Climate Change, Ideology, and the Manufacture of Doubt

– Below is an excerpt from a paper that I wrote for one of my MSc classes whose topic is now more timely than ever.

The world’s foremost governing authority on climate science, the International Panel on Climate Change, declared in its 2013 summary report for policymakers with unambiguous lucidity: “The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased…it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”. The numerous socio-ecological threats posed by climate change are foreboding, ranging from substantially reduced agricultural productivity, rising sea levels, and increased frequency and severity of storms due to rising temperatures caused largely by the excessive burning of greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels. Such existential dangers demand swift, concerted, and far-reaching action in order to avert the catastrophic and irrevocable destabilization of our climate system. The evidence of anthropogenic warming is virtually unequivocal, and yet, climate change remains a significantly contentious issue across political, socioeconomic, and ideological spectrums.

However, when one considers some of the key players in the debate- powerful transnational fossil fuel corporations such as Shell and ExxonMobil (Klein, 2014), and the scientists and conservative think-tanks that they fund, for instance- as well as the radical implications for our current socioeconomic paradigm that effective climate change mitigation tactics would entail, one begins to see why certain groups fervently insist on clouding the debate. Adequate responses to the climate crisis would require that we rapidly wean ourselves off of fossil fuels through investments in renewable energy, and that we curb the presently unhampered patterns of global production and consumption that are destroying natural systems- climatic, oceanic, and terrestrial. Those who stand to lose the most from such radical structural changes politicize the very logic behind responding to climate change and consistently manufacture doubt concerning the evidence, as it presents a challenge to certain sets of world views and modes of subsistence. The fundamental social, infrastructural, economic and political changes that climate change mitigation necessitates directly jeopardize powerful vested socioeconomic interests that profit off of energy profligacy and an overall extractivist relationship with the natural world and its resources, one based on unrestrained and non-reciprocal withdrawals regardless of social and environmental consequences.

Author and social activist, Naomi Klein, sheds light on the varying considerations that frequently underlie climate change denial and distortion campaigns: “While 97 percent of active climate scientists believe humans are a major cause of climate change, the numbers are radically different among ‘economic geologists—scientists who study natural formations so that they can be commercially exploited by extractive industries. Only 47 percent of these scientists believe in human-caused climate change. The bottom line is that we are all inclined to denial when the truth is too costly”. Klein critically examines the role that economic and financial interests play in framing the issue of climate change, a relationship that is often but not always directly related to a particular individual or group’s ideological orientations, although the role of ideology in the filtering of evidence is by no means insignificant. Klein cites a rather shocking 2013 study by Riley Dunlap and Peter Jacques which found that a staggering 72 percent of climate denial books, mostly published since the 1990s, were linked to right-wing think tanks…”. Such cases clearly demonstrate the common interplay between ideology, socioeconomic interests, and the astonishing degree to which evidence will be resisted when deemed threatening.

Klein provides an illuminating yet disturbing analysis of the tactics and underlying motivations employed by the Heartland Institute, a conservative American think-tank and infamous anti-climate-change agitator, further bringing to the forefront the portentous relationship between political-economic interests, ideology, and the manipulation of evidence to suit desired ends. As Klein comically notes, “Scientists who present at Heartland climate conferences are almost all so steeped in fossil fuel dollars that you can practically smell the fumes”, and then continues to cite a Greenpeace investigation that was conducted into (Heartland) conference speaker, astrophysicist Willie Soon, which found that, “between 2002 and 2010, 100 percent of his new research grants had come from fossil fuel interests”. A similar report by Greenpeace notes that, since 1997, the Koch brothers of the immensely wealthy oil conglomerate, Koch Industries, have donated roughly $79,048,951 to climate denial groups such as the Heartland Institute. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more overt demonstration of the degree to which formidable political-economic forces can exhibit lethal skill at obfuscating information, even against the backdrop of an overwhelming global scientific consensus on the evidence of anthropogenic climate change.

