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Climate change, scepticism and elitism

By Katy Barnett - posted Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don’t mean to do harm - but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.

(From The Cocktail Party, T.S. Eliot)

In June, I participated in an episode of Insight on SBS. The theme was “Climate Sceptics”. The premise was that the audience would be comprised of people who were sceptical about climate change to a greater or lesser degree. On the stage, fielding questions from the sceptical audience, was Professor Stephen Schneider, a climate change scientist who participated in the IPCC report. (Very sadly, 3 weeks after filming, Professor Schneider passed away. My condolences to his family.)

The episode is finally screening on SBS on Tuesday 7 September at 7:30pm. I must confess that I’m a little scared. I think I would have been okay if they’d just aired it reasonably soon after filming, but the World Cup then the Federal Election interrupted screening.


Why would I be scared? When someone says the words “climate sceptic”, the instant stereotype which springs to most people’s minds is that of a right-wing Holocaust-denying lunatic who is immune to reason. And I assure you, I am none of those things. But once you “out” yourself as a sceptic, you get tarred with that brush. I worry that my colleagues, my friends and my students might judge me, because I didn’t really get to put my views across properly (in fact, I don’t speak until half way through, presuming they even put my bit in!). I don’t like the term “climate sceptic”, to be honest; I prefer to think of myself as a climate agnostic. I haven’t made up my mind yet.

The people in the audience included environmentalists, people who worked in sustainability and agriculture, scientists and a bunch of regular people who had no particular specialisation or expertise in the area, but were just worried.

It really annoys me that I should feel scared to express my opinion. I strongly believe that progressive people should be able to raise doubts without being accused of being tantamount to Holocaust deniers, without being ostracised by their neighbours, without having someone spit in their coffee and without feeling scared that they will be labeled as a fascist. I admit that some people who fall into the sceptic camp are a little scary, but not everyone is. Ultimately, I think that deriding people who raise doubts (1) shows a lack of understanding about scientific method and (2) serves to fuel scepticism rather than to allay it.

Elitism, scepticism and risk analysis

One of the participants in the Insight program made an interesting observation to me beforehand. He said, “I’ve noticed that scepticism tends to be class-based. Middle-class, university educated people are far more likely to accept that climate change is happening. Working-class people are far more likely to be sceptical and concerned.” There is a deep elitism at the heart of the writings of some who suggest the shape of the policy responding to climate change (eg, Clive Hamilton, George Monbiot). The sly inference is that working-class people are stupid bogans who don’t know any better, and that they should let their betters guide them in what is to be done.

Noel Pearson, one of my favourite Australian commentators, wrote an excellent piece in The Australian last year. He envisaged a box divided into four segments. The horizontal axis represented left-wing to right-wing. The vertical axis represented economic security, from economically secure at the top to economically insecure at the bottom. Now, as he notes, not all sceptics are right-wing. I would count myself as a rare leftish-wing sceptic, whereas SL is more right-wing than I, but not sceptical about climate change. Nonetheless, it’s a convenient generalisation. Pearson then says:


Most of Australia’s climate change action policy advocates come from the top left-hand box. They believe that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and that urgent and dramatic action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions. They are also economically secure. All of the media and the legions of educated people who believe in global warming fall within this quadrant.

Yes, there are also believers who are economically insecure but they are not the heartland of climate change activism. If they also dread climate change, their relative economic insecurity nevertheless affects the kinds of policy responses they may support or reject.

Pacific Islanders and other such people who are directly confronted by rising sea levels and believe in climate change causation comprise those in the bottom left quadrant who are economically insecure but believe in the need for action on climate change.

The top-right corner is occupied by the economically secure who don’t believe in (or even care about) climate change and resist action. Capitalists whose pursuit of self-interest has transmuted from natural calling to German social theorist Max Weber’s iron cage of an endlessly unfulfilling accumulation and consumption, and who are at least honest enough not to cloak their economic security under a mantle of moral worthiness like the wealthy Al Gore, occupy this corner. There is much scope for cynicism among this mob, but it is a toss-up as to what’s worse: climate policy activists who want others to pay costs of ameliorative action but who will ensure that any cost they themselves bear will not be a great burden, or those archetypal cigar-chompers who don’t give a damn. One is blatantly selfish, the other more subtly so.

