Lies, damn lies and climate denial

Climate denial never goes away - but metamorphoses into different excuses to avoid action on ecological breakdown.

But denialism is a kind a hydra with many heads. Once one horrible visage of climate denial is cut away a multitude of other beastly forms appear.

Steve Baker, the self-styled hard man of Brexit, is threatening Boris Johnson with nothing less than ‘a political explosion’ if he continues with his carbon net zero by 2050 plans.

The fact that many people credit Baker with helping to set up Boris as prime minister in the first place makes this ominous threat one to take seriously. Baker claims there is a ‘smug’ political consensus around the plans that "will not survive contact with the public". 

 Baker himself is a recent addition to the board of trustees of the notorious Global Warming Policy Foundation originally set up by Nigel Lawson in 2009.  The arch denialist group refuses to declare its funders. Many see them as the mouthpiece of big oil.

Orchestrated

Now fossil fuel companies are facing the triple threat of the International Energy Agency recommendation to stop new oil and gas fields, mounting public concern after the recent ‘code red’ IPCC report and Boris Johnson's wish to leave a climate legacy at COP26.

Many environmentalists dismissed the GWPF as a spent force particularly as the scientific fact of the role of human influence on the climate system becomes undisputed in all circles.

But the rise of Baker, and the small group of thirteen MPs in the House of Commons led by Craig Mackinlay, formerly of UKIP, show they, like Terminator 2, have in fact regenerated as a subtler, smarter, more insidious enemy to change.

Though the number of MPs may be few, the recent flurry of anti carbon net zero articles in right-wing media, predominantly in Johnson’s former journalistic home, the Telegraph, but also in the Times, the Mail, the Sun and the Express, show that the group’s influential network extends well beyond parliament.

What we are witnessing is a fiercely orchestrated push back against the new carbon net zero plans.

Smoking

I have to declare an interest here. I was an organiser of a Writers Rebel event in Tufton Street in September 2020 in which many high-profile writers and artists including George Monbiot, Zadie Smith and Juliet Stevenson drew attention to the dangers of denialism and delayism.

After the speakers finished, Extinction Rebellion cofounder Clare Farrell, myself and Professor Rupert Read took part in a non-violent direct action in which we sprayed the words Lies Lies Lies on the pillars and poured fake blood down the steps of the handsome Georgian townhouse which houses the GWPF.

We have been notified that we will be tried for this action at the end of October. As I have prepared for the court case, I have spent many hours thinking about what motivates denialists.

It sometimes seems unfathomable that, even in the face of the strong climate and ecological danger we face, some people decide to take top dollar to deny and obscure the truth of our universal peril. 

The tactic of obscuring the truth to maximise profits comes directly from the dying tobacco industry. But, in that case, the denial of the clear medical effects of smoking cigarettes affected people who had chosen to smoke.

Grief

Not our and the denialists’ grandchildren. Not every animal and plant species. Not the very planet we inhabit and love. 

It is easier to see the stakes for the billionaires and fossil fuel CEOs and shareholders. but what can motivate the hordes of people who serve their needs: the lobbyists, editors, journalists, and pseudo-scientists? 

 But how do the individuals legitimise their actions? In the end, trying to imagine these personal motivations led me to the same kind of blank I found at the end of Othello.

When Emilia asks Iago why he lied and manipulated Othello into such a jealous rage that he murdered his innocent wife, Iago won’t, or perhaps can’t, answer. 

Zadie Smith eloquently described her own dismay at the Tufton Street event: “Now we know there really are people, some of whom work in this street, whose business it is to make science look like opinion, who aim to transform genuine feelings of climate grief into defended ignorance and positive denial.

Poisoning

“This is no longer if it ever were a question of personal morality. It is a question of corrupt politics, of lobbying at the highest level of our government. It involves the economic exploitation of the highest existential challenge the world has ever known: the survival of the planet.”

To be fair to him, Steve Baker does not fit the usual profile of a climate denialist. He is an evangelical Christian with his own idiosyncratic ethics that includes speaking up for the poorer people.

