Mapping the evolution of climate change ‘scepticism’ in British newspapers since 1990
This was supposed to be my latest attempt to explain my research idea to a lay audience. However, it has been pointed out to me that, in what follows, I spend more time highlighting the seriousness of the problem the motivated rejection of science has caused than actually describing how I will research the ways in which it has (or has not) evolved over time. This is unfortunate because the former is clearly not the purpose of my research. However, it is the raison d’etre of this blog. Therefore, I have decided to post this here anyway…
If you deny a clear preponderance of evidence, you have crossed the line from legitimate skeptic to ideological denier. – Stephen H Schneider
Where did this idea come from?
In 2011, I completed an MA in Environmental Politics at Keele University. As part of this, I chose to research and write my dissertation on climate change scepticism in the UK. My inspiration for choosing this topic was reading two books:
– Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth of Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway; and
– Requiem for a Species: Why we Resist the Truth About Climate Change, by Clive Hamilton.
My research involved analysing and categorising the arguments put forward by prominent think-tanks, scientists, economists, politicians, journalists and others that dispute the reality, reliability and/or reasonableness of the scientific consensus that humans are now the primary cause of ongoing climate change. I decided then that I would like to pursue this further as a PhD. Sadly, this proved harder to achieve than I had imagined but – having attracted a great deal of academic attention by starting my Lack of Environment blog on the subject and publishing my research as a book (see its Facebook page for details) – I am now doing just that. Well, sort of…
The key was finding the right PhD supervisor but, finding the right supervisor has meant focussing my research on newspapers; specifically the output of journalists and other commentators who seek to influence public opinion.
What’s this all about?
I intend to research the historical development of the disputation of climate science in British newspapers since 1990. This will be done by keyword searches of online databases of newspaper content at specific times over the last 25 years. These will include the time of significant publications (e.g. IPCC reports) and events (e.g. extreme weather). The intention is to document the arguments of – and the counter-factual claims made by – those who dispute the reality, reliability and/or reasonableness of the scientific consensus (that ongoing change is primarily a consequence of the post-industrial burning of fossil fuels); and whether or not these have changed in response to increasing scientific confidence in that consensus.
Why does this interest me?
I believe this research will be of great societal benefit because the fossil fuel industry has spent much of the last three decades disputing the science indicating that our burning of its product is damaging the environment.
In so doing, it has copied a strategy invented by the tobacco industry to delay the effective regulation of its business; and a large proportion of humanity appears to have failed to learn from this recent history. Consequently, disputing the reality, reliability or reasonableness of the modern consensus regarding climate science can only be justified by the invocation of scientific or political conspiracy theories.
Where is the conspiracy?
Conspiracy theory has been defined as the invocation of a more-complicated explanation for something (based on little or no evidence) in preference to the simplest-possible explanation (taking all evidence at face value).
However, there is simply no evidence for a left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer). Whereas, there is a great deal of evidence for a right-wing conspiracy to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).
Therefore, whereas there is no precedent for the global scientific community conspiring to manufacture alarm simply to perpetuate scientific research (i.e. conspiracy theory), there is a precedent for global industries conspiring to manufacture doubt regarding very inconvenient science (i.e. conspiracy fact).
“Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy. There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.” – James Hoggan.