Final post: a brief history of climate scepticism

This is my last climate histories post. It was always going to be a year-long project. And now that year is over. Thanks to everyone who has subscribed, and emailed, and shared the posts with others. I’ve learnt loads doing this, and really enjoyed it. I hope you have too.  

How else to finish but a brief history of climate scepticism?

The first climate sceptics

The first climate change sceptics were the first climate change scientists themselves.

It’d be tempting to paint a narrative of people like Svante Arrhenius (in the late 19th century) or Guy Callendar (working around World War 2) as some some sort of beacon of truth who spotted climate change while everyone around them was too high on coal dust to notice. They battled against the stick-in-the-mud ‘experts’ of their day, spotted the otherwise unspottable, and only today can we see their true genius! If only we’d listened!

But that doesn’t hold true. Arrhenius and Callendar themselves were pretty sceptical. Even if climate change was a thing, they thought, it’d be slow, or it would be very much, and anyway it  might be nice, and it’d be so far off in the future anyway we’d find a way out of any trouble it’d cause. There were good reasons to dismiss any worries about human caused climate change, including empirical evidence.

Moreover, to fashion an image of Arrhenius or Callendar as some special, ignored soothsayers only helps to feed a lot rather dysfunctional ideas about isolated genius which, in turn, feeds a lot of climate denier rhetoric (and a lot of other stuff that’s equally bad for everyone’s health). We shouldn’t expect our scientists to see into the future, or act as some magic eye in the sky, even if we do expect them to see more than any one of us can, individually looking out the window on our own. Scientists aren’t fortune tellers, and we do everyone a disservice to imagine them so.

When climate scepticism got interesting.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that climate scepticism really got interesting. By then, we did know - within reasonable doubt - that climate change was a thing. The research had gradually mounted up, skillfully put together, building on generations of work, applying new techniques, technologies and ideas to see much further. Gradually, a range of different people, in a range of different places, came round. There were still climate sceptics to be found, but they were an increasingly rare breed. So far, normal science.

According to Spencer Weart, the public were pretty aware of climate change too. A 1988 poll found 58% of American adults had heard or read about the greenhouse effect. That’s high for any scientific concept, and way up from 38% in 1981. Most of them thought they’d see climate changes in their lifetimes too - this wasn’t a far off threat. This is arguably a bit less normal for science, but understandable considering the weight of the issue.

By the start of the 1990s, Margaret Thatcher called for a global treaty on climate change at a speech in the UN, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been formed, and James Hansen had made publicised warning to the US Senate. The weather was getting, noticeably, a bit odd too.

Some latent scepticism still surrounded climate science. It will probably always surround climate science. It surrounds most things, especially anything to do with science. And this latent scepticism offered the fossil fuel industry something powerful.

So they did what the fossil fuel industry dose with powerful resources, even if they are pretty scarce and deeply buried.

They tapped it.

There were groups like, for example, the George C Marshall Institute who, in 1989, issued a report attacking the consensus view on climate change. Or, in 1997, the petroleum institute public relations staff who drew up a plan to spend millions convincing the public that the Kyoto Protocol was shaky. Or Americans for Prosperity’s “No Climate Tax” pledge in 2008 which the New York Times argues worked alongside targeted campaign donations to push the Republicans further towards a climate sceptic line in the last decade.

It’s wrong to assume all climate sceptics are in the pay of the fossil fuel industry. Many are just hobbyists who like to hold what they perceive as outsider views, and/ or have found a community of friends online to talk about the weather, swap numbers and rant about the world with. Plus, climate scepticism comes in a range of flavours, with a mix of things you can be sceptical about. Very few people can accurately be described as outright climate denialists (they generally hate that word themselves too). These days, many sceptics are just ‘luke-warm’ to some degree or another, in that they believe the basics of climate science but don’t think the risk is that big. And we should remember there’s a fair bit of diversity of views and fighting within climate science too. Being sceptical, disagreeing and asking questions is part and parcel of how we do science, even if it can also be a great distraction from it too.

