Category Archives: Values

The Climate Culture War enters a new phase in Australia

Abbott_Signs

It is telling that one of the very the first acts of the incoming Abbott government was the dismantling of Climate Commission and the sacking of Tim Flannery.

Moves are also under way to wind up the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and repeal the “carbon tax”. The freshly minted Environment Minister, Greg Hunt has dismissed the CEFC as as a speculative hedge fund:

Mr Hunt labels the corporation a green hedge fund, “borrowed in taxpayers’ name for investing in speculative ventures”

Without doubt this little piece of Orwellian cant is meant to associate investment in renewable energy with risky financial speculation.

As Michelle Grattan noted in The Conversation, a select few high-profile public servants have been the victim of their association with Labor’s carbon price:

“One of the strikes against [Martin] Parkinson was that he headed the then Climate Change department and was at the centre of Labor’s work on a carbon price. This was particularly in the mind of some in the Abbott office.”

Grattan also expressed a fear many in the science community must be feeling:

“The CSIRO comes under the Industry department. The scientists working in the climate area might be getting a little nervous.”

Indeed, however it is not just climate scientists who are nervous.

Cheering on the planet’s destruction: the sceptic response

Of course the denial movement has been in an orgiastic state of schadenfreude in response to these cuts.

The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt demands Tim Flannery refund his salary for his “dud predictions”; conspiracy theorist Jo Nova calls it a “win for Australia”; American blogger Anthony Watts gloats in several posts, dismissing Flannery as a “high paid fool”.

There are of course many more examples of such thinly veiled pleasure in the misfortune of others.

Sitting above this scrum of sceptic bloggers and News Corp hacks, presiding over events like a bad caricature of Ann Ryan’s John Galt, is Rupert Murdoch:

RM_Tweet

Abbott, the LNP, Murdoch and the sceptics have turned back time. They desire nothing more than to wipe from Australia’s political and cultural memory the years 2007-2013.

It is as if the last five years didn’t happen: no first woman prime minister; no Labor in power; no price on carbon; no pesky scientists to remind us of the dangers of climate change.

Down the memory hole they go.

A great first day indeed.

Climate change as lighting rod for conservative anxieties in a changing world

The culture war fought over climate science has raged for more than three decades.

During this period the forces of obstruction had the upper hand in Australia, especially during the Howard years. But their ascendancy was broken in Australia in 2007 with Rudd’s election.

For a few brief years it seemed Australia might take substantive action on climate change: the signing of the Kyoto protocol;  the introduction of the carbon price; greater public acceptance of the science and the desire to act.

Thus 2007 represented a wrong in the eyes of the LNP and conservatives that had to be righted. In response we have witnessed five years of rage and fury. 

And while some may think these events are about climate change, they aren’t.

It is about the soul of the nation: it is what Australia could or should be.

Murdoch, Abbott and the gaggle of sceptics looked out at the world and the shift in our culture and feared what they saw. They are of course differences among all these individuals and the groups they represent. But what united and drove them was hatred of the scientific consensus on climate change.

Climate change has become a lighting rod for conservative anxieties and fears about a rapidly changing world. 

What do individuals do when they feel their “culture” is under attack? 

They mount a counter-offensive. 

This is what the 2013 Abbott victory represents, a cultural coup d’etat. 

Conservatives fear the evolution of Australia’s culture: one that embraces sustainability and equality; one that rejects the values of the past; one that places the market second to the needs of society; one that embraces a post-materialist world view. 

Expunging the heresy of climate science: why we should be concerned for science in Australia

Abbott is keen to project an orderly transition to power, but his targets demonstrate a quiet rage and considered preciseness.

As Flannery noted in his press conference following his sacking:

“As global action on climate change deepens, propaganda aimed at misinforming  the public about climate change, and so blunting any action, increases.”

This should send a chill down the collective spine of scientific community. It remains to be seen how this will play out, but the signs are ominous.

When the Canadian conservatives under Stephan Harper’ got into power they began a war on science and withdrew from the Kyoto treaty. A war on science was also a feature of George W. Bush’s Presidency, notably recorded by Chris Mooney in “The Republican War on Science”.

We may see similar events play out under the Abbott government: the heavy hand of Liberal Party apparatchiks in muting or censoring reports; the defunding of climate research programs; obstruction at climate conferences; more sackings; and pressure on the science community to remain silent on climate change.

Of course it will all be done in the name of savings, efficiency and small government. It will be done in the name of a “mandate”.

But the targets make it obvious.

