality in the case of the shift of Balance of Power and the decline of manufacturing in the US. But, again, what explains the creation of conspiracy theories, beyond the phenomenon of unattributed causality which is used by Trump, relates to the previously discussed deliberate strategy of politicians that often do not want to pay the price of climate mitigation due to short term self-interest.
Then, the propagation of conspiracy theories, Sunstein and Vermeule (2009) suggest, is related to ‘crippled epistemology’. Crippled epistemology suggests that individuals are limited by their information sources. As a result of this ‘bounded rationality’, epistemologically isolated networks adhere to conspiracy theories. Societies with malfunctioning institutions of knowledge, as a result of authoritarianism for example, lead individuals to be epistemologically crippled or to distrust knowledge producing industries (Sunstein and Vermeule, 2009). In the US, although not due to authoritarianism, the nature of the ‘crippled epistemology’ is related to the monopoly of knowledge institutions by some corporate media groups, which serve as opinion leaders and reinforce the message of right-wing political groups. In addition, strong polarisation creates closed epistemic networks, ’echo chambers’, that reinforce these beliefs.
An initial solution that serves an epistemic function and opens ‘echo chambers’ is ‘communicative action’ proposed by Habermas (1984). Deliberation, as the exchange of reasoned arguments and dialogue, could help address polarisation. This would also confront the previous point raised about about ’Politically Motivated Reasoning’ (PMR), and ‘Truth-Convergence Bayesian Information Processing’ (Kahan et al. 2017). Increased interaction could counteract dealing with politically biased information and encourage open-minded engagement. However, this solution also requires the dismantlement of the monopoly over knowledge institutions, such as the media, by some corporate groups that manipulate the public sphere in the interest of the wealthiest.
Furthermore, addressing international anarchy and power shifts could alleviate constant mutual suspicions. The creation of a supranational power is perhaps too optimistic when it comes to the desire of states to relinquish sovereignty. Instead, the English School in International Relations provides an interesting alternative (Bull, 1977). Moving away from an international system to an ‘international community’, with shared norms and values, could solve the issue of commitment problems and absence of mutual-trust. The creation of trust between sovereign states with these shared norms, values and practices could alleviate the suspicions of the US vis-a-vis China, and the previous suspicions of China vis-a-vis the US. It would avoid accusations of climate change being a hoax created by the Chinese, in favour of cooperation between both states to solve climate change. Although this does not solve the creation of conspiracy theories in general, it does address the problematic symptoms of this blaming game.
President Donald Trump’s tweets about climate change can be apprehended through three main explanations that elucidate why so many people do not believe in anthropogenic climate change.
The first explanation analyses the problem of science, and concludes that science comprehension goes some way to explain how Donald Trump’s apparent denial of climate change is rooted in an absence of scientific understanding. However, this theory does not explain the ubiquitous character of the phenomenon.
Instead, a general paucity in 'scientific curiosity' would contribute to explain how so many people are unwilling to accept ‘surprising information’ due to ‘Politically Motivated Reasoning’. We can make sense of this predisposition of PMR by understanding the polarisation of the US political spectrum and the importance of right-wing politics. This, coupled with very effective campaigns by the ‘Merchants of Doubt’, goes one step further in promoting climate change scepticism and diverting public opinion from the Republicans' deliberate attempts to protect the US traditional industries and energy lobbies.
Thirdly, the accusations of climate change as a hoax by the Chinese functions along the lines of conspiracy theories that aim to accuse the powerful for concealing their role of dominance. In this case, it also serves to mask the decline of the US manufacturing industry and the shift in the balance of power in the international system and ultimately undermines the rules-based international order.
Finally, although the the mechanisms that may lead so many individuals to disbelieve that anthropogenic climate change is taking place are easily identified, finding a way to address and redress these widespread misperception and their negative consequences is more problematic, especially in the US where the collusion between the political and economic powers and the media is total and where civil society space is shrinking.
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