But all these views - for whatever reason they are held - can be used by those who’d like to keep us hooked on fossil fuels.

The exploitation and amplification of climate change scepticism is described in detail in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway’s 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt. There, they unravel the way tactics previously developed by the tobacco industry to sow doubt in the link between smoking and cancer were then applied to climate change. Particularly interesting is the way lobbyists used journalism’s values against itself - e.g. an appeal to a sense of journalistic balance which pits well-researched and largely agreed-upon science up against very marginal views. They also used the values of science against itself too, poking away at the scepticism and doubt inherent to modern research.


And then there was Climategate. It was November 2009. The world was readying itself for the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Someone got into the server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, took 160MB data and released thousands of emails and other documents sent between climate scientists, and put it out on the internet.

Climate sceptics and doubt-mongers alike were fast to call fowl, arguing these emails revealed finally to the world that the scientists were not to be trusted.

Causing particular controversy was a 1999 email sent from East Anglia's Phil Jones which referred to “using Mike's [Mann’s] Nature trick" to "hide the decline". Michael Mann is well-known for the "hockey stick" chart, which shows a dramatic increase in global temperatures, going steadily along over time and whooop up as climate change kicks in like the loopy bit at the end of a hockey stick. Was this proof that scientists were hiding a secret decline in global temperatures using tricks they’d worked out with the journal Nature?!?!?!?

No, it wasn’t.

Nor was a lot of the other stuff thrown at it.

Multiple investigations exonerated the scientists involved, but Climategate was a very public and very punishing experience for many involved.

As with earlier approaches to climate doubt-mongering, the fuss around Climategate took advantage of the media context of the time. There’s a special spectacle that comes with a hack, especially back in those slightly-more-innocent days of 2009. It offered a sense of a reveal, an appeal to noble truth-warriors. Even if, after it all, there wasn’t any dirt to be found, it can create the illusion of a bad smell, one that’ll linger. The climate doubters also found they could turn the values of science in on itself. Just as a lot of climate scepticism runs on an appeal to a very naive form of scientific scepticism, Climategate also appealed to a very a naive sense of openness. The kind of naive and skewed openness when reading a load of out of context correspondence was somehow meant to give us more of a picture of what was going on, not less.  

Above all, the whole business also took advantage of how ill-prepared the public were to judge good science from what might have gone bad. Again, this is straight out of the tobacco-lobbying playbook, just souped up to 21st century levels.

It’s easy to bemoan the lack of public understanding of science, stamp our fists and demand some mass education programme. And indeed, there are all sorts of gaps in loads of science education systems, as well as big problems when it comes to social, cultural and economic relationships with the scientific community. But there aren’t any shortcuts that would mean we’d all have the ability to have understood those Climategate emails and critically assessed them. It’s a side effect of the type of knowledge society we live in. It’s not something we can cure, we can only manage it.

Climate change - both its causes, and our ability to spot that it’s happening - stems from a society riven with expertise. There are a lot of benefits to this expertise. Solar powered satellites, cancer treatments, fantastic history books, chocolate that melts in your mouth not your hand, techniques for measuring atmospheric carbon. But it all comes with a social cost too.

Most of us, most of the time, have less than half a clue about what is going on (including these experts themselves, perhaps them even more so, as they only have time to become so expert by cutting themselves off from some parts of the world). As a result, a lot of our lives have to run on trust in someone else’s skills and knowledge. And trust is a pretty fragile entity. Fossil fuel interests around Climategate capitalise on this, but it’s a much bigger issue - arguably it’s the mood music behind a lot of ‘fake news.’

Everyday climate denial

Despite these challenges and the efforts of various doubt-mongers, climate scepticism remains a pretty niche hobby. A recent poll of European countries, shows just 1.6% of people in the UK think climate change isn't happening, with pretty similar results across the EU. It still has some hold in America (not least in the White House), though even there, things are starting to shift.

