By Martin Oliver
The internet is making life more interesting for many people, but it can also be a baffling place. For every opinion there is a counter-opinion, and for many stated facts, challenges to their accuracy. Truths, unsubstantiated claims and opinions all swirl around in a confusing cloud. The online world is a kind of ideas marketplace where every viewpoint, no matter how bizarre, has its adherents.
In many instances, this leads to nothing more harmful than a healthy, vigorous debate. However, in the case of serious pressing issues that could determine humanity’s future, it has its limitations. Climate change is a prime example, where the scientific consensus supporting urgent action is under increasing pressure from a small but vocal band of well-organised and well-funded sceptics.
Climate change articles published on line are sometimes followed by more than a thousand comments that represent a never-ending argument between opposing sides, with no sign of resolution. Contributors include the public, the occasional scientist, and perhaps a scattering of paid lobbyists hiding under a cloak of anonymity.
Until the 18th century, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere remained stable at an estimated 280 parts per million (ppm). Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 levels have been steadily rising, and stand at about 387 ppm today.
The link between these industrial activities and a warming of the atmosphere was first proposed by the French physicist Joseph Fourier as early as 1824. His pioneering work was later continued by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896, to be followed by many others who have all contributed to a fuller and more thorough understanding of global warming, also known as the greenhouse effect.
While the term ‘global warming’ refers to temperature rises in general, climate change indicates changes in regional climatic factors including temperature, rainfall and severe weather caused by human activities. In addition to the main culprit CO2, other greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide and a few industrial chemicals such as sulphur hexafluoride and perfluorocarbons.
A growing movement, supported by figures such as James Hansen at NASA, believes that recent scientific findings call for a reduction in atmospheric CO2 concentrations down to 350 ppm, to be relatively sure of avoiding a ‘tipping point’ where the increase in CO2 from natural sources is unstoppable. In the light of our current trajectory, such a cut, which would involve removing CO2 already in the atmosphere, is seen as very ambitious.
Introducing the sceptics
Governments have been slow to act on the climate issue, only in recent years collectively deciding that major action needs to be taken. As they move closer towards tough steps that could impact on the profits of certain major industries, a small number of climate sceptics have been working increasingly hard to undermine the public’s confidence in the solidity of climate science. The two trends may be linked.
These sceptics are sometimes referred to as ‘climate deniers’, a tough term that carries echoes of those who reject the Holocaust as historical fact. While a sceptic is a person who challenges prevailing wisdom, a denier is one who overturns established fact for ideological or other reasons. Perhaps we should be wary about the word ‘denier’, as it could be misused by those in power as a means of disparaging and marginalising dissent. For many, alarm bells would ring if they heard the term ‘vaccination denier’.
One prominent Australian sceptic is Ian Plimer, a geologist, and according to the website Sourcewatch a director of three mining companies. Another, Dr. David Evans, is a computer expert originally involved in accounting linked to the Kyoto Protocol. Occupying a strong position of moral authority is George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, who in a recent newspaper column stated that ‘the wheels are falling from the climate catastrophe bandwagon’.
Australia’s political landscape has its share of sceptics, largely on the right side of politics. These include Barnaby Joyce (National), Nick Minchin (Liberal), and Steve Fielding (Family First), who have been joined in recent months by the Climate Sceptics Party. Outsiders have observed that the community of sceptics is largely an older male monoculture.
At present, the sceptics are gaining the upper hand in a debate that is usually more ideological than factual, feeding off scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectualism. In recent years, the belief that global warming is largely caused by human activity has been declining in the US, Canada, the UK, and perhaps elsewhere. Underlying sceptic beliefs around climate change often include :
- Climate change adherents are the followers of a green religion that is taking over from Christianity.
- These people oppose much of importance in the modern world by being anti-capitalism, anti-industry and anti-jobs.
- The climate issue is just political correctness in disguise.
- Climate scientists are perpetuating the idea that we face a crisis as a means of maintaining a career ‘gravy train’.
- Carbon trading is a means by which the rich aim to fill their pockets at the expense of the poor. (To some degree this might have some truth, as the Chicago Climate Exchange is 10% owned by Al Gore’s investment firm Generation Investment Management.)
- A powerful elite is on the verge of seizing global control, and the fabricated issue of climate change is the means by which it plans to introduce the New World Order.
A figurehead of the sceptics’ movement is the Scottish aristocrat Viscount Monckton, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Early this year, he visited Australia on a lecture tour, with the financial backing of Gina Rinehart, chair of mining company Hancock Prospecting.
Monckton tapped into an undercurrent of public feeling around the case of Peter Spencer (a New South Wales farmer who recently spent nearly two months on a hunger strike as a protest against restrictions on land clearing) when he asserted that the government’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) is unconstitutional because it contains a provision that allows the government to expropriate land.
Prior to the Copenhagen climate summit, Monckton claimed to have seen the draft of a final agreement that would involve each signatory country handing over much of its sovereignty to a communist one world government. This conspiracy theory failed to gain traction in mainstream media circles, but found a large audience on line. Monckton’s central argument that the warming potential of greenhouse gases has been inflated by about six times was later debunked by climate scientist Dr. Ben McNeil from the University of NSW.
