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Seeds of Doubt

HOPE not hate’s Joe Mulhall and Simon Murdoch unveil a tangled network of British climate change deniers and contrarians linked by international funds, people and ideology

The reality of humanity’s role in instigating and accelerating climate change has taken on a renewed sense of urgency. Evidence and accusations are emerging that Amazonian forest fires are linked to ramped-up deforestation policies.

In Brazil, home to 60% of the Amazon’s vital ‘carbon-sink’ (a reservoir which absorbs and stores carbon from the atmosphere), the skyline of Sao Paulo went dark at midday one day from the amount of smoke being produced by devastation across the region.

Despite this calamity, Brazil’s far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, has deflected his own responsibility for worsening the fires, which many have linked to his encouragement of increased deforestation. He claimed instead, without evidence, that environmental NGOs may have started the blazes.

Bolsonaro’s environmental policies are not driven by a mere dislike of progressive NGOs: he has support from Brazil’s ruralistas – its agribusiness lobby – who have used their (often self-funded) positions in Congress to support him.

While the reality of climate change is becoming more and more apparent, there are still those who seek to undermine and slow the radical changes needed to tackle climate change, by denying its realities.

What is ‘climate change denial’?

Climate change ‘denial’ or ‘scepticism’ is more fine-grained when you take a closer look.

Dr James Painter of the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford suggests that those who doubt climate change can be divided into four categories:

  1. Trend sceptics, who doubt the evidence for climate change
  2. Attribute sceptics, who doubt the human cause for climate change
  3. Impact sceptics, who doubt that climate change will be serious
  4. Policy sceptics, who question the ‘solutions’ to climate change

Richard Black, Director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, characterises the sceptic mindset as ‘arrogant’ and needlessly – often dangerously – spreading ignorance merely for the sake of being contrarian. Black writes in Denied: The Rise and Fall of Climate Contrarianism:

“The fundamental USP of many in this camp seems to combine ‘I am cleverer than the experts’ with ‘thinking differently is a good thing’.”

Each approach is dangerous; each can hinder the necessary action we need to take to tackle climate change. Yet this ‘climate contrarianism’ brings out precisely why far-right and radical-right politicians might seek to pursue policies which hamper or prevent action on climate change, even if they avoid explicit denial: being contrarian is a surefire campaign strategy these days.

The success of populist, radical-right political leaders around the globe, from Bolsonaro to Trump, and Farage to Salvini, is in part due to their brazen rejection of accepted mores of what was the liberal-left political mainstream and the populists’ railing against ‘globalist elites’ who supposedly suppress and control the ‘common sense’ views and freedoms of ordinary people.

Trump exemplifies this approach, his rhetorical position on climate change having slid from outright denial to weaponised ambiguity since he rose to the Presidency. For example, in 2012 he tweeted:

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese to make U.S.manufacturing non-competitive”

While he told an interviewer in 2018 that he was “not denying climate change. But it could very well go back.”

Funding networks

As Bolsonaro’s agribusiness connections should remind us, there are significant financial interests and well-established networks able to influence climate change policy. For example, in the US the Koch family has long made climate change denial and contrarianism a key component of its investments.

Greenpeace reported that Koch Family Foundations, a collection of charitable bodies tied to the family, had spent $127,006,756 from 1997-2017 directly financing 92 groups that had attacked climate change science and policy solutions (1997 was the year leading up to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, …which set internationally binding emissions reductions targets in place).

Moreover, as a joint 2018 investigation by The Guardian and climate change investigative journalist organisation DeSmog UK pointed out, the Koch’s efforts have not been isolated to the United States. Their investigation revealed how popular online British libertarian media outlet Sp!ked, whose authors include Brexit Party MEP Claire Fox, is part of a network of organisations receiving Koch funding in the UK.

As an indication of where funds might be channeled, DeSmog UK highlights that in 2016, when Sp!ked received $150,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation, it published an article attacking the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the USA. Despite the fact that “the Koch brothers have a major interest” in the pipeline, they note that:

“Nowhere does that article’s author declare the relationship between Spiked and the Kochs.”

James Delingpole, a controversial British author and journalist who has made climate denial one of his central beats, is also highlighted by the Guardian/Desmog UK investigation. He sits in the same network as Sp!ked, having been cited and interviewed favourably by its authors and has commended other organisations in the network.

Delingpole is a former Executive Editor and still regular contributor to far-right news outlet Breitbart London, part of the Breitbart News Network previously chaired by Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Delingpole attributes his hiring by Bannon partly to their similar stances on “the great climate-change con”. In 2010 Delingpole was awarded the 2010 Bastiat Prize for online journalism by the now defunct free-market campaigning group, International Policy Network (IPN). IPN was funded in part by oil giant ExxonMobil.

Britain’s contrarian connections

Koch Brothers

That the Kochs come from a specifically libertarian right background reflects a broader trend found in the UK climate change contrarian community.

Speaking to DeSmog UK’s editor, Mat Hope, he described how:

“In the UK, specifically, it’s actually much more the libertarian right, their game in general is to just deregulate the market and obviously environmental and climate regulation is part of that.”

A central example of this is influential think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), whose Environment Unit was set up in 1993 by its onetime Director, and now IEA fellow, Roger Bate. Writing on the organisation’s blog in 2013 under the title ‘Twenty years denouncing the eco-militants’, he stated that he created the Unit to:

“Present a free-market alternative to the general doom and gloom and socialist militancy of many greens”.

