Climate Change Denial

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July 21, 2014


George Marshall @ 4:19 pm

Thank you former UK Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, – and, let’s be honest, climate denier– Owen Paterson, for providing us with an excellent object lesson in right wing climate change narratives. There is much to learn, and much to cause concern.

In yesterday’s high profile op-ed in the conservative Sunday Telegraph newspaper link.., Paterson, until last week the politician in control of Britain’s environmental policy reinvented himself as the voice of ‘sanity’ against the straw enemy of green extremists.

Allowing a while for the irritation to pass and the blood pressure to go down, I suggest that we environmental communicators can improve our game by watching how a highly skilled communicator like Paterson is speaking to this audience. Please read it now and reflect on it.

Although he pays lip service to supposed external facts, he does not cite any of them. Paterson is only really interested in a culture war of competing values and identities. According to Self-categorization theory we seek to achieve closeness and similarity with people with whom we feel an identity and kinship: our in-group. Then we seek to establish our differences from the people who are not like us: the out-groups. Our attitudes are shaped by both the people around us who we want to be like and by the people beyond us who we want to be unlike.

Paterson’s interest is in setting up the identity markers that clearly signal that he is speaking to in-group conservative values of national pride, localism, fairness, and property as the reward of personal success. And he is just as concerned with defining this in opposition to an out-group: the  “mutually supportive network of environmental pressure groups and renewable energy companies” which Paterson calls the “Green Blob”.

Paterson duly defines “the environment” within the conservative frame of patriotism and defense of locality and traditional values as “the real countryside of farmers and workers, of birds and butterflies” and “the landscapes of this beautiful country”. Such values  (as highlighted in an excellent COIN report by my colleague Dr Adam Corner) is diametrically opposed to the language of a global responsibility and “saving the planet” utilised by mainstream environmentalism. Putting the two worldviews in direct contrast Paterson praises the “wonderful work” of “local conservationists on the ground” who, he says, are “a world away from the highly paid globe-trotters of the Green Blob”. The meaning is contained in the nuance: the word “conservationists” shares a root with “conservatives”- they are rooted in “the ground”. The phrases “world away”  and “globe trotters” links the environmentalists with internationalism and its older sibling cosmopolitanism- both deeply distrusted values within traditional little England conservatism.

Enemies need motivations, and a moral judgement requires that this enemy has an intention to cause harm. In Paterson’s story, the Green Blob is motivated by its “handsome” profits, “lavish funds” and “high pay”. This tendency to mirror the accusations of your opponents is called inversionism and is familiar from other polarized debates such anti-smoking, gun control, and abortion. In arguments over climate change both sides portray themselves as ‘David’ s mastering the real science against a self interested and corrupt ‘Goliath’.

So, having established the mythic moral battleground,  Paterson can then write a heroic narrative of himself standing up to “death threats” even when he is  being “burnt in effigy”.  The main structure of this piece is a single rhetorical pattern, repeated five times, like the riff in a conference speech:  When I spoke up..they tried (and failed) to silence me.

His countervailing opponent it is not just an amorphous “they” Green Blob. His article repeatedly pits the heroic Paterson against more specific enemies. They do not need to be named because they are less important as individual people (although readily identifiable) than as familiar out-group archetypes. All have one quality in common- they are members of a privileged deracinated leftist elite who have never done an honest hard days work. So, he tells us, his mission was opposed by “pop stars who had never been faced with having to cull a pregnant heifer… a luxury organic chocolate tycoon…a dress designer for whom energy bills are trivial concerns” and so on.

This storyline is familiar on both sides of the Atlantic. Back in 2007 the novelist Michael Crichton took part in a radio debate on climate change that was broadcast across the US. Crichton received the largest cheer of the night when he castigated the hypocritical greens who fly their “private jets to their second and third homes” or “buy a Prius, drive it around for a while, and give it to the maid”. Crichton, as one of the world’s most successful authors, understood all too well the power of this storyline.

Then Paterson brings in another familiar frame that defines his in-group identity, arguing that these Green Blob “anti-capitalist agitprop groups” are “like the nationalised industries and obstructive trade unions of the 1970s”. As with the other accusations the goal here is not to put a coherent argument. The real goal is to flash the right cultural signals to his audience.

So what then can climate change communicators learn from this?

Firstly – Paterson understands well what we often do not. Environmentalists and scientists alike continue to assume that climate change denial can be overcome with more reports and data. They are wrong: this has to be understood as an appeal to values and identities.

