The market for delusion on climate change

The 5th Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change was published while I was writing this book. It is the consensus assessment of the world’s scientists of the state of their knowledge about climate change and what they think is likely to happen. What happened in the mass media at this time, and even in statements by a government environment minister in the UK, Owen Paterson, was a clear attempt to downplay the message of the scientists and the impact of the report. In the opinion of Paterson:

“People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries…I see this report as something we need to take seriously but I am relieved it is not as catastrophic in its forecast as we had been led to believe early on. What it is saying is that it is something we can adapt to over time, and we are very good as a race at adapting.”

Climate scientists responded angrily – for example, Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research:

“It’s a deliberately partial reading of the report. Either that or he has not read the report properly or does not understand the significance of the emissions scenarios. These tell us that business as usual will give us a 50:50 chance of a 4C temperature rise. His view that we can muddle through climate change is a colonial, arrogant, rich person’s view. Many people will die in the developing world where the changes will be felt the most and it is irresponsible and immoral to suggest that we as a species can adapt to climate change,”

– Independent, 1st October, 2013.

If we are, as neo-classical economists claim, “rational individuals” then you would think that all of us would put a lot of weight on the opinion of such a large number of scientists and the rigour of the process that is gone through. The diagram below shows the IPCC Process for the scientific report (click to enlarge).


There were 209 Lead Authors and 50 Review Editors from 39 countries. Over 600 Contributing Authors from 32 countries. Over 2 million gigabytes of numerical data from climate model simulations. Over 9200 scientific publications cited. The final draft for governments received 1855 comments from 32 Governments. In total there were 54,677 comments from 1089 Expert Reviewers from 55 countries and from 38 Governments. That is a lot of “rationality” that has gone into the process. [1]

As regards climate science more generally one study searched the university accessible “Web of Science” for peer reviewed scientific articles about climate change published between 1 January 1991 and 9 November 2012 that had the keyword phrases “global warming” or “global climate change.” The search produced 13,950 articles. Only 24 of these rejected global warming – 0.17% of the studies. [2]

The fact that a large number of people do NOT accept the overwhelming scientific consensus in these circumstances is therefore interesting because it is evidence that challenges the neo-classical economist’s view of what people are like. Clearly a very large number of people are NOT rational. Ironically, a key reason that people appear unable and/or unwilling to accept the science is connected to markets supplying pseudo confirmations of non scientific views of reality.

This can be put in another way – there is a market for delusion. The market supplies a stream of messages that create “doubt” about the climate science, even when none exists among the scientists themselves. There is a lot of money in it. According to a 2007 study by the US Union of Concerned Scientists, (ExxonMobil) has spent more than $19 million to promote skepticism about global warming, funding think tanks, publications and web sites that are not peer reviewed by the scientific community. The report shows how the company

– raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence
– funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings
– attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for “sound science” rather than business self-interest
– used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming. [3]

Many other fossil fuel companies do the same thing. For example, the Koch Brothers are notorious as donors to organisations attempting to throw doubt on climate change science [4].

Given the scale on which it being funded there is now a lot of delusionary ideas out there: the climate has changed before; it’s the sun; it’s not bad; there’s no consensus; its cooling; the models are unreliable; the temperature record is unreliable; animals and plants can adapt; it hasn’t warmed since 1998; Antarctica is gaining ice….the contrarian arguments are generated in a factory whose aim is to mislead and confuse. All of them have been refuted – but how is the average citizens to know or keep track of the barrage of misinformation that big money keeps generating? [5].

