A climate activist's guide to climate sceptics

Climate sceptics are a movement of their own, of sorts. To be defeated, they must first be properly understood.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
28 September 2015
Imagining conspiracies


"I don't believe in global warming", Banksy, 2009. Flickr/MagnusD. Some rights reserved.We all know about climate scepticism. It's the product of big oil companies spreading lies about science. Just like the tobacco lobby before them, they pay for PR agencies, dressed up as think tanks, to spread doubt about the facts in order to slow us from taking action on the biggest threat our civilisation faces. Isn't it?

In a sense, this is true. In the book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway outline this in detail. But this account troubles me. Because, in a sense, it ignores the vast majority of climate sceptics: the people who believe, adapt and spread these lies; the people motivated not by cynical profiteering, but by a genuine hunt for an imaginary truth. There is a real conspiracy which forms a part of the phenomenon that is climate scepticism, but there's also a broad psychology and sociology which means that the merchants of doubt have a market.

At the Suspect Science conference at Cambridge University last week, it was these people who were in focus more, and there were some vital lessons for the global movement of people working for action on climate change. 

Cambridge academic David Runciman kicked us off. He outlined the two basic explanations we might have for the current increased propensity to conspiracy theory around climate change. Crudely, you might say it's a product of the times: “a reflection of our increasing propensity towards paranoid name-calling in the name of political debate”. On the other hand, it might be something to do with the issue itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he thinks it's a bit of both, but points out that there have in the past been other periods in which there were heightened levels of government mistrust: the 1890s great recession and the Cold War 1950s being key examples.

Seen in this context, it's not surprising that there would be significant doubt about things that authority figures say in the years since the 2008 financial crisis. And in that light, it's not at all surprising that lots of people don't just swallow whole the statements they hear from scientists.

This story makes most sense when we look at the two countries which are most sceptical about climate science: Egypt and Pakistan. Both are countries which for much of their recent history have had military dictators and in which, it's fair to say, citizens have very good reasons to distrust their governments and most other authority figures.

The other place Runciman listed as having very low levels of belief in climate science was Republican USA, and Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami (who has written about this for openDemocracy) had some more detail on that. In particular, rather than climate scepticism in the States being a product of a general mistrust of authority figures, his research shows that it’s a product of people choosing which authority figures they want to believe. Political conservatives, therefore, tend to believe things they are told to believe by prominent conservatives while liberals believe things they are told by liberals.

Before we jump to the conclusion that left-leaning Americans are generally more rationalist than those on the right, it's important to remember that Democrats seem more likely to reject the scientific consensus on vaccines or the safety of GM crops. There is, in other words, no particular evidence that either group is more likely to believe science in general, just that both groups tend to believe what people they trust tell them.

As Uscinski puts it: “Siding with the scientific consensus does not make Democrats necessarily smarter, more accepting of science, or better at evaluating scientific evidence than Republicans. Democrats came to support climate change not because they sat down and confronted the evidence, read the scholarly journals, and evaluated the climate models, but rather because they accepted cues from their elites (which is exactly what Republicans are doing).” 

That both sides are behaving in essentially the same way doesn't mean that sceptics aren't irrational. Stefan Lewandowski from the University of Bristol pointed out, for example, the interesting phenomenon that climate sceptics, like many conspiracy theorists, are able to hold numerous contradictory opinions at once. For example, he said, many will argue that it is impossible to know what global temperatures were in the past, and that we can be sure that the earth isn't warming; that the globe “is cooling” and that “observed warming is natural”. However, he was able to point to some simple and coherent trends in the beliefs of climate sceptics, specifically that belief in climate change inversely correlates with belief in the free market.

His research has also turned up an interesting finding: that if you don't ask people whether climate change is happening, but rather who is responsible for it, then those who claim not to believe it is happening at all give answers pretty similar to those who do. They believe both that it isn't happening, and that big polluting companies are highly responsible for it. This seems to me to confirm what climate activists have often argued: that the way to win the debate on climate science is not to endlessly go over it, but to move onto discussions about what to do about it.

Much of this research seems to have been done in America and the UK, but it's important to note that climate scepticism is a global phenomenon and the differences are vital. In a fascinating paper on climate sceptic bloggers in Russia, Marianna Poberezhskaya argued that climate change is often framed as a western conspiracy against Russia, and that any movement to take action on it is immediately framed as being backed by the USA and designed to subvert Russia.

Meanwhile, Karen Douglas presented research showing that belief in climate denialist conspiracy theories correlates with other kinds of non-rational thinking, whilst belief in what she calls “warmist” conspiracy theories – ie, that the oil industry is funding the climate denial lobby – doesn't correlate with other kinds of non-rational thinking. Which was a relief for those of us who do believe that the oil industry is funding climate denial.

Finally, the next morning, Chicago professor Eric Oliver presented some fascinating findings about what he calls “Enchanted America”, including around conspiracy theories in general. To crudely summarise, his surveys show that people who were more nervous and more pessimistic were more likely to fall back on what he calls symbolic thinking – including conspiracy theories.

Most of the people at the event were academics of various disciplines. But there were three others – older men, who clustered together in the breaks. All seemed to be, in different ways, climate sceptics themselves. Seeing them together reminded me of a clear way in which climate scepticism diverges from other kinds of conspiracy theory: usually, we had been told, it's those with less social power who tend to believe in conspiracies. With climate change, it tends to be middle aged white men – the people with most social power. As the paper “Cool dudes” famously argued, climate change is a challenge to their identity.

Climate scepticism is a significant movement made up largely of volunteers who believe themselves to be crusaders for truth in the world. Whilst their drivers vary in different countries, it's important not to dismiss them as just oil industry shills, in it for their own profit. That's only some of them. It seems to me that some climate activism – that which shifts blame onto individuals rather than social systems and which encourages people to be pessimistic and apprehensive – is partly to blame for the fertile soil in which it's grown up.

Most importantly, only with a proper understanding of this phenomenon will it be gently deflated.

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