Climate contrarianism is ideological not hypothetical

Antarctic research, Credit: Mark Brandon, The Open University 2007

This week the British Antarctic Survey scientist Eric Wolff tried to engage with the contrarian public notably on the Bishop Hill blog. Within a day he declared: ‘Just in case anyone thinks they are addressing me with their remarks: I thought this might indeed be a chance for a civilised discussion, and some of the respondents seem happy to have that. However there are also a lot of remarks on here that are frankly rude and aggressive, and I won’t be returning. Now I remember why I hate the blogosphere.’

He was generous in tone and time in responding to the question: ‘what do we agree on’. But I want to suggest that Eric is mistaken if he thinks that the energy around the topic is generated by arguments about the science. On the whole I don’t think it is: rather it is driven by deep seated differences in motivation – or rather – ideology.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the tone that the climate change science and policy communities should strike to make it easier for people to really listen and respond. It strikes me that there are a large number of people who align themselves with climate contrarianism without really looking at the claims being made by contrarian bloggers and e.g. the Global Warming Policy Foundation. While most of the outpourings of the contrarian authors themselves aren’t worthy of much attention, that ‘large number’ really matter – they seem to make up around 20-40% of the population in the developed world and stand in the way of robust action.

Having listened carefully to quite a few of these ‘passive’ contrarians, and having read the material they are attracted to it seems clear that they aren’t really motivated by opinions on climate science – that’s just the surface froth. Primarily these people are drawn to arguments that protect a very important part of how they see themselves, their society and their future.

The fossil fuel funded astro-turfers in the US are a different matter, but it seems many of the active contrarian bloggers (very very small in number in fact) are not motivated by having used banknotes tucked into their back pocket, but by ideological commitments. Or rather a bundle of ideological commitments rooted in a particular view of political economy (neoliberal), anti-statism, extreme techno-optimism and civil libertarianism (the latter two explain why some are of the far left, though most seem to be of the radical right). So they start out strongly motivated to find any hole to pick at in a very ambitious intellectual project that is not just unfinished but probably unfinishable. No wonder the contrarian bloggers are willing to give up a large portion of their lives to tear down ill-considered phrases like ‘the science is complete’ and cliched and threadbare imperatives to ‘save the planet’. They didn’t arrive in the twenty first century expecting all life to be rationed on account of exaggerated claims and tired green catchphrases.

The contrarians’ incredibly energetic assault on what they see as an edifice, an orthodoxy, a bullying and wrongheaded statist plot isn’t going to be overcome by rational argument. Indeed it isn’t going to be overcome by anything. So there are some people that it is probably not worth paying too much attention to. But it is worth thinking about what it is about their messaging that continues to be attractive to a pretty big chunk of the population.

Not enough has been done to explain climate change as an immense risk management problem that we can probably cope with. So why not scale up reference to car or household insurance – examples of familiar, wise and fair collective risk burden sharing that few would argue with? Why not emphasise that climate science, and the design, technology, policy and economic opportunities generated by acting on it, are open, exhilarating and out there to discover. Why not start from communicating that acting on climate change is about acting to secure energy security and protect much loved landscapes and so on. Some of this is happening, but not enough. These aren’t original thoughts: Dade and Rose’s well established Values Mode analysis takes a marketing based approach to similar ends, but I find it difficult to connect their findings to politics. Hence I think there’s a need to think about how values and preferences aggregate into broad ideological framings that can stop or start the process of, for example, transforming the political economy of energy. I think this point connects to my colleague Clive Barnett’s recent post about ‘aggregating the social’.

One of my own attempts to re-frame climate science appears in my ‘letter to a climate sceptic friend’ (sub eds cut the friend bit to make the title fit a text box, but I did very much want it to be received in a friendly tone). My first attempt at a podcast – it came out of an OU media training exercise.  Centre stage in my letter are some of my climate science colleagues who, as top-of-the-class graduates who could command high roller salaries but instead give their lives over to the patient pursuit of difficult questions and still find time to pop out of the lab and say ‘I think I’ve found something the rest of you really need to think about. Quickly’. Anyone that suggests they’re in it for the money hasn’t seen a university car park. Available on iTunesU. (Thanks to my sea ice specialist colleague Mark Brandon for pointing out the exchange on Bishop Hill).

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