Free Speech vs Climate Denialism

By Benedikt Loula, GLOBUS Correspondent

Free speech is sacrosanct – or, at least we treat it as such. This sentiment resonates so strongly with me that whenever I hear someone utter ‘freedom of speech’, I imagine an old man pointing his index finger at me, saying:

“Freedom of speech must be always held high. The only time… the only time, we are allowed to censor free speech is; when it allows individuals to espouse hate speech and encourage violence.”

Intuitively speaking, there must be some limit to free speech. Firstly, let’s translate this into factual terms: as of today, we are taking down terrorist propaganda on social media, many countries have banned nicotine marketing, and some countries made Holocaust denial into a criminal offense. Evidently, a rational agent would not argue for absolute freedom of speech as it can work to the detriment of society. Yet, how come that climate denialism does not qualify as mostly harmful? In this article, I am going to shed light on this issue, arguing in favour of making some instances of climate denialism illegal.

What is Climate Denialism?

Although most of us would agree that climate denialism is not valid, we still attribute some merit to the position – after all, a bit of scepticism is healthy. It weeds out the naive certainty often hidden in our assumptions. However, there is a crucial distinction between sceptics and deniers. Real scepticism entails taking a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims, whereas denialism is “typically driven by ideology and religious belief” (Shermer 2010: 36). Hence, it is my hypothesis that, despite some climate denial groups calling themselves ‘sceptics’, these two groups operate in two different domains.

More importantly, denialism does not act in good faith, as it does not adhere to the principle of caveat emptor,more colloquially known as “ignorance of the law excuses not.” To elaborate, in some circumstances there are things you should know, and you cannot be excused for not knowing them. The climate debate requires you to approach global warming scientifically, and a failure to do so would have some disastrous consequences. The “predictions in broad terms are clear” (Broome 2012: 31), and there is no doubt that climate change will harm millions of people.

There is clear-cut scientific evidence that:

  1. The warming trend is occurring,
  2. It has anthropogenic causes, and
  3. Its impact will not be benign nor beneficial.

Trying to challenge any of these positions implies not acting in good faith as they have been thoroughly ratified. Therefore, refusing to accept the overwhelming “preponderance of evidence is not scepticism; it is a denial and should be called by its true name” (Washington & Cook 2011: 2).

Detrimental Aspects of Climate Denialism

When proposing a ban on climate denialism, we need to consider all the possible forms it can take. A denialist can be a climate scientist who publishes peer-reviewed articles denying man-made climate change or just a participant in the climate denial blogosphere. I think it would be unwise to tackle these forms of denialism. For instance, it is very hard to account for individual motivations and thus it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish whether they are acting in good faith or not. For that reason, I regard illegal climate denialism as:

“…a well-organized and well-funded campaign by a group with authority in society, which keeps repeating the same untrue, damaging and imbalanced claims about climate change”

(Lavik, 2015)

At first, this might seem like a surreal position to take. After all, we are not living in some kind of Brave New World dystopia where corporations dictate how society should be governed. But on the other hand, consider how much money the tobacco industry spent on spreading mistruths about smoking. In a similar way, the oil industry has a great interest in undermining climate change evidence. In fact, well-established think-tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation have received massive donations from oil companies to produce the kind of fake science that justifies the burning of fossil fuels. Influential mediums such as Fox News are also on Exxon Mobil’s payroll, the world’s largest oil and gas company, to spread disregard for the importance of climate action and justice.

For more on climate denialism, see ‘The Tale of Three Doubts’ (Olive, 2019)

This denialist machine is an intricate global network that permeates all levels of society. There is no positive outcome in keeping it alive. Its sole purpose is to stay in the way of truth and to keep our democratic apparatus impotent in the fight against climate change. If we have banned tobacco companies from spreading mistruths, why are we not doing the same for oil companies?

Conclusion

We find ourselves in a very serious post-truth conundrum. On the one hand, the scientific community has thoroughly reviewed all the research in the field and has agreed, quite unanimously, that climate change will have very serious adverse impacts if not tackled early on. Moreover, communities across the world concur with this scientific reasoning and support these conclusions; the fossil fuel industry has launched a campaign to create doubt by establishing quasi-scientific institutes and by paying scientists to deny the conclusions of the wider scientific community.

I believe it is reasonable to claim that this is a form of organized crime. We cannot combat the suffering that will ensue in the Climate Emergency if we don’t have public opinion on our side. However, corporate power is taking away the popular support for climate justice by spreading outright lies. Therefore, we should make this form of climate denialism illegal.

Header image: Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

References

Broome, J. (2012). Climate matters. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Desmog (n.d.). Cato Institute. [online] Available at: https://www.desmogblog.com/cato-institute [Accessed 26 December 2019].

Kaufman, N. (2018). Heritage Foundation Gets It Wrong on Costs and Benefits of Climate Action. World Resources Institute. [online] Available at: https://www.wri.org/blog/2017/03/heritage-foundation-gets-it-wrong-costs-and-benefits-climate-action [Accessed 26 December 2019].

Lavik, Trygve. (2015). Climate change denial, freedom of speech and global justice. Etikk i praksis – Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics.

Shermer, M. (2010). I am a sceptic, but I’m not a denier. New Scientist.

Theel, S. (2011). At Fox News, Planet Earth Is Sponsored By ExxonMobil. Media Matters for America. [online] Available at: https://www.mediamatters.org/fox-news/fox-news-planet-earth-sponsored-exxonmobil [Accessed 26 December 2019].

Washington, H. and Cook, J. (2011). Climate change denial: Heads in the sand. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.

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