Welcome to a renewed phase of the climate culture wars. 

At war with reality: key figures in Liberal Party remain unswayed by evidence

An interesting article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald today examining the views of prominent Liberal National Party politicians on climate change.  Despite the evidence many have held onto their sceptical views:

THE most prominent political climate sceptics see no reason to change their minds, despite the welter of studies over the past fortnight showing forecasts of global warming were correct or underestimates.  

Many of the climate sceptics, influential in elevating Tony Abbott to Coalition leader, say they see nothing to convince them that human activity is causing the climate to change.  

The Global Carbon Project has released forecasts that the planet could warm by between 4 degrees and 6 degrees by the end of the century and Nature Climate Change on Monday published a study finding that warming is consistent with 1990 scientific forecasts.

As I (and many others) have stated this has nothing to do with evidence. The denial of climate change is driven by the ideology, world views and values:

South Australian senator Cory Bernardi, formerly Mr Abbott’s parliamentary secretary, said: ”I do not think human activity causes climate change and I haven’t seen anything that changes my view. I remain very sceptical about the alarmists’ claims.” 

Queensland senator Barnaby Joyce said the whole debate about whether humans were causing the climate to change was ”indulgent and irrelevant”. 

”It is an indulgent and irrelevant debate because, even if climate change turns out to exist one day, we will have absolutely no impact on it whatsoever … we really should have bigger fish to fry than this one,” Senator Joyce said.

Individuals can be very good at maintaining cognitive dissonance, filtering out information they don’t agree with and latching onto “facts’ that support their world view.

West Australian Dennis Jensen back bencher provides a textbook example of this:

West Australian back bencher Dennis Jensen, who had read the recent scientific literature, said he interpreted the findings in different ways and believed climate scepticism within the Coalition was increasing. 

”The scientific papers saying it is as bad as we thought, or worse, are talking about concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere – and concentrations are indeed increasing – but global temperatures have not gone up in a decade,” he said. 

”It’s the impact of the increased concentrations of CO2 that is in dispute and I agree with [US professor] Richard Lindzen that it is more likely to be 0.4 degrees than 4 to 6 degrees … the doomsday prophesies do not stand up to reason.”

Richard Lindzen is one of the few genuinely qualified sceptics. At best he is a marginal figure in science. His entire claim to fame rests upon his status as one of the token sceptics within the community of atmospheric scientists.

Outside of his notoriety he has produced little research of value – and what research he has produced has been flawed and ignored by the rest of scientific community.

Despite the fact 97% of climate scientists accept climate change is real, Jensen clings to the marginal views of outliers such as Lindzen because they buttress is own world view.

In this regard the Liberals resemble the Republicans in the United States and the Tea Party movement who’ve decided to go to war with reality.

Don’t like the facts? Then reject them and dismiss the experts.

Supporting there fantasy world views are the think tanks and conservative media who help create a parallel reality in which the climate isn’t changing  and Obama was born in Kenya.

When facts and evidence contravene ideology figures such as Bernardi, Joyce and Jensen remain steadfastly attached to fantasy.

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Merchants of hate: the right wing populism of Alan Jones versus “decent Australia”

I’ve not commented on the so called Jones Affair yet, but I’ve been watching developments out of curiosity. For those unfamiliar with the issue, Jones is a Sydney based right-wing radio shock-jock whose now notorious comments about the Prime Minister’s father have generated intense controversy.

And while the Jones affair has sparked enormous debate it is merely symptomatic a broader issue: for too long our media has been infected, shaped and effectively ruled by the merchants of hate.

The merchants of hate: who are they?

What the merchants of hate have wrought (Source: News)

Every day in both print and radio we are constantly assaulted by men – and they’re mostly older, white conservative males (with some few token exceptions) – espousing a toxic brew of climate scepticism, disdain for the environment, free market fundamentalism and a loathing for women, refugees and anyone who does not fit into a narrowly defined category of what is acceptable to their world view.

One only have to look at the writings of Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, the daily content of The Australian, Daily Telegraph and the messaging from the Liberal-National Party as evidence for the above.

It is the diffusion of right-wing popularism from the United States into Australian political culture, and the blending of conspiracy culture and hate. But what was once restricted to the fringes of society has been made popular via the Internet and – let us be frank – Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Noted economist John Quiggin also recently made this point on his blog:

For practical purposes, any comment, wherever it is made, is addressed to the world as a whole. More significantly, political debate has been globalised. In particular, the “cranks and crazies” who dominate the US Republican Party, along with the right-wing of the Tory party in the UK, inform the thinking of much of the Australian right-wing commentariat.

