Sociology of Government-led Climate Change Denial

Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr

The Abbott Government in Australia has previously stated it does not believe in climate change and it has significantly withdrawn funding for this line of research in its latest Budget (along with funding for most non-medical scientific research). A recent change on the Department of Environment’s website has removed a reference to the link between extreme weather conditions and climate change. The Department says this change reflects the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is incorrect. In order to provide some context for my post, it’s best to understand the Abbott Government’s historical and current position on climate change. I specifically focus on the public discourse by Abbott and his Ministers. They discuss climate change science as both something that is open to interpretation and something that can be fought with selective use of science.

The IPCC describes climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.

Climate change action is an interdisciplinary effort, requiring the knowledge and contribution of scientists, community planners and health workers, and other experts from many fields. It requires research as well as social policy intervention at the local community, state, federal and international levels.

I wrote part of this post on my Google+ and I encountered much push-back from a vocal minority of individuals vehemently opposed to the science of climate change.* As such, I wanted to expand on my original argument, and put climate change denial in sociological context. Research shows that political interests shape the extent to which climate change science is rejected, particularly when individuals have a direct or vested interest in an economy of fossil fuels, or where they have an ideological opposition to renewable energy and social change more broadly.  My focus is on the sociological consequences of extreme weather events, specifically on community planning and community resilience (the knowledge, resources and planning necessary to deal with extreme events).

Abbott Government Position on Climate Change

Abbott’s position against climate change science is well-documented. Consider this interview from 2008:

I refuse to be terrified of the future. I think that humankind has been pretty good at coping with the challenges that we’ve been given. If you look at Roman times, grapes grew up against Hadrian’s Wall – medieval times they grew crops in Greenland. In the 1700s they had ice fairs on the Thames. So the world has been significantly hotter, significantly colder than it is now. We’ve coped. I don’t say there aren’t problems, haven’t been problems, might not be problems, but I refuse to be terrified of the court [of scientific opinion]…I am always reluctant to join bandwagons. I think there are fashions in science and in the academe, just as there are fashions in so many other things.

Here, Abbott argues that because other people in other places, at other points in time, coped with the elements, climate change is not a big issue. This brand of “scepticism” that argues science is just a bunch of “fads” and conflicting opinions, is not actually engaging with the scientific evidence.

In 2010, Abbott infamously said, “Climate change is absolute crap.” In 2011, he said, “I don’t think we can say that the science is settled here.” He’s somewhat softened his stance in the last couple of years, especially in the lead up to the last election. He now says that climate change is important, but it’s “not the biggest issue” facing the world.

Climate change is a significant global issue. It is a very significant global issue. Is it the most important issue the world faces right now? I don’t believe so. It’s one of a number of significant issues that the world faces and we’ll do our bit.

Abbott’s subsequent actions contradict this position that we should take preventative action to address climate change.

Abbott continues to rely on the antiquated idea that Australia is “a land of droughts and flooding rains,” evoking a line from a popular Dorothea Mackellar poem from the year 1911. Abbott insists that this history means we can cope with future extreme weather, despite the scientific evidence that we cannot simply leave extreme weather events to play out without scientifically informed policy intervention.

Abbott Advisors’ Climate Change Discourse in 2014

Abbott’s key business advisor, Maurice Newman, went on national TV in late April 2014 to say that the scientific evidence on climate change was inconclusive. Like Abbott, who previously evoked a misguided narrative of historical climate events, Newman similarly argues that science is open to interpretation:

Newman: We know first of all that the survey which came out with the 97 per cent number was flawed in the first place. So we don’t pay any attention to that. What we do look at…

(ABC Journalist) Emma Alberici: There have been roughly three that have come up with that.

Newman: They all come up with flawed methodologies. So we don’t pay any attention to that. We know that there are a whole host of scientists out there who have a different point of view, who are highly respected, reputable scientists. So the 97 per cent doesn’t mean anything in any event because science is not a consensus issue. Science is whatever the science is and the fact remains there is no empirical evidence to show that man-made CO2, man-made emissions are adding to the temperature on earth.We haven’t had any measurable increase in temperature on earth for the last 17.5 years. If you look back over history, there’s no evidence that CO2 has driven the climate either. So I know that this is a view which is peddled consistently, but I think that the edifice which is the climate change establishment is now starting to look rather shaky because mother nature is not complying.

Newman dismisses the 97% of climate scientists in favour of one scientist he likes, Roy Spencer, who conveniently argues what Newman wants to hear. Newman insists that the other science he doesn’t “believe” is not credible because if you look at “history,” climate change is a figment of the science community’s imagination. “if you go back in history, and you look at when the sun has been active and when the sun has been inactive, will you find the climate on earth responds accordingly.” Never mind that the sun has never failed to be “active.”