In the current situation the IPCC Assessment Report 5 draft has generated a huge controversy around the idea that “it has not warmed since 1998”. In the 15 years 1998 to 2012 the actual surface temperature increase was 50% slower than the average on the model runs, although well within the anticipated range of the runs. No one expects the temperature to be bang on the average of all the model runs – this average is not an exaction “prediction”. There are a range of projection of what will happen under various assumptions. Things are going seriously wrong with the science only if actual temperatures over a longer period deviate outside the range of simulated projections. To that should be added that 1998 was a particularly hot year to start measuring a trend from. If the trend between 1992 and 2006 had been chosen it would have shown a surface temperature increase that was much faster than the IPCC average of model runs. Climate scientists refer to natural variability – temperature fluctuations around the trend over relatively short time periods. This natural variability can be accounted for by things like the way that the ocean has absorbed a lot of the heat , as well as variability of the amount of ‘aerosols’ – particulates in the atmosphere from industrial pollution and volcanic eruptions that reflect solar energy back into space. [6]

These are complex issues for a lay person to assess and it is easy to understand that people would feel bewildered by the arguments. It is clear that such bewilderment can and is exploited by people who ought to know better. In fact, there is a whole topic of “civic epistemology” which can guide approaches to these questions. For people who are concerned to maintain a rational approach to controversial matters, when they are not themselves experts in the specialist field concerned, there are criteria, shall we say “diagnostics”, that can be used to assess the issues. In this connection the evidence that underpins any belief can be examined from “procedural” as well as “substantive” grounds.

“Procedural” means looking for consistency of the evidence with due scientific process – this is the quality control in academic production. Is the evidence appearing in a peer reviewed journal? Has the evidence bee replicated by other peer reviewed research processes? Is the research by a scientist operating in the field in which they have been trained and in which they have expertise?

Of course there are a lot of other sources of information out there – academic monographs; investigative journalism; data and reports from government agencies; data collected by corporations; research and reports by NGOs, charities and think tanks, consultants reports and press, radio, television and internet blogs. All of these are potential sources of accurate information – or potential sources of errors and deliberate obfuscation. A politically literate person will sift these sources of information according to quality control criteria. Thus a newspaper article written by a scientist who has published peer reviewed articles in the field, who is highlighting findings from peer reviewed literature can be taken as credible – whereas someone who has no qualifications as a scientist, or who is “a scientist”, but not from the field in question, who has not written peer reviewed articles in the field in question, and/or who has retired and ceased publication – who then casts doubt on peer reviewed literature is a highly dubious source. Especially if you find, as is very often the case, that they are being sponsored by money from fossil fuel companies.

In the tobacco companies war to deliberately create doubt about the health consequences of smoking, politically sympathetic physicists published articles in non peer reviewed journals to help the tobacco companies hold off regulation [7].

However, if climate science wrecks your religion then obviously you are not going to believe in it….In the world of ancient Greece, the world “idiot” was used to refer to people who did not contribute when they were entitled to do so in the democratic process. Instead the idiots devoted their time to their own private interests and wealth. From Adam Smith onwards mainstream economists have told people that, by pursuing their private interests, a greater social good is brought about by the “invisible hand of the market”. After Smith the idiots – naturally I am using the word in the ancient Greek sense – could feel reassured and work to accumulate private wealth. They could feel secure in the idea that, while the state was there to protect them, it was supposed to keep out of their self interested dealings because their “self love” was being converted into social wellbeing quasi-automatically – particularly by stimulating clever technologies. This simple mantra is what I earlier described, following Richard Norgaard, as “economism” and it has become the religious faith of the modern age with the economists as the priesthood.

Actually it is not at all the case that the market works as a socially co-ordinative system because people are pursuing their self interest. What makes the market ‘work’, to the extent that it does, as a co-ordinative system, is only that everyone is playing the same life game. The drive for money as a common criteria for social action leads to a common life style. The way people play or are obliged to play the same money making game glues society together on a particular path of development. Because everyone is playing the same game in terms of motivations, criteria and measures of success, interdependency in capitalist social relationships is made possible.

With economism functioning as a foundational religion underpinning the general orientation of market based society, it is incredibly unsettling to the faithful to hear the message of climate science because it implies that the free market does not, after all, automatically deliver collective well being. The evidence for this is provided by psychological studies which show that the more people identify with “free market principles” the more likely they are to reject the findings of climate scientists. A study in the USA surveyed the views of a representative 1000 people and found that a market based worldview constituted an overwhelming barrier to the acceptance of climate science. A similar finding applies to the science associated with smoking. The study, by a team led by Professor Stephan Lewandowsky chair of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in the UK, is titled “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and World Views in Predicting Rejection of Science” and is published in the journal PLOS ONE. Commenting to a Guardian journalist about these findings Lewandowsky says:

“I cannot be sure of the causality, but there are multiple lines of evidence that suggest that the involvement of worldview, such as free-market principles, arises because people of that worldview feel threatened not by climate change or by lung cancer, but by the regulatory implications if those risks are being addressed by society. Addressing lung cancer means to control tobacco, and addressing climate change means to control fossil-fuel emissions. It’s the need to control those products and their industries that is threatening people with strong free-market leanings.” (“Planet Oz” Guardian, 2nd October 2013 [8] )

Faced with a choice between what science is telling them or a fantasy, a large number of people prefer the fantasy and there are plenty of vested interests from the fossil fuel industry keen to fund publicity for their delusions. The irony here is that while economists model reality on the assumption of rational individuals market ideology appears to be a powerful influence in favour of irrationality – while powerful vested interests are happy to fund a variety of dangerous delusions.

In the 1999 film, The Matrix, the chief character is asked whether he wants to take a red pill that will show him the painful reality or take the blue pill and remain in the simulated reality that the establishment wants him to see. The economics profession are mostly in business helping to produce the blue pills. Economics is a menace – it is a generator of collective psychopathology, a society dangerously out of touch with reality.

But is there not a chance that climate science is wrong? Might it not be the case that climate change is not the result of human activities and that it does not repay the effort to do anything about it? While the climate scientists go to immense trouble to express their degree of confidence in their findings the climate deniers don’t bother to do the same thing. So yes, even the climate scientists admit that they might conceivably have got it wrong. There is a chance, but on the core issues that chance is a very small one indeed.

Thus, if one reads the IPCC 5th Assessment Report Summary for Policy makers there are a mass of findings about climate change – in regards to atmospheric changes, ocean temperatures, the cryosphere (ice sheets), sea level, carbon and geochemical cycles, drivers of climate change, quantifiying the system and so on. Each of the findings under these headings are assigned a confidence level. For example, when it comes to the attribution of climate change there is this statement:

“Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since Assessment Report 4. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

– Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers

Note the words “extremely likely”. This is defined elsewhere in the same report in this way: “extremely likely: 95–100%” . So yes, the scientists are acknowledging that there is a small chance that they might have got it wrong. But think of it this way – would you get on a plane that is 95% likely to crash because there is a 5% chance that it will not do so? No rational person would if they had a choice – unless they were being misled by a criminal misinformation.

There are other senses in which some predictions based on climate science might be wrong. There has been some argument about whether, or how much, the rising energy and money costs of extracting fossil fuel resources because of depletion might lead to a future fall in emissions because the fossil energy might not be there in sufficient quantities, extractable at an commercial cost, to lead to the worse emissions growth scenarios coming about. Perhaps depletion will mean that carbon energy prices will go so high anyway as to crash the economy, undermining the financial sector. This is another kind of argument, about the other limits to economic growth kicking in faster than climate change.

No one has a magic ability to completely accurately predict the future. Yet we are condemned to make predictions in order to manage our lives. As we reach the limits to growth some nasty surprises – and perhaps even some nice ones – may be waiting to take history in an unexpected direction. At the time of writing the United States government appears to be self destructing because Tea Party market fundamentalists in the USA are unwilling to pass a budget. Were this to go on I dare say it could damage global economic activity seriously and lastingly – and thus perhaps bring down emissions. A war in Syria which might have escalated into a major global conflict was only narrowly averted – that too might have disrupted the flow of fossil fuels. Various diseases are becoming a major threat because the declining effectiveness of antibiotics. Perhaps that might create a population crisis and again bring down emissions. The future is one that no one can foresee. None of these things make climate change any less important as a major threat to humanity that justifies being taken any less seriously.

Many thanks to Nick Bardsley, lecturer in climate economics at Reading University and Feasta member, for his help in regard to “civic epistemology”.

Note: This is an excerpt from Brian’s book Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis, published by Feasta. You can read other excerpts here.



7. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway Merchants of Doubt. How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming Bloomsbury 2010

Featured image: Dice. Source: Author: Natalie Broers.

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