This is line with some of my thoughts: right-wing popularism (as I’m attempting to describe it in relation to climate change scepticism) has burst into the mainstream. In turn, it has had a toxic and destructive effect on the political process and public debate.

I believe a strong case can be made that climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts have been compromised by the intensity of the more extremist elements of the conservative movement opposing both the science and any attempts to address the challenge.

Which brings us back to Alan Jones.

Alan Jones: merchant of hate and unreality

For years Jones has suffered very little in the way of repercussions for the vitriol he directs against his perceived enemies. But now it seems Jones has gone to far.

His comments that Prime Ministers Julia Gillard’s father, recently deceased, died of shame has prompted a feeling of disgust across the country.

To date over 110,000 people have signed a petition to get Jones off the air. Major sponsors have dropped their association with his breakfast show (if you’re interested in signing see here).

Jones behaviour has prompted – to quote Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Fitzsimmons – “decent Australia” to stand up and call him on his behaviour:

What has in fact happened in the last week has been the rise of decent Australia  saying enough is enough. And yes, sponsors like Gerry Harvey have publicly  worried that by withdrawing from the Jones program they are taking part in a  lynch mob, but they misunderstand. What you are actually doing, Mr Harvey, is  refusing to sponsor any further “lynch-mob radio”.

The public outrage in relation to the Jones affair as given me a sense of optimism: perhaps we have reached a tipping point, when ordinary citizens have said “enough!”

Nor is it just Jones comments about the passing away of the Prime Minister’s father people are reflecting upon.

It is Alan Jones and his world view that is now under the microscope, as Jones subscribes to the usual cluster of right-wing popularist nonsense:

As one of the most prominent climate sceptics in the Australian media he frequently distorts the public’s understanding of the science. It is worth noting that earlier this year the Australian media watch dog found he’d made “unsubstantiated comments” about the science.

But merely being wrong about the science was not enough to stop Jones.

He had to prompt the disgust of the nation.

And even then, like any school-yard bully pulled up for their behaviour he is claiming the mantle of victim.

Countering the merchants of hate

Perhaps in the public’s justifiable outrage we are seeing the stirring of a new counter-movement against the merchants of hate – one that calls for a return to civility and reasoned debate.

It is vital that we do so with urgency.

Those of us attuned to reality appreciate we are confronted by a broad range of challenges: environmental collapse, resource depletion, an ageing population and less certain economic times to mention but a few.

It is not the end of the world, but some nasty shocks are on the horizon if we don’t start seriously planning a response.

And yet we cannot meet these challenges creatively or with a sense of common purpose when the merchants of hate preach division and call out scientists and environmentalists – indeed anyone perceived to be in opposition to their paranoid world view - as the enemy within.

The likes of Alan Jones are not dissenting voices; he is not the representative or champion of unpopular causes as he and his defenders are so very quick to claim.

The language of hate peddled by Jones, Bolt and News Corporation is merely a tool to silence critics of the status quo. Told that we cannot consume blindly or pollute the world’s atmosphere without consequences, and their response is blind fury and denial.

And yet in opposition to their fury what is an appropriate response?

Censorship in a free society is untenable, and destructive; it is not an option in a genuinely democratic country like Australia. Nor do I advocate it.

What then?

Limits to hate: victory over the merchants of unreality?

We can reclaim the media and public debate by standing up to the likes of Jones; we can bring back accountability.

Which is what 110,000 Australians did in signing that petition to get Jones off the air. It is a genuine grass-roots initiative taken up by tens of thousands. Which is why sponsors are fleeing from Jones in horror at being associated with his tainted brand.

Decency, humility and respect for the rights of others never went away or into decline: the values of our society are not in free fall.

But you would not know that tuning into Alan Jones or picking up The Herald Sun.

By capturing the media and using it as a platform for their distorted reality, the shrill and panicked voices of right-wing popularism attempted to drown out any sense of common purpose in a tirade of hate filled invective.

They wanted to divide the world into us and them and for the public to follow their conspiratorial lead. They treated climate science as a subversive heresy and have been attempting to stamp it out.

Indeed there can be little doubt in coming decades Jones and the climate sceptics will be mocked for their beliefs; that climate scientists perpetrated a gigantic hoax for funding; that environmentalists wanted to de-industrialize the West; or that the Rothschild family is behind it all.

