An Antagonistic Climate

By Martin Mahony

Image by Eric Vance, EPA Chief Photographer (Environmental Protection Agency)According to a recent PBS documentary entitled Climate of Doubt, a sustained attack on the science of climate change from a range of predominantly conservative, free-market think-tanks and research institutions has pushed the climate issue off the political agenda in the US. For Republicans, any adherence to the consensus position offered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would seem to be political suicide in front of a sceptical conservative public. For Democrats, climate change can seemingly only be discussed in terms of the economic opportunities offered by investment in alternative energy sources.

The PBS documentary could be criticised for simplifying the issue of scepticism and its role in science and politics, and all sides of the debate – including PBS – still cling on to the idea that science provides the one and only path to politically actionable policies to address questions of environmental change and societal vulnerabilities.

The antagonistic battle over the reality of climate change continued this week with news that prominent climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Penn State University is taking a prominent US conservative publication to court over claims of defamation. In a blog post on the Competitive Enterprise Institute website, Mann was compared to recently convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, although the target of Mann’s molestation was claimed to be climate data and statistical methodologies.

While this is an extreme case, it is an example of the kind of ad hominen argumentation that so often characterises climate change debates. In an innovative new paper in The Geographical Journal, Nelya Koteyko and colleagues explore  the discourse and rhetoric employed by contributors to online newspaper comment threads. The paper shows how “stereotypes” of science and politics are used to distance climate scientists from commonly-held ideals of scientific practice (such as disinterestedness or organized scepticism), and how the ‘Climategate’ incidents of late 2009 bolstered the arguments of sceptical readers against the reality of climate change.

Like the Michael E. Mann incident and the PBS documentary, the paper highlights the deep entangling of climate scepticism and conservative economic ideologies, as sceptical statements often combine scientific issues with arguments against higher taxation and greater government involvement in the regulation of industry. Although it is important for scientists to be able to defend themselves against personal attacks and harassment, these episodes should tell us that the apparent political gridlock over climate change will not be solved simply by more science, or by convincing all sceptics of the reliability of the headline claims made by the IPCC. In a climate of ideological antagonism, it will take a titanic effort of political argumentation and innovation to move the policy discussion forwards. Science cannot do the job of politics.

 Penn State scientist Michael Mann alleges defamation, seeks damagesYale Forum on Climate Change and the Media

 Nelya Koteyko, Rusi Jaspal & Brigitte Nerlich, 2012, Climate change and “climategate” in online reader comments: a mixed methods studyThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00479.x

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