Clara Rayner, Economics and Politics BSc Student, University of Bristol
On August 8, 2021, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a black-and-white warning: ‘Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades’ (IPCC, 2021, p. 18). We face a future of ‘increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes…, and, in some regions, agricultural and ecological droughts; an increase in the proportion of intense tropical cyclones; and reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost’, made more pronounced every minute the international community delays action (IPCC, 2021, p. 19). Global temperatures will continue to rise into the mid-century under all scenarios, even those involving immediate and severe reductions in emissions. The cause of global warming is ‘unequivocal’: human influence (IPCC, 2021, p. 4). Why, then, does only 60% of the American public believe global warming is ‘mostly human-caused’ (Leiserowitz, et al., 2021, p. 8)? Why has America been so slow at adopting climate legislation? This essay contends that the political implications of climate conspiracy theories answer a large portion of these questions.
To critically analyse the political implications of the so-called Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory (Douglas & Sutton, 2015, p. 100), herein shortened to GGWCT for simplicity, we will first define the boundaries of the conspiracy theory within the broader literature on conspiracy theories. We then divide the conspiracy theory’s political implications into two key parts: the bottom-up implications of grassroots conspiracy theorists; and the top-down implications due to the mobilisation of the conspiracy theory by the American Right (the ‘Conservative Behemoth’). When analysing these parts, we focus on the proliferation of climate conspiracism within the United States, because it was here the GGWCT was born and where it continues to be most potent (Dunlap & McCright, 2011, pp. 13-4). Finally, we analyse recent claims that the political implications of the GGWCT are beginning to dwindle. Throughout all three sections we critically analyse the political implications of the conspiracy theory, and conclude that the GGWCT directly causes political hesitancy about implementing essential climate legislation.
Before analysing the political implications of the GGWCT, we must first cover the intellectual groundwork provided by academic thought on the subject of conspiracy theories. Doing so enables a better understanding of the bounds of the GGWCT, allowing us to more accurately understand what political implications are derived from the conspiracy theory as opposed to other factors. The simplest and, perhaps, broadest definition of conspiracy theories comes from Karl Popper’s work on the ‘Conspiracy Theory of Society’ (2006). Here, he proposes that conspiracy theories arise from a refusal to accept the existence of unintended consequences of societal action (Popper, 2006, p. 13). Conspiracy theories are, therefore, attempts to explain these unintended consequences as the deliberate plan of influential individuals, rather than simply random chance.
Within such a broad definition of a conspiracy theory lies two critical subdivisions. The first, built on Keeley’s ‘On Conspiracy Theories’ (1999), can be understood as event-driven. Under such a definition, ‘a conspiracy theory is a proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons acting in secret’ (Keeley, 1999, p. 116). Sunstein and Vermeule further build on Keeley’s event-driven definition, contending that the actors behind the believed conspiracy must ‘have also managed to conceal their role’ (2008, p. 4, emphasis removed). In both cases, a conspiracy theory revolves around attempting to explain an event. The second subdivision, meanwhile, is narrative-driven. Here, conspiracy theories are ‘an explanation that is contrary to an explanation that has official status at the time and place in question’ (Coady, 2006, p. 2). While such a definition does not reference a conspiracy directly, it has the effect of reinforcing conspiracism by excluding official interpretations – such as Bin Laden being responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Centre (The 9/11 Commission, 2004) – from inclusion as a conspiracy theory.
What, then, is the GGWCT and how does it fit within the academic framework of a conspiracy theory? First, what it is not: scepticism. Take, for example, the 21% of Americans who (falsely (Oreskes, 2004)) believe there is a lot of scientific disagreement about climate change (Leiserowitz, et al., 2021, p. 35). For this group, the belief that climate change is not occurring could not be considered a conspiracy theory by either definition: neither event-driven, for in this view of the world there is no small group of people working in secret; or narrative-driven, for, as far as the group knows, they are not going against an official interpretation. Instead, such individuals are merely sceptical due to their perceived lack of scientific consensus. While the view is false and dangerous, it does not depend on or posit a conspiracy theory and could probably be corrected by exposure to correct information (Sunstein & Vermeule, 2008, pp. 5-8).
