Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Climate Change In Black and White

Although this isn’t a new story, this Guardian piece on ‘conservative white males’ being more likely to be climate change sceptics  is worth discussing in a bit more detail. The conjunction of race and climate is an interesting one, combining two of the key planks of current liberal/left orthodoxy.

Firstly, Judith Curry, who is decidedly not a climate change sceptic quite rightly points out what a pitiful piece of work this as in terms of research. There appears to be no clear definition of what a ‘denialist’ is, as she states:

Because of the mounting political and economic stakes of dealing with climate change, this global environmental problem has become extremely controversial in the US, and American efforts to deal with it have provoked a significant degree of denial—both of the reality of climate change and of its status as a problem deserving amelioration.

JC comment.  The above is the first para in the paper.  It is the only place where they come close to defining climate change denial.    Do you know anyone that denies the reality of climate change?  I sure don’t.   Many people on their “denier” list probably also agree that the problem deserves some attention.  It seems that “denier” really means people that don’t support emissions targets.  This whole group of sociologists working in this area seems not to have given much thought to what actually characterizes “deniers.”

It would appear then, that in the absence of a clearly articulated definition, ‘denier’ is essentially a short-hand way of saying people who we disagree with. Note that there is not even an attempt to outline a set of criteria against which we might be able to assess degrees of agreement or disagreement. It’s all or nothing, completely binary thinking that does not allow room for manoeuvre (see the post on the Climate Quadrant on one possible approach to classifying a wider range of views on the subject). Indeed, one has to wonder whether Dr Curry herself wouldn’t qualify as a ‘denier’ as far as many people on the left are concerned – because despite her adherence to the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis she is critical of the idea of a climate change ‘consensus’, of the practices of some of her colleagues (particularly in the light of Climategate), and of the conduct of the IPCC.

Her conclusion is succinct:

JC conclusion:  This article is notable primarily for coining the term “cool dudes” in the context of climate change “denial.”    My main reaction to this is to question how social scientists, who actually study this, can be so clueless about the whole thing.  Perhaps someone needs to develop a demographic and behavioural theory about social scientists who write about climate change “deniers.” 

What is interesting to me, as a non-white sceptic (male and with a PhD in a scientific discipline), is what this piece of work says about the liberal left, over and above the content of the research itself. In the demonology of the left, ‘conservative white male’ is pretty high up there at the top of the tree. The only thing worse than a ‘conservative white male’, is a ‘white working class male’, who are deemed to be unredeemable lumpen elements – racist, sexist, homophobic and reactionary. I fully expect one day to hear that a follow up study has shown that white working class males are more likely to be fascist climate change denialists than any group on Earth.

There was a time of course, where what defined the left was class consciousness and a desire for economic and political justice for the working classes. Not anymore. The utter failure of the left has the working classes abandoned to the far Right, and concerns about social justice transferred to marginalised groups – ethnic and religious minorities, gays, the disabled etc. Class based analysis, which was based on economics, has largely given way to identity politics. At the same time the key narratives of the old left have been morphed into environmentalism. Where before capitalism was attacked because it exploited the working class, now it is attacked because it exploits the planet Earth. So, the left can keep on with the old rhetoric against the oil companies, against multinationals, against new technologies etc, but no longer because these are perceived to be enemies of the working classes, but because they damage the ecosystem.

This change in ideology is apparent too in the fetishisation of race. Where once the left defined anti-racism as attacking discrimination and the economic marginalisation of immigrant communities, now it has been transformed into an ideology of ‘multi-culturalism’. Instead of seeking to take race out of the equation, now the left seeks to put race into everything. Race has become what defines a person, not an incidental attribute (like height or weight). Cultures are static and separate and need to be preserved. Economic re-distribution, therefore, is no longer to be class-based, but is now race-based. Far from over-coming racial differences, multi-culturalism seeks to preserve and extend them.