Secondly – we can do well to adopt Paterson’s framing of environment around the cultural values of the national landscape. This confirms the finding of my own research as discussed in a recent report  on “How to Build Climate Narratives Around National Identity and Cultural Pride”

Thirdly – we must, as a matter of ever greater urgency, develop a right wing discourse on climate change. Political orientation has become the single most reliable predictor of people’s positions on climate change. The centre right political worldview is very poorly served by environmentalists, most of whom have progressive left politics. Our failure to address this audiences has left this critical social space wide open for aggressive deniers like Paterson to  fill with their own narratives and language.

But we cannot and should not be filling this void on our own- and it would be disastrous for environmental organisations to do so. We need to step back and encourage and enable conservative communicators to come to the fore, shaping language around their own values. And this, I have to warn my colleagues in the Green movement, will involve allowing some new ways of talking that make us decidedly uncomfortable.

Finally we must not respond in kind, however tempting it might be. To do so would be to further fuel the very polarisation that Paterson wishes to create. This is not the place for a culture war and we must, at every opportunity, recognise our differences but speak over them to common values and shared concerns. More than any other issue climate change requires a sense of shared humanity and we must not let that be poisoned by the divisiveness of a failed politician preparing his speech for the dinner circuit.

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  1. Annie says:

    I feel really strongly that you are right, and that we can’t let our boiling blood let us fight with him in such a way that the divisions he creates are underscored.

  2. James Atkins says:

    I think UKIP has an important role to play here. Their environmental policy is ready for refreshing. They could pull the rug from under the dim, denier Conservatives and thereby win a trick. Yes there is a strong Conservative case for protecting nature (Scruton’s Green Philosophy). The peopl

  3. James Atkins says:

    The ordinary people who support UKIP don’t see eye to eye with greedy grab-what-you-can neo-liberals and elite businessmen and financiers who back the Tories. These ordinary people might well be sympathetic to an agenda which reunites us with nature. With a little humility Mr Farage could about turn on climate and build an intelligent UKIP case for climate protection.

  4. Mike Hamblett says:

    You make it sound like Paterson is intelligent. I sense he’s just repeating stuff Lilley and Lawson have said…..oh hang on, Lawson isn’t intelligent either. What you’re also alluding to is an amount of low cunning, which is always in abundance when money is the bottom line.

  5. Noel Darlow says:

    An ignorant and selfish right won’t respond to appeals for idealism any more than they have to appeals for rationality. In their eyes, the needs of the common man are just as ridiculous (and dangerous) as the hockey stick of Michael Mann.

    The whole ideology of the right is based on denial of their shared humanity and the common good. As Thatcher said “there’s no such thing as society”. These people are who they are because they don’t give a crap about the human race outside of their own little bubble of wealth and privilege.

    Therefore, it’s revolution which we need, not persuasion. A determined, uncompromising revolution of rationality and idealism which takes no prisoners and ushers in a whole new political and economic system firmly grounded in equality. I don’t see how we can deal with environmental problems without taking power away from certain types of people who will not under any circumstances be persuaded to give it up. The right are absolutely correct to think that global warming threatens to leave them stranded and irrelevant although they are wrong to imagine it’s some kind of conspiracy. It’s simply a necessity.

  6. Excellent piece and a good understanding of the need/desire to be part of a tribe whether it be a Manchester United fan or a climate denier. Being just yourself is somehow not enough. I noticed that everything in his speech went through the filter of money.
    However, I would like to go further and find the real context of his approach, which is not really clever but more driven. Abandonment (lack of mirroring and empathy) as a child, leads to self aggrandisement which is a false self ego that needs feeding. He is getting plenty of strokes from the hunting shooting fishing lobby, but is blind to his true self, which he has no idea exists. This is typical of all those who seek power and why the country ends up being run by these hurt children. This also explains the paedophiles too. Its all about power over. Look at his face. he is a very angry man.

  7. Wanted to add. A snappier title for above would help. My Facebook friends are not commenting, unusually.

  8. Aaron (@Eco_melon) says:

    “Finally we must not respond in kind, however tempting it might be. To do so would be to further fuel the very polarisation that Paterson wishes to create.”

    I don’t buy it. The reason that the conservatives reject climate science is that they accurately figure that there is no free-market solution to the climate crisis. An appropriate response will only arise from a resurgence of progressive politics. The solutions don’t lie in “recognizing our shared humanity” but in raining in the power of capital.

