Climate Change Denial

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May 1, 2007

Why was The Great Global Warming Swindle so persuasive?

George Marshall @ 11:34 am

Why is our belief in climate change still so fragile that many well meaning people have written to this blog claiming that a polemic propaganda film has changed their view of climate change? Surely this requires some explanation.

The fans of the film would argue that it has been effective because it is true. But truth is not, of itself, persuasive. When we receive new information on a topic we have no idea whether it is true or not. We base our conclusions on how it was presented to us, whether it concurs with what we already know about that topic, how far we trust the person telling us, and how well that information fits inside our world view. We then seek to match our initial conclusions against the conclusions of our peers.

So, although we think we seek truth, the process by which we reach opinions is equally capable of leading us in the wrong direction. It turns out that Swindle was a collection of rather crude distortions in an elegant package. We now know that the data was misrepresented, the charts re-arranged, and the interviews edited in ways that were designed to mislead.

To cite just one example: the graph that purported to show that global temperatures had fallen between 1940 and 1975. Although it bore the label “NASA” it bore no resemblance to any NASA map of 20th century temperatures. The likely source was a graph in a climate skeptic publication which was then further distorted: the axis at the bottom of the graph was extended to make it look up to date, and all the inconvenient wobbles were ironed out. The producer of the programme, Martin Durkin explained that “the original data was very wiggly-lined and we wanted the simplest line we could find.” So the programme took a graph from a propoganda magazine, redrew it to tell the story it wanted and then credited it to a reputable scientific institution”. More…

When Swindle was shown in Australia in July this graph was slightly redrawn and the NASA attribution removed. The programme was still so awful that a devastating critique by four staff of the Australian National Climate Centre concluded that “much of the material presented is either out-of-date, already discredited or of uncertain origin. A number of the graphs and figures used in the documentary are not based on any known or published climate data”.  Link to critique..

But I don’t want to go any further into the specific claims of the programme. I want to ask a much more interesting question: why were people persuaded by a programme that they knew contradicted the vast body of reputable scientific opinion. Here are some explanations.

1. It followed a trusted format

Fifty years of public service broadcasting has created a standard science documentary format. Interviews with scientists and animated graphics are intercut with general footage of an issue, sometimes a little montage. The whole thing is held together by the modulated authoritative voice-over of a professional male actor.

We trust this familiar and dull format because we assume that broadcasters and science documentaries do not knowingly lie. Yes we know that they may twist and simplify things a little to tell a good yarn, but we do not expect them to ignore all opposing views or redraw and mislabel graphs. Years of responsible public service broadcasting has giving documentaries a credibility that we would never permit to newspapers columnists, chat shows, or politicians.

One way we assess plausibility is through familiarity so Durkin cleverly mimicked all the ingredients of the classic science documentary format. When we saw that Swindle looked and sounded like the respectable and worthy BBC2 science documentaries we assumed, based on past experience, that it would be carefully researched and the facts checked.

Durkin’s greatest deception was the absence of a visible narrator. According to the conventions of broadcasting, the narrator can be invisible only when the case he is putting is uncontroversial and unpolitical. When a position is politicized the convention requires that we see the person presenting it so that we can understand that it is their point of view and open to challenge. When there is a serious difference of opinion we should see people presenting an opposing point of view.

A typical exercise of these conventions was the Dispatches programme on climate change presented on Channel Four the week before Swindle. The presenter George Monbiot introduced himself at the outset– so we knew that this would be a personal argument. Anyone he challenged was allowed a space to issue a formal refutation. Indeed the programme looked as though it had been edited by lawyers.

Channel Four gave Swindle a free reign hoping to milk the resulting controversy (and knowing that the IPCC would not sue). In so doing it exploited the professionalism of everyone who has created and adhered to the conventions that made Swindle its credibility.

2. It wheeled out experts

We respect the expertise of people with academic titles and positions in leading universities assuming, with good reason, that they know what they are talking about and are bound by a set of principles. That trust has been built through long established precedent and strict professional ethics.

Swindle exploited that trust. It interviewed an array of experts, many with impressive qualification and positions in reputable scientific institutions. But the labels were often deceptive, giving people positions that they had not held for years. The most serious mislabelling was of Fred Singer who was described as “Former Director of the US National Weather Service” when he has never held any such position.

The programme exploited the codes of science communication. Professional scientists are usually extremely cautious, prefacing their statements with dithering caveats such as “it is still too early to draw a firm conclusion but the data suggests that…”. By this measure when professional scientists are highly confident and assertive we assume that what they say is beyond contest.

