Weird isn’t it? The way that climate change becomes a right/left issue, the way that proponents and opponents line up congruently with their political views. The science itself is politically neutral, and scientists are almost unanimous in their view that climate change is both real and damaging. And yet, for all the hard evidence, there is any amount of controversy and disagreement, all of which breaks down consistently along political lines.
Nobody should be surprised that Big Oil is opposed to climate change science and carbon reduction measures. The largest five stock market listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m (£153m) a year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change. The Paris Agreement strikes directly at their bottom line, although one might wonder whether their $200 million a year might offer a better long term return if invested in carbon capture and renewables. This is not to say that all the lobbying has been unsuccessful, quite the reverse. The New York Times has traced the political and financial mechanisms that, over two decades, have shifted the Republican party from a neutral stance to one where climate change is viewed as fake science: ‘In 2001, 46 percent of Democrats said they worried “a great deal” about climate change, compared with 29 percent of Republicans, according to a Gallup tracking poll on the issue. This year , concern among Democrats has reached 66 percent. Among Republicans, it has fallen, to 18 percent.’
And then there’s the Koch Brothers. According to Greenpeace Koch Family Foundations have spent $127,006,756 directly financing 92 groups that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions, from 1997-2017. It’s an interesting tactic – by financing so many different organisations, most of them feeding off each other’s ‘research’and publicity materials, an impression is created of a highly active climate change denial community. In turn, this community’s variegated output provides much of the raw material for Big Oil’s herculean political lobbying effort. Taken together, these activities simulate the impact of a widespread, complex ecosystem of informed opinion, but the underlying fact is that it is all supported (manufactured might be a more appropriate term) by just half a dozen sources of funding, each of which has a massive, direct financial interest in the political success of climate change denial.
Through sheer weight of funding and PR effort the climate change misinformation process captured the thinking of the political right in America to the point where its precepts became embedded in Republican Party ideological orthodoxy and Donald Trump was able to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement in 2017. Like water finding its own level, climate change denial seeped into the American political right because that was where it got the most welcoming reception. Once the process was under way, it globalized under its own steam. The impact on the UK mainstream media has been evident, although not always without controversy. For instance:
- The BBC came under criticism for giving credence to former Tory Chancellor and climate change denialist Nigel Lawson’s views in a Radio 4 Today piece. Lawson (who has no scientific credentials in the field) was subsequently forced to admit that the data underpinning his argument was false. Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation has links to a number of right wing climate denial organisations and its funding is opaque.
- In February 2017 The Daily Mail ran a story under the headline “Exposed: How World Leaders Were Duped Into Investing Billions Over Manipulated Global Warming Data”, claiming that American government scientists had manipulated climate research to advance the Paris accord. The claim turned out to be entirely false and the newspaper was forced to retract the story.
Discussion of the issues has reached a stage where the usually accurate Financial Times sees fit to describe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal’ as ‘far-left‘. At this point the debate threatens to descend into farce. President Trump attacks initiatives like the Green New deal as ‘socialist’, while the American military warns that global warming presents a real and urgent security threat. Presumably the American military has become ‘far left’ in its thinking.
So, as I indicated at the outset, why the politicisation of climate change? Why the right/left polarity? What started as a standard objection to anything that might stand in the way of generating profit, a common enough stance of the political right everywhere, has transformed itself into an ideological reflex. Ideologies, or at least ideologues, are by their nature irrational, and hence the absurdities that now confront us. Perhaps we need these contradictions and absurdities to become so great that the only way to resolve them is to de-politicise the issues, agree on the facts, and then work our way through to effective solutions.