Climate Change Denial

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March 26, 2014


George Marshall @ 1:30 pm

The Ukrainian crisis is not just about geographic territory- it is about consolidating control over linguistic territory. It is not often that you can see narratives, fuelled by confirmation bias, forming in front of your eyes. Speaking to journalists after the Ukrainian Nuclear Security Summit, yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron mobilised the Ukrainian crisis as a security frame to justify increased fracking for oil and gas. He appealed to patriotic values, saying that it was “our duty” to support “energy security” and said that “I think something positive should come out of this for Europe which is to take a long hard look at its energy resilience, and its energy independence.”

Security and independence are powerful identity markers for conservatives. Research work on communicating climate change, such as the excellent report by my colleague Dr. Adam Corner, identifies security as a leading frame for conservatives.  Republican communications guru Frank Luntz, argues that it trumps all other arguments for a transition to renewables. However it is deeply problematic and prone to backfire when mobilised around fossil fuels. Adam Corner suggests that it should be seen “through the lens of increasing resilience“- but Cameron’s application of this normally environmental word suggests a form of linguistic annexation. Watch out for more territorial gains and a lot more talk about sustainable energy supplies.

The Ukrainian debacle is exactly the kind of crisis that induces shifts in the political discourse- described by Joseph P. Overton as a swinging ‘window’ that defines what is politically possible to say or do. Or, as Naomi Klein argues in her book the Shock Doctrine, we could see these crises as deliberately stoked in order to justify radical measures. Fracking was already on the political agenda and well within the window, but the Ukraine is being used to move it up the agenda- as Cameron says from “tier five” to “tier one”.

It is no coincidence that the former American ambassador to Ukraine , Carlos Pascual, now leads the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources which, according to the NYT, was created with “the purpose of channelling the domestic energy boom into a geopolitical tool”.  Now America asserts power through its eagerness to export its surplus frack gas and Robert McNally, former energy adviser to George W. Bush, talks about how America has grown from being the “arsenal of democracy in World War II, into “the arsenal of energy.”

It is always tempting to see the manipulations of oil and gas interests behind these arguments (and they are, indeed, very keen to push gas exports so that they can sell their US production on the more lucrative world market). But I don’t think we should underestimate the role of status struggles, social norms and confirmation bias among senior politicians and their policy advisors. It is no coincidence that Cameron was speaking in this way after he emerged from intense (and, no doubt, for him intoxicating) session of geo-political power broking.

So these are big boy conversations in which the dominant narratives have already been set by in-group culture. The consensus building process itself will also lead to a concentration of values and intense pressure to conform. It would be interesting to know what would happen if one of the “world leaders” started arguing in these negotiations for a massive programme of energy conservation to reduce gas dependence (which, in truth, could generate results faster than domestic fracking or increasing American exports), but I would bet every crisp in my packet that this could not happen because such proposals simply do not exist anywhere in the discussion. They are a non-topic, a generated silence, a Terra Nullius that is no more than a rough outline on the edge of the cognitive map.

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March 21, 2014


George Marshall @ 12:09 pm

Following my last post, announcing COIN’s report on the challenges of communicating climate change around extreme weather events, I had a very interesting hour long interview/discussion with Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the inspiring Transition Movement.

You can hear it/read the transcription here- LINK…

In our discussion we also explored the wider and, I find, fascinating issues of socially constructed conviction and silence. I have particular admiration for Rob and the Transition movement, because they have, from the very beginning, recognised the centrality of these issues – Transition is, as it says, an “exploration” of how to build conviction “from head to heart” through locally based peer communication.

This interview is a first public airing for some of the ideas that I will explore in my forthcoming book: Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be published by Bloomsbury US/international in September 2014.

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March 4, 2014


George Marshall @ 3:04 pm

A new report by COIN shows how rapidly media reporting of the recent UK storms degenerated into narratives of blame focused on environmentalists.

The UK floods and storms of December 2013 and January 2014 were exceptional by any standards. In many parts of southern England January rainfall broke all monthly records and in some places being more than double the average.

One would think  it would be natural enough for the news media to make the most of a connection with an issue that scientists had been predicting for nearly 20 years would bring increased storms and far more winter rainfall. They should have put climate change back at the centre of public discussion.

But they did not. Until mid-February there was virtually no mention of climate change in the media.  A survey in late January by the media analysis organisation Carbon Brief, found that 92% of mainstream news articles made no mention of climate change.  This followed the same pattern of media silence found the US around Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 heatwaves .

It was, in many ways, another socially generated and policed Climate Silence as discussed before on this blog. When climate change was mentioned, coverage was tentative and almost embarassed. BBC radio’s flagship Today Programme could not even bring itself to mention the words– the lead journalist, John Humphrys, brusquely demanding of a scientist that he say whether such extreme weather events might become more common in future “without going into all the debate about what might or might not be happening to the climate”.

