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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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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