Climate denial and white supremacy

Boris Johnson once quoted Piers Corbyn climate denial claims. 

Identity politics and culture wars sit at the heart of climate denial.

Some politicians have taken up the cause of climate denial as it fits with their world view.

It’s now commonplace to highlight the level of division within our politics. This division is often shown to be strongest between political parties.

It is unsurprising that on the big political issues, card carrying members offer up two very different versions of reality.

The way this plays out among the general public is far less pronounced, but the narrative of division exhausts the limited space we have to debate the issues that matter. 

Tribes

Climate denial is not an issue that matters in itself, but it has ebbed and flowed in our public consciousness. In recent years, denying, or undermining, the established science of climate change has come back into fashion.

Donald Trump promotes climate denial at every opportunity, and his four years as US President were a devastating setback for the planet.

American politics is rife with denial from politicians who dismiss their own government’s scientists as “driven by money”, instead of a simple desire to report the findings of their research.

But it’s important to consider how climate denial often serves as the backdrop to identity politics and as a proxy for a palette of separate problems we face in our public discourse.

Casting doubt over received science can be seen as the result of our division into political tribes, and our inability to consider any issue that can’t be placed into the categories of left and right.

Technologies

There exists a natural opposition to certain politicians or campaigners who share different world views, or whose identity people don’t want to be associated with. If you strongly disagree with your opponent on abortion then they must also be wrong on climate too.

It is also about the psychology of responding to issues of enormity. Denial, or dismissal, is often a case of wanting to take solace in the conclusion that a problem isn’t as bad, or as serious as the facts are telling us.

It’s natural for human beings to deny a problem exists, and therefore no action is needed, than to confront it head-on and accept the possible terrible consequences of failing to solve it.

Some quarters will argue that while carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere, its impacts are not as dramatic or dangerous as we have been told.

This response states that we do not need to invest in renewable technologies, reduce our demand for fossil fuels, or pay close attention to the alarm calls of others.

Groupthink

This view is certainly informed by the comfort it gives its proponents and intended audiences, both as a reason to worry less about the future and to ignore necessary lifestyle changes.

There are other political quarters which are rigid in their opposition for different reasons. For some people, it fits neatly into a category which can be labelled ‘scams’ or ‘conspiracies’.

Some politicians have taken up the cause of climate denial as it fits with their world view.

The insidious thought that facts we have been taught are false and there is a controlling group, or entity behind our ordinary beliefs, designed to trick or deceive us for some end.

There is no doubt that much climate denial can be attributed to human paranoia about not wanting to be deceived. Proponents will take pleasure in the idea that they know better, that they don’t get fooled by scams.

The settled science behind climate change also affords denialists an opportunity to be seen as outsiders and independent thinkers who aren’t taken in by the herd, or ‘groupthink’.

Scientists

Some politicians have taken up the cause of climate denial as it fits with their world view. The most prominent supporters of Brexit see it as the logical next campaign for their political identities.

Just as the European Union is 'run by faceless bureaucrats', climate breakdown is 'handed down to us by the "globalist" United Nations and a cadre of "woke" environmentalists'.

In the UK, this new campaign is aware that outright denial of climate change would lose its audience, so the tactics are more focussed on undermining climate solutions, or advocating for delay to climate action.

This can be keenly felt by a group of backbench Conservative MPs who recently created the ‘Net Zero Scrutiny Group’. The group has willing national newspapers to repeat untruths about clean energy, or the costs of the transition.

It also has strong links to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which itself has spent years seeking to discredit the work of climate scientists. The foundation has now rebranded to ‘Net Zero Watch’ to give the impression its work is about accountability.

Doctrine

Many of these groups take their lead from existing currents within the culture. These currents have gained strength as denial reaches presidents and prime ministers.

Donald Trump once claimed that science didn’t know the truth about climate change and that “it’ll start getting cooler”.

Boris Johnson, before he became prime minister, would often quote the climate denier Piers Corbyn in his newspaper columns.

These articles would openly sow doubt, claiming warm winters had “nothing to do with the conventional doctrine of climate change”. Labelling climate science as a ‘doctrine’ is a clear signal to opposition.

It’s a sign of an unhealthy public discourse that these views have become acceptable and repeated throughout our culture.

Instability

Its damaging impact can be seen in recent research which shows people across Europe consistently doubt the scientific consensus around climate change.

A report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London surveyed 12,000 people across the continent, and found a significant difference between perception and reality.

On average, respondents thought 68 percent of scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity. People in Britain were bottom of the table with an average estimate of 65 percent. The real figure is more than 99 percent.

More concerning is how the trend towards climate dismissal could be taken up by extreme right wing political identities. The writer Mary Annaïse Heglar has connected the dots from climate delay to white supremacy.

If the impacts of climate change bring chaos and instability then those most affected will be communities of colour.

Acute

“Taken from a white supremacist lens, climate change can actually be seen as a boon because it gets rid of all those “undesirable” non-white people”, she writes.

The view runs that as the crisis intensifies we will need to close borders to protect national resources. This is an all too familiar argument which could be weaponised by delaying climate action.

Climate denial will continue to play a role in our political culture as a symptom of decline.

And it will become a sharper political tool as the need for action becomes more acute. It is only by treating the underlying cause of distrust that we can move beyond it.

This Author

Adam Wentworth is a freelance writer and communications professional based in London. He has worked in renewable energy and climate change for eight years, including as editor at Climate Action.

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