Here is part 2 of Clive Hamilton’s series on the right-wing denial movement:
The floods of offensive and threatening emails aimed at intimidating climate scientists have all the signs of an orchestrated campaign by sceptics groups. The links are well-hidden because mobilizing people to send abuse and threats is well outside the accepted bounds of democratic participation; indeed, some of it is illegal. And an apparently spontaneous expression of citizen concern carries more weight than an organised operation by a zealous group.
Without access to ISP logs, it is difficult to trace the emails to a source. However, it is clear that hard-line denialists congregate electronically at a number of internet nodes where they engage in mutual reinforcement of their opinions and stoke the rage that lies behind them.
Those who operate these sites retail the “information” that reinforces the assertions made by their followers. They often post highly personal attacks on individuals who speak in favour of mainstream science and measures to combat global warming, knowing from experience that they will stimulate a stream of vituperation from their supporters.
The posts on these sites often provoke an outpouring of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and vilification of individuals. There is no restraining influence and, in the middle of one of these frenzies, it would be a brave sceptic who called for caution and moderation in the ideas expressed or the language used.
In Australia, a handful of denialist websites stand out. They include the blog of Herald-Suncommentator Andrew Bolt, Bolt’s stable mate Tim Blair at the Daily Telegraph, the website operated by sceptic Joanne Nova (a pseudonym for Joanne Codling), and the community forum site operated by the Queensland farmers’ organisation Agmates. Denialists also flock to the e-journal Online Opinion.
On these sites discussion of the “global warming conspiracy” seamlessly segues into a hodge-podge of right-wing populist grievances and causes, including defending rural property rights, the martyrdom of farming hunger-striker Peter Spencer, the errors of the Club of Rome, blood on the hands of Rachel Carson for causing DDT to be banned, the evils of Al Gore, the plan by the United Nations to dominate the world, and the need to defend freedom and democracy from these threats. Sceptics are explicitly or implicitly portrayed as freedom fighters battling attempts by scheming elites to shore up their power or impose a world government.
Recently, this stew of paranoia has been given a boost by the media exposure granted to Christopher Monckton in his recent Australian tour. Monckton propounded his extraordinary theory about climate change being a conspiracy by communists – assisted by the Hitler Youth and a craven scientific establishment – to seize power through a world government hidden in a climate treaty. A few months ago a fantasist like Monckton would have attracted only eye-rolling from news editors.
I am not suggesting that the individuals and organisations I have mentioned are responsible for organising the cyber-bullying attacks on scientists and others. However, they do create an environment that encourages them. The effect of these sites is three-fold.
- They supply the ammunition that confirms and elaborates on climate deniers’ beliefs.
- They provide a forum in which deniers can participate in a like-minded community that reinforces their views.
- And they identify the individuals responsible for promoting climate lies, stimulating participants to make direct contacts with “warmists”.
Andrew Bolt’s blog deserves special mention both because it has become the most popular meeting place for deniers in Australia and because it is sponsored by a mainstream media outlet, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, a Murdoch tabloid.
Bolt specialises in posts of angry ridicule directed at climate scientists and any others who publicly accept the science. Recent targets have included Ove Hoegh-Guldburg, Andy Pitman, and the CSIRO as a whole.
Bolt has admitted that his posts bad-mouthing climate scientists have incited his readers to send abusive emails to them.
It might be thought that vilification of climate scientists and others engaged in the climate debate is confined to the nether-world of the Internet. In truth, the most influential source of misrepresentation and ridicule resides in the “heritage media” in the form of the Murdoch broadsheet, The Australian. I will consider its long-running war on science later, but here it is important to draw attention to its role in identifying hate figures for deniers and fueling their aggression.
As an illustration of the newspaper’s tactic, at the Copenhagen conference in December an Australian named Ian Fry, representing the Government of Tuvalu, made an impassioned intervention from the plenary floor that captured the mood and made headlines around the world. Fry is a shy man who has for many years devoted himself to representing the tiny island state for minimal financial or reputational reward.