Greenpeace’s journalistic unit, Unearthed, revealed in 2018 that the IEA’s attacks against what Bate called in 2013 “green alarmism” were not innocent of external financial interests. The IEA director Mark Littlewood told an Unearthed undercover journalist that oil giant BP’s funding of the think-tank was used to gain:

“Access to press ministers on issues ranging from environmental and safety standards to British tax rates.”

As Unearthed’s Lawrence Carter and Alice Ross went on to note, this relationship is hardly new. When contacted for comment, they said:

“The IEA stated that it has received donations from BP every year since 1967. This includes a period in the 1990s when the IEA was at the forefront of efforts to cast doubt on the link between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels.”

However, the hub of this institutional denial and contrarian scene in the UK is found at 55 Tufton Street, London. Located around the corner from the IEA on Lord North Street, this Westminster address houses a range of right-wing and Eurosceptic UK think-tanks, including Global Vision, The European Foundation, Civitas, Taxpayers Alliance, Leave Means Leave and The New Culture Forum.

Crucially, the address is also home to the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), founded by Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher and Chairman of the GWPF until January 2019 (though he remains its Honorary President).

The GWPF and its subsidiary, the Global Warming Policy Forum, are described by Richard Black as sitting:

“At the centre of a web of influence which, at its peak, penetrated deep into the British media and political establishment and framed most of the important conversations on climate change.”

Black points to its somewhat smaller influence now, but as DeSmog UK describes, the GWPF remains the “UK’s main climate science denial campaign group” and Lawson “the UK’s most visible climate science denier.”

In an investigation published in June 2019 and based on four years of tracking individuals and organisations, detailing over 2,000 links between them, DeSmog UK highlighted how integral it was for GWPF to be nestled among Eurosceptic and right-libertarian groups.

The network’s Eurosceptics wish to “ax[e] environmental protection in the name of free-market ideology”, thus allying “decision-makers and companies that profit from climate inaction overlapping with a cabal of climate science deniers eager to limit global action to cut emissions.”

The IEA in particular has numerous links to the GWPF. As The Guardian reported in 2014, IEA trustee Neil Record provided the economics think-tank with £36,000 to support a seminar featuring Lawson in November 2009, on the same day Lawson launched the GWPF. Lord Nigel Vinson, life Vice President of the IEA, gave the GWPF £15,000 according to the Charity Commission, and Sir Michael Hintze, an IEA trustee and a huge donor to the Conservative Party, was reported by The Guardian in 2012 as a GWPF funder.

DeSmog UK’s June 2019 report also highlighted the transatlantic reach of the Koch family, as well as other major US right-wing funders including the Mercer family (who helped fund Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and who have had links to Breitbart News Network as well as to the Canadian far-right alternative media outlet, Rebel Media).

The Kochs, notably, are significant donors to the Atlas Network, a Washington D.C. network which connects over 450 organisations in more than 90 countries who promote free market, libertarian ideas. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation, as it is officially termed, was created in 1981 by Anthony Fisher, who also founded the IEA back in 1955.

Denial as part of a wider conspiracy

The overlapping interests of British climate change deniers and contrarians with Eurosceptics highlights the ability for the former to build mutually beneficial relationships with the wider right.

One reason these relationships might take hold is the current prevalence of conspiracy theories among the far right. Moreover, the anti-elitism and wider mistrust of establishment authorities common among the far right is often directed at academia, which is often seen as aligned with liberal interests.

This mistrust of mainstream science and learning is also, of course, what climate change contrarians as well as deniers hinge their arguments upon. This provides a further overlap between climate conspiracy theorists and the far right. For example, climate change denier Piers Corbyn, brother of the Labour Party leader, has addressed meetings of the London-based conspiracy theory group Keep Talking, alongside Holocaust denier Nick Kollerstrom.

With rising awareness of the reality of climate change, complete denial has become an increasingly untenable position. This has brought about a shift of tactics for the climate change deniers and contrarians. Moving away from complete denial, those attacking climate change have shifted to the other scepticisms and taken on new tactics, such as questioning the efficacy of policies designed to alleviate climate change, as well as resorting to direct attacks on those ringing the climate change alarm.

A recent example of the conspiratorial outlook of parts of the far right and its overlap with climate denialism can be seen in the opposition to teenage Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who rose to fame in autumn 2018 for her ‘strike’ outside the Swedish Parliament and later speeches at global climate meetings.

Greta Thunberg’s incendiary speech to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit

Thunberg has become a target for the far right as well as more mainstream conservative commentators and politicians, who have often relied on unfounded claims of hidden funding for her activism from a range of interests.

In February 2019, Toby Young in The Spectator magazine attacked “Greta Thunberg’s crude propaganda”, while online far-right activist and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, of InfoWars, claimed:

“Greta is just a human shield for the real agenda of the people who pull her strings. Neo-feudalism disguised as environmentalism. The raw lust for power and control disguised as right on hipster activism.”

Effects of denial

Measuring what effect climate denial and scepticism have on society is not easy. In the UK at least, outright denial seems relatively rare. Where societal scepticism does remain, it may be partly influenced by populist articles from some right-wing columnists.

However, more problematic is when scepticism and lobbying have slowed the rate of political change in tackling the climate emergency. DeSmog UK recently showed how Boris Johnson’s new cabinet is a collection of some of the UK’s “most right-wing politicians, some of whom have promoted climate science denial and many of whom have ties to pro-deregulation campaign groups based in and around Westminster’s 55 Tufton Street.”

This is why it is so important to understand that while the far right has often been at the forefront of pushing outright denial, it is the reluctance of mainstream politicians to act that remains our most pressing problem.


Joe Mulhall and Simon Murdoch are senior researcher and researcher for HOPE not hate.

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