The line between scepticism and conspiracism is, however, incredibly narrow. Atmospheric scientist Professor William Gray, for instance, roots his early scepticism in a belief that using an 1860 baseline led to skewed data, but this quickly then morphed into a belief that scientists, government leaders and environmentalists were attempting to ‘organize, propagandize, force conformity and exercise political influence’ (Achenbach, 2006). Similarly, opinion surveys have found that amongst the public, ‘climate change denialism is driven at least partially by underlying conspiratorial thinking’ (Uscinski, et al., 2017, p. 2). While not all climate sceptics pose conspiracy theories, many who start by posing themselves as sceptics bloom into all-out conspiracy theorists.
Therein lies the crux of the GGWCT. The specifics vary: the orchestrators are sometimes liberals, communists, authoritarians, scientists, or the United Nations; their gain may be grant funding, political influence, the proliferation of nuclear power, or justification for new controls over the population (Uscinski, et al., 2017, pp. 1-3; Douglas & Sutton, 2015, pp. 99-100). The core, however, is constant – that ‘global warming is not happening and instead that scientific findings are being exaggerated or fabricated by people who have something to gain’ (Douglas & Sutton, 2015, p. 100).
As such, the GGWCT does not fit neatly into an event-driven or a narrative-driven definition by virtue of it being a wide-tent term. Elements of it – broadly termed climate denialism – refutes the consensus explanation of climate change, offering their own in its place. More outlandish parts, meanwhile, claims identify shadowy groups who exaggerate/fabricate science to their ends. Nonetheless, we accept both definitions as to do otherwise would arbitrarily truncate the GGWCT’s political implications.
The GGWCT has two broad kinds of political impact – on individuals (bottom-up) and on political parties (top-down). To critically analyse the impact on direct, grassroots conspiracism, we can turn to quantitative studies on the effect of exposure to conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking on individuals. For example, Jolley and Douglas (2014, pp. 43-8) studied the effect of exposure to pro- and anti-GGWCT material vis-à-vis a control group on the subject’s belief in the GGWCT and political intentions. Amongst a sample of 191 (63 in the pro-conspiracy group, 59 in the anti-conspiracy group, and 69 in the control group), Jolley and Douglas (2014, p. 46) found significant differences in manipulation and political behaviours: endorsement of climate conspiracy theories was ‘significantly higher’ amongst those exposed to pro-conspiracy literature when compared to both other groups, while those exposed to pro-conspiracy literature had ‘significantly lower’ political intentions. Those in the pro-conspiracy group were, compared to the anti-conspiracy group, significantly more likely to feel disillusioned, powerless (politically and concerning the climate), and uncertain (Jolley & Douglas, 2014, pp. 46-7). In turn, Jolley and Douglas (2014, p. 53) contend these feelings may lead to those exposed to climate conspiracy theories being less likely to engage with politics – a direct political implication.
We must be cautious drawing decisive conclusions from Jolley and Douglas’ work, however, thanks to the nature of their sample. While carefully drawn – with efforts made to exclude inattentive participants – the study population was composed of British university students, so may not be directly able to be extrapolated to the US. The relative youth of the study population, with a median age of 19.66 (Jolley & Douglas, 2014, p. 44), is uncontrolled, limiting extrapolation onto the broader population. Moreover, the effect of exposure – while still pronounced in Britain – may be more significant in America, thanks to the more active nature of climate conspiracy theorists in the country (Dunlap & McCright, 2011, p. 13).