In the place of climate change the media was – pardon the pun- awash with stories of personal loss, everyday heroes, bravery and community solidarity. Such comelling narratives are common around disasters and suppress the more complex and challenging narratives of climate change.  As I reported last year after interviews with victims of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and wildfires in Texas, climate change is often considered too inappropriate and divisive to mention at all.


However, what was especially noteworthy in the British coverage- and what, I fear, is a harbinger of how we may respond to climate change- was the rapid transition to angry narratives of enemies and blame.

Emotionally charged extreme weather events always tend to generate strong blame narratives – especially around government negligence (as happened around Hurricane Katrina), individual perpetrators (the hunt for the mythical arsonists who start wildfires) or, the insurance companies failure to settle claims. The complex, multi-causal, unintentional issue of climate change feels incomplete without enemies and so, as I have commented before, it readily absorbs existing conflicts.

So it was no surprise, after a few weeks of stories about resilience and ‘blitz spirit’, that the British media moved to angry language about blame expressed in moving stories about the struggle between individuals and bureaucracies.

The primary focus for that anger and abuse was the Environment Agency, a high profile public body tasked with the flood response. Week after week it was accused of greed, incompetence, indiference to suffering, and corruption. The key hate figure became its director, Chris Smith. As the first senior British politician to be openly gay, the Daily Mail newspaper felt free to indulge in scarcely concealed homophobia with a fabricated story that he had squandered £639 ($1000) of taxpayer money on ‘gay pride tea mugs’ – enough, it whined, to buy more than 250 sandbags to protect flood victims’ homes.

But there was, surely, something more going on here. The Environment Agency is not a disaster relief organisation, like FEMA in the US. As its name suggests, its mission is  to “protect the environment, and to promote sustainable development” and it is one of the lead agencies working on climate change. This includes running the UK Climate Impacts Programme, the scientific network that models the impacts of climate change on future extreme weather events. Nor is Chris Smith just any former politician- he is a former Shadow Environment Minister for the Labour Party and is, according to one conservative blog, ‘climate change obsessed’.

Somehow, then, climate specialists had moved from being ignored when they warned of the link between climate change and flooding to being held personally to blame for it.

Anti-environmental resentment then extended to the “ecological zealots” who had prevented the dredging of rivers- epitomised in a high profile article by Christopher Booker, headed: ‘It’s the deluded greens who’ve left my Somerset neighbours 10ft under water’.

Booker is especially interesting in this regard.  Not only is he Britain’s most outspoken and influential climate denier ‘journalist’ (I use the word with caveats), but he is also the author of ‘Seven Basic Plots’, an exhaustive study of the components of compelling narratives across the arts. Of all people, Booker entirely understands the construction of enemy narratives and uses them entirely knowingly.


On February 9th, the UK Meteorological Office launched a major report detailing the relationship between global climate change and the winter weather. This was a major news ‘hook’ that finally broke the silence and led to a somewhat broader discussion of climate change in late february (although often in the exasperating- is it happening or isn’t it – debate format).

However, when the report was first launched its cautious and dry scientific language was inaudible above the more compelling and emotional narratives of blame. Whilst the scientists were required to frame their analysis in language about uncertainty and probability, these accusations were presented with an undue confidence as socially agreed facts.

This is how the Met Office findings were reported in The Sun on Monday 10th February 2014.  In yellow is the climate change report (noting, in the text, that there is “still no definitive proof”). It is smothered by stories and images of suffering and disaster (in red) and blame (in blue).

The Daily Mail, a consistently (though not exclusively) climate sceptic newspaper also reported the Met Office report and then, with remarkable dexterity, seamlessly merged it into the larger blame narrative by launching a petition to redirect foreign aid towards UK flood victims.  The primary focus of the campaign was the £2.9 billion pledged by Britain to alleviate severe climate change impacts abroad.

So, once again, the target for anger became the people who communicated climate change and sought to address it. Smears operate at a level of emotional metaphor that defies logic or proof. What is important is not the demand – which makes little sense – but the inference.  And that is clear: that, in some ill defined way, the people responsible for the suffering of  flood victims were the self-interested do-gooders who had been warning about it all along.

Blaming the messenger is a common psychological response to anxiety and trauma. My real point, though, is larger than this: that, as climate change manifests itself, our responses are entirely unpredictable. Greater concern about the underlying causes is one response. But conflict and scapegoating are just as likely. And what really concerns me is that we may well adopt entirely aberrant responses without even fully realising what we are doing.

After the floods: communicating climate change around extreme weather, is a new 20 page guide on the challenges and opportunities of communicating climate change around extreme weather events. Available to download at:


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