I am on the upper side of the economic security axis. Though almost all my relatives and the people most dear to me are economically insecure, and though I intimately know and work with people in poverty, I must confess this: I have no idea what it would mean for electricity bills to go up by, say, $50 a month. I think I could easily afford such a rise. And if I were asked to pay this increase in return for saving the planet, then I would probably readily consent. In fact my altruistic sacrifice number is probably significantly higher than $50.

Like many educated, middle-class professionals who earn a good salary, I have lost a real understanding of what an increase in the cost of living such as this means for lower-income people. Growing up in an extremely low-income family does not guarantee this empathy.

There is a policy issue here: it is easy for people above the income security line to devise and advocate climate action policies that allocate costs that are affordable by us but that are a big deal for the percentage of society for whom $50 a month makes or breaks a family budget or for whom any greater scarcity of employment is a life disaster.

That is what I saw on the Insight program: ordinary people who would struggle mightily if energy prices were raised by $50 a month. And they were scared. On the one hand, you have this disastrous prediction of what will occur as a result of climate change. On the other hand, you have the certain prospect of having to pay more for fuel which will necessarily have a massive impact on your life. As one woman said, “If we do things about this, it will have a huge impact on the economy and our whole country, so I think it’s really important to know whether it’s really necessary or not.”

As Professor Schneider said, one’s reaction to the scenario depends in part on one’s risk analysis. He said that all a climate change scientist can say is that on the preponderance of evidence climate change is occurring. This is a proper scientific approach. One can never prove one’s hypothesis incontrovertibly. One can only say that on the evidence available, it appears that the hypothesis is confirmed. (Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to discuss this on the program, but one of the best ways of confirming a hypothesis is to attempt to disprove it.)

For a person who is economically secure, an extra $50 a month for fuel and added costs of various commodities isn’t going to be a tremendous burden. It might hurt a little, but it isn’t going to break the bank. Thus, it’s understandable that most people who are middle-class and educated want to take action on climate change - for them, the risk of possible environmental catastrophe is far greater than the risk of paying a bit more for every day items. However, for a person who is less economically secure, an extra $50 a month for fuel and added costs of commodities is going to be a tremendous burden. I’m not talking people on the poverty line here (who would probably be covered by government rebates). I’m talking about working people who are not really well off, but who are not poor enough to be helped by the government. I’m also thinking of people whose business is going to be badly affected by any change in the structure of our economy. For them it’s a balance between immediate incontrovertible financial pain versus speculative future pain. This is why it’s a “wedge” issue for parties like the Labor Party in Australia. They just can’t please everyone.

The politicisation of climate change

It’s natural that people should wish to question climate change science when it has a large impact on them, but somehow climate change science has become politicised. Generally, as Pearson notes, those on the right are sceptical, while those on the left are “believers”. (As I said above, I am a rare exception to that rule, although I met others on the Insight program – it’s nice to know I’m not alone!)

When an issue gets politicised like that I get very worried. I must confess that I don’t really understand why the Left has decided that it will swallow climate change policy whole (which is distinguishable from the question of science). I know that one of the ideas of climate change policy is the idea that we should consume less and be a less capitalist society (which clearly fits into many leftist ideas). But surely another concern of left-wing people should be the perpetuation of the class system and the deepening of the divide between rich and poor. To me, it seems that anyone who is left-wing or progressive should also be concerned about potential effects of some suggested climate change policies on less privileged members of society, and that they should be concerned about the possibility of an elitist society if we institute the suggestions of commentators such as Clive Hamilton or George Monbiot. If we implement any policy, I believe we have to be really careful that it doesn’t create a more unequal society.

One of the audience members of the Insight program said her worry was that climate change science is being used by some to stifle development in poor countries so that they are kept “carbon neutral”. It’s a form of elitism, perhaps even an environmental neo-colonialism – “We know what’s best for you poor brown people, you have to stay in mud huts because it is a carbon neutral way of existence.” It buys into the whole myth of the “Noble Savage“. That’s not a fault of climate change scientists, as Professor Schneider pointed out in response.

Some sceptics are concerned about the way in which science is being used to push various political barrows in ways that might disadvantage those who are less economically secure or vulnerable. That is a progressiveconcern.

