I have just finished reading James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore's excellent Climate Cover-up, an analysis of the methods of climate change deniers written by the creators of DeSmog Blog. The difference between this and the many other books around at the moment is that it examines the campaign itself, rather than the science. Surprised to see the sudden emergence of dissent, often from people with little or no experience in climate science, at the very moment that decades of detailed research had coalesced into a mainstream scientific consensus about the nature, causes and consequences of climate change, the authors spotted something that was firmly within their area of expertise - a public relations exercise.
They found that underlying the denial movement was a campaign, often using the same techniques, and sometimes the same people, that had been used by tobacco companies to obfuscate the links between smoking and health. And the motivation was also the same. It was instigated by corporations, in this case the energy companies, to limit the impact of scientific evidence on public policy that they perceived as a threat to their interests. Rather than seeing a real controversy Hogan and Littlemore identified the existence of a highly professional campaign of disinformation.
The basis of this campaign was not alternative scientific research, the book points out that the industries' private investigations confirmed the scientific consensus, nor was it attempting to prove that human-made global warming did not exist. What it was trying to do was to create an impression that there was no consensus amongst scientists, that a debate still existed and, by doing so, attempt to forestall and delay political actions on climate change that could damage their profits. Once such an impression was established, the media's fetish with 'balance' would ensure that reports would include 'both sides of the argument', increasing the impression of doubt and debate despite it being, in reality, entirely absent amongst the experts.
The technique they used is simple, but very clever. The first move is to start an "astroturf campaign". This is a neat way of describing the creation of an artificial grass-roots movement. It is done by mass letter writing, emailing, article writing, blogging, etc. It is no use at this stage trying to get things published in the national press, instead they targeted local and regional media. These are likely to be more open to the material than better resourced and staffed publications and to accept items that more prestigious organisations would probably reject at this stage. A growing presence in local reporting and secondary media provides the basis for gaining a national presence.
Secondly, they created an "echo chamber". That involved setting up a range of organisations that would repeat and confirm the assertions. Tame experts were hired and oil money poured into existing and new think tanks with impressive titles, if far less impressive levels of scientific respectability. And this is where the campaigners struck gold. The arguments against the scientific consensus gained a life of their own, not through the cynical espousal of a corporate agenda but through wholehearted, utterly honest and obsessively passionate believers that sixty-years of detailed, empirical research amounted either to a massive conspiracy to distort the truth or to a colossal error made simultaneously by thousands of scientists, an error exposed, in the best tradition of much popular entertainment, by some enterprising amateurs, a whole raft of Miss Marples confounding the experts by their superior powers of deduction.
When the book deals with some of the issues themselves it points out that the main case against the scientific consensus consists of 'zombie arguments'. These are ideas and supposed evidence that have been put forward, fully examined, shown to be false, firmly laid to rest, yet are still bouncing around the echo chamber as if they had never been contested. The standards applied to the undead are not those applied to mainstream climate science where self-confessed errors of detail and continuing areas of uncertainty are misrepresented as totally invalidating the whole thesis.
What the book can't explain is the success of denial, where polling evidence suggests substantial minorities in the developed world now favour its arguments and political movements, such as much right libertarianism, have uncritically adopted it as their orthodoxy. Why has something constructed as an echo chamber turned into a hugely amplified loudspeaker system? All Hoggan and Littlemore can do is register their alarm and astonishment that something so empirically flawed should actually be growing rather than diminishing.
I suppose we should really expect this. Whenever we see a threat there is always a movement of counter-intuitive, reassuring ideas that deny either the importance of that threat or sometimes its very existence. Let's look at an historical example, the peace movement in inter-war Britain. It is impossible to deny that pacifism is both serious and deeply moral. It is an expression of a physical revulsion at the horror and brutality of war, reflects a deep conviction that its evils undermine any good that may emerge and that it needs to be eradicated by non-violent action. Necessarily, it is a minority movement. When Orwell wrote that "pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist" he was being unfair. Pacifism abhors fascism, militarism, imperialism, dictatorship and all the vehicles by which war is manufactured. What he was right about was that the consequences of a policy informed by pacifism would have ensured the triumph of the Nazis.
In the 1930's pacifism broke out of being a tiny sect and entered the mainstream. The Peace Pledge Union was formed after a letter by Rev Dick Sheppard in the Guardian (where else?) invited people to write in and pledge that they would "renounce war and never again support another." Hundreds of thousands of people eventually did so. And this movement too was built on denial, the roots of which lay in an entirely rational fear. What was being denied here was the real nature of the Nazis and the horrible sacrifices that were necessary if they were to be defeated. Hard core pacifists did not duck the issue, but the bulk of the supporters were drawn into a form of magical thinking, that their moral purity would somehow spare them from the attentions of Hitler by touching his reasonableness and humanity. It took fifty million corpses to prove them wrong.
And this is the whole point about denial in all forms, it only really takes off when the threat is real. Only then do we see something marginal begin to move into the mainstream. The book recounts how, as the evidence piles up, climate change deniers are shifting their attention to the promotion of ameliorative technologies as an alternative to reducing emissions or even arguing that global warming will be beneficial, anything to avoid facing the consequences of dealing with the causes of a warming world. Caught between helplessness and hedonism people turn away and, to paraphrase Orwell, sleep the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the lapping waters of rising seas.