Populism and the rise of climate scepticism

 Last year I blogged on Walter Russel Mead’s analysis that linked climate denial to a tradition of American populism. At one level it is obvious that there is an association between climate scepticism and populists (such as the lovely Jeremy Clarkson). But in this post I explore those links more deeply, inspired by Paul Taggart’s excellent book on populism.

The bigger picture is that the salience of climate change for the US and UK publics has been declining from a high point in around 2007. But at the same time, there is evidence that scepticism or denial amongst the public has been on the rise. Ipsos MORI polling in 2005 showed that 91% believed that the climate was changing, with only 4% saying they did not. By 2010 those  that the climate was not changing had risen to 15%, with those believing down to 78%. Populus polling for the BBC showed that the proportion who were not convinced that climate change is man-made rose from 25% in 2009 to 41% in 2010, with the polls happening before and after the “Climategate” e-mail furore.

This apparent rise in public scepticism has a corrosive effect on policy debates. Last year the then DECC Secretary of State, Chris Huhne, felt sufficiently riled to send a public letter to lead UK denialist Nigel Lawson at the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) asserting the validity of climate science. During the US Republican Party primaries, Mitt Romney decided that he had to shift his position on climate change from belief to scepticism.

One kind of explanation for the rise of denialism is precisely the likes of Lawson, along with commentators in the media like James Delingpole of the Telegraph, and denialist organisations such as the GWPF, and the many similar outfits in the US. Lawson (and fellow GWPF sceptic Benny Pieser) have ben around for some time. Both are on record as challenging the scientific consensus as early as 2004. In the US, climate scepticism has been around for even longer, since the late 1990s or earlier. A key question is therefore why the public has started only recently to pay more attention to voices that have been in the public domain for a long time.

A similar kind of puzzle faces psychological explanations for scepticism. Research by Lorraine Whitmarsh at Cardiff University finds that scepticism increased between 2003 and 2008 amongst respondents to a postal survey, and that scepticism is linked to political values (Tories more likely to be sceptical) and environmental values. But since values, by definition, are quite stable over time, it proves hard to explain the rise in scepticism by reference to them. Again, the puzzle is why the last few years have seen such a shift in views.

An alternative view is that a wave of climate scepticism amongst the public in the US and UK (as opposed to the hard core professional denialists, who are always there) is a primarily a political phenomenon, linked to an upsurge in right-wing populism.

In his landmark study of populism, Paul Taggart argues that it is impossible to define, since it has assumed different shapes in different periods in different places – sometimes a popular movement, sometimes in the form of a party, sometimes left-wing, sometimes right-wing, etc. But he does argue that there are 6 common characteristics of the phenomenon:

1. Populists are hostile to representative politics. Populist leaders (from Poujade to Sarah Palin) try to channel “the plain speaking and plain speaking of ordinary people”. “The people” are represented as the majority (e.g. “silent majority”, Middle America, Middle England), and as having certain characteristics (virtue, hard working, civic, productive, but reluctant to get involved in the “minority (elite) pursuit of politics” (p 93). In the populist narrative, the link between the people and political representatives is broken in two ways: through the corruption of politics and politicians, and through the capture of politics and politicians by special interests. For right wing populists, this is about ‘minority’ groups who make claims for special rights (e.g. immigrants, environmentalists, feminists), where minority’ groups (whoever they are) are seen as being outside the ‘mainstream’ of politics (p 93).

2. Populists identify themselves with an idealised heartland within the community they favour, and against elites. Populists use the language of “the people” because they are trying to evoke the idea of the heartland – a “territory of the imagination” (p 95). The evocation of the heartland is backward-looking to an idealised past, and sentiment based, rather than forward-looking ideological utopias. The heartland idea also explains the singularity of populism: “the people” are presented as above class, as an undifferentiated mass. Crucially, the heartland excludes demonized social groups including political elites and special “minority” interests. It is also inward-looking: “Internationalism and cosmopolitanism are anathema to populists…Isolationism and insularity are the natural predispositions of populists. This is why populism has been associated with ethical nationalism.” (p 95)

3. Populism has an ideology lacking in core values (it can be left or right wing, although recently in the UK and US has tended to be right wing). However, in the modern era, populism can be seen as a reaction to liberalism, since the hegemony of representative democracy (with all its compromises and messiness) reflects the power of liberal ideas: “Liberalism has a world-view that is constructed around individuals. Populism deals in collectives in its celebration of the people as an organic whole.”