Climate change detracting from other environmental issues

There is also a perception that, if you’re a sceptic, then you must not care about the environment. This is false in many cases. There was a feeling among many of the environmentally-minded people in the audience that the focus on carbon emissions as the primary environmental “issue” of our time took the focus off other equally important issues which were perhaps more immediate, such as deforestation. In addition, the panicked nature of the debate was leading people into making unconsidered decisions which may actually be bad for the environment as a whole. I’ve written before on some downsides of the push for bio-fuel. If people are cutting down rainforests to plant bio-fuels, then you really have to question how environmentally effective this is. Yes, the IPCC says that climate change may radically affect the Amazon, but we shouldn’t destroy the very thing we are attempting to save in our attempts to mitigate climate change.

I strongly believe that we should be environmentally responsible, and that we should research and begin to rely on efficient alternative fuel sources. But in the process of this, we should not to ruin our economy, and not to send people who are less economically secure into the wall. It’s all very well for the likes of Gore and Monbiot to say “we” have to stop using aeroplanes and cars. When they say “we”, they mean the hoi polloi, not the intellectual elite. Of course, they still use aeroplanes and cars. I’m sure Al Gore has far more air miles than 500 of me.

What would it take to get me to be less sceptical?

There was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald a while back by Dr Simon Niemeyer, a political scientist who was seeking how to effectively communicate the message about climate change to the community. He said:

The solution is not to dazzle unbelievers with science, but to engage everybody in a mature debate that recognises uncertainty and the role of our values in determining our beliefs....

So the task now is to see if a more considered approach to debate is possible in the wider public sphere and to engage with people with different views rather than try to harangue them.

Certainly, having a scientist quote all these facts and figures didn’t change my position. I am a lay person, not a scientist. I can’t make any effective judgments about the science behind Professor Schneider’s figures and projections. I don’t have the scientific or the statistical capacity to judge the various accounts as to what is going to happen with our climate. I don’t know who is right or wrong about the "hockey stick graph". I accord all due respect to Professor Schneider for coming and talking to us, and respect him for treating us respectfully, but his facts and figures didn’t change my mind.

If I’m not a scientist, why am I a sceptic, then? Well, there are two reasons why I’m sceptical. First, I believe that a level of scepticism is essential to proper, rigorous scientific method, and thus people ought to maintain scepticism about any scientific hypotheses. Einstein himself said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." A hypothesis is strengthened by the failure of ardent attempts to disprove it. And I don’t really see the kind of mentality in climate change which allows for someone to attempt to disprove them.

Further, the kinds of hypotheses involved in climate change science are not analogous to saying:  “My hypothesis is that if I add iron to copper sulfate solution, the copper will precipitate out.” One can make an observation as to the correctness or otherwise of the latter hypothesis instantly, just by adding some iron filings to copper sulfate solution. By contrast, the climate change predictions reach years into the future, and it’s certainly true that the predictions have substantially changed since the first IPCC report. There’s an immense amount of argument out there about whether the predictions since the fourth IPCC report have been met or not - it’s not just a matter of observing the precipitate - and the results are heavily contested.

do worry about the heavy reliance on modelling which underlies the various predictions, because with a very complex system, it’s very difficult to model accurately. What if the model is wrong, but we end up changing our whole society based on it? Much is made of the fact that the models can be used to explain what has already happened in the past, but my understanding is that this doesn’t establish that the model is necessarily accurate with regard to the future. Similar modelling is often used in share trading, but it is not always correct in predicting what will happen. Joe Cambria made the following observation about trading models in a guest post here a while back:

Trading models were basically useless as they were essentially trend following in various degrees. They made money when the trend was in full swing, but they gave all the money away when there was no trend. …

Why then are we relying on models to predict climate change and adjust our way of life as a result? Are they more accurate than financial models in figuring the impact of GHGs in climate for a period of 100 years? The IPCC has handed out confidence levels of 90% as a result of models suggesting global temps will rise around  2 degrees over the next 100 years.

This is one reason why I am an agnostic.

Secondly, I get really worried when people say you can’t question something and that the science is "settled". Just because there’s a broad consensus about something doesn’t mean that it’s right: sometimes the 1% of scientists who put forward an unpopular hypothesis with which 99% of scientists disagree happen to be right. Think of Alfred Wegener, whose theory of continental drift was rejected by most scientists at the time. Or think of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who were in a minority of those who believed peptic ulcers were caused by a bacterial infection, and who turned out to be right. If we didn’t allow people to question the status quo, we’d never make scientific progress.

