Think tank’s talking points deepen the divide over climate change

The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they’ve been in. – Dennis Potter Readers following the Australian news media’s coverage of climate change will probably have detected the conspiracy…

Valiant sceptics have taken on the evil dragon of climate change conspiracy. magia e/Flickr

The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they’ve been in.
– Dennis Potter

Readers following the Australian news media’s coverage of climate change will probably have detected the conspiracy theories designed to discredit climate science and climate scientists.

These conspiracy theories label the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming “a hoax”, “a religion” or a “scare tactic” concocted to justify higher taxes and arbitrary, draconian restrictions on the personal freedoms of “helpless” and “disenfranchised” citizens.

Purveyors of this alternative reality tell us the entire global community of climate scientists has fabricated or exaggerated the threat of climate change to secure further funding for their research. This has been aided and abetted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a “political” organisation bent on fomenting a global warming crisis in order to install a left-wing totalitarian world government.

At first, it may seem surprising that such dramatistic, florid “fantasy themes” would appear so often in editorials and opinion columns of major newspapers - usually penned by conservative members of the press who cast minority-view scientists as modern day Galileos.

Occasionally, the contrarians themselves variously compare the field of climate science to the powerful religious elite who persecuted Galileo and the Stalinist regime who sent dissident scientists to the gulags or to their deaths.

Who is the modern-day Galileo? Children of the Concrete/Flickr

My recently published study, Talking Points Ammo, found that many of these fantasy themes were developed by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a Melbourne-based neoliberal think tank. They were then published in the Australian news media - first via op-eds written by IPA staff and associate scholars, and then by way of ideologically sympathetic newspaper editors, reporters and opinion columnists.

Who is the IPA?

Today, the IPA is a high-profile organisation that consistently rejects the evidence for anthropogenic climate change and opposes mitigation strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its staff and associate scholars are usually presented as independent experts who provide unbiased commentary.

However, the IPA has had a close relationship with the Liberal Party of Australia since its inception in the early 1940s. The IPA was founded by members of the emerging Liberal Party in the early 1940s. Since then, a number of the IPA’s staff - including current executive director John Roskam - have either run for public office as Liberal candidates or worked as staffers for Liberal MPs.

Environmentalists are green on the outside, but suspiciously red when opened. leff/Flickr

Despite its non-profit status, the IPA accepts significant donations from corporate sponsors such as the tobacco industry as well as the fossil fuel, mining and energy industries. These benefit from the IPA’s use of the news media to promote political agendas that serve the interests of those sponsors.

Finally there is the IPA’s board of directors, which usually includes senior Liberal Party figures and senior mining and energy company executives.

News media outlets have just reported that one of the IPA’s associate scholars and most prominent climate contrarians, Professor Bob Carter, is allegedly receiving funds from the Heartland Institute, a US think tank that also rejects the scientific consensus on climate change.

Who is saying what and where

In my recent article I report an analysis of three datasets:

  • magazine articles published in The IPA Review between 1989 and 2009

  • opinion pieces written by IPA senior staff and published in Australian newspapers between 1989 and 2009.

  • editorials and opinion columns that praised IPA associate scholar Ian Plimer and his book Heaven & Earth during April-June 2009, in the lead-up to the first Australian parliamentary debates on introducing an emissions trading scheme.

Using a combination of Discourse Analysis and Fantasy Theme Analysis, the study identified nine discrete anti-climate-science fantasy themes developed by the IPA and published in the Australian news media.

(Discourse Analysis takes into account the practices associated with the production and consumption of media texts. This study examined media texts for their immediate content as well as their relationship to other texts. Fantasy Theme Analysis takes a structured look at the narratives that express a group’s dramatic interpretation of a real-life event; this includes basic components such as characters and plot lines.)

The nine themes were grouped into two categories. In the first category, “a plea for scientific truth”, there are four fantasy themes:

  • climate scientists as rent-seeking frauds
  • climate scientists as dissent-stifling elite
  • Plimer as Galileo
  • Plimer as the people’s scientist.

The second grouping, “religious, political and economic conspiracies”, includes five fantasy themes:

  • climate science as religion
  • environmentalism as religion
  • climate science as left-wing conspiracy
  • green as the new red
  • climate change mitigation as money-spinning scam.

Climate change: it’s a religion. Universe Catholic Archives

To understand these dramatic themes we use Ernest Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence Theory and Fantasy Theme Analysis. As Bormann explains:

“When someone dramatizes an event he or she must select certain people to be the focus of the story and present them in a favorable light while selecting others to be portrayed in a more negative fashion … Interpreting events in terms of human action allows us to assign responsibility, to praise or blame, to arouse and propitiate guilt, to hate, and to love.”

Thus, a fantasy theme is a dramatised morality-based narrative driven by stock characters such as heroes and villains.

In the study’s first grouping of fantasy themes, “the plea for scientific truth”, climate scientists are portrayed as villains whose published research forms the basis of the scientific consensus on climate change. The heroes are contrarian or “sceptic” scientists who reject the scientific consensus and speak truth to power at the risk of incurring the wrath of the iron-fisted “establishment”.

It’s all a conspiracy

These fantasy themes tell the story of a global cabal of climate scientists who are consumed with protecting their privileged status and blind to the “reality” that anthropogenic climate change has no evidentiary basis. The primary plot line sees this powerful scientific elite dominating and controlling the field of climate science and suppressing the “scientific truth” by persecuting the scientific voices of dissent.

Rajendra Pachauri and Ban Ki-Moon conspiring to institute a New World Order. United Nations

In the second category of fantasy themes, “religious, political and economic conspiracies”, by far the most frequently used fantasy theme was “climate science as religion”. This theme enables evidence-based scientific conclusions to be dismissed as an arbitrary set of beliefs or dogma.

The plot line of the fantasy theme “climate science as left-wing political conspiracy” sees the environmental religion’s leftist allies (Labor and Green political parties, and even the United Nations) using climate change as a “scare tactic”. The aim is to consolidate their political power, increase taxes to redistribute wealth, and impose a New World Order that will compromise national sovereignty and restrict personal freedoms.

These two fantasy themes serve to delegitimise the most vocal social groups who support action on climate change: the environmental movement and the political left. They are portrayed not as people rationally responding to a real environmental threat identified by the science. They are variously cast as irrational religious fundamentalists following a doomsday cult or as left-wing conspirators cynically using a fabricated or exaggerated threat to pursue political goals.

A good story can take you a long way

Together, these fantasy themes construct a rhetorical vision - an alternative reality - that is consistent with the ideology promoted by neoliberal think tanks such as the IPA and the hostility they provoke towards traditional “enemies” such as the environmental movement and the political left.

These fantasy themes serve as important markers of group identity for the IPA and its coalition of associate scholars, editors, opinion columnists and readers. They repeat the narratives - for example, in letters to the editor or in online comments or discussion forums. This repetition is a strong indication that they see themselves as members of the group.

Finally, the chaining out of these fantasy themes through the news media serves to build and sustain the rhetorical community. It also continues to propagate doubt about the reality, causes and consequences of climate change. And once doubt is sown, the game is changed. Whether you can back up your statements or not, creating doubt, making a non-contentious issue contentious, entirely reframes the debate.

In this case, the fantasy themes are helping to build and sustain a social movement that has at its core a deep and abiding suspicion of climate science, climate scientists and anyone who accepts the scientific consensus. This further serves to justify inaction on climate change.