Sowing seeds of doubt
Fossil fuel industries stand to be most affected by moves to tackle climate change, and there have been well-documented funding conduits between the US oil giant ExxonMobil and climate-denying right wing think-tanks such as the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
A few years ago, with the launch of the Greenpeace ExxonSecrets exposé website and a large Exxon shareholder vote against such funding, this practice was curtailed, but has continued on a smaller scale. Some sceptics, especially in the US, have admitted to being on the payroll of the fossil fuel lobby. America’s corporate spin doctors meanwhile assure us that CO2 is beneficial, it helps plants grow, and if temperatures do increase, they will make the planet a more comfortable place to live.
Australia’s primary climate sceptic lobbying organisation is the Lavoisier Group, which has links to the mining, manufacturing and construction industries, and ties to sceptic groups in the US. The Australian newspaper continues to give column inches to a small number of dissenting figures, few of whom are climatologists.
Throughout the debate, the primary goal of the corporate sceptic lobby has been to portray the impression that the science is still not settled. Sowing such doubts dilutes critically important public support for tough government-level action. For those with long memories, this is reminiscent of the PR campaign run by the tobacco industry during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when it successfully delayed regulation by disparaging the link between smoking and cancer, undermining medical research, discrediting scientists, and ultimately costing many lives.
Climate data hacked
Last November, the world was taken by surprise by revelations that data from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK had been hacked and released on the internet.
Among many emails between the CRU director Dr. Phil Jones and Dr. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, some were interpreted by sceptics as indicating data manipulation, while the climate scientists protested that they were being misinterpreted and taken out of context. Other messages reveal how climate scientists have tried to control the peer review process in order to prevent dissenting (or scientifically weak, depending on your viewpoint) studies from being published.
The timing of this incident, shortly before the Copenhagen climate summit, is curious, and appears to be a carefully timed attempt to weaken the collective will for a strong international agreement. Scientists who feel most comfortable working behind the scenes have been drawn into a media spotlight, distracting them from their work, and involving them in a sometimes murky world of politics and PR.
In a sign of future trends, sceptics and elements of the media have started to seize on inaccuracies in official publications such as the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, as a means of undermining their perceived credibility. The Himalayan glaciers provide about half a billion people with water, and one paragraph stated that the risk of them melting by 2035 was ‘very high’. This turned out to be based on opinion rather than peer-reviewed science. More recently, several other claims from this three-thousand-page document have come under criticism.
It is sobering to consider that only a tiny fraction of the world’s population actually understands climate science. The rest of us form our views based on what we read or see, either from listening to a soundbite or by evaluating the credibility of various sources. Whose views do we trust, and why?
As crises go, the climate emergency is unlike any that came before it. Climate change cannot be seen, and unlike most tangible threats, it is global, long drawn out, unprecedented, and has unpredictable consequences. People such as academic Clive Hamilton who have looked at climate scepticism have perceived several distinct threads.
Climate change poses a challenge to the culture of consumerism, given that nearly every consumer purchase has an embodied carbon cost. The idea of making personal sacrifices frequently arouses a widespread fear that ‘greenies’ are trying to impose a ‘hairshirt’ lifestyle on the rest of society. People still tend to follow social cues based on the behaviour of those around them rather than acting unilaterally. Ingrained behaviours are hard to shift.
Cynicism often has a significant role to play. In addition to the ‘I’ll be dead by then anyway’ defence, some consider the world to be doomed, a view that is encouraged by some apocalyptic predictions recently made in connection with the climate issue. Others perceive their individual actions as meaningless while China builds a new coal-fired power station every fortnight. For them, climate change is a global problem that only governments can solve.
Another factor is a general lack of credulity among a canny population that sees politicians as often mendacious and frequently engaged in agendas usually hidden from public view. At a time when it is the science that is sounding the alarm, this is widely misinterpreted as a message from the political establishment, and people resent feeling that they are being told what to do.
It is also curious that Australian authorities currently devote so much effort to encouraging behaviour shifts at a household level when larger savings could be achieved at lower cost by tighter regulation of industry. One obvious priority would be to set minimum fuel economy standards for vehicles in place of the current voluntary arrangement.
No time to wait
No matter how worrying the data, climate sceptics are not going to disappear while polluting industries still operate. These dissenters may have already succeeded in delaying global action, and have now advanced their agenda by discrediting climate science in the public’s eye. This movement, aided by a corporate PR machine, is playing with unbelievably high stakes. In Africa, millions of lives are at risk, and Australia stands to be worse affected than any other part of the world.
This contentious issue shows no sign of calming down. Police in the UK continue to keep tabs on direct action climate protestors, whose activities are now officially regarded as ‘domestic terrorism’, while peaceful protest events during the Copenhagen summit were stifled by the Danish authorities. As revelations continue to emerge from the CRU emails, the issue is becoming increasingly messy and controversial, but the underlying science remains sound.
Fortunately the police cannot stop us from working towards a more sustainable future, a move that will have numerous benefits, one of which is the slowing down of climate change. We can do this individually, and more powerfully together as a low carbon group or as part of the Transition Towns movement. Governments themselves will be far more likely to introduce strong carbon reduction targets if these are seen to have the support of the general public, and to delay is no longer a viable option.
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