We have listened to Jones and his fellow travellers for years; we have tolerated their hate filled world view far longer than was necessary. They have had their opportunity to put their case forward, in a manner befitting their temperament.

But there are not merely limits to growth; there are limits to the level of hate a pluralistic society will tolerate.

Perhaps those limits are now finally being reached.

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QoD: The Gorilla is everything humanity is not

In referring to Life on Earth in the last post, I could not help but recall the incredible scene in which David Attenborough confronts the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

In one of the most amazing and beautiful scenes in television history, Attenborough reflects upon humanity and how we have unfairly characterised the gorilla as brutish:

“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla. The male is an enormously powerful creature but he only uses his strength when he is protecting his family and it is very rare that there is violence within the group. So it seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not — and that we are.”

There is a grandeur in this view of life and our relationship with nature – and a humility and reverence we all too often brush aside in the cause of efficient markets and personal enrichment.

Our debates, politics and discourse have become nasty, brutish and destructive.

We have forgotten what is at stake; and it is not just magnificent species such as the mountain gorilla.

We are at risk of losing that sense of who we really are; a species capable of both barbarity and genius, and whose only home is this planet.

Climate change and evolution denial (guest post)

From the blog uknowispeaksense:

Not so long ago, the LNP state convention in Queensland put forward the proposal that climate change not be taught in Queensland schools. A ridiculous idea that thankfully hasn’t been implemented by the LNP parliamentarians….yet.

It’s an idea so rooted in the 1950′s mindset of the crusty old farts that run the conservative party in Queensland it would set education standards back 50 years. What next? ”Get out the slate boards and chalk kids, for Science today we’re going to discuss talking snakes and original sin.”? OTT?

Yep, maybe so, but not really as far-fetched as it sounds, at least in principle. Here is a very recent talk by Eugenie Scott from the NCSE in the US discussing some of the parallels between climate science denial and denial of evolution. It’s a long one, so settle in.

I’ve long argued there is a connection between evolution and climate change denial: indeed, they are the product of the same anti-Enlightenment forces of creationism and right-wing popularism.

There is a great deal of convergence and cross over between these two movements. Tim at New Anthropocene also picks this up on his piece on the conservative-Christian Cornwall Alliance.

Great video: watch and note the deep connections.

PSA: community and discussion guidelines published under “About WtD”

Public service announcement: guidelines for the community, commenting, debate and discussion

I’ve been working on this for some time, but now is the best time to make explicit guide lines for behaviour.

These guidelines will be permanently housed under About > Community and discussion guidelines

Watching the Deniers has grown in both readership and content over the past three years. And while WtD started as a “pet” project it has gained a (moderate) audience.

With that increased profile comes responsibilities for both myself and readers/posters of comments.

It would be remiss of me not provide guidelines of behaviour: not merely for myself, but to ensure all readers and community members of WtD are protected.

This includes “alarmists”, “sceptics” and “luke warmists” alike.

I will be paying strict attention to all comments from this point forward. If the blog gets to the point were I cannot handle the volume, I will be seeking (trusted) volunteer moderators.

Book of the week: when trust breaks down, so does civilisation

I’m presently reading “Liars & outliers: enabling the trust that society needs to thrive” by Bruce Schneier via my iPad Kindle app.

Written by a noted expert on internet and computer security, it is a wonderful and insightful meditation on trust, especially in the age of what Schneier calls our “hyper-connected society”.

Trust and the health of our society are linked:

“It’s what we call trust. Actually it’s what we call civilisation…”

“Society runs on trust” states Schneier and that failures in trust have become global problems.

He notes:

“Global production also means more production, but with it comes environmental pollution. If a company discharges lead into the atmosphere – or chlorofluorocarbons, or nitrogen oxide, or carbon dioxide – that company gets all the benefit of cheaper production costs, but the environmental costs fall on everybody else on the planet…”

When we fail to trust the tools that support our advanced industrial civilisation – the scientific method being one of the most critical – then we place a great deal at risk.

Conspiracy theories are symptoms of a break down of trust, a fracturing driven by fear, ideology and right-wing popularism.

Author interview here:

Sensitive spot? Galileo Movement ban Idiot Tracker, WtD comments on that “issue”

Most interesting see here.See here for the evolving conversation on Shaping Tomorrow’s World, and my comments on perceived antisemitism.

I posted this in response to a commentator stating my claims were crude jibes wereas I believe there is a great deal of nuance.

The post contains links to resources andconcepts that may inform understanding of some parts of the sceptic community. I don’t think all skeptics are the same, and there are many, many sanded and  opinions.

