On the Origin of the Specious by Means of Climate ‘Scepticism’…
…or the Preservation of Favoured Rhetoric in the Service of Liars.
With apologies to Charles Darwin for the parody of the title of his most famous work (Darwin, 1859), I have decided to mark the start of work on my PhD by posting here the Abstract and Conclusions of my MA dissertation, ‘A Discourse Analysis of Climate Change Scepticism in the United Kingdom’. Existing readers will, no doubt, be aware that the Abstract has been on the About page of this blog since its inception, and other bits and pieces have appeared over time (links embedded below). However, the Conclusions have never been published here before (although I have often alluded to them). The whole thing, of course, was the basis for my book, The Denial of Science: Analysing climate change scepticism in the UK, which can be purchased in hardcopy or eBook form from any decent online bookstore (click on book cover, right, for details).
Before reading further, however, please note the following:
1. Since writing this, three years ago, I have stopped using the more familiar – but imprecise – term ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’ (AGW), in favour of the less familiar – but more precise – term ‘Anthropogenic Climate Disruption’ (ACD).
2. It is not possible to explain the totality of late 20th Century warming unless humans are the primary cause.
3. Disputing this necessitates believing that the majority of climate scientists are either: (a) being stupid; (b) reaching unjustifiable conclusions; or (c) wilfully stating things they know to be false.
4. Whereas 3(a) is highly improbable and 3(b) is entirely irrational, if 3(c) were true, unlike industry-sponsored misinformation campaigns, it would be unprecedented. However, fortunately for all those interested in avoiding ideologically-driven denial of science in the service of vested business interests, evidence continues to pour in to show that the scientific consensus is entirely reasonable, rational and reliable.
Discourse analysis is understood in the sense proposed by John Dryzek (2005) that it involves the textual assessment of (a) basic entities recognised or constructed; (b) assumptions about natural relationships; (c) agents and their motives; and (d) key metaphors and rhetorical devices used. As a piece of social science research, no attempt is made to prove or disprove the validity of the scientific consensus view that climate change is happening and that human activity is its primary cause. However, this reality has been assumed solely in order to analyse the views of climate change sceptics that dispute it. To this end, the philosophical roots of scepticism; its possible misappropriation for ideological reasons; and the psychological causes of denial are reviewed. In this context, based on the finding of numerous researchers that conservative think-tanks (CTTs) often act as the primary driving force of campaigns to deny environmental problems, the output of such UK-based CTTs is analysed, along with that of scientists, economists, journalists, politicians and others. Whereas the majority of CTTs analysed dispute the existence of a legitimate consensus, and the majority of sceptical journalists focus on conspiracy theories, the majority of scientists and economists equate environmentalism with a new religion; whereas politicians and others analysed appear equally likely to cite denialist and/or economic arguments for inaction. However, because of the economic and political realities of the world in which we live, politicians will not take any action that will be unpopular with business interests and/or the wider electorate. If so, Peter Jacques (2009) would appear to be right to conclude that anti-environmentalism (i.e. environmental scepticism) needs to be exposed as being “in violation of the public interest”.
Whereas the majority of CTTs analysed dispute the existence of a legitimate consensus – and the majority of sceptical journalists focus on conspiracy theories of various kinds – the majority of scientists and economists equate environmentalism with a new religion. In contrast to all of the above, the politicians and others analysed appear equally likely to cite denialist and/or economic rationalist arguments.
Climate change sceptics often object to being called ‘denialists’ on the grounds that they accept the climate is changing but do not accept that we are causing it. However, this appeal to reason is wholly reliant on the complexity of climate science; and the consequential limited understanding of it amongst the vast majority of the population.
Therefore, although many sceptical scientists and economists may wish to draw analogies between concern for the environment and religious belief; and be very dismissive of “an uncritical acceptance of this new conventional wisdom” (Peacock 2008: 114), this does not negate the reality of the Limits to Growth argument; nor change the strong probability that, in addition to being the “greatest market failure in history” (Stern) and “a failure of modern politics” (Hamilton), AGW is the clearest evidence yet that the Earth has a limited capacity to cope with the waste products of human activity (cf. Meadows et al. 2005: 223). As James Lovelock has put it:
Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive, at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to change our way of life and to understand that we have made it our greatest enemy. It is true that many scientists, especially climatologists, now see that our planet has the capacity to regulate its climate and chemistry, but this is still a long way from being conventional wisdom (Lovelock 2006: 21-2).
Furthermore, there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that this scepticism being fuelled by those with a vested interest in the continuance of ‘business as usual’ (i.e. the FFL and/or CTTs) by seeking to downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of AGW; and/or the unsustainable nature of exponential growth in economic development, resource depletion, and environmental pollution (Hamilton, Jacques, MacKay, Oreskes & Conway, etc.).
If the consensus view of AGW is correct, taking action to mitigate and/or adapt to the realities of AGW in a timely fashion has already been delayed by several decades. This would make it imperative that this delay should end; and that action should be taken. However, because of the economic and political realities of the world in which we live, politicians will not take any action that will be unpopular with business interests and/or the wider electorate. If so, it is also imperative that those with a vested interest in the continuance of ‘business as usual’ – waging this disinformation campaign – should be exposed as the real enemies of humanity and the planet.
It is hoped that this research will be of benefit to those seeking to achieve this end.
Darwin, C. (1859), On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: Murray.
Dryzek, J. (2005), The Politics of the Environment (2nd ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hamilton, C. (2010), Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change. London: Earthscan.
Jacques, P. (2009), Environmental Skepticism: Ecology, Power and Public Life. Farnham: Ashgate.
Lack, M. (2013), The Denial of Science: Analysing climate change scepticism in the UK Milton Keynes: AuthorHouse.
Lovelock, J. (2006), Revenge of Gaia. London: Allen Lane.
MacKay, D. (2009), Sustainable Energy: without the Hot Air. Cambridge: UIT. Available online at http://withouthotair.com.
Oreskes, N. & Conway E. (2010), Merchants of Doubt. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.
Peacock, A. (2008), ‘Climate change, religion and human freedom’, in Robinson C. (ed), Climate Change Policy: Challenging the Activists. London: IEA, pp.114-31.
Stern, N., et al. (2006), Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change. London: HM Treasury.
If you have a genuine interest in understanding who it is that has been lying about climate change for decades, based on the research I have since done (in order to draft my PhD proposal), I would recommend that you read any or all of the following:
Capstick, S. & Pidgeon, N. (forthcoming). ‘What is climate change scepticism? Examination of the concept using a mixed methods study of the UK public’. Global Environmental Change. Corrected proof available here [accessed 01/02/2014].
Carvalho, A. & Burgess, J. (2005). ‘Cultural Circuits of Climate Change in U.K. Broadsheet Newspapers, 1985–2003’. Risk Analysis, 25 (6), pp.1457-69. PDF available here [accessed 01/02/2014].
Gavin, N. & Marshall, T. (2011). ‘Mediated climate change in Britain: Scepticism on the web and on television around Copenhagen’, Global Environmental Change, 21(3) pp.1035-44. Abstract available here [accessed 01/02/2014].
Jacques, P. et al. (2008), ‘The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism’, Environmental Politics, 17(3), pp.349-385. Available here [accessed 01/02/2014].
O’Neill, S.J., & Boykoff, M. (2010). Climate denier, skeptic, or contrarian? Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 107:E151. Available here [accessed 01/02/2014].
Painter, J. (2011). Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate Sceptics (Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism). PDF of Executive Summary available here [accessed 01/02/2014].