The Conspiracy-Theory Conspiracy Theory

Our previous post, and one the week before looked at the arguments emerging from climate activists about what to make of the existence of an email news circular, operated by Marc Morano, the Communications Director at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, under Republican Senator James Inhofe. They say it’s evidence of a sinister network intent on distorting the climate debate for oil interests. We say it’s just politics, and that there are many email lists on both sides of the debate, distributing news and opinion to people – even if we happen to disagree with (probably a lot of) Sen. Inhofe’s politics.

One of our favourite readers has sent us a link to a similar conversation going on at ‘The Reality Based Community’ blog – a misnomer. Mark Kleiman has posted an article there called ‘Global-warming denialism as a conspiracy theory.’ Hmm.

One largely unremarked aspect of global-warming denialism […] is that it amounts to a conspiracy theory. All of the world’s actual climate scientists, and everyone in an a allied field capable of understanding their models, would have to be co-conspirators in the plot, with only a rag-tag group of economists, meteorologists, petroleum geologists, astrologers, and political pundits capable of seeing, and willing to say, that the emperor has no clothes.

All of the world’s actual climate scientists? Really? And everyone in an allied field capable of understanding the models? Really?

Of course, it’s nonsense. Kleiman doesn’t know how the scientific community divides on climate matters, because no decisive poll has ever been taken. Neither does he know how so-called deniers divide on matters of climate science. He takes one case of an (admittedly rather silly) opinion piece in a newspaper to identify a phenomenon of ‘denial’. The interesting part of his claim is that this phenomenon – a ‘movement – of ‘denial’ can be explained as a ‘conspiracy theory’.

Most of the glibertarians, cultural conservatives, and gadget-heads who constitute the useful idiots around the core oil-and-coal-company global-warming denialist constituency would be horrified to imagine themselves playing the role of 9/11 Truthers, or RFK Jr. pumping the thimerosal/autism link, or Thabo Mbeki claiming that AIDS isn’t caused by HIV. But all four “movements” are alike in depending on compete mistrust of actual scientific experts. (Holocaust denialism is similar in that respect, but different in being almost entirely insincere: the Holocaust deniers seem to be saying, “Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, and I’m glad he did.”)

We pointed out previously that there is an irony about David Roberts and a network of activists complaining about misinformation and distortion spread through a network of activists operating on the blogosphere on the … erm… blogosphere. (If you still don’t get it, imagine if the Governor of California were to start complaining about vapid Hollywood actors using their celebrity to achieve political influence – it’s a bit like that).

And with the words ‘the useful idiots around the core oil-and-coal-company global-warming denialist constituency’ Kleiman demonstrates exactly the same failure of logic. His conspiracy-theory-theory is just a conspiracy theory. He continues:

Global-warming denialism is a special case, of course: the policy implications of the facts about climate change threaten some very large economic interests and some dearly-held political beliefs. So global-warming-denialist brochures are printed on glossy paper. Other than that, though, it’s fairly standard-grade fringe pseudoscience, not much different from the folks who write endless papers full of gibberish proving that Einstein was wrong.

There is a palpable failure on Kleiman’s behalf to test his own argument by the logic he’s applied to others’. Pots calling kettles black, and all that. Such unreflectively is par for the course in normal discussions. We kind of expect comments on our posts linked to from activist sites (such as this one) to vary in their sophistication. Some of our critics have been barely worth responding to. Others have made us think hard, at least about how we’ve presented our argument. Some even cause disagreements here at Climate Resistance HQ.

But Kleiman’s words aren’t the frothing of any old internet troll. According to the site’s About page…

Professor of Policy Studies at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, Kleiman teaches methods of policy analysis, political philosophy, and drug abuse and crime control policy. He is also the Chairman of BOTEC Analysis Corporation, a Cambridge, Massachusetts firm that conducts policy analysis and contract research on illicit drugs, crime, and health care. Previously, he held teaching positions at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the University of Rochester.