Watching the Deniers at 00:47 AM on 11 September, 2012

@ Ben Pile

Having read thousands of posts, spoken to deniers, read dozens of books and watched their fillms, videos and YouTube videos I believe I have an understanding of the sceptic community and the broad spectrum of views. I do not view it as monolithic. It is diverse, with lots of voices. Agreed we are.

I believe I have a sophisticated understanding of the GM and work of Evans, and place it the category of producerism:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Producerism

“Producerism sees society’s strength being “drained from both ends”—from the top by the machinations of globalized financial capital and the large, politically connected corporations that together conspire to restrict free enterprise, avoid taxes and destroy the fortunes of the honest businessman, and from the bottom by members of the underclass and illegal immigrants whose reliance on welfare and government benefits drains the strength of the nation. Consequently, nativist rhetoric is central to modern producerism…”

It has many influences, expressions and nuances. However, scholars of conspiracy culture have noted the parallels to classical antisemitism: if you want a rich history with context start here:

http://www.publiceye.org/tooclose/producerism.html

Every conspiracy theorist is unique, offering their own very personal interpretation of facts and events. Indeed, that is the very nature of the almost entrepreneurial style of fashioning these unique world views. Personally, I am fascinated by them and enjoy both reading and attempting to understand their work.

With all due respect, you have not answered my question. I am not suggesting all climate sceptics fall into the same category as Monckton and Evans: I’m asking your personal opinion on the materials.

It is a question for you Ben: as an obviously articulate, informed individual what is your response the claims?

I believe it is a reasonable ask of you.

Re creation/evolution you said it has no policy relevance. I suggested it does, perhaps we crossed wires. Or not.

I belive I am appreciative of the cultural divides or culture wars which impede not merely policy but education and an informed population. There is a complex interplay, and I believe I have stated the nuances cannot be under estimated.

Creationism as an idea makes a policy. It informs attempts to inject its teaching into public schools. It informs the broader objectives of conservative evangelical movements. I’m fully appreciative of its broader cultural and sociological drivers. In addition to denying climate change, the GOP Presidential candidates denied evolution. Every year in US the conservative politicians try to introduce “teach the controversy” legislation at the state level. I suspect you know this.

Do you not think policy implications flow from this? Agreed we are there are broader issues at play.

By turning science into a culture war issue, we inhibit policy that by necessity must be informed by science.

My point is, which I think are both trying to articulate, values and culture wars can distort policy debate. Is that a fair enough assessment?

Do my values inform my world view? Of course! But in order to avoid cognititive dissonance or rejecting vital knowledge that seems to challenge my values, I endeavor to practice a kind of mindfulness.

New Zealand court grants river person-hood: if corporations have this right, why not rivers and forests?

Somehow I’m reminded of the Lorax: “I speak for the trees”.

From Treehugger:

From the dawn of history, and in cultures throughout the world, humans have been prone to imbue Earth’s life-giving rivers with qualities of life itself — a fitting tribute, no doubt, to the wellsprings upon which our past (and present) civilizations so heavily rely. But while modern thought has come to regard these essential waterways more clinically over the centuries, that might all be changing once again. 

Meet the Whanganui. You might call it a river, but in the eyes of the law, it has the standings of a person. 

In a landmark case for the Rights of Nature, officials in New Zealand recently granted the Whanganui, the nation’s third-longest river, with legal personhood “in the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests”. The decision follows a long court battle for the river’s personhood initiated by the Whanganui River iwi, an indigenous community with strong cultural ties to the waterway. 

Under the settlement, the river is regarded as a protected entity, under an arrangement in which representatives from both the iwi and the national government will serve as legal custodians towards the Whanganui’s best interests.

There is something very beautiful about this.

Denial 101: the academic study of climate scepticism as diagnostic and risk management tool (FIRST DRAFT)

Note: As I’ve stated for some time, I’m planning on posting more detailed pieces on climate change scepticism based upon the last several years observations, research and interaction with commentators. 

This first piece sets out to explain “why” I believe a formal, multidisciplinary approach to studying the phenomenon of climate change scepticism is vital. It is not merely a question of politics: but risk management. Commentators are free to suggest changes, refute and debate. This is not an academic piece – so the views are my own. Potential flaws in analysis thus very much my own.

The value of good intelligence can never be underestimated (RAF war room 1941)

Introduction: it was never a debate 

The recent paper by Lewandowsky et.al (NASA faked the moon landing: therefore (climate) science is a hoax) that demonstrated a clear link between “denial” and free market fundamentalism is evidence of the growing appreciation that the climate change debate is not really a debate at all.