To complement the work of Jolley and Douglas, we can turn to more recent research conducted by Uscinski and Olivella (2017). The pair set a simplistic null hypothesis – that ‘conspiracy thinking has a positive and linear effect on climate change denial’ – while contending in that ‘the effect of conspiracy thinking on climate denial is non-monotonic, and depends on party affiliation (2017, p. 2). Through polling 1025 respondents on questions intended to determine their demographics (with the aim of controlling for demographic variables) and openness to conspiratorial thinking, Uscinski and Olivella determine that conspiracy thinking makes party partisans less likely to adopt views in line with the scientific consensus, with a significantly larger effect amongst Republicans than Democrats or independents, providing support for (2017, pp. 4, 7). Furthermore, conspiracy thinking also appears to be ‘a strong predictor of partisan leaning’ (Uscinski & Olivella, 2017, p. 6), with Republicans significantly more likely to be open to, and moved by, elements of the GGWCT.
Both studies display that exposure to parts of the GGWCT directly impacted public opinion, especially among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. If a significant number of this base makes voting choices based on belief in the GGWCT, then representatives aligned with the conspiracy theory are more likely to be elected (Uscinski, et al., 2017, p. 11). This leads to a snowball effect, where more of the Republican base is exposed to the conspiracy theory, leading to its further permeation. We can already see evidence of this bottom-up pressure in action, with prominent members of the Republican Party, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, having to step back from prior support of bipartisan climate legislation following discontent from the Republican base (Dunlap & McCright, 2011, p. 12).
There is no doubt that the direct exposure of the public to the GGWCT has led to bottom-up political implications. However, the American right-wing political infrastructure has also directly used the conspiracy theory to further their own ambitions, which has wrought even more significant political impacts. Unlike many members of the public who, as we examined earlier, started to be open to the GGWCT after exposure to pro-conspiracy theory material, many members of the Republican Party were highly sceptical of climate change science from the 70s (Dunlap & McCright, 2011, p. 11).
For many members of the Republican political elite, climate change posed worrying implications that actively drove them towards the GGWCT. If climate change were true, it would be a dire inditement of the free market the Republicans sees as driving innovation and inevitable progress (Khanna, 2014). Instead of solving the world’s problems, the free market would instead be ramping the world ever closer to destruction. Moreover, the threat climate change poses necessitates national legislation and regulation to solve (Townshend, et al., 2013), something Republicans across the board have vehemently opposed since the Reagan years (Lynch, 2001, p. 216).
Set against an impending reality of government regulation reeling in the free market, many prominent members of the Republican Party turned to climate conspiracism. One of the most explicit amongst them was Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who, on the Senate floor, proclaimed global warming was ‘the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people’ (Dunlap & McCright, 2010, pp. 248-9). Inhofe’s subsequent appointment to the Chair of Committee on Environment and Public Works saw the Senate Committee turn into an ‘institutionalised forum for climate change denial’, with the Committee’s wide-ranging political power mobilised to grant a public platform for leading climate denialism figures (Dunlap & McCright, 2010, p. 249). He also attempted to use his political capital to call for criminal investigations into leading climate scientists (Nature, 2010). It is clear from Inhofe’s actions alone that the GGWCT has wide-reaching and powerful political implications.
While not all Republican politicians were as outspoken as Inhofe, there can be no doubt that those who bought into climate denialism within the Republican Party had significant policy impacts (Nisbet, 2011). The Bush Administration called for ‘sound science’ to discredit the scientific consensus and IPCC reports while simultaneously suppressing mainstream climate science, all while failing to pursue any climate legislation (Dunlap & McCright, 2010, p. 249). By the time the Obama administration replaced it in 2009, Bush-era obfuscation and denial was so rooted in the Republican Party that it became a litmus test for prospective Republican candidates (Johnson, in Dunlap & McCright, 2011, p. 12). In both cases, the propagation of belief in the GGWCT directly lead to inaction on the front of climate legislation.