Maybe Kleiman has been taking his drug abuse research a little too far into the field, and it has adversely affected his judgement. Shouldn’t we expect a Professor of policy analysis and political philosophy to make just slightly more robust and sophisticated criticisms of the players and sides in the climate debate, rather than reduce these putative camps to cartoonish heroes on the one hand, and evil villains on the other?

His blog’s slogan states that ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts’. But Kleiman just makes his own ‘facts’ up while accusing others of ‘denial’. We’ve pointed this sort of thing out often enough that we no longer believe this is just a mistake, or mere hyperbole. This is a phenomenon far more widespread that ‘denial’. This kind of argument is rife amongst people who seem to feel the need to explain their lack of success in convincing the world of their politics. Blame the conspiracy.

But what kind of phenomenon is it? If we were only able to think about it only as deeply as Kleiman has, we might say that there is a deliberate attempt to distort the public’s perception of the debate. In other words, we would be inventing a conspiracy theory. So we’re not saying that, because we have no reason to doubt that Kleiman doesn’t believe his own words. he just hasn’t thought very hard about what they are supposed to mean.

What we think is going on is that the reality that the likes of Kleiman think they are in touch with isn’t as real as he imagines it to be. His slogan protests too much about being ‘reality-based’, which only serves to demonstrate that he lacks confidence in subjectivity. ‘The science’ plays a similar role in the arguments that emerge from environmental activists. The ‘science says’… The ‘science is in’… ‘According to the majority of the world’s top scientists’… We know the script. We’re asked to engage with moral and political arguments not on the basis of human values, but by appeals to climate science. Necessarily then, environmentalism rests on the authority of climate science. Demands for political action on climate change sit behind claims about climate science, and are assumed to flow from it, a priori.

Climate science seems to act as a kind of metaphysics in today’s political arguments. It serves to orientate the frameworks through which the world is seen and gives structure to the arguments about what is good/bad, right/wrong, forward/backward, and in the case where climate scepticism and denial is judged to be equivalent to Conservatism, Left/Right. To deprive environmentalists of this framework would leave them disoriented, a bit like if one were to rob Catholics of the Holy Trinity. Kleiman is just as vulnerable without climate science. How would he be able to criticise his opponents without it?

Kleiman might well respond by claiming that he is applying the label of denialism to those who, by definition, reject the science outright. Indeed, he compares his climate deniers to those ‘pumping the thimerosal/autism link, or Thabo Mbeki claiming that AIDS isn’t caused by HIV’. But for every such ‘nutjob’ in total denial of ‘the science’, there is at least one environmental campaigner/politician, exaggerating ‘the science’ beyond recognition. The problem is the centrality of the ‘scientific’ claims to the debate – and it’s not the deniers who are putting it there.

For instance, if we accept that there is a phenomenon of ‘denial’ in the climate debate that is a factor in the outcome of the debate, then we can agree that this is a problem. But it is a problem because it states that the science – real or not – is decisive in the question about ‘what to do about climate change’ in exactly the same way environmentalism does – it expects science to be instructive. We can agree, furthermore, that even if we accept that (i) the climate is changing, and that (ii) we have caused some of this change, and that (iii) this will cause a problem of some degree, we don’t necessarily have to agree that these three premises safely take us to a conclusion that demands special politics and ethics, moreover, that it creates any unassailable moral imperatives. We might argue, for instance, that the plight of the poor doesn’t need climate change to be recognised. Yet nearly all the major UK poverty and development NGOs, for example, have absorbed the language of climate change ethics into their discussions – at the expense of ambitious large-scale development projects, in favour of ‘sustainability’. As we have argued previously, this represents a failure to develop a substantive understanding of poverty and development and a criticism of what causes them to happen. Environmental metaphysics fills the void. It is used to explain that moral actions are transmitted through the biosphere. This phenomenon is a much wider, much deeper, and much bigger problem than ‘denial’.

