Why is climate change scepticism such a slippery concept?
What exactly is climate change scepticism? The quest to provide a satisfactory answer to this question is now well into its second decade, with scholars, commentators and campaigners (on both sides of the argument) offering taxonomies and classification systems in an attempt to pin the term down.
Some consider scepticism to be a form of ‘flat earth’ denial: the product of conspiracy theories and the domain of crackpots. Others point to the historical evidence that the same tactics – in some cases the very same institutions and individuals – have been behind co-ordinated attempts to smear the science linking smoking and lung cancer and that linking human CO2 emissions and climate change.
Certainly, there is some truth in both of these conceptualisations: some people deny that there is any link between human activity and climate change, or even that the earth is warming at all. And it is a matter of record that lobby groups have run campaigns explicitly designed to undermine the science of global warming.
But these are minority forms of scepticism (if that is even the appropriate term to use). In the UK, the proportion of people who dispute that human activity is playing some role in changing the climate is small. Most people, if they are sceptical at all, fall somewhere between uninterested, uncertain and disinclined to trust what they read in the papers.
A new investigation led by Stuart Bryce Capstick at Cardiff University is the latest attempt to bring some clarity to the debate. Drawing on both survey data and focus groups with members of the UK public, the study suggests that scepticism can be divided into two categories: ‘epistemic scepticism’ (where people doubt the reality or causes or climate change) and ‘response scepticism’ (where people dispute the efficacy of acting to tackle the problem).
Interestingly, the study found that it is the latter type that is most strongly associated with a lack of concern about the issue. As the authors put it: “This is important because whilst there are clear arguments which can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.”
This statement seems to get to the heart of why scepticism is such a slippery concept: so much of it is bound up with (or even indistinguishable from) broader societal questions where there is no right or wrong answer. How much influence should governments have over people’s lives? To what extent should industry be regulated? These are issues that go beyond climate change, yet are central to its resolution.
It is well known, for example, that people don’t trust journalists or politicians. Yet measures of climate change scepticism often ask questions relating to media exaggeration of the problem. What could be interpreted as a statement of scepticism about climate change may in fact be a rejection of the trustworthiness of the media in general.
There is a sense, then, in which attempts to classify and re-classify scepticism are a somewhat circular exercise. Dogmatic ‘response scepticism’ – although seemingly oriented towards the feasibility of tackling climate change – could be equivalent to epistemic scepticism in terms of the practical outcomes for the planet. In other words, a steadfast response sceptic, who doubts the severity of climate impacts and questions the wisdom of spending public money on mitigating them, is effectively acting as if there were no problem in the first place.
And, as anyone who has ever tried debating with climate sceptics below the line on comment threads will confirm, the categories of scepticism are often crossed with a frustrating level of fluidity.
An argument may begin with disagreement over the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide, but then move on to the supposedly compromised research funding of ‘alarmist’ scientists and end on the dubious motives of politicians adopting green taxes.
The reason for the shape-shifting character of so many sceptic arguments is that none of the specific reasons on their own are the basis of the dispute – for many, climate change simply looks and feels like the kind of issue to which they ought to be opposed.
Capstick’s new paper reinforces a finding that is now well-established: that people’s worldviews, political beliefs and personal values are strong predictors of whether they doubt climate change.
People apply motivated reasoning processes to selectively accept the information that supports their existing beliefs. And it is this motivated reasoning that propels the whole process along.
Very few people beyond the community of climate scientists producing the data can claim any real authority with regard to the underlying facts themselves. We decide whether to trust the information we receive, and weigh up the pros and cons of acting on it, based not on a deep interrogation of the evidence but on our judgement of whether it seems legitimate.
As this judgment of legitimacy is itself a product of our personal politics, it is perhaps no surprise that scepticism is such a slippery concept to get to grips with.
First published by the Guardian Sustainable Business 19.11.13
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