4. Populism can be seen as a powerful reaction to a sense of extreme crisis, which can be economic, or social, or political. The crisis can be real but need not be, as long as there is perceived crisis. “The emergence of a crisis shakes populists out of their reluctance and into politics and into an active defence of the heartland” (p 4). The lack of ideological compass, combined with a demonisation of elites (including politicians, intellectuals, bankers etc) and a readiness to see danger around them, means that in a crisis populists are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories (pp 105-06). According to Taggart, “Such theories also serve an important mobilizing function. Finding resonance with disgruntled sections of the population, conspiracy theories make sense of what might otherwise be disparate facts of life and, in doing so, provide incentive for individuals to join the campaign to frustrate whatever conspiracy has been frustrating them.” (p 105). Conspiracy theories, of course, are also circular and impervious to empirical evidence: “An academic investigation not whether a conspiracy theory exists is likely, for a conspiracy theorist, to be at best ineffective, and at worst in collusion with the conspiracy” (p 106). However, in the longer term, conspiracy theories are not useful tools for political organisation, as they stress the relative powerlessness of the populist constituency, i.e. the mass of ordinary people.

5. Populism contains fundamental dilemmas that make it self-limiting. Populists often don’t form parties, and where they do, they tend to run out of steam because populism is anti-politics. As a result initially populist parties tend either to become less populist over time, to become riven with conflicts internally, or to collapse.

6. Populism has a chameleon-like nature, adopting the political colours of its environment. Populism defines itself against mainstream issues and policies. Thus Scandinavian populism is anti-tax, French populism (and British) is anti-immigration,  etc.

Taggart also notes some features of the changed context of contemporary politics which have increased the scope for populism. One is globalisation and the development of supra-national institutions, including the UN and the EU:

“the prevalence of representative democratic institutions at a national level and the attempt to introduce them at supra-national level means that populists…have more potential sources of grievance. Through globalisation and the associated uncertainties of identity that come about with the construction…of a ‘global community’ there will be more impetus for those feeling excluded to take refuge in an imagined heartland. This will be true especially in so far as a sense of crisis is increasingly felt by those excluded from the new global community” (p 117)

It is also worth noting the important role of the media in populism in the 20th and 21st century. Fox News and shock-jock radio has been a powerful medium in the US for right wing populism, as it allows populist leaders to be outside of parties but still reach a mass audience, while the internet allows the spawning and spread of conspiracy theories on line.

Taggart’s description of populism has profound resonance for the current wave of climate scepticism among parts of the American and UK publics.

In the last decade, the emergence in popular climate scepticism in the US and UK has been accompanied by the rise of a right-wing populism, as seen in support for the Tea Party wing of Republicanism in the US, and in the UK by a populist wing in the Tories (exemplified perhaps by Douglas Carswell, MP for Clacton, a believer in radical political reform, “direct democracy” and sceptical on climate change), and the rise of groups like the UK Independence Party, whose head of policy is leading sceptic Christopher Monckton. This rise has been strongest amongst those who felt excluded from the benefits of globalisation, and in the UK has been reinforced especially through the 2010 expenses scandal (as this strongly resonated with idea that politicians are corrupt) and the financial crisis (as this resonated with the idea that the bankers and the elite are in cahoots and against the people).

Climate scepticism isn’t necessarily the lead issue for these movements and parties, but the issue has come to fit well into their agendas, and their leaders are on record with strong statements of climate scepticism. This emergence reflects the chameleon-like nature of populism. Populist movements began to emerge in the mid-2000s, and initially focused on the dominant issues of immigration in UK and healthcare reform in the US. However, as climate change was promoted by elites as an issue, peaking in salience in 2007 and in international visibility in 2009, populists reacted. Climate scepticism is also largely confined to such parties and movements – in the UK, there is a consensus belief in climate change amongst the leadership of the mainstream parties.

