‘Remember, remember the climate denier’ – A quick reminder of the roots of climate denialism and a way to overcome it

by Nov 5, 2021News

In this post I would like to explore the existence of climate denialist groups and why they may appear to be at loggerheads with science. Recognising the ‘Community Empowerment’ theme at COP26, it is important to remind ourselves that such a voice cannot be ignored or pushed outside of climate discourse if we truly want to get everybody on board. 2021 proved to be a defining year for the climate crisis discussion at the global level. The release of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report clearly confirms the science and impacts of climate change from human activities; fast action is indisputably needed to remain below the 1.5 ºC threshold. COP26 brought together world leaders from more than 100 countries to negotiate action, agreements and targets to ensure that the threshold is not surpassed.

The powerful messages and the exigency to deliver on the global stage in Glasgow by world leaders is promising, but how far will the urgency cascade down from the global stage to the grassroots to ensure everyone is onboard for true collective impact? In their analysis, ‘Socio-Technical Dynamics for a low-carbon transition’ Geels et al (2017)1 recognise the significance of involving a wide range of actors to achieve such a transition, and this includes civil society groups and local residents. I believe we cannot ignore the fact that within populations, climate scepticism is real — it has a voice and it could stop a low-carbon transition dead in its tracks if it is not addressed.

An ideological argument helps to explain a rejection of climate science amongst citizen populations.2 The ideological content of climate-denying populist groups consists of anti-elite, authoritarian and nationalistic values where these beliefs and values, along with economic interests, are threatened by climate science and policy. This results in a climate-rejectionist attitude, where the leaders and groups attempt to widen scepticism amongst their supporters.

Populists make misinformed claims about climate science, often portraying climate science as a cosmopolitan elite agenda, whilst claiming to speak for ‘the people’ and in the national interest. This could be exacerbated by climate scientists often isolating the science and policy from the public, whilst presenting the science in an often opaque, complex style that is often too difficult for citizens to understand.3

When climate change is discussed largely on a global stage, such as at COP26, and policy is implemented at a global level, attention is diverted from “the national, regional and local venues where democracy has historically been the most vibrant”.3 When climate scientists and policy makers choose to separate themselves like this from a democratically vibrant national stage, the science is open to attack from climate-denying populist groups. From this viewpoint, climate scepticism isn’t a dispute of the actual scientific content, but rather, a result of “hostility to liberal, cosmopolitan elites”,2 where climate science holds a symbolic place.

Brown (2014) reinforces the concept by arguing that a rejection of science within citizen populations is the result of a long tradition of popular suspicion of organised power. These perceived alienating bodies of power warranting suspicion are “anathema” to populist movements and their supporters.6 Climate-denying populist leaders and groups attach this label to climate science and argue that the school of thought is a threat to national sovereignty.4 A climate denying populist group or leader points to climate scientists and labels them as a cosmopolitan elitist who warrants suspicion,2 and thus hijacks the climate discussion and leads to delay in policy.

If we use Lockwood’s (2018) ideological analysis on the rejection of climate science and how climate-denying populist groups and leaders render a long tradition of hostility towards elites to their advantage, we can assess that rejection is not the result of structural marginalisation, but rather a democratic failure. Despite their facts being misinformed, what climate-rejectionist groups have uncovered is how present forms of democracy are not suitable for public national and global climate conscious engagement and consensus. The wants and needs of the people at the local level are obscured and unaddressed by climate-change policy and otherwise democratically vibrant local areas are not effectively active with discussion and debates regarding climate policy, and herein lies the main issue. Those who reject climate science are no doubt misinformed, yet they do call attention to political dimensions of science “often obscured by climate science”.5

Climate science must realise that its content cannot be debated and discussed by expert bodies alone. This encourages public suspicion, leading to attacks from climate-denying populist groups and leaders, thus provoking rejectionist attitudes. Climate science must explore other democratic arenas that allow for public debate on how climate science makes its way to policy and allow an opportunity for national and localised environmental concerns to be voiced. We are beginning to see such arenas arise, particularly through the growing use of citizens’ assemblies.

At Resilience Brokers, we are exploring ways to foster this arena as we believe the climate crisis is a systemic challenge and requires systemic solutions across the various levels of society, including civil society groups and local residents.

We have begun to explore this with the University of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute and Exeter City Futures in creating a Living Lab space for systems thinking and open, democratic discussion. Exeter Living Lab provides an opportunity for learning, debating and understanding localised, national and global issues in a socially diverse arena. The scientific content is unlikely to be disputed, rather local groups recognise how they are part of the climate challenge and how it affects their lives. Localised and democratically vibrant arenas such as the Exeter Living Lab could reclaim the climate-change agenda and prevent it from becoming a “proxy battleground of political interests”.3

On 1st December, we will be co-hosting a post-COP26 virtual event with the Exeter Living Lab and the Green Futures Network. This event will question how the outcomes of COP26 support the carbon-neutral ambitions of businesses, policy makers and communities in Exeter, bringing the global conversation down to the local arena.

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  1. Geels, F., Sovacool, B., Schwanen, T. and Sorrell, S., (2017). ‘The Socio-Technical Dynamics of Low-Carbon Transitions’. Joule, 1(3), pp.463-479.
  2. Lockwood, M. (2018) ‘Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages’, Environmental Politics, 27(4), pp. 712–732. DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2018.1458411 (Accessed: 15 May 2019).
  3. Brown, M. (2014) ‘Climate science, populism, and the democracy of rejection’ in Crow, D.A. and Boykoff, M.T. (ed.) Culture, politics and climate Change: How information shapes our common future.  London and New York: Routledge, pp. 129-145.
  4. ​​Forchtner, B. and Kølvraa, C. (2015) ‘The nature of nationalism: populist radical right parties on countryside and climate’, in Lockwood, M. (2018) ‘Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages’, Environmental Politics, 27(4), pp. 712–732 DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2018.1458411 (Accessed: 15 May 2019).
  5. Swyngedouw, E. (2010) ‘Apocalypse Forever? Post-political Populism and the Specter of climate change’, Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), pp. 213-232. DOI: 10.1177/0263276409358728 (Accessed: 12 May 2019).
  6. Taggart, P. (2000) ‘Populism’, in Lockwood, M. (2018) ‘Right-wing populism and the climate change agenda: exploring the linkages’, Environmental Politics, 27(4), pp. 712–732 DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2018.1458411 (Accessed: 15 May 2019).

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To join this dialogue contact James directly at team@resiliencebrokers.org

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Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash