Climate Denialism in the Age of Populism

By Todd Olive, GLOBUS Editor in Chief

Populism is a fact of life in our world today; back in 2017, it was even named Word of the Year by Cambridge Dictionary. The Donald, as near to a human embodiment of the word as is possible, is likely to shortly be exonerated by the US Senate in his impeachment trial for withholding aid from the Ukraine in return for political gain; on this side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson’s special brand of Brexit-centric economic populism has won him the first (seemingly?) stable majority government in British politics for almost a decade.

While the battle to define populism still rages, a common theme is that identified by the Cambridge Dictionary: that it’s about giving the ‘ordinary people’ what they want. In and of itself, this is perhaps not a bad thing – but in practice, we’ve seen it often accompanied by rhetoric that’s damaging to inequality, diversity, and sustainability more widely. Trump’s crusade against immigration and refugees in the name of his ‘America First’ policy needs no citations; in Brazil, President Bolsonaro has worked tirelessly to roll back environmental protections. In the week in which the UK is scheduled to leave the European Union after nearly fifty years, we should recognise, too, the particularly divisive brand of anti-EU, anti-establishment populism employed by the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage – ironic, given Farage’s past as an investment banker, and that he’s been part of the establishment’s European political arena for more than twenty years.

To round off this correspondent’s time with GLOBUS in the way that it began, though, there’s another, less obvious but equally sinister, strand of rhetoric in the populist wave: climate denialism.

At the beginning of December, the Daily Telegraph – who else? – published a column by Sherelle Jacobs, a School of Oriental and African Studies graduate in history with apparently fewer qualifications in the field of climate science than an A-Level geography student, which poured scorn on “the UN’s ‘woke’ climate change propaganda”. Ms Jacobs asserts that she has “no fight” with evidence of global warming, nor that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are responsible – rather, apparently, that the climate change narrative insults the public’s intelligence… oh, and basic science, too. While Jacobs ironically denies that she’s a climate change denier, her article is in fact a jumble of two of the five types of climate denialism: arguing that it’ll be fine, and that the experts say it’s too late anyway.

There are, essentially, three strands to Ms Jacobs’ argument. The first is that experts cannot seem to agree on the urgency of acting: some suggest 12 years remain for meaningful action; some suggest 18 months; and some that it is already too late. The second is that the uncertainty inherent in climate modelling reduces warnings made based on these projections to ‘fake news’, and the third is that CO2 emissions “may not be the only reason for warming”.

This correspondent will, in the interests of remaining on topic, restrict the identification of the flaws in these arguments to the following:

  1. Uncertainty in the degree of urgency does not mean action is not urgent,
  2. 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is due solely to the exogenous influence of human activity on climate systems.

In this instance, of greater interest to this correspondent than the actual denialism in this column are its stark and, frankly, intimidating allusions to the ‘people vs the elite’ narrative that is so common to populist narratives.

It takes three sentences for Jacobs’ column to refer to the “smell of institutionalised illness”. According to her narrative, prior to the Madrid climate summit “bureaucratic catastrophists”, a group including Greta Thunberg ad the UN Secretary General, waved through the Emissions Gap Report as if it were a “millenarian death oracle”. Completing the ‘us and them’ paradigm, Jacobs declares that “laymen like me sense that something is amiss, because we grew up assuming science is more about possibility than limitations.”

This is only one of the three connections to the classic Johnson-Trump-Bolsonaro populism that we see every day. The second is inherent in Jacobs’ comment that science is “more about possibility than limitations.” What she is effectively arguing here is that science should be positive, forward-thinking, advocating action and progress – rather than warning against the risk of civilisation-shattering damages [a phrase that this correspondent uses ironically, both in the spirit of Jacobs’ clearly derisory imitations of “doom-mongering” and to adhere to the true scale of the threat that the Climate Emergency poses].

Remember ‘Project Fear’? This was the name given to the campaign for Scotland to remain in the UK back in 2014, and subsequently uttered often and with malice by Brexit advocates (here it is again…) decrying the campaign for the UK to remain in the EU. The premise was that both campaigns centred around warnings of serious economic and social harm… sound familiar? The implication, therefore, of Jacobs argument – as illuminated by this parallel – is that scientists should be less downbeat about climate change: we should look on the bright side. No more cold January nights! No more mild weather!

There is, this correspondent will grant, room for the climate action movement to share a positive vision of the world we can work towards – but to use such an argument in the spirit of Jacobs’ division-provoking populist column is frankly irresponsible.

Having read, and – it must be said – got angry about Jacobs’ column, and been struck by its severely populist tone, this correspondent did some digging: specifically, into Jacobs’ past work for the Telegraph. In doing so, the undercurrent that ultimately brought about this article was exposed. Here are some excerpts:

Global warming is happening, but the climate science itself is messy, mystifying and ambivalent; the certainty with which eco-warriors present their case is thus disgracefully dishonest.