Nevertheless, Newman uses science that fits with his worldview to refute the science that does not support his agenda: “I just look at the evidence. There is no evidence.” Later he argues, “But it isn’t a question of consensus. It’s a question of science.” In this view, science is whatever politicians want it to be.

In May, our Treasurer, Joe Hockey, argued that wind mills were “utterly offensive” and a blight on his scenic drive to work in Canberra, our nation’s capital.

In June, Abbott tried to push a climate change alliance with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This alliance aims to push Australia and Canada to oppose the Obama-led global agenda on climate change, and they hoped to encourage the U.K., New Zealand and India to join them. Abbott refused to put climate change on the agenda for the November G20 Summit, saying that this is the United Nation’s job, while the G20 should only deal with economic issues. This is in spite of the fact that climate change is directly affected by, and in turn affects, economic policies.

Last month, Abbott tried to have one of our oldest forests in Tasmania removed as a World Heritage Site to enable deforestation, a request that the United Nations denied. He’s been trying to repeal a carbon tax (a move that has suffered significant drawbacks this week). Plus Abbott has significantly withdrawn funding for a renewable energy program. Ahead of his recent visit to meet with President Obama in June, Abbott said he would not support renewable energies. He explained: “I’m not going to take climate change action which does clobber the economy.”

Removing Official Reference to Climate Change

One of the first decisions that Prime Minister Tony Abbott implemented during the first 24 hours following his political win was to cut science programs. He abolished the Climate Change Commission, he cut the position of Science Minister and soon thereafter, he slashed science funding. The former Climate Commission is now operating as an independent not-for-profit organisation as The Climate Council. Their Chief Executive, Amanda McKenzie, has spoken out against the decision to remove the Department of Environment website’s link between extreme weather and climate change. She says:

There is a common misconception that Australia has always had extreme weather so we should not be concerned now, but we are already seeing more forceful, extreme weather. Bushfires have increased in south-east Australia in the past 30 years, and we’ve just had our hottest 12 months on record. The evidence is absolutely unequivocal on the link. We know bushfire conditions are getting worse. We have to take the government on its word that it takes climate change seriously but there have been inaccurate statements made around extreme weather and it’s critical the public is provided the right information on these matters.

A major issue is that the Abbott Government is positioning its environmental policies through an anti-science ideology. Economic growth is pitted against sustainable practices. Climate change becomes something to be rejected on the basis of personal belief  (“we believe that human-caused climate change is not real”). This short-term view on environmental policies will cost Australia’s future highly over the long-term. As I’ve noted previously, “belief” in science is a value-laden position guided by personal world-views and political feelings, not by scientific evidence.

All in all, Abbott and his Government continue to display poor policy and decision-making on climate change (and other pertinent social issues). Good leadership would be to listen to climate change experts. Let’s now see what the international science community has to say on this, specifically on the connection between extreme weather. My interest is on the sociological impact on community planning.

Scientific Consensus on Climate Change & Extreme Weather

Community resilience requires public awareness about climate change and its impact on extreme weather
Community resilience requires public awareness about climate change and its impact on extreme weather

The international scientific community has enough evidence to show that certain extreme weather events “have changed in frequency and/or intensity over the last 50 years.” For example, the IPCC notes that cold weather and frosts “have become less frequent over most land areas, while hot days and hot nights have become more frequent.” The effects vary according to location. Heat waves have become more frequent in some places; heavy rainfall has increased in other areas; and extreme high sea level has increased.

The IPCC has produced a series of reports documenting the effect of climate change on extreme weather. Extreme weather produces increased vulnerabilities that climate scientists model so that we might plan for, and reduce, the risks (see here and here). The latest IPCC report for example looks at adaptations and vulnerabilities. The IPCC notes that the impact of extreme weather events depend not just on changing weather conditions but also on “exposure and vulnerability.” Socio-economic patterns, such as age, health, disability, location and education can impact on the ability of communities to prepare for extreme weather events.

Different world regions require different disaster management strategies and public health responses. In brief, these include:

  • Australasia: addressing sea level rise, and reduced water availability in Southern states.
  • Africa: adjustments in technology and infrastructure to improve ecosystems, basic health, and diversification of livelihood (such as to address food insecurity).
  • Europe: coastal and water management, environmental protection and land planning.
  • Asia: “development planning, early warning systems, integrated water resources management, agroforestry, and coastal reforestation of mangroves.”
  • North America: municipal-level adaptation and planning and “longer-term investments in energy and public infrastructure.”
  • Central and South America: ecosystem adaptation and conservation, community management, the development of resilient crops, strengthening climate forecasts, and “integrated water resources management.” (IPCC)

The IPCC further notes that the connection between climate change and extreme weather significantly impact sustainable development amongst local communities, with global consequences:

Climate extremes, exposure, and vulnerability are influenced by a wide range of factors, including anthropogenic climate change, natural climate variability, and socio-economic development… The interactions among climate change mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk management may have a major influence on resilient and sustainable pathways.

