How climate contrarians fooled the media

| 15th February 2019
In a rational society, evidence would form the basis for both policymaking and media discourse.

In a rational society, evidence would form the basis for both policymaking and media discourse.

A while back, it struck me as remarkable that no-one had written a book about the UK’s tiny but well-connected cabal of climate contrarians. Especially given the extent to which they shaped political discourse on energy and climate change for a decade.

Such a book didn’t appear to exist. So I wrote one.

I first encountered the contrarian community about 15 years ago, as a science and environment correspondent at the BBC.

Scientific evidence

Many will remember some of the events highlighted by contrarians that took place during that period – the theft and release of emails from the University of East Anglia in 2009, the IPCC’s erroneous statement two years earlier that Himalayan glaciers could be melted by 2035, and the debacle of the Copenhagen climate summit.

However, years previously, contrarianism’s belly was already cram full of self-righteous fire – arguing that the scientific establishment was crooked, and politicians such as Al Gore leading the world down a path of expensive and unreliable clean energy for a cause that was just hot air.

The so-called ‘ClimateGate’ episode was just – if you’ll forgive the expression – the tip of the iceberg. But it allowed Nigel Lawson to launch his Global Warming Policy Foundation in a blaze of publicity – and amid the heat, something fundamentally flipped in parts of the UK media, with concomitant changes in political discourse too. It would take years – a series of very warm years –before the majority of coverage returned to the evidence-based.

Denied: The Rise and Fall of Climate Contrarianism tells the story of how contrarian discourse came to the fore in media and politics. How some newspapers and magazines bought the arguments, and gave them a shop window well beyond the point where credibility vanished. And it tells the most important and fascinating part of the story: how and why the contrarians lost.

Why ‘contrarian’ rather than ‘denier’ or ‘sceptic’? As I outline in the book, I’m unhappy with both terms. ‘Denier’ is uncomfortable because of its Holocaust connection, and in any case many people who are often labelled ‘deniers’, including Lawson, don’t deny that man-made climate change is real, instead arguing about the quality of scientific evidence, economics and policy options.

New normal

The term ‘sceptic’, on the other hand, must be earned, as being genuinely sceptical is generally a virtue. It cannot sensibly be applied to a group of people who show absolutely no scepticism towards their canonical arguments, even when those arguments have clearly been overtaken.

And overtaken they have been, as I show in Denied. Arguments as familiar as that climate change is natural, that the lights will go out if we build more renewable energy, and that no other country is doing anything to decarbonise.

All have been lost, in the real world where evidence rules. Yet… the contrarian community has not followed the evidence. Instead it has taken up further fantastical arguments – the US is decarbonising faster than any other major economy because of shale gas (it isn’t), or small modular reactors (SMRs) will be cheaper than renewables (we have no idea).

Exactly how and why parts of politics and journalism veered down these cul-de-sacs will always, I suspect, remain unknown. Certainly I don’t claim to have found the precise answers.

But there is little doubt in my mind that the events of 2008-9 – the now-disproven ‘global warming pause’, the email hack, the failure of Copenhagen – created a ‘new normal’, in which figures such as Nigel Lawson, Christopher Monckton and Chris Booker could claim to have been proven right all along.

Onshore wind

The ‘new normal’ persisted for years – as recently as 2017, Lawson told the BBC Today Programme audience that the global temperature had fallen over the last decade, David Rose in the Mail on Sunday attempted to keep alive the trope that climate science is a conspiracy, and Matt Ridley assured us in The Times us that an industry that hardly exists in the UK and in which few investors are interested, shale gas, would definitively provide energy ‘at a cost well below that of renewables’.

If such examples seem extraordinary on their own, one thing that emerged to me while writing the book was how much more extraordinary the picture looks when the sheer volume of output along these lines is laid together.

We have here some of the most prestigious titles in Britain – all prepared to give houseroom to lines of argument that cease to stack up once one applies the first fork of genuine scepticism.

To anyone who would argue ‘so what, it doesn’t matter’ I offer some cautionary statistics, derived from my current work running the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

A recent survey of MPs found that only eight percent know onshore wind is the UK’s cheapest new form of electricity generation. The same percentage thought the answer was SMRs – which do not actually exist in commercial form.

Ministers

A few years back, we found – as have many other polls – that renewable energy enjoys the support of around four in five Britons. But only one in 20 of the population knows this – most think renewables are unpopular.

If media distortion of reality isn’t at least partially responsible for these misinformed states, it’s hard to know what is. And it’s hard to have evidence-based policymaking on energy when such a tiny proportion of our elected representatives knows the important basics.

Whatever the factors behind the contrarians’ rise, Denied’s most fundamental conclusion is that they have lost. In the media, writers as formerly influential as Matt Ridley and David Rose have evidently mislaid the ears of their editors.

The public, despite being told for 10 years that it hates renewable energy, stubbornly refuses to think what it is told it thinks; support for clean energy is overwhelming and concern about climate change rising. In politics – recalling that climate contrarianism is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the Right – it has lost even more spectacularly.

Just five years ago, former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson MP’s attempt to get the Climate Change Act repealed received a certain amount of traction from his peers. Now, the live question is not whether to repeal the Act but how to strengthen it – and this is being led by ministers, not backbenchers.

As I remark in my introduction, Denied shouldn’t really have been needed. In a rational society, evidence would form the basis for both policymaking and media discourse. But… when powerful forces come to play, evidence does not always win. Denied was needed.

I end it with a suggestion to contrarians: admit where you’re wrong, regain some credibility, and apply real scepticism to real arguments. We will see.

This Author

Richard Black is director of the Environment and Climate Intelligence Unit and former BBC science and environment correspondent.

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