Davos Doom-mongers herald a new dark age for climate science (23/01/20)

It is now almost a cliché on the Right that we are suffering in the postmodern age; grand narrative optimism has been jettisoned in favour of fragmenting multiculturalism and primeval declinism. This, in my humble view, is not necessarily an indictment of postmodernism itself – which, after the Second World War, aimed to challenge unthinking devotion to orthodoxies. Rather, it is a reflection of how anti-intellectual liberalism has absorbed a [climate] movement that, if excessively navel-gazing, was unapologetically subversive and ruthlessly devoted to logical inquiry (even if, yes, some logically concluded that logic is impossible).

Kowtowing to Stormzy and Greta Thunberg exposes our elite’s lazy groupthink (02/01/20)

Boris Johnson has proved extremely popular – coming across as an unstuffy man who is optimistic against the odds, and “bloody loves his country”.

The London bubble didn’t see this historic political earthquake coming (13/12/19)

Over the past three years, the hardy British public has looked on in despair as MPs reduced British politics to a weeping kumbaya of grief-stricken virtue signalling.

Voters will relish pulling the plug on this Parliament of vapid virtue-signallers (31/10/19)

Ever since [the 2017 General Election], [MPs] have snorted through their bureaucratic nostrils at the Government, abusing our unwritten constitution and ruthlessly manipulating parliamentary procedure in order to frustrate Brexit at every turn.

The British public’s chance to drain the swamp has finally arrived (29/10/19)

I can’t help but bristle at the evasive and shallow discussion around the Essex lorry deaths. The Left scooped last week’s tragedy into the sweeping embrace of its own agenda with maternal quickness. Diane Abbott immediately called for “safe and legal” routes for refugees into the UK – even though there was no evidence the deceased were such. It has since emerged that many paid thousands to be smuggled into Britain for work.
This obfuscating misapplication of the term “refugee” is deliberate. It betrays the liberal’s desire to reduce the narrative about migration to a Manichean clash of visions: the compassionate utopia of open borders versus an evil dystopia of barbed wire customs checks.

Liberal denial about immigration is legitimising a tragic global crisis (29/10/19)

These excerpts illustrate several things. Firstly, the anti-climate expert, ‘people vs the elite’ narrative so characteristic of populism; secondly, a barely-disguised crusade against the rising tide of climate action; and thirdly, that both of these trends are sited within Jacobs’ wider anti-establishment, populist discourse.

And it’s not just Jacobs that has adopted climate denialism as yet another tool of the populist tsunami. To return to our populist caricatures, Nigel Farage and his parties have repeatedly denied the reality of climate change, mingling with like-minded conservative groups that adopt similar views on climate change. The views of Trump and Bolsonaro on climate change need no explanation.

And so, climate denialism as a sinister constituent of contemporary populism is exposed. It’s there, it’s dangerous, and it’s emblematic of a movement that feels left behind, excluded from the ‘elite establishment’ – so what do we do about it?

To some extent, the climate action narrative will need to take heed of the need to produce a positive vision: as this correspondent has discussed in prior work, creating an image of the society that we could live in, as opposed simply to the one that we are seeking to avoid, will be imperative to redressing the concerns of those that cannot, or will not, fathom the depth of threat posed by the Climate Emergency. This vision must also accord to the principles of interdisciplinarity that underpin much work in the wider sustainability field; the economist must never have more of an impact than the ecologist or the artist.

Beyond interdisciplinary, this vision must be built on base of stakeholders that is far wider than the contemporary environmental movement. To combat partisan opposition, we must account for the value systems of both left and right, liberal and less so. To account for inequality and the unequal impacts of a ‘green transition’, we must consider those from all parts of the spectrums of wealth and power; to redress the potential for Western-centric values to dominate discussions about what is ‘sustainable’, and adhere to the principle of climate justice, we must ensure that people of all races, creeds, and nationalities are represented equally at the negotiating table.

And beyond even the issue of climate denialism, to achieve a truly sustainable future, we must all remember that there is no such thing as living in a bubble. The fundamental principle of populism is the idea that the people have a collective ‘want’: so let us remember that we are all, together, the people. Our actions, our teaching, learning, our research, and our very lives all exist in a world of infinite complexity; we are all connected, in ways both great and small, and we must act as if this were so.

We must dare to dream – and never stop.

Header image: Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Climate Denialism in the Age of Populism

Add yours

  1. A very topical and fitting last article Todd. Good work on digging out the artilces by Sherelle Jacobs! In isolation one article can look innoculous, strung together a whole different pattern emerges….hopefully something that comes across in our teaching in GSD. Thanks ocne again for all your work on Globus.


  2. A very insightful parting shot from an Editor that has made a significant impact on this publication. Many congratulations Todd!


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