Climate Change Denial

November 7, 2013

The story of how Greens became energy enemy number one

George Marshall @ 8:21 pm

The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it,  to be another tedious media fueled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative or enemies and heroes.

The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it,  to be another tedious media fuelled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative.

Let me explain.  Our evolution as a social animal has left us highly attuned to threats posed by visible human enemies with a clear intention to do us harm.  Intention is important: in experiments children as young as three respond differently to identical harmful acts depending on whether they regard them as intentional or not intentional. Our brains are wired to interpret the world through stories. As the author Phil Pullman puts it "after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world."

Put the two together and you have the powerful basic storyline that dominates mythology, fairytales, the Bible, TV and film – consider that the average American teenager has already seen 16,000 murders on the screen-  and, of course, politics. It looks like this.

1.       Enemy + Intention → Harm to victims

2.      Hero + Intention      →  Defeats enemy and restores status quo

Psychological research has found that this narrative structure is more powerful than any of its constituent parts. If any part is weakened people are people are willing to introduce substitute components even, if necessary, inventing them or using information that they know to be wrong, in order to maintain its integrity.

In his conference speech on September 24th, 2013, Ed Milliband, leader of the UK Labour party applied this model to a well established Labour party enemy- big energy companies. He pledged to  freeze energy prices to help families and businesses. The companies, he said “won’ t like it because they have been overcharging people for too long”. Later he called them predatory - a familiar frame for paedophiles.  His party energy minster joined in with more energetic language about how “hard pressed consumers” (victims) being hit and ripped off (harm). Their narrative looked like this:

1.       Enemy (Big Business) + intention (self enrichment) → harm (high energy costs) to victims (vulnerable fuel poor)

2.      Hero (Labour party) + intention (social justice) → defeat (price freeze) and restores status quo (standard of living)

But then the energy companies responded. As predicted by the research  they maintained the overall narrative structure and simply changed the dramatis personae. The enemy was now environmentalism and the green taxes which had, according to dubious but much quoted figures, added £112 to average fuel bulls. According to Tony Cocker, chief executive of E.On, these were “smeared across everybody’s bill” and were tantamount to a “poll tax”. Right wing conservatives like Jacob Rees Mogg  joined in saying that because of the obsession of “the doomsayers of the quasi religious Green movement”  poor people “may die because they can’t afford fuel” The new enemy looked like this:

1. Enemy (Environmental extremism) + intention (ideological zealotry) → harm (green taxes/suffering) to victims (vulnerable)

Then David Cameron, leader of the ruling  Conservative Party weighed in with his determination to “roll back some of these green regulations and charges”, thus adding his new hero narrative:

2. Hero (Conservative party) + intention (defending freedom) → defeat (roll back taxes) and restores status quo (freedom/standard of living).

When Milliband came into the counter attack he failed to defend the green levies and remained locked into the same enemy narrative, redefining the enemies as liers with Cameron as their "PR man", and arguing that Cameron is no hero because he is “too weak to stand up for the consumer “ and has “gone from Rambo to Bambi in four short years".

Back in September his party speech included something altogether more remarkable about energy: a pledge to take all of the carbon out of our energy (by which he meant electricity) by 2030. This extremely ambitious target for action on a real threat posing overwhelming harm was pushed aside by arguments about enemies and short term loss.  Compelling narratives demand attention and, as he found, the enemy narrative he introduced framed and  dominated all subsequent discussion.

The problem for climate change is that it simply cannot compete against enemy narratives. In climate change the enemy is really everyone, the victims are everyone (although we like to think it is people far away and in the future) and there is no deliberate intention to hurt.  What is more,  there can be no restoration of the status quo because this is a permanent and worsening condition.

Campaigners try their best to build an enemy narrative, bringing in oil companies, organised denial, the Koch brothers,  governments, Jeremy Clarkson as their set piece villains. Maybe, as Bill McKibben argues, you cannot have a movement without an enemy. But I would suggest that this is a dangerous game to play. Climate change will never win with enemy narratives. Once unleashed, they take on a life of their own and come back to bite us and we will find ourselves written in to replace our chosen enemies. As climate impacts intensify there will be a lot of confusion, blame and anger looking for a target and enemy narratives provide the frame for scapegoats.

The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible. We are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome. We are all struggling to resolve our concern and our responsibility for our contributions. Narratives need to be about co-operation common ground-and solutions need to be presented that can speak to the common concerns and aspirations of all people.

This blog originally appeared on the Greenpeace Energy Desk

 

News

The story of how greens became energy enemy number one

George Marshall
George Marshall is the founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, and blogs to www.climatedenial.org
Activists raise a wind turbine on the beach in Durban 

License: All rights reserved. Credit: Shayne Robinson / Greenpeace

The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it,  to be another tedious media fuelled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative.