The day after his intervention The Australian published a story ridiculing his “tear-jerking performance” and suggesting he is a self-seeking hypocrite because he lives a long way from the sea. The story appeared on the front page alongside a photograph of Fry’s house.
At a time when climate campaigners were receiving grisly death threats, the editors of the national daily decided to expose Ian Fry and his family to danger by publishing information about where he lives that enabled people to work out his address. When challenged, the journalist responsible for the story showed no understanding or remorse.
In 2005 The Australian used the same tactic on Indigenous leader Mick Dodson, publishing a photo of his house under a headline claiming he lived comfortably in the suburbs while depriving other Indigenous people of the opportunity to own a house. Dodson, already the subject of death threats, said he feared for the safety of his family.
The Australian‘s grubby tactic was unwillingly revealed by one of its journalists, Caroline Overington. During the last election campaign, a Labor candidate decided he did not want to be interviewed and photographed, so she threatened to send a photographer around to stake out his house. She sent the following text message:
“Either you say yes to a photograph smiling and happy and out campaigning, or we stake you out at … Bondi Junction, and get you looking like a cat caught in a trap, in your PJs. Your choice.”
What drives denial?
What motivates the legion of climate deniers to send hate-mail? In recent years a great deal of evidence has come to light linking fossil fuel corporations with organisations that promote climate denial, but it would be a mistake to believe that the army of sceptical bloggers is in any sense in the pay of, or directly influenced by, the fossil fuel lobby.
Climate denialism has been absorbed by an older and wider political movement, sometimes called right-wing populism. Emanating from the United States, and defined more by what it fears than by what it proposes, the movement’s enemies were helpfully listed in a 2004 TV ad attacking Democrat Howard Dean, whose supporters were characterised as a:
“tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”
Although the targets are adapted to Australian conditions, in both countries the movement is driven by feelings of angry grievance. Those who identify with it see themselves as anti-liberal, anti-elitist and anti-intellectual. They are resentful of their exclusion from the mainstream and at the same time proud of their outsider status.
Since the mid-1990s, anti-climate forces associated with the Republic Party and oil-funded conservative think tanks have successfully linked acceptance of global warming and the need for greenhouse policies with those groups despised by right-wing populism.
In more recent years, the denial movement has been joined by some hard-line conservative Christian groups, including the notorious Catch the Fire Ministries and its witch-hunting pastor Danny Nalliah. According to Paul Colgan, these groups were heavily involved in the lobbying to have Tony Abbott elected as Liberal Party leader.
As this suggests, becoming a denialist does not follow from carefully weighing up the evidence (that is, true scepticism) but from associating oneself with a cultural outlook, taking on an identity defined in opposition to a caricature of those who support action on climate change. It is the energy in this wider movement that has seen climate denialism morphing into a new form of political extremism.
Some active climate deniers possess a distinct “mindset” comprised of a certain worldview, including a narrative centered on secretive forces – variously encompassing elected leaders, scientists, scientific organisations, environmental groups and the United Nations – that are using climate science and climate policies as a cover to accumulate power with the objective of creating a world government that overrides national sovereignty and deprives citizens of their rights.
Those who hold to this worldview often feel marginalised and persecuted. It attracts the unstable and fanatical as well as those with more legitimate political grievances. For political leaders so inclined, the energy being mobilised by climate denial is a golden opportunity. Although it remains necessary for these leaders to evince a concern for the environment, and even to pretend to accept climate science, they can speak to the denialist minority using dog-whistling techniques to signal that they are really on their side.
This explains the decision by new Opposition leader Tony Abbott to meet Monckton when even one of the country’s most conservative columnists wrote of the dangers of associating with his extreme views. Although he had been forced to repudiate his pre-leadership claim that climate science is “absolute crap”, in meeting Monckton Abbott sent the message that his real views have not changed. Of course, he can respond to accusations of giving succour to denialism with the dog-whistler’s device of “plausible deniability” – he is happy to hear all views.
A more subtle message was sent by Abbott earlier this month when he gloated over the recent recall of the Toyota Prius; for him and others hostile to environmentalism, the tarnishing of a green icon is a reason for celebration.
Tomorrow: The Exxon-funded think tanks that feed climate denial.