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Green economy ‘deniers’?

Oct 16, 2011 by | 2 Comments

In a speech to the annual Renewable UK con­fer­ence in Manchester this week, the cli­mate and energy sec­retary Chris Huhne launched a spir­ited defence of the renew­able energy industry and the government’s com­mit­ment to sup­porting its growth.

In what has been widely inter­preted as a direct response to the decidedly unsup­portive rhet­oric of George Osborne’s speech at the Conservative party con­fer­ence, Huhne hit out at the “cli­mate scep­tics and arm­chair engin­eers” who sought to derail pro­gress towards a low-carbon eco­nomy based on renew­able technologies.

Huhne even went as far as labelling oppon­ents of invest­ment in renew­able tech­no­lo­gies ‘green eco­nomy den­iers’ in a press release accom­pa­nying the speech.

For the vast majority of the public who con­sist­ently report highly favour­able atti­tudes towards renew­able tech­no­lo­gies such as wind and solar energy, Huhne’s pas­sionate speech is likely to have resonated.

But although Huhne’s sup­port for renew­ables will be widely wel­comed, he is playing a dan­gerous game by labelling those who oppose gov­ern­ment invest­ment in renew­able tech­no­lo­gies as ‘deniers’.

Although some see the word ‘denier’ as an unac­cept­ably loaded term to use in cli­mate change debates, its applic­a­tion to those who refuse to accept the sci­entific evid­ence of human impact on the cli­mate is jus­ti­fied. On the basic ques­tion of whether man-made emis­sions of carbon dioxide are causing tem­per­at­ures to rise, the sci­ence really is settled.

But the use of this term to describe people opposed to sub­sidies for renew­able tech­no­lo­gies is much more prob­lem­atic – the politics of cli­mate change are (and in some sense will always be) up for grabs. Of course, those who deny the sci­ence of cli­mate change are also likely to oppose taking action to mit­igate it. But it is per­fectly pos­sible to be opposed to a par­tic­ular cli­mate policy without dis­puting that some­thing needs to be done.

If Huhne can’t make the argu­ment for renew­able tech­no­lo­gies without labelling those who oppose their use as ‘den­iers’, then it opens the door for anyone to use (and abuse) this approach. The obvious example is nuc­lear power: to its advoc­ates, it is a tried-and-tested method of gen­er­ating low-carbon energy. Proponents of nuc­lear power could use the term ‘nuc­lear den­iers’ to den­ig­rate their oppon­ents, but they would be no more jus­ti­fied than Huhne.

There is a strong argu­ment that the reason cli­mate change has become such a polit­ic­ally divisive issue in the US is that ‘action’ on cli­mate change has become syn­onymous with the policies and ideas of Al Gore, who was respons­ible for bringing the issue to the fore­front of American politics over the last two decades.

For those who oppose Al Gore, opposing his policies comes nat­ur­ally. The problem arises when the sci­entific case for cli­mate change comes to be seen as indis­tin­guish­able from Al Gore’s policies to mit­igate it.

It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is – per­versely – in everyone’s interests for ‘altern­ative’ cli­mate change policies to be developed and debated.

When the con­ver­sa­tion about cli­mate change pits progressive-policy against conservative-policy (rather than progressive-policy against sci­ence denial), the battle for moving for­ward on cli­mate change has already started to be won. Everyone is talking about what to do about cli­mate change, not whether it is real.

If gov­ern­ment invest­ment in renew­able tech­no­lo­gies is the pro­gressive policy option of choice, then oppon­ents to it should be taken on using the extremely strong evid­ence for renew­ables, not dis­missed as deniers.

Perhaps one reason that the obfus­ca­tion of groups like the Global Warming Policy Foundation has been able to cap­ture so much of right-leaning thinking on cli­mate change is that those on the left have been too quick to label policy-sceptics as sci­ence deniers.

Of course, some sci­ence den­iers use ‘policy sceptic’ as a con­venient smokescreen – their pre­ferred policy altern­ative is ‘do nothing’.

But a recent paper by Wouter Poortinga and his col­leagues at Cardiff University shows that when people express scep­ti­cism about cli­mate change in opinion polls, they often mean very dif­ferent things. Poortinga and his col­leagues found that although uncer­tainty and scep­ti­cism about the poten­tial impacts of cli­mate change was fairly common, both trend (i.e., ‘is it get­ting warmer?’) and attri­bu­tion (i.e. ‘are humans causing it?’) scep­ti­cism were far less prevalent.

Most people are highly favour­able towards renew­able tech­no­lo­gies, and the argu­ments in their favour are per­suasive. But it is crit­ical that cli­mate policy stays dis­tinct from cli­mate sci­ence. Otherwise, oppos­i­tion to the former becomes denial of the latter – exactly the problem we need to avoid in the first place.

First pub­lished on 27−10−11 on Left Foot Forward.

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • Although some see the word ‘denier’ as an unac­cept­ably loaded term to use in cli­mate change debates, its applic­a­tion to those who refuse to accept the sci­entific evid­ence of human impact on the cli­mate is justified.”

    here we go again..

    de·ny Pronunciation (d-n) tr.v. de·nied, de·ny·ing, de·nies
    1. To declare untrue; con­tra­dict.
    2. To refuse to believe; reject.
    3. To refuse to recog­nize or acknow­ledge; disavow.

    Pointing out there is not one single meas­ur­able piece of evid­ence to sug­gest the actions of man have res­ulted in the increase of global tem­per­ature does not make someone a denier, it makes them an adherent to sci­entific prin­cipal. The Met Office own data shows no warming in 15 years, des­pite increased CO2 emissions.

    If you wish to be taken ser­i­ously you must ditch this rhet­oric imme­di­ately oth­er­wise you will be rightly dis­missed as another front of the Bob Ward Association.

  • Mr Hobbes, I checked again and the Met Office Hadley Centre data does show an increase (and they com­ment that it cannot be explained by nat­ural vari­ation) but you may decide to put that down to their or my interpretation.

    So what data would con­vince you, with say 95% con­fid­ence? Of course you may set a very long times­cale to be per­suaded of an upwards trend, with the con­sequence that it would be too late to mit­igate the effects but at least we would know what your measure was and could judge whether it was sens­ible. In its absence you may just look for evid­ence or com­ment to sup­port a belief and be con­sidered, oh I don’t know, a denier?

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