9 Responses to “The story of how Greens became energy enemy number one”

  1. John Barell says:

    Too much of formal and informal discussion in society reflects this kind of battle between opposing forces. We are taught to “attack” another person’s argument, martialing all our evidence in order to “beat” the person with different points of view.

    What we should be teaching is how to find common ground and realize we’re all in this terrible debacle together.

    So, yes, refuse to play the blame game, pointing the finger. Who was it who said, “Come, let us reason together?”

    Idealistic, indeed. Necessary starting in elementary school? Absolutely.

  2. hugh says:

    This is, to my mind, an article lacking in clarity & given to misleading statements. Of course “we are all responsible” to some degree but the issues facing us primarily concern those who are playing to the willful ignorance of the public & giving out disinformation on a massive scale. The “enemies” may be “us” but when more than 50% of a society are allowing themselves to be deceived by masters of deception then the masters of deception are “enemies” of fundamental truths relating to climate change. Untruth is being spun and as noted in the “Odyssey”: “Thus in the likeness of truth [they] related a tissue of falsehood”. Those who perpetrate misinformation for the sake of profit are guilty of great crimes since they know better yet play on the innocence of the public who are too poorly educated on the issues to understand the consequences. As a result they place their trust in the purveyors of a media of misdirection and disinformation.

  3. Excellent- this is the basis of a debate I am dying to have! I do not accept that people are being duped by distorted information. I would not disagree that there is a campaign of active disinformation,especially in America and historically this was funded by oil companies, but I think what is really happening is that climate change has become a marker of differing political and social identities, who have their own narratives and enemies, and that the debate is largely about nuances of identity rather than about the science.

  4. hugh says:

    Of course, I would think that “goes without saying” as the saying goes. Deep divisions are ever-present in the body politic. Extreme conservative views in America line up state by state with the old south and their deep resentments about entitlements are the rights of their entrenched interests. Southern states were far more influenced by those who viewed themselves as landowning aristocracies. The same was true in Ireland. My ancestral district in Ireland was controlled (until 1922) by the descendants of a family of landowners that William of Orange had placed in control 300 years ago. Entrenched interests are powerful & fearful of losing their power. As was noted by an American writer some time ago “you cannot change a person’s mind if their livelihood depends upon having a particular view”. So if your livelihood depends upon fossil fuel investments no amount of persuasive arguments will shake the fixity of the root belief. Land-lordism, property, ownership, control are deeply entrenched in the investor class whose ideological underpinnings are being threatened if they accept the causes of climate change. They believe in domino principles.

  5. Tim Williams says:

    Party politics is very unhelpful when responding to climate change challenges. We need to drive the political classes into cross-party agreements on anything to do with climate change.
    I like the irony in Hugh’s example, much of William of Orange’s homeland is likely to disappear. “Landed gentry” then becomes a sad oxymoron.

  6. Thank you for your comment Laurence. Just a short note to tell you why I am not approving it. It adds nothing to the discussion. My work is based around communications research and therefore I will talk quite freely about that theory, including framing…this is a blog after all.

  7. John McCormick says:

    George, a thoughtful piece with one exception “In climate change the enemy is really everyone, the victims are everyone (although we like to think it is people far away and in the future) and there is no deliberate intention to hurt.” Not the case.

    Not everyone is responsible for the 400 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration. Certainly not the half of the earth’s population earning an average of $2/day. Not the absolute suffering masses in Haiti and other refugee camps. Not the children.

    What has been missing from the very beginning is the absent (ignored) representation of those destitute “we”. Not from the greens; a bit from OXFAM but not much more than that.

    The real ‘debate’ must be waged between the ‘not responsibles’ vs the real “we” who are chewing our way through the earth’s remaining resources. Never going to happen. Its just a dream I have.

    The rich care nothing for the poor and hardly reach out to help. US federal contribution to foreign aid is less than one percent of the budget and going south..thanks to the responsible party.

  8. A thought-provoking post George (as always). Unfortunately, the partisan narrative game is the game the media plays (including social media). Just saying you don’t want to play the game, doesn’t mean it will not continue – and ultimately be the prime driver of policy. My only optimism is in the fact that the game can ultimately be won (whether in time to prevent dangerous climate change is a different question). Your argument inspired me to write a post on the topic:

    http://therationalpessimist.com/2013/11/08/finding-a-narrative-for-climate-change/

  9. There’s an alternative to the enemy narrative. I submit that a Partnership Culture narrative is necessary, in particular a story of enlightenment, self-discovery, personal growth, a maturation into responsibility and adult power.

    In short we need a self-transformation narrative.

    Because we are all responsible (notice I didn’t use “blame”), realizing how we are causing our own doom and owning responsibility for our part in it is a process of self-discovery. Surely it’s painful, as personal growth often is. By acknowledging our own dark side, by redefining ourselves from the bottom up to be fit for a sustainable world, we will emerge with a more mature humanity. Margaret Kline’s insights about the three kinds of climate denial are a good place to start.

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