Rather we are now beginning to appreciate “climate scepticism” as the by-product of an individual’s values (and ideology) informing and shaping their cognition.

The clash is not over opposing facts: the issue pertains to the individual, how they wish to “see” the world and if those views are somehow contradicted – or challenged – by real world data.

A recent article by John Cook (How do people reject science, The Conversation 2012) provides further insight into climate change scepticism beyond the “why”, and suggests “how” an individual can come to deny scientific facts.

As Cook notes, confirmation bias is the most common mechanism for denying well attested scientific facts. Indeed, he asks the reader to watch the comments section of his article for examples:

To reduce the influence of those who reject the science, confirmation bias and misleading rhetorical arguments need to be exposed. Now is as good a time as any to start practising so I recommend beginning with the inevitable deluge of comments to this article. Look for cherry picking, conspiracy theories, comments magnifying the significance of dissenters (or non-experts) and logical fallacies such as non sequiturs

As predicted by Cook, climate sceptics began refuting the article upon publication – unintentionally and somewhat amusingly – utilising all the methods Cook outlines.

However it is important to remember that this pattern of behaviour and value-driven cognition is not isolated to the climate debate. Because this is not a unique phenomenon, there is a surprisingly large technical literature for academics and scholars to draw upon.

Indeed, when one views climate scepticism not through the Manichean framing device of “Sceptics versus Warmists” (fighting over the contested middle ground of public opinion), but as an example of a social and cultural phenomenon we gain not only fresh insight, but potentially the tools to mitigate the effectiveness of the denial “machine”.

The Windschuttle Affair as dress rehearsal for climate change denial; yes denial is more pervasive than one imagines, but shares common attributes

One can readily find examples of those who deny not only well-tested and supported scientific theories – climate change, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines – but well documented and witnessed historical events. Indeed, there is a burgeoning and quite prolific community of those who deny historical events – 9/11, The Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities and The Stolen Generations in Australia.

For further exploration of the denial of these historical events, I would refer readers to Denial: history betrayed (2008) by Tony Taylor which discusses ideological driven historical revisionism in detail.

Taylor’s work foreshadows the Lewandowsky paper in surprising ways, but is based upon his personal observations and not the sophisticated use of statistical survey data employed by the authors of “NASA faked the moon landing”.

The common link between many of these incidents of “denial” is what Lewandowsky terms “conspiracy ideation”:

“…Another variable that has been associated with the rejection of science is conspiratorial thinking, or conspiracist ideation, defined here as the attempt to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations…” (Lewandowsky et.al pg. 4)

Indeed, when I read Taylor’s book I noted the mechanisms employed by revisionist “historians” mimic those of climate sceptics:

“…deniers will commonly accuse their opponents of a conspiracy against the denialist position when, as it happens, the deniers themselves are involved in a conspiracy or cover up of their own.” (Taylor, pg. XIII)

And that:

“…The key to historical denial lies in its self-deception transformed into an attempted deception of others, and this process tends to follow certain behavioural patterns.” (Taylor, pg. IX)

Taylor’s text is well worth reading; in particular how the “debate” over historical facts mimics debate over scientific facts.

It is worth noting that prior to the intensity of the present climate change debate (notably in response to the publication of IPCCs Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the release and success of Al Gore’s An inconvenient truth and global negotiations at the Conference of All Parties (COP15) at Copenhagen in 2009) a very similar debate had already played itself out within the Australian political and cultural scene: the so called “History Wars“.

I would suggest that scholars examine the “Windschuttle affair” as a “dress rehearsal” for the climate change debate in Australia, and draw lessons from that. Keith Windschuttle was the historian who denied the sufferings of Australian Aborigines at the hands of the early settlers in his deeply flawed and debunked Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002)..

Windschuttle’s writings kicked of a national debate – which continues in a more muted form today - and provoked considerable controversy. It is worth highlighting that Windschuttle received powerful patronage from the likes of the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, the editors of the News Limited daily “The Australian” and then Prime Minister John Howard – all of who whom have featured heavily in the climate change debate as outright sceptics or enablers of the sceptical point of view.

When one looks back at the “culture wars” that have raged in Australia, one notes those who have denied the suffering of Australia’s first people also deny the science of climate change.

Strikingly, the same cognitive mechanisms and rhetorical deceits outlined in Cook’s How do people reject science were employed in this earlier History War.

