Cyberspace Has Buried Its Head in a Cesspit of Climate Change Gibberish

The Stansted protesters get it. The politicians of Poznan don't quite. But online, planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction

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 Nina 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.