Monbiot: Cyberspace has buried its head in a cesspit of climate change gibberish

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"Monbiot: Cyberspace has buried its head in a cesspit of climate change gibberish"

I recently criticized the Guardian (see “Very warm 2008 makes this the hottest decade in recorded history by far“). But any newspaper that runs a regular column by George Monbiot definitely takes the climate issue seriously.

Monbiot’s latest jeremiad is about the very same Guardian piece I critiqued, “2008 will be coolest year of the decade.” Interestingly, Monbiot’s bitter lament is not on the article, but on the comments:

We all create our own reality, and shut out the voices we do not want to hear. But there is no issue we are less willing to entertain than man-made climate change. Here, three worlds seem to exist in virtual isolation. In the physical world, global warming appears to be spilling over into runaway feedback: the most dangerous situation humankind has ever encountered. In the political world – at the climate talks in Poznan, for instance – our governments seem to be responding to something quite different, a minor nuisance that can be addressed in due course. Only the Plane Stupid protesters who occupied part of Stansted airport yesterday appear to have understood the scale and speed of this crisis. In cyberspace, by contrast, the response spreading fastest and furthest is flat-out denial.

The most popular article on the Guardian‘s website last week was the report showing that 2008 is likely to be the coolest year since 2000. As the Met Office predicted, global temperatures have been held down by the La Ni±a event in the Pacific Ocean. This news prompted a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy. Of the 440 responses posted by lunchtime yesterday, about 80% insisted that manmade climate change is a hoax. Here’s a sample of the conversation:

“This is a scam to get your money … The only people buying into ‘global warming’ have no experience with any of the sciences.”

“If we spend any money or cost one person their job because of this fraud it would be a crime. When will one of our politicians stand up and call this for what it is, bullshit!”

“What a set of jokers these professors are … I think I understand more about climate change than them and I don’t get paid a big fat salary with all the perks to go with it.”

And so on, and on and on. The new figures have prompted similar observations all over the web. Until now, the “sceptics” have assured us that you can’t believe the temperature readings at all; that the scientists at the Met Office, who produced the latest figures, are all liars; and that even if it were true that temperatures have risen, it doesn’t mean anything. Now the temperature record – though only for 2008 – can suddenly be trusted, and the widest possible inferences be drawn from the latest figures, though not, of course, from the records of the preceding century. This is madness.

Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian’s forums, you’ll find endless claims that the hockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world’s glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn’t matter. The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible. To judge by the Comment threads, they have succeeded magnificently.

There is no pool so shallow that a thousand bloggers won’t drown in it. Take the latest claims from the former broadcaster David Bellamy. You may remember that Bellamy came famously unstuck three years ago when he stated that 555 of the 625 glaciers being observed by the World Glacier Monitoring Service were growing. Now he has made an even stranger allegation. In early November the Express ran an interview with Bellamy under the headline “BBC shunned me for denying climate change”. “The sad fact is,” he explained, “that since I said I didn’t believe human beings caused global warming I’ve not been allowed to make a TV programme.” He had been brave enough to state that global warming was “poppycock”, and that caused the end of his career. “Back then, at the BBC you had to toe the line and I wasn’t doing that.”

This article, on the web, received more hits than almost anything else the Express has published; so 10 days ago the paper interviewed Bellamy again. He took the opportunity to explain just how far the conspiracy had spread. “Have you noticed there is a wind turbine on Teletubbies? That’s subliminal advertising, isn’t it?”

There is just one problem with this story: it is bollocks from start to finish. Bellamy last presented a programme on the BBC in 1994. The first time he publicly challenged the theory of manmade climate change was 10 years later, in 2004, when he claimed in the Daily Mail that it was “poppycock”. Until at least the year 2000 he supported the theory.

In 1992, for instance, he signed an open letter, published in the Guardian, urging George Bush Sr “to fight global warming … We are convinced that the continued emission of carbon dioxide at current rates could result in dramatic and devastating climate change in all regions of the world.” In 1996 he signed a letter to the Times, arguing: “Continued increases in the global emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels are likely to lead to climate change at a rate greater than the Earth has experienced at any time during the last 10,000 years.” In the same year he called for the replacement of fossil fuels with wind power. In 2000 he announced that he was supporting a plan to sue climate change “criminals”: governments and industries that blocked attempts to stop global warming (all references are on my website). But Bellamy’s new claims about the end of his career have been repeated as gospel in several newspapers and all over the web.

In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix. Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we’ll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.

He proposes that instead of arguing for sacrifice, environmentalists should show where the rewards might lie: that understanding what the science is saying and planning accordingly is the smart thing to do, which will protect your interests more effectively than flinging abuse at scientists. We should emphasise the old-fashioned virtues of uniting in the face of a crisis, of resourcefulness and community action. Projects like the transition towns network and proposals for a green new deal tell a story which people are more willing to hear.