The explanation for this is straight forward: the advocates for historical revisionism and climate change scepticism share a cluster of similar values – social conservatism, free market ideology and a disdain for “progressive” values.

I would suggest the same clustering of the values and world views (free markets, limited government) linked to scepticism in Lewandowsky et.al could be matched to the conservative “culture warriors” listed above.

We may be fighting a very different war, but it is being fought with the same weapons of previous conflicts.

The antecedents for today’s debate are there for study.

Actually, I want to understand…

Climate denial as area of academic study: from confusion to understanding

This growing literature on climate scepticism – such as the Lewandowsky paper – indicates the emergence of a new area of academic study.

Cognitive scientists, historians, sociologists and the broader scientific community are now gaining a better appreciation of the underlying motives for climate change scepticism. I would also refer the reader to the most recent edition of Nature: Climate Change (August 2012, Vol.2 No. 8) for a very useful collection of articles on the “human factor” in the climate change debate.

Indeed, a recent editorial in that journal called for greater engagement from the academic community on the climate change issue titled Clarion Call” (September 2012, Vol 2 No. 9):

Today’s mitigation efforts are widely regarded within the research community as woefully inadequate. With this in mind, Anderson and Bows urge scientists to overcome their natural reluctance to offer academic judgements — “Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable” — is their clarion call.

This broader approach does not refute the work of scholars such as Oreskes & Conway (The Merchants of Doubt) who have detailed the long running campaign of disinformation practised by conservative think tanks and a tiny cadre of ‘sceptical” scientists.

The evidence that demonstrates how both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries “planted the seeds” of doubt about climate change is well documented and conclusive.

But we must move past the formulation “funds from big oil = climate change denial”.

As others have noted, climate change is now part of the “culture wars” (A. Hoffman in Climate Science as Culture War, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2012).

“Big Oil” and “Big Tobacco” may have nurtured climate change scepticism into being, but it has now spread well beyond its initial staging areas within conservative think tanks. It has been adopted by segments of the general public and conservative politicians as fundamental to their world view.

One needs only to look at the stated positions of Republican Presidential candidates on global warming in the lead up to the next US Presidential election: nearly all of them rejected the science (National Public Radio, In their own words: GOP Candidates and science, Corey Dade, September 2011).

I would argue such developments should spur greater efforts to both study and understand climate scepticism. And like any discipline, we can build and expand upon the original insights and work of many scholars.

Victory to these guys?

Stepping outside the narrative frame and ending our transfixed stasis

For over two decades we have been bewitched by the sceptic’s seemingly unstoppable ability to confuse the general public and “defeat” climate science (Robert Manne in A dark victory: how vested interests defeated climate science, The Monthly, 2012).

Indeed, in a recent talk in Melbourne Manne noted “He did not know how to win a “culture war” (Watching the Deniers – Question to readers: how would you counter the denial movement, 2012)

While such definitive victories may elude us, it is the opinion of this author that we can a) understand the “why” and “how” of anti-science movements and b) gain insight into how such culture wars are fought.

Indeed it may be possible – as in the case of climate change scepticism – to develop strategies to counter the effectiveness of such anti-reality movements.

While some would see this as a partisan approach to a “scientific” debate, there is ample historical precedence.

One need only look at the academic response to the “militia movement” in the United States, and the urgent desire to understand the culture and forces that created the likes of Timothy McVeigh and the Branch Davidians under David Koresh.

Learning from academic studies of American militia movement and the Southern Poverty Law Centre

The “Waco” incident of 1993 and the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building in 1995 were traumatic events for American’s, and profoundly influenced politics and culture at the time.

In response – indeed with a surprising sense of urgency – academic scholars began an intense scholarly study of the various militia movements in the United States.

The demographic, sociological and ideological drivers for the formation militia groups were subject to intense study: indeed, the technical literature is quite large. Many of the reference texts I’ve read stem from the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was rightly thought an understanding of such groups was paramount.

Thus, we see a rush of works at that time: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (2003) by Michael Barkun; Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (2001) by Robert Alan Goldberg; and Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (1999) by Mark Fenster.

Militia groups sprung up across the US in the 1980s and 1990s, proclaiming (very loudly) an eclectic mix of beliefs including; a severely limited or non-existent Federal government, fears about a “New World Order” conspiracy, paranoia over gun control, millenarianism, Christian eschatology and racism.

