“Septic” science

By Claire McNear, on 15 February 2014

By Harriet Bradley, IPPR Environment Columnist

Prince Charles and Scarlett Johansson both made headlines at the end of January over their battles with corporations. Unlike Johansson, the less-glossy Charles defied corporate interests, by attacking the funding of climate scepticism by powerful lobby groups. Could shining a light on the sources of climate scepticism through public statements like these help to change the discourse surrounding climate change from a question of science to a question of power?

It would be a mistake to let one’s ideological aversion to the inherited privilege of the monarchy overshadow the content of Charles’ recent comments. As Paul Vallely, a visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester, commented, “In practice the Prince, like the House of Lords, offers a useful practical long-term antidote to the short-term posturing of elected politicians.” There is certainly a moral case for accusing privileged public figures of hypocrisy when they criticise abuses of power and wealth, but the reality is that such public figureheads can help to get these sorts of debates out of the circles of the already interested, and into those circles where climate scepticism remains influential.

The scientific evidence that climate change is man-made is overwhelming. So too is the evidence of corporate funding of major climate sceptic groups, such as the Heartland Institute in the US, “the world’s most prominent think-tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change.” Its funders have included some of America’s largest corporations including the Koch oil billionaires, GlaxoSmithKline, Microsoft and RJR Tobacco.

The campaign to discredit man-made climate change science by those who recognise the costs curbing it could impose on polluters has been likened to the propaganda effort by tobacco firms to cast doubt on the findings of those scientists who first suggested that smoking might be harmful to health in the 1960s and 1970s. Sowing seeds of doubt is a highly effective tactic to undermine the ability of scientists raising climate concerns. Indeed, in 2012 it was leaked that the Heartland Institute was funding a campaign in American schools to teach that “the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.” This all suggests that we must look beyond state actors to understand the powerful networks of economic interests that influence national and international discourses on issues like smoking and climate change.

So, are human beings rational actors who weigh the costs and benefits of a given action? Considering the effects of climate change are already being felt in developed and developing countries alike, from the most destructive typhoon the Philippines’ history late last year, to flood damage in the UK, to unprecedented hurricanes in New York, to the melting of the polar ice caps, it seems that climate change denialism is not rational from the point of view of long-term economic and other interests. Given the stakes are so high, to explicitly claim, as countries including Canada, Russia, Japan, the US and the UK have, that any real trade-off between economic growth and cutting pollution is unjustifiable seems implausible.

In the context of the recession, the Conservatives’ 2010 election slogan to “vote blue, go green,” alongside their pledge to build a green economy, has seemingly given way to the traditional dichotomy between economy and ecology. The UK’s Secretary for the Environment Owen Patterson, who publicly denies man-made climate change, has overseen a 41% decline in spending on domestic climate change initiatives this financial year, given the green light to shale gas extraction and opposed the EU’s call for binding renewable energy production targets. With powerful representatives of multinational corporations such as the Chairman of Nestlé (self-proclaimed as “the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company” and with its own Commitment on Climate Change) coming out with the same denialism just last week, it seems that climate change “scepticaemia” amongst businesses and our elected politicians is endemic. If unchecked in the public arena, such discourses provide governments with an excuse to backtrack on national and international environmental policies, as appears to be happening.

All this goes to show that in this case, Charles has touched on something very important in the arena of environmental politics.

Statements like Prince Charles’ which confront the power relationships behind scientific scepticism have the power, in theory, to alter public discourse on climate change, sowing their own seeds of doubt about the basis for scepticism, and alerting us to the importance of interrogating our sources of information. The heir to the throne may embody a non-democratic institution, but his speech demonstrated both a willingness to speak out about globally powerful non-democratic forces that many would argue currently dominate the policy agenda, and an opportunity to reinvigorate political support for policies in the long-term public interest.