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How can climate change scepticism be explained?

The Great Global Warming Swindle

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I have just read this article by Robert Manne, professor of politics at La Trobe University, Australia, where he discusses five plausible hypotheses to explain climate change scepticism: (1) the influence of vested economic interest, (2)  the role played by the mass media, (3) ideological rationalisations, (4) a certain kind of individual who is offended by the conclusions of the climate scientists, and (5) sceptics are telling people what they most wish to hear. All five hypotheses make sense to me; however, number five is the one that very often comes to mind when contemplating the willingness of Western developed societies to take action in the face of climate change on one hand, and the material comfort we became so accustomed to, on the other. Manne explains:

The leaders of the denialist campaign are however not whistling in the dark. The message they are selling is popular. The reason is reasonably straightforward. The majority of people in Western countries live now in a state of material comfort beyond the imaginings of all previous generations. Who amongst us would not prefer to believe that there are indeed no limits to the material comforts we may enjoy? Who would not prefer to believe that this level of material comfort will go on expanding forever? To take the conclusions of the climate scientists seriously is to embrace the need for massive economic change and even for possible economic sacrifice. If the influence of the climate change denialists is growing the most important reason is that they are telling people what they most wish to hear. In his book Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton makes an entirely unnerving suggestion. Perhaps it is the character type that flourishes under the conditions of consumer capitalism that presents the primary obstacle to taking action on climate change. Faced by an apparent choice between the continuation of our lifestyle and the wellbeing of our planet, perhaps it is the continuation of our lifestyle that in the end we will decide to choose.

In helping us to make this choice, the denialists have played an important role. For they have been able to convince many people that to choose this way is not irresponsible or immoral or insane – a choice for which future generations will curse us – but represents, rather, sweet reason and merest common sense. Recently I read an interesting World Bank survey of international public opinion on the question of climate change. What it revealed, broadly speaking, was that the poorer the country, the more likely are its people to believe in the reality of dangerous human-caused climate change. While 31% of Americans and 38% of Japanese thought climate change was a very serious problem, 75% of Kenyans and 85% of Bangladeshis did. Those who do have reason to fear climate change but have little to lose in the curbing of emissions are the people who believe in what the climate scientists are telling them. Those who do not at present fear climate change but recognise they have a lot to lose by tackling it have simply and conveniently ceased to believe what they hear.

The meaning of all this seems clear. Citizens of the consumer society are unwilling to risk the loss of any of their comforts. However they wish to feel good about themselves. The climate change denialists – the lobbyists and propagandists of the fossil fuel corporations; the right-wing commentariat in the blogosphere and the media; the anti-political correctness and anti-collectivist ideologues in the think tanks and the academy; the angry older generation of engineers and geologists – offer them the alibi for doing nothing they so desperately need.

Read Robert Manne article in full on

December 11, 2011   No Comments