The problem isn’t just the small number of people who’ll happily tell a poster they don’t believe in climate change though. there’s a larger, more banal climate denial that pervades much of our lives.

Because we might say we believe in climate change, shake our heads when we see flooding and fire on the news, shout at the sceptics when we hear them at the radio and worry about the future. But then we conveniently manage to avoid looking climate change in the eye when we book a flight, vote, or a multitude of other parts of a life.

Maybe it’s understandable, even if at the same time I'd also say it's inexcusable. Climate change isn’t obvious, at least not to the naked eye. We might notice some weather oddities and increasingly feel like we’re seeing the signs of global warming. But that’s only because we know to look, and have been given the explanation in advance. Climate change doesn’t hit us with a clearly-identifiable thud. It comes at us mixed in with other things, gradually, and slowly, over time. It takes some work to see it.

Moreover, without letting the doubt-mongers off even a bit of the hook for their end of things, it’s important to remember that it’s not just oil companies who are complicit in this mess. For a large number of us, in the short term, our lives are easier, warmer, more mobile, more fun, and cheaper because we burn fossil fuels. This all comes at an environmental cost which some people are already paying very hard, and more and more of us will struggle to avoid in the future. We don’t want to take action because even if we should, it’d get in the way of doing things we want to do, and might make things awkward over dinner with uncle Dave. A lot of rich, well insulated people speak as if they care about climate change and yet don’t do enough (I’d include myself here). We let ourselves forget about it, and we allow it to insist in plain sight without being called out.

Are we too sceptical of the future?

To add to all this, there’s another genre of climate scepticism developing too: whether we really can do anything about the climate catastrophe, or should we just give in to living in end times?  

This has a much firmer scientific basis that scepticism that humans are causing climate change. It is hard to have even a smidgen of evidence-based optimism about our ability to tackle climate change, at this reasonably late stage. Some scientists recently got a few headlines arguing that it’s not yet a geophysical impossibility that we can keep to 1.5 degrees warming. Not a geophysical impossibility is still a massively long way from being a cultural, political, economic, technological and social reality. And even then, it’s not like just keeping to 1.5 degrees warming is necessarily the rosiest of futures.

But what political work does this scepticism about the future do? Just as doubt in climate change was bolstered to stop us from taking action, could doubt in our ability to act can have the similar impact of keeping us chained to fossil fuels? Another way to keep us thinking ‘meh’, another excuse to stop us bothering to act, another excuse to stop us from looking climate change in the eye?

We could equally ask what political work optimism for the future could do too? This is one of the reasons Christina Figures is so important to the history of climate change. When she took over as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC in July 2010, she actively started drumming an optimistic beat. She quickly realised that if the were going to change things, they'd have to get out of the post-Copenhagen despondency, and change the tone of the climate debate to something more optimistic. As Figueres herself put it, “impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude. And I decided, right then and there, that I was going to change my attitude, and I was going to help the world change its attitude on climate change.”

Figueres’ approach lifted things. It gave people something to work for, and a rhythm to get things done to. But still, we can equally argue that such optimism breeds complacency - not least because there a fair number of holes in the UN agreements. She got a drum beating, sure, but oh so late, and it’s still too quiet.

And, so to conclude, as one year turns into another, it is easy to fall into extremes of hope or despair for the future. I can’t offer a guide to the right way to think. Pessimism and optimism can both, at times, feel as hollow as each other, in their own ways. At the same, both are vital emotions, in their own time and place.  

I do know we’ll only have hope if we make it.

And I also know climate change isn’t a game we’ll with win or lose on. It’s more of a spectrum. The less we do to tackle it, the worse it’ll be. The more we do, the better it’ll be. And it will take all of us.

So if you’re looking for some hope this week, here’s three simple new years resolutions: cut down your own emissions, help people around you do the same, all whilst kicking up the most almighty fuss.