Misinforming the public has real consequences for how communities deal with and prepare for extreme weather events like bushfires. So why do Liberal Government policy-makers refuse to acknowledge the connection between the scientific evidence on climate change when tackling extreme weather events?

Climate Change Denial as Ideology

Funding Distribution - 2003 to 2010. U.S. Climate Change Countermovement Organisations
Funding Distribution – 2003 to 2010. U.S. Climate Change Countermovement Organisations. (Click to enlarge)

As noted, I have previously explored how personal belief and political ideologies influence the willingness people have to accept robust scientific evidence. This is especially the case if they belong to a privileged group who feels their identity or way of life is threatened by research, or where their social group stands to lose power. Environmental sociologist Robert Brulle has shown that propaganda that negates climate change is funded by fossil fuel companies (see also image right). He argues: “The debate over climate change involves a political and cultural dispute contest over the appropriate field frame that governs energy policy.”

Social scientists Lianne Lefsrud and Renate Meyer studied how beliefs about climate change are related to personal identities and professional interests. They surveyed 1,077 professional engineers and geoscientists in Alberta, Canada, who are also members of the professional self-regulatory authority in their region, the APGA. The study notes that the largest employer in Alberta is the petroleum industry and their employees in turn make up a hefty proportion of the APGA: “In oil and gas companies, almost half of CEOs are professional engineers or geoscientists and most senior management teams and boards have at least one licensed professional [who are members of APGA].”

In Lefsrud and Meyer’s study, the participants who dismiss the idea that climate change is impacted by human activity also argue that governments should not support national or international initiatives to target climate change. Specifically they were asked about the Kyoto treaty. The study was published in 2012, and probably conducted in 2008-2009,** which is noteworthy because it was well ahead of the IPCC’s 2013 landmark international study on anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.

The participants who oppose the idea of human-caused climate change fall into two groups (or “frames”). The economic responsibility group who believe we can never know whether climate change is caused by either humans nor by nature. The argue that climate change poses no significant personal risk to humans’ daily lives. They believe that climate policies should protect the economy. To put it another way, that climate policies should protect them and their employers. A typical statement cited in the study exemplifying this group: “Don’t we pay enough taxes as it is?”

The nature is overwhelming group believe that climate change is “natural” and unavoidable. They believe humans are insignificant in affecting nature. They make scientifically erroneous statements in the study such as, “‘If you think about it, global warming is what brought us out of the Ice Age.” The researchers write:

adherents of those frames that are more defensive and oppose regulation (‘nature is overwhelming’, ‘economic responsibility’) are significantly more likely to be more senior in their organizations, male, older, geoscientists, and work in the oil and gas industry. Adherents of these two frames comprise 33.7% of our respondents overall, but 63.3% of top managers in the oil and gas industry as opposed to 19.1% supporting regulation. [My emphasis]

So you see there’s a relationship between vested interests and beliefs about climate change. Tony Abbott and his Cabinet can be seen to embody these two frames of references, which reject the importance of climate change action on the basis of selective science, and economic concerns.

The IPCC propose a model of effective action that includes reducing exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather risks and increasing community resilience. In this case, a big part of resilience is public awareness about climate change and its impact on extreme weather. Shying away from educating the public about this connection is dangerous. The idea that Australia has always had bushfires does not take into consideration our changing population over time, and how the changes in the way we now live impact on our landscape. The Government’s failure to educate on these shifting dynamics encourages citizens to be complacent about changing conditions in our environment, rather than encouraging communities to be ready for these extreme weather shifts.

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Want to learn more about the IPCC’s scientific review and the connection between climate change and extreme weather? Check out Dr Noah Diffenbaugh‘s discussion with Science on Google+. He speaks about his research in the video below from 45:50 minutes or read my summary of the discussion. (Scroll to the third section titled Thunderstruck for Noah’s presentation.)

Below Noah answers questions about the IPCC report and climate change.


*View my original post on Google+.

**Lefsrud and Meyer’s study may have even been conducted earlier, as the notes in the article describe that the initial findings were presented at a conference in 2009. Most of the references cited in the study are from 2010. The IPCC’s international study that compiled the leading science from around the world was published in 2013. It found that the overwhelming majority of scientists support the science that climate change is caused by human activity.

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