Climate Change Denial: Who can you trust when you don’t trust yourself?
In a CiF blog thread a poster made some derogatory remarks about “the ease” with which I make my various claims. This was the usual snidery and demands no discussion, but it got me thinking about another conversation taking place between myself and KingInYellow, who pops by here from time to time; the curious left/right political divide along which the climate debate has split.
I started off thinking about relative intelligence – daft to suggest the right or left have any deficiencies on that score. Are the right less interested in science? Nope – another daft idea. In fact, I couldn’t really come up with any convincing explanation for the division, except perhaps that because it is the political right who have conflated science with politics, out of a combination of anxiety and self-interest, the only proponents of the science are those who are…er…left. It isn’t that the left have some more technical leaning, or that Marxists gravitate toward science, it’s that the right have run away from science since it will not support their anxious view. I admit however, in the privacy of this blog, that my ‘explanation’ is not entirely convincing.
KingInYellow meanwhile makes a wry observation, and has his own theory: “The differentiators I can identify so far are knowledge, and education. I think you come closest to whatever is the key differentiator with your comment: “anxiety and self-interest”…but even that doesn’t nail it as self interest instructs me that AGW will harm my own self interest…
I’m not too sure about this. Posters in CiF seem to be pretty well educated, articulate, able to duck and dive in a rhetorical arena, which isn’t all that easy. We quickly weed out the Sun readers and the blank-firing, gun-totin’ cowboys from across the pond, who never last long. What we’re left with are our regular deniers – the usual suspects as it were. These are nearly all retired men, and while I don’t think any of them are paid shills – astroturfers – I do think they’re on a mission (not that this is a criticism as such, since I’m self-evidently on a mission of my own). Their mission is to defeat the notion that climate change is being caused by us; how they do it is irrelevant, which is why the movement is so fractured and diverse, with as many accusations, denials and counter-theories as there are stars in the sky. It is curious that this lack of consistency, often contradictory, does not seem to bother them. If this was my position, the disarray would be disturbing to me.
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I’m not sure how it happens, but sometimes one can experience a fortuitous merger of ideas that, until the moment comes, appear unrelated. You see, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about trust. It’s an observation I shy away from in my writing, but I’m going to stop avoiding it and worry about the accusations of naivety some other time.
Let’s start by making clear why trust is important to me; the reason I support climate science is not that I’m capable of analysing it all, evaluating it all, testing it all. Far from it – in fact, the reason I support the theory of anthropogenic climate change is primarily because I trust the science, and particularly the consistency of it, because all the elements of climate science, drawn from so many complementary disciplines achieve an important thing, which science historian Naomi Oreskes describes as “multiple, independent lines of evidence converging on a single coherent account” .
In science, this is really important: no theory can be seen to be credible unless it fits what we already know – which is why we can discount any theory that appears to work in isolation but does not conform to previously established laws or empirical evidence. All science depends on all other science, and the theory with the best explanatory power is the one that fits best with everything else. This is, for example, the way that the periodic table was developed; the theory not only positioned known elements consistently in the proposed table, but was powerful enough for Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev to predict the position and qualities of elements we had yet to discover.
Trust then is the thing that differentiates me from deniers, because my default position is to trust science and scientists. A great deal of denialism has at root an anxiety, most markedly when the science of climate change becomes, in the denier rhetoric, a tool for left-wing aims, the science ideological, the purpose collusive and anti-democratic. This thinking defines denial, this fearful notion that someone is conspiring against us all, and to the right, climate change is a vehicle for the change they want to impose on us.
The ironic thing is that, as with so much of our experience, there is truth in this. I have never doubted that governments would impose all kinds of taxes, stealthy and otherwise, in the name of climate change mitigation, adaptation, foreign aid – and pocketing the results to pay for regulatory banking failures, Trident missiles and wars on bewildered brown-skinned people. Indeed, here in the UK last week there was discussion about the way climate change money is being channelled into the Treasury when it should be ring-fenced and deployed independently. The deniers are right about the political aspect of all this, and we should be monitoring our governments very closely, but with a common understanding, a mutual trust and respect for science and scientists. Of course, that understanding is impossible when science is viewed as a corrupt endeavour.
It appears then that climate change deniers are trapped in a strange, circular paradox. They do not trust the left, believing climate science is being used as a tool by their political opposites, perhaps because the left are more ardent in their support (and the wealth distribution in support of developing nations, and in the name of climate change, are clearly principles that the left will find more palatable than the right, although much support to developing worlds has always been within the purview of conservative or libertarian governments).
So the politics is evaluated in polar terms, and various agenda are attributed to it. Because the right don’t trust the left, now they don’t trust climate scientists either, because for the left to achieve their aims, they must surely be employing duplicitous means, and that means is science. Therefore…
Perfect, self-reinforcing, circular argument. Complex, impossible to unravel, full of partial truths and partial lies. But at heart, there is distrust, and I personally find the sweeping nature of it to contaminate every part of human discourse. Those who seem so anxious, so suspicious, seem also to embody a distrust so profound I wonder how they can trust themselves. (I also wonder how the right can be so suspicious of publicly funded science, where scientists have little or no vested financial interest, yet so sanguine about commercial science like GM, biotech, pharma and agriculture, where the science is so directly linked to the sale of products and the acquisition of profit).
This, I suspect, is the key point: climate denial is a right-wing phenomenon because those of such a disposition do not have much trust in themselves, or each other, a distrust born of their fear. To trust oneself and one’s ability to assimilate and evaluate information is a key precursor of intellectual independence. Without such trust, it is easy to be overcome by anxiety, prey to all kinds of demagoguery. In the US this fear is clearly articulated, as it is by charlatans like Monckton and rabid demagogues like Beck, Limbaugh and their ilk, who pander to the fear of their audience and seek to heighten it, in order to make a living. Even now, many Americans are haunted by ‘reds under the bed’, and it is this fear that drives such an isolationist, libertarian, fend for ourselves, fuck the rest of you, gun-totin’ outlook. The right don’t trust themselves; no wonder they can’t bring themselves to commit the act of good faith and trust the science of climate change.