In part, I worry that people who attempt to question the status quo with climate change won’t be published in refereed journals and won’t get grants for their research. I hate the way that it’s “Us” and “Them” on both sides of the debate.

Paradoxically, I’d be less sceptical about climate science if it were portrayed as less "certain", and if I could be assured that people were able to question it more. I think there is a lack of civility on both sides of the whole debate which makes it difficult (and Professor Schneider certainly agreed with this).

In that regard, I saw that Sir Muir Russell’s investigation of the “Climategate” e-mails (a series of leaked e-mails between prominent climate scientists) has concluded that the “rigour and honesty” of the scientists concerned was not in doubt, but that there was a failure to display “the proper degree of openness”. Climate scientists complain about the conspiracy theorists in the sceptical camp, but unfortunately, a failure to be open breeds conspiracy theories. Look at the number of conspiracy theories about secret societies like the Masons.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I emphatically do not believe that climate change is being used by the UN impose a communist world government via climate change treaties (cf, for example, prominent sceptic Lord Christopher Monckton). Nonetheless, the lack of willingness to allow questioning and the “siege mentality” evident in the Climategate e-mails worried me. As far as I can see, if you are confident about your results, you should allow them to be questioned. You provide people with information when they ask you nicely, you allow competing reports to be taken into account. If you don’t want to do that, it suggests that you’re hiding something…even if you’re not!

Why such passion on this issue?

I’ve thought long and hard why people get so dogmatic on this issue. In my experience, it tends to generate “threads of doom” on blogs like few other issues (apart from Israel/Palestine or abortion). I find fervid “believers” of either extreme a little scary. When I first got interested in this topic, I visited a few blogs run by “climate change sceptics” and “climate change believers” and I was really freaked out. Basically, they just shouted at each other in a way that was not conducive to dialogue. I was scared to even contribute to either side.

I think people get so aggressive about the position they’ve taken on climate change because they have a desire to be consistent. In Influence at page 57, Robert Cialdini says:

A study done by a pair of Canadian psychologists uncovered something fascinating about people at the racetrack: Just after placing a bet, they are much more confident of their horse’s chances of winning than they are immediately before laying down that bet. Of course, nothing about the horse’s chances actually shifts; it’s the same horse, on the same track, in the same field; but in the minds of those bettors, its prospects improve significantly once that ticket is purchased. Although a bit puzzling at first glance, the reason for the dramatic change has to do do with a common weapon of social influence. Like the other weapons of influence, this one lies deep within us, directing our actions with quiet power. It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.

Once people have bet on a particular horse, they become convinced that the horse will win (whether it be the “sceptic” horse or the “believer” horse). But the fact of the matter is that neither position is certain. I think that many people on both sides could do with standing back a little and taking it a bit less personally. (Update: It is this phenomenon that I am referencing with the T.S. Eliot quote at the start, and to me, the quote illustrates the problems of being too dogmatic whatever side one is on - one can cause unintended harm.)


There is a suggestion that after “Climategate”, members of the general public have become less trusting of the orthodoxy on climate change.

It may seem counter-intuitive that if you want to get people to trust your message, you have to allow people to try to shoot it down. Funnily enough, however, that’s the way the law works when parties present evidence. The witness gives an examination-in-chief, the opposing barrister attempts to shoot it down with a cross-examination, questioning that version of the facts at each juncture.

That should also be the way in which science works. Think of the famous Solvay conference, where Einstein challenged the hypotheses of Bohr. Einstein’s queries and thought experiments caused Bohr to refine his hypothesis and make it more accurate and subtle. Gradually, too, Einstein redefined his position in response to Bohr’s responses.

This is the kind of mentality which needs to be brought to the climate change debate: a mentality which allows civil debate, but which allows scientists to challenge the orthodox hypotheses. By the same token, we should not just angrily deny the hypotheses of climate change scientists - that is as bad as simply accepting them without question.

Further, ordinary people should not be criticised for being sceptical. If you are asking people to change the way in which they live fundamentally, in ways that could impact them greatly, you should not ask them to be unquestioning. There is a real arrogance on the part of the likes of Hamilton and Monbiot which makes me recoil from their agenda.

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This article was first published on Skepticlawyer on September 4, 2010. It is the first piece to be published under our "Best Blogs of 2010" feature.

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About the Author

Dr Katy Barnett is a lawyer, blogger and lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She lives in Melbourne, Australia and blogs at Skepticlawyer.

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