Marshall is right: we have to change the way we talk about this issue. You don’t believe me? Then just read the gibberish that follows when this article is published online.

Indeed, his post was followed by a lot of gibberish. This blog would have a lot more such gibberish in the comments, too, if I allowed deniers to keep repeating over and over and over again long-debunked disinformation.

I would add that different people are moved by different messages. I think Monbiot is right to “emphasise the old-fashioned virtues of uniting in the face of a crisis, of resourcefulness and community action.”

But Monbiot should not confuse the rants of the cyber-deniers with the silent majority of people who fully understand what is coming and who are prepared to act — given the right leadership. I am not, however, certain that any message whatsoever will move the unmovable conservative movement stagnation (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP“). We are just going to have to save their children, too, in spite of their parents’ willfully self-destructive ignorance.

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18 Responses to Monbiot: Cyberspace has buried its head in a cesspit of climate change gibberish

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, IMHO the nicely alliterative “constipation” is more apt than “stagnation.”

    I’m curious about the extent to which those responses to Monbiot are automated, although perhaps there’s no way of telling.

  2. max says:

    Monbiot appears to be on the right side of the scientific evidence with regard to climate change although he appears to have published articles against genetically modified plants which are not scientifically defensible.

  3. Dano says:

    The issue is whether staff brief their decision-makers on the comments appearing in blogs and newspaper comment sections. IME most of these comments sound conspiracy theory-like at best and tinfoil-hatter at worst. Are you really going to pass on specifics from tinfoil-hattery?

    Maybe I’ve relayed this before, but:

    Several years ago – during 2006 election cycle – I trotted around the State House rep, up for reelection. He’s a decent Republican, centrist. Took him around standard town stops: diner, firehouse, finally got to the Senior Center. One of our colorfuls got a hold of him and she gave him the “globul warmins a SCAY-UM!!!!” that you find in the newspaper comment sections.

    His campaign manager shot me a glance, and he shot manager a glance and he went into his standard answer mode. Totally disarmed the woman. We were all walking out and I told the manager his answer was pretty good. She replied something about ‘oh, yeah, get it all the time’.

    Anyway, decision-makers are briefed on the science. As far as they listen to the denialist fringe, it is to count how many votes they have.

    Trouble is, the denialist fringe is energetic and determined to spam comments with their ideological worldview.

    IMHO, our job is not to constantly refute their views originating from wingnuttia, simpletonia or constipationopolis. Our job is to frame the population of wingnuttia and their energetic use of bytes to spread their small-minority view. Make it clear that they are a marginalized fringe group and then who cares what they say?

    In my view, most decision-makers know this anyway.

    Best,

    D

  4. Dan B says:

    Great comment Dano!

    I agree and would add some details.

    First a comment on the deniers that George Monbiot selected:

    “This is a scam to get your money … ”

    “If we spend any money or cost one person their job because of this fraud it would be a crime. When will one of our politicians stand up …?”

    “ … I don’t get paid a big fat salary with all the perks to go with it.”

    There’s a common theme in many deniers comments, one that hides behind their so-called ‘facts’. In the case of the comments it’s ‘money’: wasting, costing jobs, the rich. Many people who fall into the deniers camp feel unempowered. They struggle every day with a sense that they are being taken advantage of by people who are ‘big-brained scientists – and heartless ones at that’ – or – ‘big government bureaucrats’.

    When we attack their ‘facts’ we feed into their insecurity. Result – we lose any ability to engage or persuade. We need to tell them a different story – renewable energy is a pathway to prosperity. These jobs can’t be outsourced.

    Many of the deniers have seen their jobs evaporate and the only opportunity for them is in minimum wage service jobs – flipping burgers.

    Several studies have shown that most deniers get excited about and involved in discussions about solutions to the climate crisis. They don’t hate solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal energy. They would love to benefit from them but they don’t see that happening. They see big government making oil more expensive and then charging a premium for ‘green’ energy.

    Case in point – Van Jones (previous post) got involved in ‘green/renewable energy’ because of Prop 87, an initiative that would have financed renewable energy research with a tax on oil production in California. A month before the election it had 70% support. Petroleum organizations put out $100 Million in ads that said two things, “Green will cost you money.” and “What’s a green job? It’s not your job.” The measure failed, a move of 30 points in a month, and African-Americans voted against by 80%. They didn’t see the connection between a new green energy economy and a path to prosperity. They saw rich white folks getting a better deal on Priuses and sending money to save Polar Bears.

    Their communities were suffering from pollution, crime, and terrible schools. They thought money would be diverted from programs that could address these issues – survival issues.

    The next struggle to avert global warming will take building bridges to the communities who are most in harm’s way. Fossil fuel industries are already making headway. Now it’s our turn to reach out and listen to their hopes and concerns.

