Blog post

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?

Make a comment

Creative Commons 2011 - 2015, Talking Climate
A project by COIN & PIRC.
This website is a project of Climate Outreach

This website, a project of Climate Outreach (COIN), has been integrated into the new Climate Outreach website. Any updates since 21 October 2015 have been made to the new website only, not here, and this website will soon be deleted. Please bookmark our new website – we look forward to continuing to share the latest in climate communication research with you. We are now tweeting from @climateoutreach so please follow us there.