13 thoughts on “The Conspiracy-Theory Conspiracy Theory”

  1. Kleiman’s article is just an extreme example of the kind of ad hominem criticism of denialists common among American liberals. “Conspiracy theory … oil-and-coal-company global-warming denialist constituency .. Holocaust denialism … creationism … standard-grade fringe pseudoscience … flat-earth climatology”. All the usual insults are there – shocking coming from a university professor, but standard stuff on a left Democrat blog intent on criticising George Wills, a prominent conservative journalist.

    It’s more surprising that the same Wills article was deemed worthy of the attention of our own Monbiot at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/feb/18/climate-denial-george-will . With his usual heavy irony, he dismisses Wills’ chances of winning the Monbiot bullshit award. (Monbiot has dropped the word bullshit, perhaps realising that, since he clearly intends to repeat the gag every week until the announcement of the winner in December, ten months of repetition of the word bullshit under the Monbiot banner might be counterproductive).

    Monbiot, unlike Kleiman, makes some attempt at a reasoned rebuttal of Wills, with four points (really three: on the global cooling hysteria, arctic ice disappearance, and the current absence of global warming). His argument has been convincingly trounced by two bloggers, jeanCool and Coolhead.

    While I agree 100% with your analysis of the epistemological status of the Kleiman analysis of the denialist “conspiracy”, don’t you think it’s more important to counter the arguments where they’re most visible, on the sites of the establishment media most in hock to the warmist creed?

  2. Yes, thank you, exactly.

    What we see with I term GWA (Global Warming Alarmism — as opposed to simple AGW or Anthropogenic Global Warming) is not simply an argument of science, but a complete cannon of belief and doctine which rivals the world religion.

    For example. If one is to “believe” in GWA, one has to be for Priuses. One has to be for plugin Priuses and they have to have batteries. Go to any sanctum of GWA worship (like Grist.org) and say something like “how about hydrogen fuel cells”? You will be stoned off the stage.

    Because you cannot simply hold that GWA is true as a scientific theory — you have to embrace the whole culture of Global Warming down to the minutest detail! You have to buy the right products, say the right names, respect the right people. There is no room for dissent on any issue let alone the big ones!

    This is why Global Warming Alarmism is something to be feared…especially with a weak willed American President willing to fund its acolytes.

  3. What we see with I term GWA (Global Warming Alarmism — as opposed to simple AGW or Anthropogenic Global Warming) is not simply an argument of science, but a complete canon of belief and doctine which rivals the world religion.

    Over on the Energy from Thorium forum (where believers outnumber sceptics, but not hugely so) the preferred abbreviation is AGWCC (Anthropogenic Global Warming Climate Catastrophe).

    For example. If one is to “believe” in GWA, one has to be for Priuses. One has to be for plugin Priuses and they have to have batteries.

    Why are environmentalists so concerned with reducing CO2 emissions from cars, when underground coal fires (which do not benefit humanity in any way, and emit almost as much CO2 than cars on a global basis)?

    Just goes to show that environmentalists aren’t people who sincerely want to help the environment, but rather the secular equivalent of the corrupt Catholic priests of medieval times, who got rich by selling indulgences. You can read about more environmental problems which environmentalists rarely mention here.

    Go to any sanctum of GWA worship (like Grist.org) and say something like “how about hydrogen fuel cells”? You will be stoned off the stage.

    I’m not a fan of hydrogen personally. It has great energy per unit mass (which is why space rockets use it, particularly in the upper states), but its energy per unit volume is very poor (not to mention it has to be cooled to -253 °C to be liquified). Also, it cannot use existing gas pipelines (because its tiny molecules leak very easily).

    Most hydrogen is currently produced using fossil fuels (mostly natural gas) and using fossil-derived hydrogen as a fuel on large scale is lunacy – far more efficient to use fossil fuels directly.

    Once hydrogen production is converted to a non-fossil source (probably electrolytic or thermochemical splitting of water, powered by nuclear energy) and all industrial hydrogen (for things like the Haber Process) sourced thus, it would probably be better to synthesize hydrocarbon fuels (either methanol, or Fischer-Tropsch petrol or diesel) than attempt to use hydrogen directly.