    If Van Jones can pack churches and auditoriums all across the country we know he’s onto something great – empowering people with a vision.

  5. Gary Herstein says:

    Adding my $0.02 worth to the conservative “stagnation vs. constipation” notion, I’d opt for “conservative quisinart”: It goes around in circles very fast and grinds up anything that falls into it.

    As to the evidently increasingly unhinged nature of the deniers and their enablers, these people seem to be demonstrating the classic psychology of conspiracy theoriests, not least of which is their (the deniers) utter imperviousness to facts. As a workable analogy, one might compare the fact-free offerings of the “Obama wasn’t born in the US” folks, as variously documented of late at Salon:
    http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/12/09/birth_certificate/
    http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/12/05/birth_certificate/index.html

    It is unclear to me how reasonable people are to proceed with regard to people who are impenetrable by reason.

  6. Sam says:

    Joe,
    Another Guardian article from today that you may want to comment on:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/09/poznan-copenhagen-global-warming-targets-climate-change/print

    Or not.
    Opening paragraphs:

    At a high-level academic conference on global warming at Exeter University this summer, climate scientist Kevin Anderson stood before his expert audience and contemplated a strange feeling. He wanted to be wrong. Many of those in the room who knew what he was about to say felt the same. His conclusions had already caused a stir in scientific and political circles. Even committed green campaigners said the implications left them terrified.

    Anderson, an expert at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University, was about to send the gloomiest dispatch yet from the frontline of the war against climate change.
    ….

  7. paulm says:

    Here is a bit of motivational speak from the man…..
    We have to keep fossil fuels in the ground!

    (Video)
    Will you join London’s climate march?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2008/dec/04/climate-change-march-activists

  8. paulm says:

    Here he succinctly captures what sustainability is all about (Not a bad speech either).

    “No such thing as Green Capitalism!”
    (Part 2) George Monbiot Speaks at the Global Day of Action

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aN5hSeqaMdU&eurl=http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2008/dec/04/climate-change-march-activists&feature=player_embedded

  9. Rick says:

    The revolutionary war to take back the climate…will not be televised.

    what I mean is – I don’t think this “silent majority” is all that tuned in to real concern about climate, whats going on with it and why and what to do next.

    I think the silent majority has got other stuff on their minds and the internet conversation is being tuned out by most.

  10. MikeB says:

    The Guardians comments pages tend to explode when Monbiot writes something – if its not the denalists, then its the 911 ‘truthers’. However, the kind of denalist ‘we can’t do anything’ stuff infects not only a large number of people who actually know very little about climate change, and have little intention of finding out more, but even push’s newspapers to come up with rubbish stories, which you’ll find all over the media.

    The kind of caution which this sort of stuff encourages infects even the Guardian (such as the story that Joe had a go at recently). I suspect that much the same reaction will be forthcoming with this latest one – http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/09/poznan-climate-change-renewable-energy. In fact renewables seem to be only slightly less popular (and who knows who they actually asked?), but it does seem to be pushing a certain view, at the very least.

  11. Scatter says:

    Max I haven’t read any GM articles from Monbiot recently but if I recall correctly, his main issue is with the corporate control of farming which GM imposes rather than any health risks. If I’m wrong about that then apologies.

    There’s much more to GM than whether the technology is safe or not and there are a lot of very valid reasons to oppose it.

  12. Dano says:

    Rick, I agree but at least there is a record for them to research when energy prices rise and they wonder what happened.

    Best,

    D

  13. Johnny Rook says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to understand denialist/delayer behavior if one doesn’t understand the role of ideology.

    Ideology is rooted in our desire for simple, single-cause answers to complex problems. Every ideology has it’s bête noire: for anarchists it’s the capitalist State, for Marxists it’s the propertied classes, for fascists it’s the limiting of the superior race by the inferior ones, for libertarians and conservatives it’s the socialist or Communist state which threatens individual freedom and national sovereignty.

    Ideology is a useful tool for oil and coal company executives and their paid shills. Obviously, these two groups are motivated principally by greed and narrow self-interest. But ideology is psychologically convenient for them to believe (if indeed they do) and it’s certainly a useful tool for manipulating libertarian/conservative intellectuals and the right-wing booboisie, those poor, undereducated dupes who are the target of the right-wing “culture wars” (the right-wing’s class warfare where class is defined not so much on the base of economics as cultural differences: Priuses vs Ford 150′s, Budweiser vs. microbrews, Nascar vs. the symphony, etc. (Economics don’t really matter because even if one is dirt poor one can still cling to the dream of eventual riches if only the schemes of the “liberal elites” can be defeated.

    I do not think that most of the denialist/delayer comments left on blogs are written by professional naysayers. Rather, they are written by these ideologues that I have just described whose whole personality is invested in the purity of their ideological view. As such they could care less about facts and reason. They are believers in a self-contained system (all evil flows from too much state power and too little individual freedom) which defines their world view and their personal identities.

