Environment: What is going on? Well, nothing, according to persistent persuaders

The hottest global June temperatures on record, one of the wettest July’s in the UK for decades, wildfires and communities devastated across southern Europe, Canada and Hawaii, the highest ever ocean surface temperatures recorded. All this summer.

What is going on? Well, nothing, according to a persistent community determined to persuade everybody else that climate change is not happening, that any change is due to natural causes that will soon go away, that it is all a hoax perpetrated by a sinister global elite, that it will actually all be beneficial (if it is happening), and so on.

Readers of this newspaper may have noticed that letters claiming any or all of the above appear regularly, but this is not confined to the Sheffield Telegraph. I have been working with a group of other newspaper readers across the United Kingdom to see what is being written about environmental issues and who is writing these letters. What we see is that many of the letters are written by a small number of individuals and that, because of the ownership of most local newspapers by large national publishers, these letters are published in newspapers all over the country, creating something of an illusion that there is a national movement challenging the existence of a climate emergency.

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What is also interesting is that certain ‘waves’ of so-called facts appear, the focus for a clutch of letters, and which then disappear. It would seem that certain stories appear in the climate denial social media feeds of denialists, and that these are then processed into letters coming from different sources.

We saw this recently when a Nobel prize-winning American scientist was quoted as saying that in his opinion climate change science was mistaken. Dr John Clauser’s opinions popped up in newspapers all over the United Kingdom, giving some credence, it would seem, to the idea that climate change is a myth. Unfortunately, not all letter writers managed to spell the esteemed Dr Clauser’s name correctly, damaging their reputation as reputable correspondents. What they also all failed to point out was that Dr Clauser is an expert in quantum physics, the study of sub-atomic particles: he has no expertise or qualifications in climate science, and while he has the right to an opinion as we all have, we cannot in all honesty use that opinion to challenge the 99% consensus of real experts in the field of climate science.

It would seem that what we are seeing here are powerful organisations slipping disinformation about environmental issues and climate change into the Internet, knowing that the algorithms running the likes of Facebook and Google will soon concentrate these stories in the feeds of people who have shown a previous interest in denial.

This is nothing new. Back in the 1970s the American writer Rachel Carson published a book called Silent Spring which describe the effects of DDT poisoning across the globe. Interests representing powerful chemical companies rubbished her story, claiming it was all a hoax, but as time went by the toxic effects of DDT could no longer be ignored and it was banned. We have seen similar things happening with tobacco: interests representing, largely American, tobacco companies ridiculed the idea that there was a connection between smoking and lung cancer. Today there can surely be nobody who thinks that smoking is a healthy pastime.

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So when reading a letter or opinion column that claims that everything is just fine and dandy in the environment, what are the things we can look out for? Here are some red flags.

An expert is quoted. Do a few Google or Wikipedia searches and find out who this person is. Do they have credibility in environmental matters? Is there any evidence that they are associated with organisations such as the petrochemical industry or think tanks pushing climate change denial information, such as the CO2 Coalition or the Global Warming Policy Foundation?

Are there logical flaws in the argument? Claiming that temperatures in some parts of the world are falling does not logically mean that temperatures everywhere are or that rising global temperatures cannot be happening.

A common trick is to say that climate scientists only have a ‘theory’ that climate change is happening. In fact, virtually all of science is based on theories: the existence of a force called gravity is a theory, and a very good one because it has yet to be disproved and it explains everything that happens in the world. But it will always be a theory.

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Cherry-picking is another clever trick. A common one is to pick out some statement from an IPCC report about a glacier growing rather than receding and to then make a lot of noise about it as disproving global warming.

And lastly there is the good old claim about climate change and environmental destruction being a conspiracy, a hoax spread by an invisible global elite. I, of course, am part of this conspiracy, and that I have been completely taken in by the climate scientists who will all profit enormously when we have renewable energy sources and no longer use fossil fuels.

Readers, it is up to you. What do you think is going on?

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