The expression of climate scepticism fits particularly well with populist themes as outlined in Taggart’s analysis. Climate scepticism is frequently expressed as a suspicion of intellectuals and environmentalists as special interests, outside of the heartland but corrupting politicians. Climate change is the ultimate cosmopolitan agenda, and is identified strongly with the UN and the EU, while populism is inherently insular and anti-cosmopolitan in nature. Indeed, in the UK, climate scepticism and Euro-scepticism seem to go together.

You can’t touch, see or smell greenhouse gases, impacts are complex, uncertain and mostly lie in the future, and individual events are not directly attributable to climate change, all of which are anathema to simplicity and common sense. These characteristics make climate change a perfect target for populist conspiracy theories. Last year’s review of evidence by genuine scientific sceptic Richard Muller convinced him that anthropogenic climate change is real, but he was instantly attacked by denialists. No amount of evidence works in the face of conspiracy theories.

The populist lens on climate scepticism has implications for what might be done about it. Current strategies – more strongly asserting the science (climate scientists and politicians) and undertaking media monitoring and instant rebuttals (groups like Carbon Brief) –  are unlikely to have much impact on a popular scepticism with a strong suspicion of elites (including scientists and environmentalists) and an element of conspiracy theory.

Instead, an approach informed by the populist analysis might take two forms, depending on the audience. One, aimed at the wider public, with the objective of limiting the corrosive effects of populist scepticism on policy, would be to portray climate deniers as people who can’t grow up and face the complexities and difficulties of the modern world. See David Mitchell’s superbly humorous version of this: “I wish it wasn’t true, but oh heck, it is.”

A second, aimed very much at sceptics amongst the public, would be to take advantage of the fact that high profile climate deniers, like Nigel Lawson or “Lord” Christopher Monckton, are members of the elite themselves, and that groups like the GWPF appear to receive financial backing from hedge funds. These facts are already in the public domain,  but much more could be done to use them to sow seeds of suspicion in the minds of populist followers of climate deniers. Figures like Lawson still manage to portray themselves as driven by the conviction of the lonely individual against the elite consensus, garnering empathy from populists. An effective strategy would be to reframe them as self-serving, attention seeking members of the elite whose agenda is shaped by money.

It seems to me that what appears to be a strong link between the emergence of climate scepticism and a populist turn in British politics is really worth further study, not least because it would further develop and refine such strategies. However, despite strenuous efforts, I have so far failed to persuade any of the main environmentalist organisations to back such a study.

Perhaps they simply hope it will all go away. Actually, this might (eventually) be the case. Taggart notes that populist politics is self-limiting. In the US, the influence of the Tea Party is already on the wane. UKIP may last longer but will almost certainly be riven with disagreements and leadership challenges. Populist followers become disillusioned with their leaders and their interest in political issues – and climate denialist messages – wanes. But I suspect that in the UK we are still some way off this outcome, and as a result, the road of climate policy is set to be rocky for some time to come.



Filed under Climate deniers, Environmentalists, Populism, UK politics, US

4 responses to “Populism and the rise of climate scepticism

  1. Duncan Green

    Any lessons from Taggart about how previous populist movements have imploded? Might be some useful ideas in terms of accelerating the process for denialists

  2. All very relevant to the ongoing IPPR Media & Climate Change initiative which is looking at ways to engage mainstream media in new approaches to climate change coverage. Media ambivalence towards/boredom with
    climate change has surely helped populist nay-sayers to gain ground. Bringing humour to bear is an idea to be pursued.

  3. A positive strategy is to figure out the populist heartland for collective low carbon life. 350 and Transition Towns haven’t cracked this.

  4. Mike Childs

    Hello Matthew, not sure what your “strenuous efforts” have been with us (Friends of the Earth) to discuss whether a study should be carried out. We are very interested in this stuff so do drop me an e-mail and perhaps we could talk? Mike (Head of Science, Policy & Research at Friends of the Earth)

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