Which leads us back to the ‘conservative white male’... In a multi-culturalist world, having you are defined by the colour of your skin, your sexuality, your gender etc. Vice or virtue are attached to you because of your identity. I, for example, would be afforded more virtue because of my background (immigrant working class), whereas a ‘white male’ would be at a disadvantage (thanks to ‘white skin privilege’). It’s nonsense of course, but pernicious and poisonous. And, frankly, racist. Ideas are assessed not on their merits, but on who holds them.

By identifying climate change scepticism with ‘conservative white males’, what the left are doing is signalling that this is a bad thing. There is no need for argument. There is no need to even discuss the science. In the swamp of identity politics, an idea can be discounted because of who adheres to it. In the same way, the suggestion that women and ethnic minorities are true believers, transfers their presumed virtues to belief in CO2-driven climate change.

Back in the real world, in my own discussions with friends, colleagues and family (a range of people that encompasses multiple social and racial groups), I see a different picture. Most people are neither wildly sceptical nor alarmist, I would guess mild scepticism is the most common reaction apart from one small group. I find that the one group most prone to a strong attachment to climate alarmism are Guardian-reading liberals, most of whom have little or no knowledge of science. It’s not connected to race or gender, and is most obviously correlated with a liberal education. Admittedly this is only anecdotal and in no way counts as a proper survey, but I have no reason to think it is not representative. If I were a sociologist I could of course extend this into a paper entitled ‘Climate Alarmists More Likely To Be Middle-class and Liberal’, and I’m sure that some journal somewhere would take the opportunity to state the obvious.

A final thought: I would guess that most of the authors of this report – and those most likely to seize upon its contents as proof that they are right – are likely to be white and male. In fact from my own experience in left-wing politics many years ago, a solid chunk of the multi-culturalist left are white and middle-class. Surely by their own logic this should cast doubt on the value of their ideas?

There are two things to say on this. First and most obvious, is that because they are part of the enlightened intellectual class they have a ‘get out of jail free’ card that exempts them from criticism from other white middle class activists. They are still vulnerable to criticism from darker skinned colleagues, or women, or gays etc. But by virtue of their more advanced consciousness they have escaped the confines of their identity. By the same token, because of my 'false consciousness' in rejecting climate alarmism, I have sided with the enemy and therefore lose my credibility.

Secondly, the definition of ‘conservative’ is an interesting one. These leftists are by any sensible definition of the word the most conservative people around. They are impervious to facts, argument and reasoning. They know the answers before we even know the questions. They also believe that it is their task to save the world, and that the state is the embodiment of good in all respects. To all intents and purposes, these are the true ‘conservative white males’, if that’s how you want to view the world.


Anonymous said...

You have really nailed it. Thanks!

bernie said...

The source of the mind-set of the article is interesting. In part it stems from the work of Aaron Wildavsky who recognized that membership of certain cultural groups predisposes you to certain political ideas. This was extended by Kahan et al, and further applied by McCright and Dunlap. However, the original work included some pretty critical comments on the "liberal" mindset, in particular the desire to be free from all uncertainty and a reliance on the government to mke us all safe from every possible danger. I recommend Aaron Wildavsky's But Is It True? for a very good look at this other perspective on Risk and Culture.
Bernie - WMC i.e., White Male Contrarian.

Contrarian said...

bernie - thanks for the pointers. Wildavsky's book sounds like it's worth following up on.

Lewis said...

Very well put - I came here from Ben's site (via your link - climate resistance, for anyone who doesn't know) and it shows the quality of his readers that I did. There are thinkers around, aren't there?
And I take your point, and it's Ben's point too, I think, about the emptiness of this thinking. Perhaps one could call it, a la Nietzsche, 'European Nihilism', except it is now global (perhaps, there is such a thing as 'European Malaise', like a disease, that spreads virally?) It's so absurd. But thanks for articulating this!

Contrarian said...

Lewis - thanks for the comments.

It's a malaise that seems to have afflicted the Western nations - not just the English-speakers, but it's there in Germany, France and the Nordic countries. In all these countries there's a common thread though - the political failure of the Left and the abandonment of any attempt at critical analysis.

Instead you have a deep and misanthropic pessimism that sees humanity as a scourge.