And the programme avoided any unfortunate confrontations with real scientists and allowing them no space on the programme.

3. It used tried and tested denial arguments

Swindle was the product of a public relations campaign that has been carefully honing its arguments for nearly two decades. During this time many arguments have been tried and discarded. The contrarians (including the old hands like Singer and Michaels who appeared on the programme) used to argue that increased carbon dioxide would be great for the environment. Then they argued that there was no conclusive evidence that temperatures were rising. By 2005 this argument became hard to maintain in the face of a string of record temperatures.

Strangely it is the argument that carbon dioxide does not cause climate change that has survived and prospered. In scientific terms this is a far greater deceit that previous arguments because it denies the basic physics behind the greenhouse effect. It clearly begs the question: what is preventing carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, from retaining heat in the atmosphere? But this is no longer about valid or rational arguments- it is about the arguments that sell.

Even though these arguments have their own evolutionary history, the real inspiration behind Swindle is Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. Durkin has openly declared his interest in ‘putting the record right’ and producing a mass market film to counters Gore’s arguments. But this is not just Durkin’s interest.

In July 2006 Ross Gelbspan (see last posting) published a leaked internal memo by Stanley Lewandowski, General Manager of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association – a Colorado based electricity generator to the heads of 50 other power utilities. Link….

Lewandowski expressed concern over the success of Gore’s film and stated the IREA’s commitment to “support the scientific community that is willing to stand up against the alarmists and bring a balance to the discussion”. He praises Dr Patrick Michaels, Fred SInger and Richard Lindzen, the key stars of Swindle, and says that the “IREA has decided to contribute $100,000 to Dr Michaels”. In Swindle Michaels aggressively states that he has never received a penny in funding from industry interests. Clearly this is a man whose word can be trusted.

The memo goes on to say that “Koch industries is working with other large corporations, including AEP and the Southern Company, on possibly financing a film that would counteract an Inconvenient Truth”.

Swindle fits neatly into this US strategy to counter Gore’s success. Last month Fred Singer wrote a widely distributed article stating that “Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, has met its match”. Now I cannot claim that Swindle received funding from any US source, but I would be certain that it received substantial advice and support from the US denial networks. I am absolutely confident that they will adopt this film as a core material and will pull out all the stops to ensure that it is shown on US television.

And lo and behold, look at the IREA website and there is a big plug for Swindle saying that it shows that “if the planet is heating up, it isn’t your fault and there’s nothing you can do about it”.

4. The main reason- people want to believe it

It is remarkable that people’s belief in climate change is still so fragile that the firm consensus of the world’s scientific bodies can be challenged by a polemic documentary produced, let us remind ourselves, by the same channel that put out Celebrity Big Brother.

This requires some explanation. It would be entirely possible, assuming that Channel Four has no residual principles at all, to put together a similar documentary on just about any offensive theory: the lack of gas chambers at Auschwitz; the lack of connection between HIV and AIDs; the lower IQ of black people or the disproof of evolution.

It would be easy to find enough ‘proof’, graphs, and attention-seeking academics to fill any documentary. But I don’t think it would persuade anyone. In all these cases we accept the existing opinion even though, in truth, we rarely know enough to be able to defend it.

So ultimately the success of any lie does not depend on how well it is packaged or how many experts are wheeled out but whether people want to believe it, whether it reinforces or validates their world view, or whether it makes them feel better. White supremacists want to believe that other races are less intelligent. Muslim extremists want to believe in an international Jewish conspiracy- which is why every Islamic bookshop in the middle east has copies of the odious 100 year old forgery “the Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.

And many many intelligent people want to believe that climate change is a myth. Maybe they find it too threatening to their world view. Maybe they are scared by the predictions. Maybe they find the solutions too challenging to the lifestyle they believe they have earned.

There is no doubt in my mind that the key reason why Swindle worked was because it spoke to a very powerful hope that climate change doesn’t actually exist. This is a perilous time for belief- after years of ignoring climate change and hoping it will go away British society is on the end of edge of actually taking it seriously.

Among the lies it peddled was the notion that environmentalists and scientists have a vested interest in promoting this problem. In fact we would love it if we were wrong. I know several scientists and green campaigners, myself amongst them, who felt an initial wave of hope watching Swindle that there might really still be some doubt about their work. The first thing that we said to each other the next morning in my office was “please tell me that there was some truth in there”.

Such is the power of our denial. Such is our desire to turn away. The real skeptics are not the ones on the tv screen but the ones in our heads and we will grasp at any lie, however transparent, to keep them alive.

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