Australian ethics professor Clive Hamilton delves further into the nature of ideology and its powerful capacity to shape the perception of issues such as climate change, stating that: “Those on the left are as predisposed to sift evidence through ideological filters; but in the case of global warming it happens that the evidence overwhelmingly endorses the liberal beliefs that unrestrained capitalism is jeopardizing future well-being” (Hamilton, 2010). The sorts of characteristics or “cultural narratives” typically associated with the conservative end of the political spectrum include a firm belief in free-market fundamentalism, limited government interference in social and economic affairs, and at a more fundamental level, the traditional Western conviction that man is master of nature, with the inalienable right to utilize its resources in any way desired (Klein, 2014). However, as Klein so eloquently encapsulates the ideological challenge posed by the climate crisis and the paradigm-shifting implications of its necessary remedies, “Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation…simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis”. While the varying parties and their arguments often coincide with particular political-ideological doctrines, those calling for action towards climate change mitigation have the added support of an expansive global scientific consensus.

The Inescapable Role of Politics in Evidence-Framing: Who are the Beneficiaries?

As numerous and variable actors in a complex social world, a proliferation of interests and perspectives is an inescapable reality, yet it is important to remain aware of what sorts of evidence are available, who may be framing it in which ways and for what purposes, and what the potential real world implications of certain policy routes are versus others. As American meteorologist Roger A. Pielke remarks, “Of course, in society there are multitude interests and perspectives…As a result, whenever there is conflict, we engage in political behavior. Politics, in the words of the great twentieth century political scientist Harold Lasswell (1958), is the process of bargaining, negotiation, and compromise that determines “who gets what, when, and how”. In the case of the deliberate clouding and suppression of climate change evidence by conservative and economic interest groups in order to safeguard energy and resource-intensive socioeconomic lifestyles, among other endeavors, the question as to ‘who gets what’ becomes especially significant. With the stability of social and ecological systems at stake, is not the “left-wing” political framing of climate change and its emphasis on the dangers looming ahead more beneficial for the majority of the world’s inhabitants than the largely misguided ideas that proliferate amongst the climate denial sphere? If the political and ideological framing of evidence is in fact unavoidable, perhaps it is preferable to opt for narratives which are the most socially and environmentally advantageous for the greatest number of beings.

In terms of evidence and policy implementation, Pielke offers some intriguing perspectives on the interplay between politics and scientific evidence with particularly relevant undertones regarding the climate change contention. He notes that, “For science, a policy perspective implies increasing or elucidating the range of alternatives available to decision makers by clearly associating the existing state of scientific knowledge with a range of choices…By contrast, a political perspective seeks to decrease the range of alternatives (often to a single preferred option) available to policy makers”. The examples of overt displays of political power alluded to earlier, such as the donation of substantial financial sums to climate-change-denial groups by powerful transnational fossil fuel interests, provide a stark example of the extent to which political discourse and strategy can restrict the scope of alternatives available. In line with the extensive scientific evidence at hand, examples of sound climate change policy tools would include the introduction of hefty carbon taxes on fossil fuel combustion, as well as heavy subsidies directed towards promoting the development of renewable energy sources. Yet, by aggressively denying the reality of an increasingly imperiled climate system and refusing to acknowledge the role played by our predominant socioeconomic paradigm, the climate change denial movement not only closes off much needed alternatives, it narrows the options to one deadly course of action: the continuation of business as usual.

Content by Heather Alberro



2 thoughts on “Climate Change, Ideology, and the Manufacture of Doubt

  1. Joan Vilchez Chavez says:

    Hola! Opino que unos cuantos millones de personas quisieran saber opciones para enfrentar ésto, opciones adaptadas a culturas, a realidades territoriales, y los científicos climáticos son un faro para todos. Es necesario pasar de las denuncias, al desafío de las propuestas. Saludos cordiales, excelente artículo!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Ecological Self says:

      Amor! Muchísimas gracias! Cómo estas?? Si, estoy de acuerdo contigo. Tenemos que vencer a estas diferencias insignificantes y ridículas porque el problema es real y va a afectar a todo el mundo. Negar todo no va a corregir el problema. Es importante educarse de acuerdo a la información que esté disponible y ayudar a los demás para que sepan que hacer cuando los cambios climáticos empiesen a cambiar nuestros ecosistemas y nuestros estilos de vida en profundas maneras. Tenemos que adaptarnos, y de prisa porque ya no queda mucho tiempo!

      Liked by 1 person

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