The propaganda machine and climate change

Some time ago, in one of my posts in my series on climate change, I pondered on why there seemed to be such a vehement opposition to the idea that human actions might be causing an irreversible and disastrous change to our planet. After all, this seems like largely a scientific question that, unlike (say) evolution, has no religious or partisan political implications.

But somewhere along the way, the word seems to have spread amongst right-wing political and religious types that the warnings about possible irreversible global warming represent some kind of deep plot being advanced by leftists and scientists and atheists working together, and this has resulted in a union of right-wing think tanks and politicians and Christians to oppose the idea. How did that happen?

Evidence for the organized nature of the opposition to the ideas of global warming coming from a particular ideological perspective is not hard to find. A new study looks at how the so-called ”Conservative Think Tanks’, (CTTs) play an important element in the propaganda machine by underwriting those who are skeptical of the dangers of climate change.

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement’s efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of ‘junk science’ lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised ‘Davids’ battling the powerful ‘Goliath’ of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.

The movement to undermine the environmental movement is largely underwritten by corporations and their supporters who want to prevent having to comply with environmental regulations that might limit their profits. Some of the CTTs are funded by companies (like ExxonMobil) that have a stake in preventing any regulations that limit their profits, and even have their CEOs on the boards.

But even that still does not answer the question of how this opposition became so widespread and vehement. This is why I found this blog entry very interesting. It is by someone who has pondered this same question and, tracing this phenomenon back in time, finds that there is a family of conspiracy theories that have caused this situation. He has created an entire genealogical tree of the theories.

He said it started during the Cold War in 1962 with the labeling of Rachel Carson as a Communist sympathizer. She is often considered the founder of the modern American environmental movement with her book Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of DDT. That allegation became expanded to suggest that some environmentalists may even be Soviet agents seeking to undermine capitalism, and that they were suppressing the work of enviroskeptics.

Meanwhile, on a different front, those who were unhappy with the scientific opposition to Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense shield plan started accusing scientists of being Soviet stooges.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the story has shifted and the target of opposition has changed. Instead of the environmental movement being merely a tool to advance communism by advocating measures that will increase the costs of business and raise taxes, the environmental movement has now replaced communism as the main foe of capitalism.

Of course, since the religious right has always viewed ‘godless communism’ with alarm, they tend to sign on to anything that seems to oppose or restrict the workings of capitalism in any way, even if means allowing unregulated industries unbridled freedom to pollute and destroy the environment.

Thus emerged the coalition of big industry, conservative think tanks, the religious right, and their political allies, all working to discredit any science that seems to suggest that we are doing irreparable harm to our environment.

Although the article is not a scholarly one and not an authoritative source, it is interesting and thought-provoking.

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  1. says

    There’s always going to be a section of the world’s population who try to justify their self-centered actions by rubishing the claims of experts whoclearly know a lot more than they do, and are backed up by hard scientific evidence. I suppose it helps them sleep at night.

  2. Rian says

    I spent a couple of weeks working for NYPIRG on the topic of greenhouse gas emissions this summer. I found a couple of things:

    1. This is seen almost wholly as a partisan political issue by the public at large, not a scientific one. The attribution section of the IPCC report is where most people have problems, not the idea that CO2 and CH4 emissions are up 30% and 240% respectively.

    2. My own stance is that while some aspects of the various campaigns are highly worthwhile (net metering! yay!), compelling already strained businesses in this state to conform to the most stringent greenhouse gas emissions standards in the country is going to cause more businesses to evaluate whether or not they want to operate in New York State. That’s an increasing problem as it is due to the appalling level of taxation; don’t make it worse.

    3. I would rather have dollars and greenhouse gases than no dollars and no greenhouse gases. Of course, we’ll end up with no dollars and greenhouse gases, but that’s due to factors not connected with this problem.

    4. Voluntary actions, by programs such as net metering and incentives to replace obsolete coal-fired plants with wind, solar, fission, even just cleaner fossil-fuel plants, are all to be encouraged. Net metering is actually the best of them; you get private homes and businesses to build solar panels and wind farms on their property and connect them to the power grid. This will run your electricity meter backwards (to a maximum of 2MW/day!) and you can sell the excess to the utility companies. Compelling businesses and utilities to clean up their act is an incentive to move away from NYS; voluntary action to offset utility bills is an incentive to keep businesses here.

    The compulsion inherent in the bill that NYPIRG was shoving through the Legislature, as well as the abysmal pay and my own lack of conviction on the issue, is why I worked two weeks as opposed to being at work right now. Don’t point the coercive force of the state at businesses for something like this; the businesses will not react positively to compulsion. Unless they can manipulate the system to their benefit, they never have. They will however react quite nicely (and again, there is ample proof of this) to voluntary incentive programs and the knowledge that they will indeed save some money when the 200,000 square feet of a Wal-Mart store roof is covered in solar panels. Don’t point guns at people. Point dollars; it works better.

  3. says

    Prof. Singham:

    Thanks for the thumbs-up on my blog post! I’ll agree, my analysis of the conspiracy theories is definitely quite far from scholarly — and in any case it partly draws from work done by the true scholars such as Lahsen, Oreskes, Smythe, etc.

    I’m now starting to think that the seeds of the ‘greenism is communism’ meme might have been planted during the debate over nuclear energy in the 1950s, when the development of nuclear energy and nuclear reactors was seen as a national security issue even as there were still worries over reactor safety. But this is just my guess.


    I see that wasn’t exactly relevant to the blog post’s topic, so my reply will be short and simple: There’s no such thing as a ‘natural right’ to pollute.

  4. Rian says

    I don’t care about a natural right, I’m saying that if businesses have to pay more to operate here than they would elsewhere, they are going to go there.

    I value having businesses close to me higher than I value lack of pollution.

  5. says

    Let’s face it, there is a lot of propaganda on both sides of the issue. The scientific method has been tossed in favor of “this is what I want to believe, so this is what my data will show”.
    I’d love to see the environment cleaned up, but I’m still looking for some unbiased research on “irreparable harm to our environment”.
    I’ve gone green, not out of ecological concerns, but, rather, out of a desire to live independent from any big utility company.

  6. says

    I agree 100%. I worry about the spellbinding effect conservatives have over their right wing constituents. Whether this is an effect of upbringing or societal pressure I am not sure, but if a CTT said the sky was falling because of the left’s policy’s you’d better believe we would have massive amounts of conservative Christians running for cover.

    I just don’t get it. To me it’s plain as day. Corporations make more money with less regulation, so they get conservatives to spout out whatever they want, and lo and behold you have
    anti-environmental movements.

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