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?