The Poverty of Diagrams

Pop wisdom has it that ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. Here’s a picture that tries to paint so many words, but says more about its painters than the subjects they intended to portray.

The diagram is from The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, and aims to depict ‘Key Components of the Climate Change Denial Machine’, and was highlighted by Andrew Revkin on his Dot Earth blog. Says Revkin,

That there are such well-financed and coordinated efforts is not contentious. And this is not the first attempt to map them. But it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone skeptical of worst-case predictions of human-driven climate disruption, or everyone opposed to certain climate policies, is part of this apparatus.

That there are ‘well financed and coordinated efforts’ may or may not be ‘contentious’. But are they significant? The word ‘uncontentious’ in Revkin’s article is a hyperlink to a 1998 NY Times article, alleging ‘Industry opponents of a treaty to fight global warming have drafted an ambitious proposal to spend millions of dollars to convince the public that the environmental accord is based on shaky science’.

Thirteen years later, there is no global climate deal, but also not much evidence that the failure of climate policies on either side of the Atlantic, or internationally had much to do with public opinion. It’s not as if the British or American public were ever really asked about their views before international climate negotiations began, and thus there’s no evidence that public opinion ever led to the failure of climate policies. Certainly in the UK, there was no contest: the three main parties all decided that they would champion the cause. The same is true in most countries, as far as I can see; climate policies are not implemented by virtue of public will. The Australian PM, for instance, is famous for promising that there would be no Carbon Tax.

Once governments such as the UK’s have made their mind up about climate policy, they are then, naturally, able to mobilise many £millions to convince the public about what they are doing…

…which, when you think about it, is kind of like politics in reverse. The government decides on a policy, and then goes about trying to generate ‘public opinion’, through such manipulative interventions as the above video.

So, I’ve often wondered, isn’t this stuff about ‘denial machines’ just a handy little story… A bogeyman… Nobody knows where he really lives. Nobody knows how big he is. Nobody really knows what he’s capable of, or what he’s actually done.

As others have pointed out, the Global Climate Coalition, shown in the diagram near to the ‘echo chamber’, ceased to exist in 2002 — nearly 10 years ago. Similarly, the Information Council for the Environment doesn’t seem to have been active since the late 1990s. The Center for Energy and Economic Development seems to have disappeared, with the best I can established being that it merged with another group a few years ago; it’s website seems to be a holding page for a company selling ‘prime meat’. The Greening Earth Society and the Cooler Heads Coalition haven’t been active since 2005. Not a single one of the organisations shown as ‘front organisations’ by the diagram exists today.

So much for telling us where the bogeyman lives — apart from suggesting that he only lives in the past. But how big is he? This is something discussed years ago on this blog. Back in 2008, I looked at Greenpeace’s claims that Exxonmbil had funded many of the think tanks and organisations involved in climate change ‘denial’. It turned out that all Greenpeace could come up with was the claim that Exxonmobil had fincanced ‘deniers’ to the tune of $2.5 million between 1998 and 2005, $2 million of which went to the Competitive Enterprise Institute — a conservative think tank named by the diagram. In that same era, I pointed out, Greenpeace had burned $2 billion on its own campaigns. Even today, Greenpeace’s Exxon Secrets doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2005. Clearly, the figures it produced were not significant enough — they simply don’t compare to its own coffers.

So the bogeyman doesn’t seem to have a home. He doesn’t seem to be very big. So what is he capable of? Well, of preventing action on climate change policies, apparently. Of ‘distorting’ the public’s perception of climate change, allegedly. All for less than a thousandth of what is available to Environmental NGOs, never mind the collosal resources of the UN, and the US and other national governments, and the multitude of huge corporations — including energy companies — who paint themselves green on the promise of being able to profit from climate change policies and ‘sustainable’ civil infrastructure. Oh, and let’s not forget the contributions from the uber-wealthy, such as George Soros, and smaller fish such as Jeremy Grantham and Al Gore, who, as individuals seem to have spent more on climate change campaigns than Greenpeace can show Exxon spent on ‘denial’.

This picture of the Key Components of the Climate Change Denial Machine is not drawn to scale. But worse than that, it does not put this monster in his environment, nor in perspective against the other beasts inhabiting the landscape of the climate change debate. I don’t beleive that this bogeyman really exists. And I don’t beleive he is powerful. As I’ve argued previously, it’s no good environmental activists posing as academics, pretending that the process of creating climate change policies and bureacracies has failed because of denial… It failed because the agenda was so confused. There is no need for Big Oil to hire expensive PR and lobbying firms or fund ‘conservative think tanks’, because the environmental movement and politicians do all their own negative PR for them. Nobody embarassed Al Gore as much as Al Gore did. Nobody is better able to paraody the environmental movement as well as the environmental movement… Remember this?

There were no ‘deniers’ at the COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen seeking to stall or prevent an agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol. The parties there — most of them wanting a deal — screwed it up, all by themselves. It wasn’t ‘denier’s at the IPCC who made too much of the Hockey Stick graph, or who inserted the claims about glacier losses and African rain and crop yield. Environmentalists, and environmental policy-makers fail time after time after time, and, it seems, they need to invent an enemy on whom they can lay the blame for their failure. And they need to invent a feckless, ignorant public, who are held in thrall to the ‘denier’ bogeyman shouting into ‘the echo chamber’. The reality is, however, that most of the public simply aren’t interested in green hysteria, let alone ‘denial’.

