A climate of conspiracy

By David Runciman, September 19, 2015

Climate change

Climate change

David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University examines what the Tea Party and Occupy movements have in common: the fact that they don’t accept the official version of events any more.

Arguments about climate change are awash with charges and counter-charges of conspiracy. Climate sceptics routinely deploy terms like ‘hoax’, ‘scam’, ‘cover-up’ and ‘deception’ to describe what they are up against. The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future is the entirely typical title of a book by US Senator James Inhofe. The Propaganda Bureau, The Deliberate Corruption of Climate Science and Watermelons: How Environmentalists are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing your Children’s Future are just a few of the others. The familiar tropes of conspiracy theory crop up all the time in these accounts: climate scientists are portrayed as a mafia (step out of line and you’ll wake up to find a polar bear head in your bed!), the mainstream media is accused of peddling ‘Goebbels-esque’ propaganda, and anything faintly redolent of a cover-up gets a –gate tacked onto the end (look out, it’s Climategate!).

But the accusations go both ways. Just as its critics see the environmental lobby as a front for big government and grant-guzzling scientists, so environmentalists see their critics as a front for the oil industry. Climate scepticism is regularly characterized as a put-up job, modelled on the nefarious practices of big tobacco. Merchants of Doubt: How A Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming is another typical (and best-selling) book title. All the tropes of conspiracy theory are in place here too: it’s a small group of renegades, operating behind the scenes, in the pay of larger forces, covering up the truth.

What is it about climate change that makes it such fertile ground for conspiracy theory? There are two possible answers. One is that we live in a conspiracy-minded age, fuelled by social media, in which any hot-button issue is liable to be hijacked by accusations and counter-accusations about the dark forces at work, pulling the strings.  On this account, climate conspiracism is just a reflection of our increasing propensity towards paranoid name-calling in the name of political debate (just take the Labour leadership contest). But the other possibility is that there is something distinctive about the politics of climate change that makes it particularly vulnerable to charges of conspiracy. The truth is that it’s a mixture of the two.

We need to be careful about assuming that there is more conspiracy theory around now than ever before, notwithstanding its greater visibility online. Research in the US indicates that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories has been fairly constant over the past hundred-plus years. The overall volume of conspiracy theory doesn’t much vary, only its target: when a Democrat is in the White House, conspiracy theories focus on the hidden influence of foreign powers (Obama is really a Muslim, etc.); when it’s a Republican, they focus on the hidden influence of Wall Street.

But there have been periods of heightened mistrust in government during which conspiracy theory tends to get more ecumenical.  One was the 1890s, when a global depression produced widespread suspicion of ‘moneyed’ interests on both sides of the political divide; another was the 1950s, when fear of communist infiltration cut across party lines. We are almost certainly living through another such period now. Since the financial crisis, mistrust of established institutions has spread across the political spectrum. What the Tea Party and Occupy movements have in common is that they don’t accept the official version of events any more.

A climate of conspiracism
Climate conspiracy theories fit this general mindset: why believe the received wisdom coming from politicians and lobbyists about the climate when you can’t believe it about anything else? There is some evidence that climate scepticism is most pronounced where mistrust in government is ubiquitous. A Pew survey in 2013 found that doubts about the dangers of climate change are greatest in Egypt and Pakistan (where only 16% and 15% of the population respectively believed global climate change ‘is a serious threat’). Something these two countries have in common is that conspiracy theory itself is commonplace: conspiracy (with good reason) is often assumed to be the default explanation for all political activity.

The same survey found that only 25% of US Republicans believed climate change is a serious threat. (For comparison, the figure for the UK was 52% and for South Korea it was 85%.) With Obama in the White House, Republicanland is also a place where conspiracy theory is rife.

However, there is a limit to how far a general climate of conspiracism can explain the prevalence of conspiracy theories about climate change. After all, even most US Republicans are still willing to accept received scientific wisdom on a wide range of other issues (include the best way to treat various diseases), regardless of who happens to be occupying the Oval Office. Nor is it the case that all divisive political issues are so thoroughly infected with conspiracy talk. The financial crisis, despite the fact that it generated plenty of conspiracy theories and revealed quite a few actual conspiracies (including one to fix the LIBOR interest rate), has not reduced all economic disagreements to arguments about scams and cover-ups. Climate change has a number of features that make it particularly prone to these kinds of accusations. In that sense, it appears uniquely exposed to conspiracism.

