Denied: The Rise and Fall of Climate Contrarianism is written by Richard Black, director of the very useful Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, and former BBC environment correspondent. Drawing on years of reporting, the book summarises the growth and subsequent decline of a small group of disproportionately influential climate contratrians.
Contrarians is the name Black goes for, rather than the more flattering ‘sceptics’ or more derogatory ‘deniers’ – a group of hold-outs from a “parallel reality” where climate change isn’t happening, or certainly isn’t serious. There have been similar books written on the subject that focus on US voices. This one looks at the scene in Britain, particularly the Global Warming Policy Forum, and the cabal of columnists in The Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Spectator. You may know who they are. If you don’t, lucky you.
This group pulled off what the author describes as ‘a coup’: “a hijacking of the narrative by a tiny group of political and media elite using a set of arguments that increasingly diverged from reality.” The book looks at how this happened, the network of reinforcing interests that kept giving oxygen to their falsehoods, and how the right wing media failed to challenge the arguments.
The first half of the book looks into those arguments, offering a response to such old chestnuts as ‘the climate isn’t changing’, ‘it’s all a conspiracy’, or ‘no-one else will follow us’. If you still harbour some of these opinions, the evidence you claim to require is all here. The second half of the book looks at the media, the consequences of this coup, and how mother nature has effectively won the argument on climate change.
It’s a sad story, to be honest. As Black points out, the sceptics didn’t reflect the science or the popular opinion, but they did chime with political priorities. They reached the right people – particularly David Cameron’s Conservative government. The slew of regressive environmental policies from the Conservatives track, in some cases very directly, back to some of these arguments. Owen Paterson, Cameron’s environment secretary, was a sceptic who called for the abolishing of the Climate Change Act. If we didn’t scrap our green targets, he claimed in a speech to the GWPF in 2014, Britain would not be able to ‘keep the lights on’.
Five years later, my lights are still on, and Paterson looks like a dinosaur. But the damage is done – Britain wasted a decade, the decline of coal notwithstanding.
I doubt any of them will read it, but Black’s book is quite fair to the contrarians. It answers their arguments, and also points out the value of honest scepticism. Ten years ago, questions were being asked that improved climate science and held it to account. Ten years on, those questions should have changed and haven’t. “If you proclaim yourself a ‘sceptic’ – still more if you claim to appeal to reason – then your reputation rests on continuing to be sceptical. If evidence changes, so must opinions and output; otherwise you lose any right to claim words such as ‘sceptic’ and ‘reasonable’ as your own.