The more usual type is a middle-aged or older man, switching from a mediocre career or whose glory years are behind him.

At the Tufton Street event, author Jay Griffiths made merry about the lack of science background of many of the chief players at the GWPF.

Director Benny Peiser is a sports anthropologist. Trustee Andrew Montford is a chartered accountant and Richard A North, a specialist in public sector food poisoning surveillance. Matt Ridley, an academic adviser to the group, has a doctorate in the sexual selection of pheasants. 

Visage

Nigel Lawson, though a former chancellor of the exchequer, was more famous for being the father of the celebrity TV cook Nigella and for publishing a diet book after losing five stone before he launched the GWPF.

But the tactic worked to reinvigorate his personal career as he then enjoyed a few of years as a fixture on the BBC putting ‘the other side’ of the climate argument.

He is also credited with persuading another chancellor, George Osbourne, to block financing of the green policies that had been developed under the coalition Conservative-Liberal Democratic government.

So much for the dramatis personae of climate denial in the UK at the moment, but what about their tactics? As already alluded to, blatant denial of the science is no longer their main thrust although in February 2021 the GWPF did run a paper from Indur Goklany, who was chosen from obscurity by President Trump to be his "scientific advisor" - or chief rubbisher of climate issues.

But denialism is a kind a hydra with many heads. Once one horrible visage of climate denial is cut away a multitude of other beastly forms appear.

Dr William F Lamb, researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, designed a rigorous taxonomy of denialism published in Carbon Brief

Taxonomy

This divides the strategies into four main areas: 

The first is to redirect responsibility. This can be towards the consumer and their choices but it is also towards others who are perceived to not be pulling their weight.

This latter move is termed whataboutism, as in ‘What about China?’ A third arm to this strategy is to stoke up paranoia that others will let us take the lead and the brunt of the cost and then follow our example at a time when solutions are cheaper and easier. He terms this free riding. 

A second approach is to push non-transformative solutions, in effect to try to make sure our response function within business as usual. One part of this strategy is to rely on future technology.

This kind of magical thinking has even been part of the IPCC reports with their reliance on carbon capture that is both expensive and untested at scale.

Other forms include talking about solutions but not following through with policy action. All carrots and no sticks means an insistence that only solutions that are sellable to the public and which can be achieved without pain can work.

The final strand of this approach he terms fossil fuel solutionism which sees fossil fuels getting cleaner as part of a bridge towards the future. Many solutions based on blue hydrogen fall into this category.

A third approach recently much favoured by the Global Warming Policy Foundation is to emphasis the downsides of transformation.

Recent Sun headlines such as How will Sun readers ever afford £50,000 per household for Net Zero by 2050? aim to stoke up resistance in their readers.

Other downside approaches include looking for policy perfectionism: refusing to act until we have a very worked out plan approved by everyone. Lastly, there is the equity argument that argues the poorest in the world need us to continue with fossil fuels to catch up.

Finally, Dr Lamb argues surrender is also a denialist stance. The surrender approach suggests that it’s too late to do anything and mitigation is impossible. So, keep your head down and carry on until we’re all blown away by climate apocalypse and societal collapse.

Movement

One activist friend advised me to chill out: the truth will eventually come out. The problem is, as Greta says: “Our house is on fire.”

We need to act promptly to limit the damage to the emissions already in the biosphere and in the UK this small group are enmeshed in the political system and cosy with the right-wing press.

It is my belief their actions will one day been seen as a crime against humanity but satisfying as that would be it is much less important than limiting their effect.

I will leave the last word on denialists to Zadie Smith, again speaking at Tufton Street: “They are not ashamed of themselves. Yet.

"That task will fall to their grandchildren as it did to the descendants of the tobacco lobbyists. In the meantime, the real solutions to the real problem of climate change can only come out of the climate movement, ideally with the support of everyone whose life depends on their work, which is every single one of us.”

This Author

Jessica Townsend is the Extinction Rebellion in-house reporter and coordinates their podcast. She is on trial later this year for defacing the pillars at 55 Tufton Street home of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

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