Just as bottom-up political pressures from a base that strongly supports the GGWCT influence the top levels of the Republican Party, so too does top-down pressures influence the Republican (and Republican-leaning) base. Partisans across the spectrum take cues from party elites (Zaller, in Uscinski & Olivella, 2017, p. 6), and Republican partisans are already more susceptible to the GGWCT (Uscinski & Olivella, 2017, p. 4). The conspiracist-ridden rhetoric of Republican elites has undoubtedly, therefore, aided in the propagation of the GGWCT amongst their base. However, the issue presents something of a chicken and egg problem, in which the originating cause of climate conspiracism amongst the Republican Party appears impossible to determine (Dunlap & McCright, 2008). In either case, the political implications of climate conspiracism within the Republican Party elite are crippling and dangerous.
While the GGWCT reached a fever pitch during the years of the Bush administration (2001-2009), resulting in far-reaching bottom-up and top-down political implications, there has been some recent scholarly discussion that may now be at the beginning of the end for widespread climate denialism and belief in the GGWCT. New research from Rabe, Skocpol, and Raymond (in Cann & Raymond, 2018, p. 434) indicates a possible pivot on behalf of the American Right seeking to block climate change legislation away from invoking conspiracy towards a focus on costs.
In response to the new research, Cann and Raymond (2018) conducted discourse analysis on communication from the Heartland Institute, a US think tank world-leading in its opposition to climate legislation. Testing two hypothesises – that ‘policy design frames will be more prevalent than science frames’ and that ‘policy design frames will focus most frequently on the tangible financial harms that climate change policies impose on consumers’ (2018, p. 439) – the pair find sufficient evidence to support the latter but not the former (2018, pp. 441, 444). Science frames remain dominant, though where policy frames are employed, a focus on cost-benefit is dominant. However, there appears to be a slight shift within science frames from falsely emphasising uncertainty within climate science to direct attacks on climate scientists (Cann & Raymond, 2018, p. 449). Therefore, this evidence suggests that climate denial is growing more conspiratorial rather than less, as right-wing figures attempt to indite climate scientists in a broad conspiracy. Nonetheless, the jury is still out on a decline, and the political implications of the GGWCT in the US are still very real, as demonstrated by Biden’s failure to pass climate legislation in the bipartisan infrastructure bill (Davenport & Friedman, 2021).
We began the essay by examining the intellectual framework of a conspiracy theory, developing from relevant literature two critical definitions of a conspiracy theory: the event-driven and narrative-driven approach. We then situate the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory within these two definitions, finding different strands of the GGWCT fit within both definitions. While scepticism, when members of the public falsely believe there is significant scientific dispute, does not meet the academic definitions of a conspiracy theory, the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory does. A refusal to accept climate science outright meets the narrative-driven definition of a conspiracy theory, as scientific consensus supports climate change, while more concrete elements of the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory – take, for instance, the belief climate scientists are colluding to gain funding, political influence or impose communism – clearly meet an event-driven definition of conspiracy theory.
We then turned to examine the political implications of the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory. To do so, we split these implications into two arenas – bottom-up and top-down – before examining the implications of both in turn. When examining the bottom-up implications of conspiracy theories, we found exposure to the conspiracy theory made individuals more likely to feel disillusioned, powerless, and uncertain. We also found that the Republican base was significantly more predisposed to conspiracy thinking and, in turn, the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory. We observed evidence that the clustering of conspiracy theory believers within the party leads to selecting candidates aligned with conspiracy beliefs and forcing perceived moderates to walk back pro-legislation opinions. Similarly, top-down implications of the conspiracy theory’s belief amongst the Republican Party’s elites has led to the party seeking to suppress, contradict and obfuscate climate science for the past few decades. Moreover, the party has steadfastly stonewalled climate change legislation and regulation, all while the most conspiratorial voices relentlessly attacked climate scientists.
In summary, the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory has wide-reaching and powerful political implications. From becoming an in-party Republican litmus test for candidate selection to frequently acting to block desperately needed climate policy & regulation, the Great Global Warming Conspiracy Theory has dominated the American Right for the past decades, holding it in a stranglehold from the grassroots to the most senior politicians and party leaders. As a direct result, America has failed – and continues to fail – to pass any significant climate legislation, dooming its citizens and the broader world to the accelerating effects of climate change.
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