Why fishermen believe in climate change (and everyone else believes in overfishing) 8

How much of what is recorded as scepticism about the scientific reality of climate change is simply a desire for it not to be true – or at the very least, for it not to be as bad as the scientists and politicians say? This is a question that cannot easily be answered.

When people are motivated not to believe something, they are also motivated not to acknowledge that their non-belief is anything other than rational. But two fishy tales shed some light on one type of climate change scepticism, and highlight a major challenge for climate change communicators: how do you persuade someone to believe something that they really don’t want to believe?

Fishy Tale 1

Last month in Doha, delegates at the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species voted against a ban on fishing bluefin tuna. The decision was widely condemned by environmental groups, and in the Guardian, George Monbiot described the refusal to acknowledge the critically endangered state of the bluefin tuna as:

“Olympic-class denial, a flat refusal to look reality in the face.”

Even the most casual follower of Guardian etiquette knows what happens next – when a writer uses the ‘d’ word, the comment threads fill up with red-faced, indignant micro-treatises on the inappropriateness and offensiveness of the term ‘denial’. But on this occasion, the comments were broadly supportive of Monbiot’s stance. Yes, agreed some of the very same posters who usually follow his pieces with streams of bile (hello CheshireRed), overfishing of the bluefin tuna was a serious problem and should be stopped.

Fishy Tale 2

Bottomfeeder’, by Taras Grescoe is a book about the overfishing and ultimate demise of many of the world’s fisheries. Combining barely-believable statistics about the collapse of once abundant oceanic ecosystems (some estimates put European fish populations at 5% of their first-recorded levels) and interviews with countless fishermen and traders in ports and harbours around the world, Grescoe builds up a bewildering picture of the world’s seas.

While the evidence is anecdotal rather than statistical, it is striking just how many of the fishermen (and it is primarily men) that Grescoe speaks to are adamant that climate change is warming their seas and driving away their catch. Their belief that the seas are warming is correct – but the biggest impact on the number of fish they are pulling out of the sea is intensive overfishing. Far fewer of Grescoe’s interviewees acknowledge this – blaming seals, foreigners, and global warming before conceding that perhaps their methods of fishing might be having an effect.

What The Fishy Tales Tell Us

So, notorious Guardian message board climate change sceptic CheshireRed solemnly supports the protestors who seek to prevent overfishing of the bluefin tuna, and accepts that those who are responsible for the overfishing are in denial about the cause of the problem – but does not accept the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Conversely, the fishermen responsible for overfishing happily accept climate change but doubt that their actions have any impact on the state of the world’s fisheries.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that CheshireRed (and his message board buddies) are not sea fishermen, with a vested interest in underplaying the impact of overfishing. However, like most of us in the developed world they have a personal stake in climate change being shown to be a scam – it would eliminate the need to change our high-consuming lifestyles.   Some people – for economic or ideological reasons – have a more formal desire to reject the science of climate change. Sea fishermen have an obvious and powerful motive for downplaying the importance of overfishing as a cause of lower catches. What seems obvious to the rest of us is difficult for them to admit. We are all fishermen when it comes to facing up to climate change.

Without a sensible grasp of the reasons for scepticism, an awful lot of effort could be expended without any discernible effect.

Not all scepticism about climate change is attributable to a ‘fisherman effect’ – but we urgently need a more sophisticated typology of scepticism. Re-framing the terms of the debate and refining our methods of communication will work for some types of scepticism, but not for others. Without a sensible grasp of the reasons for scepticism, an awful lot of effort could be expended without any discernible effect. There is a great deal of interest in how to communicate cimate change more effectively. But how do you go about persuading a fisherman that he needs to catch less fish?


  1. Maurizio Morabito Maurizio Morabito

    “Without a sensible grasp of the reasons for scepticism, an awful lot of effort could be expended without any discernible effect”

    Indeed. You may want to give it a try, for example by moving beyond the “fisherman effect”. For me and many people I know, for example, the main issue is about defending personal freedom.

    There are way too many people that are trying to use “climate change” as an excuse to reform society regardless of and sometimes even against the will of the majority.

    For me the best evidence of this illiberal attitude is the use of awful terms like “denialist” even against the mildest-mannered of the “lukewarmers”, those that expect the planet to warm up due to human GHG emissions but are not so sure it will bring destruction upon the environment.

    Given the effect of illiberal politics on the environment itself (eg the drying up of the Aral Sea by the USSR), it seems obvious that the last thing we need to protect the planet is a dictatorship of any sort.