Revkin points to an attempt to put the diagram into context by the Australian Climate Madness blog [PDF]. Revkin notes, ‘I think some, though by no means all, aspects of the map are not bad. But, as with so much of the climate debate, it is an overdrawn, overblown caricature of reality.’

It’s certainly a more accurate diagram, however. The United Nations, ENGOs, National governments, and corporations are all bigger players than the think-tanks, ‘front-groups’ and foundations that populate the more ‘academic’ diagram. Moreover, the Australian’s effort is far more precise in identifying the bodies it depicts. Those organisations are indubitably the ones constructing climate change policies, well above ‘public opinion’, and in spite of it, whatever has formed it. Perhaps the text boxes on the alternative diagram contain prose which is somewhat more colourful than is necessary, but the headings are accurate. After all, it’s not ‘deniers’ who are proposing and creating laws, powerful international agencies and institutions, and far-reaching policies. If the two diagrams were to converge, and to convey realisticly the relative material impact that those entities have, the academic diagram would be the size of a full stop (a period, to US readers) on the other.

Yet the environmentalists will whinge at any attempt to give a sense of proportion to the debate. Revkin links to a discussion which conludes in part that,

… the major environmental organizations are a $1.7 billion-a-year movement, with revenue streams that rival the most expensive presidential campaigns in history and the combined earnings of the world’s richest sports franchises. In their efforts to pass cap and trade legislation, they spent heavily on general education efforts, engaging policymakers, journalists and the public. They also invested considerable resources in mobilizing their more than 12 million members and in brokering alliances with some of the world’s largest companies, partners intended to augment their efforts at direct lobbying. Through these means and others, environmental groups have closed the gap with their traditional opponents in terms of spending and influence. Indeed, the effort to pass cap and trade legislation may be the best financed political cause in American history.

… But this, says former editor in chief of Scientific American, John Rennie, is ‘false equivalence’.

[Revkin] unnecessarily created a false equivalence between many of the people and organizations on either side of the climate dispute. As such, he’s stumbled into exactly the kind of bad “he said, she said” coverage of the topic that most science journalists and critics such as Jay Rosen have come to recognize as deficient. […]

But what does the comparison actually mean? If it’s only pointing out that opposition exists, that there are people and organizations on the other side of the debate, then it’s so obvious as to be scarcely worth saying. Dunlap and McCright made the point that they were showing the workings of a disinformation propaganda machine, one that misrepresented science with a fixed goal of preventing policies contrary to corporate and rightwing interests. Was Andy implying that those on the climate activism side were an equivalent kind of propaganda machine, even though the case for the reality and gravity of climate change is much better validated by the scientific literature? It seemed unlikely, but he seemed to let his readers think so.

If the diagram weren’t crude enough, the geometry of Rennie’s argument has even fewer dimensions… It’s about ‘sides’. And one ‘side’ has got ‘science’ on its side (‘ner ner ner nerrr nerr’). The former editor of a scientific publication doesn’t notice the politicisation of science. He doesn’t notice himself politicising science, of pitching it against ‘corporate and rightwing interests, in spite of the more sophisticated treatment of the climate debate having identified corporate interests and — heaven forefend — elements of the political right, on the side he seems committed to.

Moreover, the diagram offered by Dunlap et al simply doesn’t show ‘the workings of a disinformation propaganda machine’. Not least for the fact that several of the entities it depicts don’t even exist. And even if they still did exist, the diagram only serves to depict the prejudices of its authors, not a careful analysis of actors within the debate and their influence over it. It is, as it stands, an article intended to distort the perception of the debate, every bit as much as its authors claimed the ‘deniers’ had. No amount of drawings showing hierarchies and dependencies could adequately capture the reality of the debate. There are no straight lines in it. There are far fewer formal relationships between the actors than Dunlap, Rennie and co can admit.

Therefore, I suggest that this image:

… is a better symbol of the excesses of the ‘environmental machine’ and its intransigence than this image…

Because it shows far more explicitly that people project into this debate their own prejudices. Dunlap and co wanted to show how their political opponents had ‘distorted’ the debate. But they lost any sense of proportion in doing so. They forget to look at themeselves to understand why they had failed to influence the debate. They forgot that they themselves were attached to a vast effort to reproduce their ideas in policy, in the political reorganisation of the world, in powerful political institutions. And they were trying to do so, out with a democratic mandate, on the belief that being sufficiently convinced about the science is a legitimising basis for such authority. As sociologists, they should be ashamed of themselves.

I have to admit, I was annoyed at first by Revkin’s article. I read it, and tweeted,

disappointing treatment of a silly article, @Revkin http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/02/a-map-of-organized-climate-change-denial/ No sense of proportion, why take it seriously?

But then I followed the discussion that has followed it, which accuses Revkin of ‘false balance’, for daring to put arguments about the debate in perspective. And it seemed once again, that it’s the reactions to debate that are the most revealing. Indeed, many seemed shocked that Revkin should dare to put two ‘sides’ together. But what commenters such as Dunlap et al and Rennie cannot explain is why ‘conservative foundations’ and ‘think tanks’, and even corporations shouldn’t have a say in the climate debate. They might answer that they’ve got ‘science’ behind them, and that those they criticise have ‘interests’ and ‘ideology’. But I’m not taking their claims at face value. We can see for ourselves that the debate doesn’t divide on interests. And we can see the politics of such commentators, hidden behind their academic expertise. And it seems obvious that that politics, in spite of its own funding, cannot connect with the public. And it seems transparently the case that that expertise is being used to circumvent debate and democracy.