Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Evolving the map of climate ‘scepticism’…

with 5 comments

Sorry for the long gap between posts… Herewith an updated version of my previous post.  This, then, is the final version of my attempt to describe my research to fellow first-year PhD candidates at the University of Liverpool. From the feedback received on this, however, it is clear that I have still failed to explain stuff like the theoretical basis for my research (i.e. “…is it is constructivist, institutionalist, or positivist?”).  Err, yeah, right.  What do you expect? I don’t claim to be an expert. Not yet, anyway.


If you deny a clear preponderance of evidence, you have crossed the line from legitimate skeptic to ideological denier. – Stephen H Schneider

DSCF1826xWhere 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. The key was finding the right PhD supervisor, which has resulted in my focussing my research on newspapers; specifically the output of journalists and other commentators who seek to influence public opinion. See The Power of the Commentariat by Hobsbawm & Lloyd (2008).

globalwarming_theoriesWhy 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.

What am I going to do?
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.

Elsasser&DunlapTable3How will this be done?
The current understanding of ‘climate scepticism’ (CS) is hampered by confusion and disagreement amongst social scientists regarding: (1) what constitutes its core features; and (2) how CS discourse is evolving and engaging with current political, policy and scientific developments. This impedes the identification of: (3) key voices in the CS commentariat; and (4) the processes and institutional dynamics behind the evolution and mediated dissemination of CS discourse.

This project will address these four gaps in our current understanding of CS by providing: (5) an evidence-based assessment of the prominence, structure and evolution of CS discourse; and providing a platform for assessing: (6) the implications CS has on or for the public understanding of climate change; and (7) the quality of contemporary and future public debate about climate concerns.

Building on the most recent work of Elsasser and Dunlap (2013) – see their summary table shown here – and many others, I intend to devise a definitive typology of CS arguments, which will include: (a) conspiracy theorists; (b) trend, attribution and impact sceptics (Rahmstorf, 2004); and (c) the increasingly-dominant category – in journalism and politics – of policy sceptics (Painter, 2011). This will then be used as the basis for mapping the evolution of CS arguments over time, which is my fundamental objective.

sust devt iconWhy is this worth doing?
I shall leave the final word to James Hoggan, the author of Climate Cover Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, and co-founder of the DeSmogBlog website.

“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.

Hobsbawm, J & Lloyd, J. (2008). The Power of the Commentariat: How much do commentators influence politics and public opinion? Published by the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism (PDF summary available online here).
Elsasser, S. & Dunlap, R. (2013). ‘Leading Voices in the Denier Choir: Conservative Columnists’ Dismissal of Global Warming and Denigration of Climate Science’. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(6), 754 –776.
Rahmstorf, S. (2004). The climate sceptics – see PDF on website of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Painter, J. (2011). Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate Scepticism, Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism – see this excellent summary by Leo Hickman on the Guardian website (11 Nov 2011).

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Written by Martin Lack

28 June 2014 at 00:02

5 Responses

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  1. About a decade ago or so there was a revival of ‘scepticism’ in my area of interest: ancient history- and I would say with certainty that the climate sceptics today are similar [if not the same people] as those believing archaeology was covering up existence of Atlantis – what these footsoldiers displayed was empowerment by believing that they were the informed.

    Conspiratorial thinking is extended by the authors of fringe work- they appeal to the audience by presenting an exclusivity of the daring- i.e you the reader are bucking the the trend, are not a sheeple, are brave and ultimately different. Climate science and archaeology share a superficial similarity in that one extends into a mysterious past and the other into a distant future and both have uncertainty. Both have artefacts in the present and again superficially they appear open to interpretation, whether it be an ancient pyramid or extreme weather. You have kids Martin, so you are aware how important some people need to have an identity and being a maverick or rebellious even in middle age has its attractions even though climate denial is quite reactionary.

    IMO- there is the cynical short termism lobbying of business [and paid politicians], the willing foot soldiers who are as passionate as yourself, but my biggest fear is people I know – friends and family who would be otherwise progressive, who pick up on the false balance and believe the scientists are divided and that ‘I’m sure its warming but isn’t likely to be natural?’.

    best Jules


    28 June 2014 at 23:02

  2. Hello,

    You might like this project:

    Comments welcome via email, Twitter, or that website.

    willard (@nevaudit)

    7 July 2014 at 01:37

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