It was just shy of 6 months ago that I grabbed myself a taxi in Stirling city centre. It was the first day of many sweltering days this year. The driver locked eyes with me in the rear-view mirror where beads of sweat trickled from his face and said: “This isn’t a heatwave, this is the government.” This was not the first nor the last encounter I had this year with conspiracy theorists, but it was certainly the one that was firm in my memory as the UN’s COP26 event drew to a close in Glasgow.
On the 9th of November this year, CBS News reported that conspiracy theorists were taking to the internet after the event to encourage climate-change denial.
I thought back to that day in the taxi and of course, I couldn’t help but wonder. This was one man and his theories. Theories that were conveyed with such conviction that you would be forgiven for believing them. And a man whose job required him to come into contact with countless people a day, possibly spreading these theories like wildfire.
The scope of misinformation is frightening enough via the old-school channel of word of mouth, but not arguably as speedy and as accessible than through the much-loved modern channel of the internet.
Subsequently, two questions plagued me: What are the catalysts for climate denial and does this impose real life dangers?
The immense amount theories that have been circulating recently, included climate-change lockdowns were approaching, that climate change is exaggerated, not man made and it is the result of secret government experiments.
In a blog post from the University of Hull, Professor Mike Rogerson who is also a palaeo scientist made it his mission to debunk the circulating theories, emphasising the dangers of misinformation:
“The problem is that society gets climate information from the media, not from scientists. And the media, in an effort to seem unbiased, often line up one climate scientist against one denier to debate their point.”
However, Mike continues:
“But that doesn’t mean that the scientific community is split 50/50 on climate change. Actually it’s more like 97/3” and we all know which way is likely to be which.
However, climate denialism has worked in pursuit of one goal and one goal only since at least the 1980s… profit.
EXXON, an energy company founded in the 70s, were obsessed with innovation.
With this, they decided to invest in science. It was actually their very own scientists that were the first to present original papers explaining how the burning of fossil fuels will influence the climate.
This discovery was made in the early 80s just as the price of oil was decreasing, so the higher-ups at Exxon decided to ignore the information and turned to their business growth.
The scientists came back with more, in-depth research and told them that it was worse than they had originally thought.
“If Exxon wanted to be innovators so bad, maybe they would have taken this moment to diversify the energy sector, invest in alternative energy sources, but instead they decided to lie to you, to me and to your mom.”
So, EXXON being EXXON decided in the late 80s, when climate change was being accepted as an issue publicly, that it was time to instil doubt.
They set about doing this by making the apolitical nature of science… you guessed it— political, creating divisions, controversy and most importantly…doubts among the public.
As David Puttnam highlights in a Ted Talk on the reality of Climate change in 2014:
Humans used slaves as a source of energy and as it was fought to be abolished, the opponents argument was centred on profit. Then came the industrial revolution where years of innovation produced a new form of energy and so we progressed, we did better.
Notice any correlations here? This has been seen throughout history time and time again. Meeting expectations for profit is far more dangerous than exceeding expectations for a better future.
Dr Guy McPherson once said: “If you really think that the environment is less important than the economy, try holding your breath while you count your money.”
So what are the real life dangers of conspiracy theories and climate denialism?
Well, let’s sum it up like this.
The wider spread of misinformation, the more doubt is created, the more instilled denial becomes and the less meaningful, moral (and in this case) pro-environmental action is taken against REAL life issues. And this becomes even more harmful on social media where 54% of our youth consume their news. The youth that is essentially carrying our future.
A paper on why conspiracy theories are dangerous by Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Hutton revealed in 2015 that: “Exposure to conspiracy theories reduced people’s intentions to reduce their carbon footprint.”
The authors claim that conspiracy theories: “cannot be dismissed as trivial or harmless.” And that they pose a great threat to societal behaviours.
So the disregard for human suffering in the pursuit of profit from huge corporations combined with the spread of misinformation creates what we know as climate denialism. What can we do?
Do your research, check your sources and always, always, always choose consciousness over ignorance.
In regards to the corporations, I’ll leave that to David Puttnam to tell us:
“We’ve been sucked into the belief that an economic system is the only possible way forward and in truth, unless we alter the system, it is the absolute certainty that it will see the end of us as a species.”