    The carbon could come from coal, from rubbish or even from atmospheric CO2 (the last would make our transportation carbon-neutral without having to completely rebuild our infrastructure).

    Read more about making hydrocarbon fuels from water and CO2 using nuclear energy, or using solar energy. (The latter was mentioned on James May’s Big Ideas, if any of you saw that programme.)

  4. Geoff – ‘don’t you think it’s more important to counter the arguments where they’re most visible,’

    In a word, no. We think it’s more important to have a robust understanding of what one thinks is wrong abut the argument being opposed. Of course, we would like these thoughts to influence the discussion, but we are just a blog, and opportunities for us bloggers to influence the debate are few and far between. An article here, an article there.

    Anyway, we’re always on about Monbiot. We might as well talk to a wall.

    John – ‘a complete cannon of belief and doctrine which rivals the world religion’.

    While we agree with that to some extent – after all, we use the example of Catholics and the Trinity, the analogy ceases to be useful. For better or worse (we’re ambivalent about religion, as it happens – the important thing is what we oppose its influence with) many millions of people happen to find the teachings of Catholicism meaningful. We think environmentalism is different, because, in the main, if it is a religion, it is a religion of the establishment. It’s gripped political elites far more than the hoi poloi.

    Of course, there are the protesters, and so on. But they have totally failed to generate a mass movement. We were surprised, for instance, at how many of the commenters on our recent post about the Heathrow expansion protests we had actually heard of. The ‘grass roots’ of environmentalism are small in number. They are just absurdly loud. This is testament to their proximity to the establishment – they have been very successful in influencing the policy agenda.

    You are right to point out the resistance there is to any dissent, and how this is part of the cultural phenomenon of environmentalism. But what this speaks most loudly about in our view is the vacuum at its core. As we’ve argued before here on C-R, you can look at extreme cases of religion in two ways. First, it might be evidence of something equivalent to mind-contol, as the likes of Dawkins suggests. Or, as we prefer, second, militancy also suggests that groups are struggling to maintain their role and identity. The environmentalists’ refusal to brook dissent says more about its lack of confidence than its coherence. The question then is ‘does the apparent increasing influence of religion (or environmentalism) represent its own strength, or the weakness of what ought to be resisting it?’ We think it’s the latter, and so we think we ought to be taking responsibility for it.

  5. Editors – thanks for the reply. Naturally you’ll do what you want and what you do best. It’s interesting, though, that when you strayed from abstract argument into publicity for the Modern Movement, you attracted a lot of comments from people who are obviously not used to rational criticism of their pet ideas. OK, the level of reasoning fell; but it can only be good that environmentalists are exposed to criticism from sources less easy to debunk than conservative “thinkers” like George Will.

    Of course you’ll never convince Monbiot. But the Guardian is a complex ecosystem, and blogging on Comment is Free is an activity whose effects are little understood. If enough butterflies all let off steam at once, who knows what might come of it? See Richard Black’s recent blog on the BBC’s Earth Watch for a good example of a small number of sceptics steering the discussion towards rationality.

    I agree the common criticism of environmentalism as being a religion is of limited use, unless it’s fleshed out. I can see a similarity between the green movement and the rise of protestantism; In both cases there’s an alliance between a minority of true believers, empowered by a communications revolution (printing, and the internet) and a cynical elite adopting the new belief for political advantage. (And then there were the witches to be burnt, of course..)

  6. It is interesting to see it called a “conspiracy” when all he has is Morano’s email list. Some conspiracy. Most of the sceptic bloggers are totally self-funded and work alone (not very cooperative conspirators). Nor do they seem to be very good at bringing in the oil dollars. In contrast, the IPCC has $Millions, as do many enviro outfits. They are actual organizations and place ads in the media. Which qualifies as a conspiracy?