    As Naomi Klein points out:

    “Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.”,3

    [George replies- Aaron- I agree that these are indeed reasons why concervatives find it hard to accept climate change. But I think that it is far more culturally complex than this…conservatives are not at all averse to taxation and government control when it is in the interests of a war or an an overarching threat to common values (such as terrorism). And, if anything, they have a stronger sense of personal responsibility than liberals.
    Though my own politics are left leaning, I do not agree that my own politics provide the only answers at all. It is entirely possible to hold back climate by simply restricting the supply of fossil fuels onto the market and leaving the rest to pricing and the market. I see plenty in this issue that conservatives cannot grip with providing they see it as a threat to their values (such as tradition, property, authority).

    Anyway, conservatives have to be involved in this because we will not solve it otherwise – I am convinced that the most timely, effective and utimately painless transition will come from cross political co-operation but not, I stress, unity or coaltion…there will still be plenty to fight over.

  9. Ross King says:

    Good, patiently thought-through and encouraging conclusion. Way back I was the youngest Conservative Councillor and introduced change resisted by my group for years. It is possible, imv, to work with very rigid died-in-the-wool Conservatives. How? I think it is by meeting and engaging with them on their own terms – respecting them as people, listening (short of getting the recording started more than once), framing the change to meet their listening, gaining agreement and ‘shaking hands on their agreement’ (physically works well sometimes). With climate change,one can begin with opening the door to noticing changes in seasons, and so on. A simple analogy like heating water in a test tube. Sowing or exciting worry about atmospheric turbulence. Jumping to need to secure climate stability for children and grand-children. Confirming the science is good. No-one generally is making money from facing up to climate change. I have worked with about 2000 (mostly Telegraph-reading corporate managers and 10s of conservative local Councillors and don’t recall hitting any brick walls. I think it has been persuasion through a mix of empathy, common humanity, trust, certainty, patience, truth and resolve. No need for despair. But Patterson really was elevated beyond his capability and inner development.

  10. CHRIS KEENE says:

    I think we need to work with nature conservationists, who have been caricatured as ‘middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow and middle-Tory. Conservationists are very concerned about climate change as it will lead to mass extinction.

  11. Diana Korchien says:

    Show everyone the 7-minute short Carbon Weevils. Plummy yet puzzled-sounding ‘establishment science’ voice-over is hilariously surreal when counterpoised with scrappy looking storyboard imagery which takes the piss out of the entire human race and its long-lived aspirations, complacency and lack of self-awareness. It has the potential ability to unite people of all political complexions in the face of climate change.

  12. Kevin says:

    “straw enemy of green extremists”

    Green extremists are not a straw enemy. In fact as proof there are green extremists, or at least followers of the green extremists, there is you and this article as proof there are green extremists. You would not be writing this article if you were not a green extremist or a follower of green extremists. There would not be a global warming issue if it weren’t for green extremists.

    But let me point out a lie often told by liberals about global warming. That lie is that only people who believe there is global warming believe that we are causing it. The lie is that conservatives don’t believe in global warming, just that we are not causing it. So you are lying that conservatives don’t believe there is global warming. And you are lying about the true differences between liberals and conservatives ideas about global warming. So be honest and stop making lying blanket statements that there is only one kind of global warming, one that we are causing when it isn’t true. Clearly you, like liberals do, misrepresent your opponents position in a clear attempt to discredit them.

    But this will prove there is no such thing as global warming as the liberal green extremists and you, one of their followers, exist from the green extremists themselves:

    “The common enemy of humanity is man.
    In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up
    with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming,
    water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill. All these
    dangers are caused by human intervention, and it is only through
    changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome.
    The real enemy then, is humanity itself.“
    – Club of Rome,
    premier environmental think-tank,
    consultants to the United Nations

    “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the
    industrialized civilizations collapse?
    Isn’t it our responsiblity to bring that about?”
    – Maurice Strong,
    founder of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

    But you are going to arrogantly ignore that very clear proof that it was completely made up to collapse the industrialized civilizations because you are an extremists and won’t let facts or sound reasoning or anything that disproves your ideology sway you. That is why you are an extremist and why green extremists are not straw people as you falsely claim.

  13. Avery says:

    This article should mention that “conservative” and “conservationist” are cognate 😉

  14. Sue Feltham says:

    The most comprehensive motivational reason for doing something about climate change I’ve heard is

    ‘If we don’t do something now, our grandchildren will hate us’

    This crosses all boundries

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