  2. Tim H Tim H

    Maurizio Morabito seems keen to defend fundamental liberal values – apparently without much idea of what they are. The goal of “defending personal freedom” is universally regarded as meaningless unless it accompanies recognition of major trade-offs – namely, restrictions on the exercise of one’s freedom in ways that actively harm others. Unless Mr Morabito intends to begin defending the freedom to rape, he is obliged to acknowledge this basic point.

    He refers to those wishing to override the “will of the majority” to prevent climate change as purveyors of an “illiberal attitude”. Yet it is precisely a +fundamental liberal principle+ that personal and minority rights require defence from potential “tyrannies of the majority”. One might wonder whether the fundamental rights and freedoms of future generations may legitimately be disregarded simply for our own convenience – does this approach have anything to do with “liberal” values?

    This is of course to leave aside the question of whether the global public +does+ want action on climate change. As with most efforts to read public opinion, the picture is not clear-cut, but the evidence by no means automatically supports Morabito’s apparent perception – as a quick look at the Program on International Policy Attitudes’ data confirms: http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/btenvironmentra/index.php?nid=&id=&lb=bte

    What, though, is the “best evidence of this illiberal attitude”? Some people sometimes call other people bad names. Man the barricades, people – Russia in 1917 was clearly nothing compared to this …

  3. Maurizio Morabito Maurizio Morabito

    Dear Tim H – Reductio ad absurdum is such an old technique, nowadays it can only show a lack of substantive arguments in the person still trying to use it. Please try again when you have something to say.

    And I am not just referring to the idiocy about “freedom to rape”. For example with “regardless and sometimes against the will of the majority” I am clearly referring to those that could not care less about the “will of the majority”, whatever that might be. I am making no point whatsoever about what the will of the majority is or will ever be.

  4. Tim H Tim H

    I am glad you effectively concede that climate-friendly policies are not necessarily or straightforwardly opposed to the will of the public. On that there appears to be little disagreement.

    Nevertheless, your continuing invective against “those who could not care less about “the will of the majority”” seems curious, given the very basic discussion of liberal values I’ve outlined above. It is precisely in accord with such values that fundamental rights require defence +irrespective+ of the will of the majority, and +arguably most of all+ when such a majority actively threatens them. It is also a fairly basic principle that withholding such rights from particular people based on abitrary factors such as skin colour or geographical location is morally repugnant; why should this not equally apply to such factors as their temporal proximity to the present?

    Reductio ad absurdum: an old technique, perhaps, though so of course is the intake of oxygen via the lungs. Its age, that is to say, bears no relation to its usefulness or validity.

  5. Moth Moth

    Reading around various blogs as well as listening to the points made by a number of lobby groups, I hear that type of rubbish; if reality fails the agendas set by these groups, they turn to the default, “it’s against personal liberties to inflict social reform.” – which can get as extreme as that Monckton and others state about fears of an attempt to create a socialist/world government.
    Relying on “against the will of the majority” in this case is fundamentally flawed when one looks at how effective doubt and fear have been applied to confuse the public who increasingly demonstrate in polls that they don’t believe in the climate science.
    No, I believe that you can’t have it both ways; that where such campaigns against scientific reasoning are allowed to have so much weight and where we rely on the will of the majority to dominate over policy making.
    True, it’s not easy. Even those who feel that they’re doing their bit to increase awareness of climate change have proven to fall into acts of sensationalism. However, it still remains that a social structure that relies on the will of the majority and that majority is easily wooed misinformation is one of inaction and will ultimately not survive.

  6. Anna Haynes Anna Haynes

    Note to webmaster: I’m not sure why, but I find (with XP & Firefox) it’s not possible to copy text from this post or comments – dragging over the text does nothing.
    (From your Tweet I could do it though.)

  7. Jamie Bull Jamie Bull

    “But how do you go about persuading a fisherman that he needs to catch less fish?”

    Carp and trade?

    But seriously, tradeable fish quotas have been used for some time both in the EU and around the world and although not without their problems (social effects of trading between countries leading to the loss of local industries, ecological imperfections of inaccurate stock measurements, etc), they seem to be effective.

    From the Wikipedia article on reasons for the introduction of fish quotas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Individual_fishing_quota): “[B]ecause fishers had no long-term stake in the fishery, their incentives were to maximize the harvest each year hoping that any problems would fall to their successors.”

    Sound familiar?


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