It was from this “culture” that sprung the likes of Timothy McVeigh who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995. In 1993, a combustible mix of extreme religiosity, millennialism and militia culture fed the stand-off at Waco between the followers of David Koresh and agents of US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In addition to the work of these academics, there are other organisations we can learn from.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in the United States has a deep understanding of militia and hate groups – indeed, their website is a rich source of information on such groups. For many years activists from the SPLC and scholars have paid close attention to the writings and activities of the various militia groups still in operation in order to a) understand their formation and operation and b) watch out for “early warning” signs of violence.

One could also argue that studies in “terrorism” have grown since 9/11 as the need to both understand and foresee risk is eminently sensible.

By shedding ourselves of the narrative “frame” we are stuck in of (“Sceptic versus Warmist”), and approaching this as simply one further area of study – requiring  a multidisciplinary approach – we can “break the spell” of climate change denial.

There is nothing unique or special about the climate sceptic community. We need only see them for what they are.

Scholarship as a diagnostic and early warning tool

Firstly, let me state I am not directly equating climate sceptics with the likes of McVeigh or extreme militia groups.

However: the “hacking” of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UAE) that feed the “Climategate” scandal was an act of cyber terrorism.

It was a deliberate act intended to not merely undermine the reputation of climate scientists and the science, but obviously designed to undermine negotiations at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of All Parties (COP15).

The examples of death threats made against scientists are numerous; incidents such as the hacking of Real Climate (November 2009) and Skeptical Science (March 2012) also point to patterns of behaviour.

We ignore the climate sceptic movement – which is admittedly diverse, heterogeneous and fractious as any culture of conspiracy minded individuals – at our own risk. The historcical antecedents mentioned above should provide renewed imputeus in understanding climate change scepticism.

Conclusions: evaluating risk and the “hacktivist” nature of the climate sceptic movement

I believe there is a genuine risk that there may be fringe elements of the sceptic community who are disposed to fantasies of a coming New World Order etc. and who may fantasize about acts of retribution.

The CRU/Climategate “hack” offers compelling reason for such concerns. Should greater numbers of individuals take the claims of prominent sceptic arguments at face value – and act on these paranoid world views – it is probable we will see further incidents such as the “Climategate”.

There are antecedents for this diffusion of paranoia and conspiracy making witnessed in the militia movement in the United States. Indeed, not only should the science community be paying far closer attention to the sceptic “movement”, it may even be an issue for law enforcement agencies to monitor.

Many of the motifs of conspiracy culture – especially New World Order fantasies and fears of government control – have been “mainstreamed” by the prominence the media gives to sceptic voices and narratives.

In turn, the risk that less stable individuals or groups with less “mainstream” political agendas will adopt some of these views has been considerably heightened.

For the risks of such stochastic processes see Dances with Devils: How Apocalyptic and Millennialist Themes Influence Right Wing Scapegoating and Conspiracism by Chip Berlet and Talking points ammo: The use of neoliberal think tank fantasy themes to delegitimise scientific knowledge of climate change in Australian newspapers, Elaine McKewon for the dissemination of such fantasies in the Australian media.

In this regard, study of the climate sceptic community becomes both a diagnostic and risk management tool.

Such a tool may alert the world’s scientific community and government agencies to possible threats: i.e. cybercrimes such as hacking and tracking “grouping” behaviour on social media platforms that may lead to FOI “assaults” or targeted email campaigns against individual scientists.

Indeed, in the next piece I will explore how the climate sceptic movement is a heterogeneous virtual community composed of “core members” who provide both overt and implied cues for behaviours and norms for a much larger number of loosely aligned “associates”.

Similar patterns of behaviour can be seen with “hacktivist” groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec (though the political aims of sceptics and the “pranksters” of Anonymous are widely divergent, if not antithetical to each other).

The same pattern of recruitment by prominent voices on social media platforms – and the fractious “voting up” of “operations” by a greater collective swayed by rhetoric and exhortation – can be also be seen in way the climate sceptic community operates (see LulzSec: How A Handful Of Hackers Brought The US Government To Its Knees, Kyle Schurman and Anonymous Attack Anatomy Hacker Intelligence Report, Darshan Joshi et.al)

Again, the tools to study such communities are readily available: we should but merely “take them off the shelf” and employ them in our study of what is – in reality – a subgroup of a broader based conspiracy culture that finds its loci predominately in the United States (and to a lesser extent Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom).

There really is no need to reinvent the wheel.

I fully acknowledge each incidence of denial (of climate change, evolution and the Stolen Generations) is often a unique expression of the politics and culture of the time: however the tools for understanding are readily available.

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