Clive Hamilton: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change

A paper to the Climate Controversies: Science and politics conference
Museum of Natural Sciences,
Brussels, 28 October 2010

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Repudiating science
Let me begin with a pregnant fact about United States’ voters. In 1997 there was virtually no difference between Democratic and Republican voters in their views on global warming, with around half saying warming had begun. In 2008, reflecting the accumulation and dissemination of scientific evidence, the proportion of Democratic voters taking this view had risen from 52 to 76 per cent. But the proportion of Republican voters fell from 48 per cent to 42 per cent—a four percent gap had become a 34 per cent gap. What had happened?
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The opening of the gulf was due to the fact that Republican Party activists, in collaboration with fossil fuel interests and conservative think tanks, had successfully associated acceptance of global warming science with “liberal” views. In other words, they had activated the human predisposition to adopt views that cement one’s connections with cultural groups that strengthen one’s definition of self. In the 1990s views on global warming were influenced mostly by attentiveness to the science; now one can make a good guess at an American’s opinion on global warming by identifying their views on abortion, same-sex marriage and gun-control.
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That global warming has been made a battleground in the wider culture war is most apparent from the political and social views of those who reject climate science outright. In 2008 they accounted for seven per cent of US voters, rising to 18 per cent if those with serious doubts are added. Among those who dismiss climate science, 76 per cent describe themselves as “conservative” and only three per cent as “liberal” (with the rest “moderate”). They overwhelmingly oppose redistributive policies, programs to reduce poverty and regulation of business. They prefer to watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. Like those whose opinions they value, these climate deniers are disproportionately white, male and conservative—those who feel their cultural identity most threatened by the implications of climate change.
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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 jeopardising future well-being, that comprehensive government intervention is needed, and that the environment movement was right all along. For neo-conservatives accepting these is intolerable, and it is easier emotionally and more convenient politically to reject climate science.
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The United States is a deeply polarised society. In Europe, the absence of a longrunning and rancorous culture war explains the relative weakness of climate denial. Where it does prevail it is associated with parties of the far right. It seems perfectly natural, for example, that the British National Party should adopt a denialist stance. In Italy and some former Eastern bloc countries, where anti-communism and remnantfascism still influence right-wing politics, denial is more potent.
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The aggressive adoption of climate denial by neo-conservatism was symbolised by the parting gesture of George W. Bush at his last G8 summit in 2008. Leaving the room he turned to the assembled leaders to say: “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter”. It was a defiant “joke” reflecting the way US neo-conservatives define themselves by their repudiation of the “other”, in this case, the internationalist, environmentally-concerned, self-doubting enemies of “the American way of life”. Conceding ground on global warming would have meant bridging two implacably opposed worldviews. Bush’s words, and the fist pump that accompanied them, were read by those present as a two-fingered salute to everything the Texan opposed.
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The fragility of the Enlightenment
In these circumstances, facts quail before beliefs, and there is something poignant about scientists who continue to adhere to the idea that people repudiate climate science because they suffer from inadequacy of information. In fact, denial is due to a surplus of culture rather than a deficit of information. Once people have made up their minds, providing contrary evidence can actually make them more resolute, a phenomenon we see at work with the upsurge of climate denial each time the IPCC publishes a report. For those who interpreted “Climategate” as confirmation of their belief that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy, the three or four reports that subsequently vindicated the scientists and the science proved only that the circle of conspirators was wider than previously suspected.
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In a curious twist, climate deniers now deploy the arguments first developed by the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to erode the authority of science. This was perhaps first noticed by Bruno Latour when he lamented the way climate deniers set out to explain away the evidence using a narrative about the social construction of facts. However, while constructivists developed an epistemological critique of science, climate deniers, adopting the heroic mantle of “sceptic”, claim to be protecting official epistemology from internal corrosion. The strategy required an attack on the system of peer-review and sustained attempts to “deconstruct” the motives of climate scientists. They are always on the lookout for biases and prejudices that could lie behind the claims of climate scientists, explaining away the vast accumulation of evidence by impugning the motives of those who collect it. That was the genius of the “Climategate” scandal—the emails were hard evidence that the “hard evidence” had been fabricated. The leaking of routine private exchanges between professional colleagues tarnished the public image of scientists as whitecoated experts too preoccupied with their test tubes and retorts to be political.
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Since the founding of modern science, matters of fact have been established through the common assent of those qualified to judge under rules laid down in the 17th century by the Royal Society. The break from the past lay in the fact that the “potency of knowledge came from nature, not from privileged persons”. “Climategate” allowed deniers to claim that climate science indeed emerged from privileged persons rather than disinterested nature. In their study of Robert Boyle’s struggle to found the new scientific method of experimentation observable by suitably qualified others, Shapin and Schaffer note that “democratic ideals and the exigencies of professional expertise form an unstable compound”. Deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise, including skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilisation of a group of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office. At least in the United States and Australia, democracy has defeated science.
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Innocently pursuing their research, climate scientists were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order. They could not know that the new facts they were uncovering would threaten the existence of powerful industrialists, compel governments to choose between adhering to science and remaining in power, corrode comfortable expectations about the future, expose hidden resentment of technical and cultural elites and, internationally, shatter the post-colonial growth consensus between North and South. Their research has brought us to one of those rare historical fracture points when knowledge diverges from power, portending a long period of struggle before the two are once more aligned.
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