  7. There are a number of possible conspiracies. Why aren’t we all using nuclear? Who benefits? Well, OPEC benefits. Why aren’t we extracting more of our own oil and coal? Who benefits? Well, OPEC benefits. It is plain to see the the environmental movement’s restraint on realistic alternatives to oil…. will just lead us to being more dependent on oil!

    There’s an old joke that the torus design for fusion was suggested to the West by Russia because they knew it would never work. And that is really funny, until you think about it.

    But generally I think the idea of a conspiracy is a more about people sitting down and deciding on a political strategy. “What will we say when…”

    The tobacco history is interesting but made it kinda obvious that environmentalists had sat down in meetings and planned a political strategy to deal with the obvious flaws in the science of AGW. They came up with a strategy of comparing it to tobacco, and have kept repeating that message ever since. They keep saying that anyone who points out the flaws is working for the tobacco companies, as it were.

    I notice on Greenpeace’s website they have an article claiming that Saddam’s nuclear material has been removed just before the invasion. So Greenpeace is implicitly supporting the lies sold to us for the invasion?

  8. The left failed with “history is on our side” in their “struggle “for the oppressed”.

    Along came the Brundtland report and ressucitated them with “science is on our side” in their “struggle to save the Earth”.

    Moral further is generated to force the populace to accept nostrums they would not reasonably want.

  9. The left failed with “history is on our side” in their “struggle “for the oppressed”.

    Along came the Brundtland report and ressucitated them with “science is on our side” in their “struggle to save the Earth”.

    Thomas Malthus was not ‘Left’, he was a classical liberal political economist. In other words, ‘Right’. His work lays a lot of the ground for the environmental movement’s arguments.

    Marx was agressive in his demolishing of Malthus… vicious, even.

    If it was the Left who bought into Malthusianism, and the Right who bought into Marx’s demonstration that capitalism isn’t a zero-sum game, then what does it say about the categories ‘Left’ and ‘Right’? Clearly they have no use if we want a historically consistent definition with which to understand the climate debate in the present.

  10. I confess, I used the phrase “the left” carelessly. What would be the term? Statists? Platonists? Bossy control freaks?

  11. Robert, we don’t think environmentalism safely belongs in any category as such, other than its own, to which others – superficially Left and Right – have joined to varying degrees. That is to say we can find Left and Right Greens.

    Of course, there is an extent to which the liberal/left have embraced environmentalism more than the Right. But this speaks more about their inability to define themselves at all than continuity with the historic Left. This is the way it should be looked at – in our view.

    As we have pointed out before, the UK Green Party started life as ‘PEOPLE’ (and later the Ecology Party) after some Conservatives felt unhappy with the way their party was headed, and were motivated by Paul Erlich. They can be seen as perpendicular to the Left/Right axis – they are critical of both wings’ and the centrality of growth in their philosophies. The vast majority of the Left at the time thought they were just ‘wankers’, in the vernacular. It took the total collapse of the UK Left before climate change dominated the ‘radical’ agenda.

    Certainly the three terms you’ve used are consistent with the intentions of various environmentalists, but not exclusively – the same ‘ists’ occur outside of the environmental debate, and across the left/right axis.

    The problem, we think, is a phenomenon not of an abundance of ists and isms, but perhaps a dearth of them. Politicians of all hues have trouble identifying their political ideas, and legitimising them. Environmentalism has been useful to them in the latter regard, because ‘saving the planet’ appears to give that legitimacy.

  12. The discussion about whether environmentalism is a religion is an interesting one. I do see parallels between the two, especially given the statement above by Editors in comment 4 – “…if it is a religion, it is a religion of the establishment. It’s gripped political elites far more than the hoi poloi.”

    Surely, in the middle ages, religion was used as a tool to gain power, influence policy for personal gain, keep the masses under control and hardly anyone dared be critical of religion – even of the regular changes in what one had to believe.

    This seems a pretty good parallel to me as to what is happening in the establishment and the media etc. now.

    Perhaps we should align environmentalism of the climate change type to that of religious fervour in the middle ages, rather than the present day.

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