A big ask
First, it is an issue that puts an enormous premium on trust. Climate change is a problem with four distinctive features: it is uniquely long-term, uniquely uncertain (whatever scientific consensus there might be about the causes there is none about the likely risks and consequences), uniquely global and uniquely irreversible. Accepting the need for immediate action requires having faith in the capacity of politicians to deliver coordinated, collective, durable and robust policy solutions.  In a period of heightened mistrust in government this is a very big ask. Instead, attention is much more likely to focus on the mismatch between what the problem requires and what the politicians are capable of delivering. That is the space in which conspiracy theories flourish: where institutions promote an agenda that looks out of kilter with their own organizational capacities, it is natural to ask what they are really after. Suspicion flourishes where the measures demanded and the actions performed are so transparently at odds with each other.

This is particularly true of the long-term nature of the challenge. The pay-off for taking action now will only be fully apparent in the distant future. In the meantime, the short-term winners and losers are much clearer, including the tax-payers who have to cough up to provide the resources demanded by the environmental lobby. Where this coincides with a pervasive suspicion of politics it can produce a vicious circle effect. National electorates won’t agree to do what climate change requires because they mistrust the politicians who are asking them; that means that the necessary action has to be undertaken behind the scenes, often relying on unelected, international organisations. This confirms the view of the voters that elected politicians are not to be trusted. The end result is to turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Rather than climate change requiring international co-ordination, international co-ordination is seen to require climate change. It becomes the excuse for a power grab by the UN and other interested parties. This is how Inhofe, for instance, characterises the conspiracy: the powers that are demanded by politicians to tackle climate change become on his account the sole reason why the phenomenon has been conjured up in the first place. He finds his evidence in the gap between what environmentalists say and what they do. They talk the language of long-term threats; in the meantime, they hoover up the short-term benefits.

Private actions, public pronouncements
This connects to the second reason why climate change is such fertile ground for conspiracy theorists: it is an issue infected with the suspicion of hypocrisy. A hypocrite literally means someone with something to hide: the hypocrite wears a mask to conceal his or her true motives.  When it comes to climate change, we are almost all hypocrites. The scale of the action required means that almost no individual can act in a way that matches up to what would be required to solve the problem. This is particularly true of national politicians, who invariably have other demands on their time.  A recurring motif of the conspiracist accounts is the mismatch between political rhetoric and the means used to deliver it: ‘The President of the United States took a 9000-mile round trip by private, wide-bodied jet to give his usual environmental speech…’, and so on. Inhofe makes great play of Al Gore’s personal habits, including his propensity to leave the air-conditioning on at home while travelling the world to tell us we all need to cut-back on energy consumption. The implication is that the real story is revealed by private actions, not public pronouncements. From there it’s a small step to conspiracy theory: public pronouncements become the cover for private plots to empower or enrich individuals (these critics also invariably focus on how much money Gore has made since he launched his global warming campaign).

The same logic is applied to scientists. The Climategate scandal, so-called after a tranche of emails emerged from the University of East Anglia indicating that a few climate scientists had tried to massage the peer-review process to keep dissenting voices out, also turned on accusations of hypocrisy.

The public face of scientific enquiry is that of apolitical, disinterested research: it’s what ‘science’ is supposed to mean. So when anything emerges that shows scientists behaving just like everyone else, it is taken as evidence of deep deception. There is a vicious circle effect at work here too. Climate science had become inherently politicised because of the kinds of suspicions it arouses. It would be almost impossible for anyone engaged in this kind of research not to be conscious of how eager both sides are to twist anything that’s said to become evidence of a cover-up. But any scientist who seeks to take account of this – by measuring what they say, by seeking to control what appears in public – will fan the flames if exposed. The climate of conspiracy surrounding climate change has made the science itself unavoidably political; but when it is shown to be political, that becomes evidence of the conspiracy.

Unreasonable doubt
The final problem is that the politics of climate change has squeezed the room for reasonable doubt. It is the unreasonable doubt on both sides – the certain suspicion of subterfuge that lies behind all conspiracy theories – that drives the argument. These doubts feed off each other – the more vehement the accusations on either side, the more reason there is to suspect that there is a coordinated plan of attack, requiring an equally concerted response.

But democratic politics also squeezes reasonable doubt. This is a problem of political representation: who is going to represent the agnostics in an adversarial system where political certainty almost always trumps equivocation? Go back to that Pew survey: one of the striking things is that 25% of US Republicans, despite all the conspiracy theories, still believe in the threat of man-made climate change. Yet they have practically no one to represent them: the partisan pressures of the US political system means that almost no elected Republican politician is now willing to display an open mind on climate change. The polarization of politics fuels the polarization of the climate issue; the polarization of the climate issue fuels the polarization of politics. That’s the problem; and that’s why the conspiracy theories are so hard to budge.


David Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge and co-director of the Leverhulme-funded project on Conspiracy and Democracy.  His most recent books are Politics and The Confidence Trap and he writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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