    These ideologues operate off an absolute a priori premise (big government threatens to rob us of our money and freedoms) and cannot accept the facts of global warming because, quite obviously, if they do they will be forced to recognize that the problem cannot be solved without government intervention on a large scale. But such intervention according to the ideology is absolutely taboo and if one were to accept it in one area, one might have to admit it in another area. The ideology would then collapse and one would be left with a complex, uncertain world of multiple causes and effects, and that is simply too terrifying to consider.

    For more on the role of ideology in Climaticide denialism check out my posts:

    Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology

    and

    Why Global Warming is a Lie

    Because of the title of the second post it is frequently read by denialists/delayers who are disappointed to find that it is a tongue-in-cheek collection of precisely the sort of inane statements that Monbiot quotes to, presented as an illustration of how denialist/delayers respond to facts with ideological rantings and “freedom”, “liberals” and “one-world government”.

    Blogging for the future at Climaticide Chronicles

  14. llewelly says:

    Another Guardian article from today that you may want to comment on:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/09/poznan-copenhagen-global-warming-targets-climate-change/print

    David Adam’s article in the Guardian uses the words ‘lost cause’ . Beyond the obvious PR problems of portraying mitigation as a ‘lost cause’, more CO2 will cause greater rises in temperature, and faster and more radical changes to our climate. (Theoretically, if all conventional and substantial unconventional fossil fuels were burned, the climate could reach a point where more CO2 would not make things appreciably worse. I’m skeptical of humanity’s ability to maintain a civilization capable of burning conventional fossil fuels (much less unconventional) in the radically changed climate that would result.)

    I know, I know, it’s the 450ppm goal they’re trying to portray as a lost cause. But they fail to understand that an attempted but nonetheless failed effort to stabilize at 450ppm could very well result in stabilization at, say 500 ppm – and is surely more likely to do so than a plan for 550ppm or 650 ppm stabilization.

    The Guardian brings up the fact that the proportion of CO2 emissions absorbed by the environment is steadily decreasing in support of their ‘lost cause’ argument. They fail to recognize this fact makes CO2 emissions much more dangerous – greatly increasing the cost of doing less mitigation.

    As if that wasn’t enough, they proceed to bring up drying peat bogs, melting permafrost, and potentially melting clathrates. All of which greatly increase the potential risk of doing less mitigation, and are therefor strong arguments against the position of the article. However Guardian proceeds blithely onward, pretending these issues support the ‘lost cause’ argument.

    A few half-hearted bones are thrown to the ‘bigger cuts in more places’ folk, but the article as a whole is a very good example of the “we can’t win a gold so let’s not try at all” fallacy. Also known as the “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” fallacy.

  15. llewelly says:

    My apologies for the repost. I got my blockquote tags reversed. What I intended was:

    Another Guardian article from today that you may want to comment on:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/09/poznan-copenhagen-global-warming-targets-climate-change/print

    David Adam’s article in the Guardian uses the words ‘lost cause’ . Beyond the obvious PR problems of portraying mitigation as a ‘lost cause’, more CO2 will cause greater rises in temperature, and faster and more radical changes to our climate. (Theoretically, if all conventional and substantial unconventional fossil fuels were burned, the climate could reach a point where more CO2 would not make things appreciably worse. I’m skeptical of humanity’s ability to maintain a civilization capable of burning conventional fossil fuels (much less unconventional) in the radically changed climate that would result.)

    I know, I know, it’s the 450ppm goal they’re trying to portray as a lost cause. But they fail to understand that an attempted but nonetheless failed effort to stabilize at 450ppm could very well result in stabilization at, say 500 ppm – and is surely more likely to do so than a plan for 550ppm or 650 ppm stabilization.

    The Guardian brings up the fact that the proportion of CO2 emissions absorbed by the environment is steadily decreasing in support of their ‘lost cause’ argument. They fail to recognize this fact makes CO2 emissions much more dangerous – greatly increasing the cost of doing less mitigation.

    As if that wasn’t enough, they proceed to bring up drying peat bogs, melting permafrost, and potentially melting clathrates. All of which greatly increase the potential risk of doing less mitigation, and are therefor strong arguments against the position of the article. However Guardian proceeds blithely onward, pretending these issues support the ‘lost cause’ argument.

    A few half-hearted bones are thrown to the ‘bigger cuts in more places’ folk, but the article as a whole is a very good example of the “we can’t win a gold so let’s not try at all” fallacy. Also known as the “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” fallacy.

  16. paulm says:

    Manbiot blog post just busted the software at 1018 posted comments.

    I think there must be a bug in wordpress somewhere…

  17. paulm says:

    Mr. T the sights been hacked :)