Denying climate change is worse than spreading the usual kind of conspiracy theory: it costs lives

Worse than the dottiest 9/11 conspiracy theorists, climate-change deniers — from our Tory Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, to the US senator James Inhofe — are dawdling as the world’s poorest die.

Conspiracy theorists are often the subject of scorn or mockery; rejected and ridiculed by the rest of us, they hide away on internet chat forums where they blather on about the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, the rise of the Illuminati or the omnipresence of Mossad. Not the climate-change deniers. Unlike Israel’s intelligence agency, they really do seem to be omnipresent these days. Indeed, unlike the Illuminati, they even control national governments.
 
For instance, Australia’s new prime minister, Tony Abbott, has called the science on climate change “absolute crap” and already abolished the country’s Climate Commission. In 2012, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the most important job in the world, was of the view that “we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet”. Here in the UK, the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, a Conservative, is, in the words of the Financial Times, a “known climate change sceptic”. So, too, is a Conservative member of the Commons energy and climate change committee, Peter Lilley.
 
Denialism abounds. In March, a YouGov poll found that only 39 per cent of the British public believed human activity was making the world warmer, down from 55 per cent per cent in 2008, while the proportion of Brits who believed that the world wasn’t getting warmer had quadrupled – up from 7 per cent in 2008 to 28 per cent.
 
Depressingly, you can draw no other conclusion from these facts than that the conspiracy theorists are winning. The deniers of global warming have come in from the cold. The “merchants of doubt”, to borrow a phrase from the science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, seem to have perfected the dark art of “keeping the controversy alive”, sowing seeds of doubt and confusion in the minds of politicians, journalists and voters, in spite of the scientific consensus.
 
Thus, I use both the terms “denier” (rather than “sceptic”) and “conspiracy theorist” advisedly. After all, they either deny that the world is warming or deny that mankind is responsible for this warming. Remember: 97 per cent of climate scientists agree the world is warming and that mankind is responsible. Consider also: a survey by Oreskes of every peer-reviewed abstract on the subject “global climate change” published between 1993 and 2003 – 928 in total – couldn’t find a single paper that rejected the consensus position on human-induced climate change.
 
The real sceptics are the cautious scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who, year after year, assess and reassess the new data and go through thousands of peer-reviewed studies, forming groups and committees to check and doublecheck the results.
 
As for the “conspiracy theorist” tag, let me be blunt: climate-change deniers are the biggest conspiracy theorists of all. In order to embrace the delusions of the deniers, you have to adopt the belief that tens of thousands of researchers, some of them awardwinning scientists, from across the world (not to mention the political spectrum) have conducted behind the scenes, undetected by the media, a campaign of peer-reviewed deceit in defiance of empirical data. How else to explain what the US Republican senator James Inhofe, a darling of the deniers, calls “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated against the American people”?
 
Yet it isn’t just barmy GOP politicians. Or the gaffe-prone prime minister of Australia. Take Richard Lindzen, the doyen of the self-styled “climate sceptics” and a tenured professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Earlier this year, I interviewed him for my al-Jazeera TV series Head to Head; unlike the vast majority of his fellow deniers, Lindzen has the advantage of being a trained scientist who has bothered to study our planet’s climate.
 
Why, I asked the softly-spoken professor, did he think national academies of science from 34 different countries – including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, India, Russia, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Brazil and South Africa – had all signed up to the IPCC consensus position on man-made climate change?
 
Richard Lindzen They’ve been told: “Issue a statement on this.”
Me Told by who?
RL Well, I’d rather not say, to be honest.
Me Why not?
RL Because in each case, it would be in some ways embarrassing – I mean, each of them are dependent [sic] on the goodwill of the government. And if they’re told “sign on”, they’ll sign on.
 
Huh? Are we expected to believe that 34 different national academies of science are all working hand in glove with their country governments to exaggerate the impact of carbon-dioxide emissions on the climate and cover up the supposed evidence of global cooling? To what end – and on whose orders? Greenpeace? Al Gore?
 
To be honest, I don’t have a problem with most conspiracy theorists. If they want to believe that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job” or that the Nasa moon landings were “faked”, so be it. Each to his own. In any case, most of these cranks and clowns do no harm to anything, other than their own reputation (or non-reputation).
 
But the climate-change deniers of today, with their astonishing combination of manufactured doubt, faux outrage, mass paranoia and evidence-free pseudoscience, are endangering our planet. According to the World Health Organisation, “climatic changes already are estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually”. The poorest countries, incidentally, bear the brunt of these preventable fatalities.
 
It’s no laughing matter. This particular conspiracy theory costs lives. 
 
Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted
The deniers of global warming have come in from the cold. Photo: Getty

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”