Climates of Conspiracy


 'Conspiracy theory' is a highly flexible and pejorative label. Few people self-designate as conspiracy theorists. Some people think the term conspiracy theorist should only apply to those who imagine a conspiracy and are wrong.

Alfred Moore


Since joining the Conspiracy and Democracy project at CRASSH, I've started to see conspiracy everywhere. Or, more accurately, I've started to notice the language of conspiracy everywhere. I've become more sensitive to the ways people discussing political issues invoke conspiracy, accuse others of being conspiracy theorists, and deny that they are conspiracy theorists.

One of the issues where conspiracy-talk stands out is climate change. Assuming for a moment that this isn't just an example of the way a person with a hammer thinks everything looks like a nail, why might the issue of climate change be so prone to conspiracy? This was a question that David Runciman and I set out to explore recently in a public event for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

We started out by asking: What are the conspiracies behind the climate change issue? We suggested two (though this was not meant to be exhaustive).

The first is that the very idea of man-made climate change is a giant hoax. US Senator James Inhofe, for instance, wrote a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. In this story, the leaking or theft of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit plays a crucial role. 'Climategate', as James Delingpole in the UK's Daily Telegraph called it, was thought to reveal a conspiracy among climate scientists to suppress dissent. Why? What's behind the conspiracy? For the scientists, research money. The scientists who dissent, on this account, are outside the big scientific institutions. This sort of story is at the heart of Richard Bean's play, The Heretic. But it's bigger than just scientists and their institutional and financial self interest. The idea that we now have a problem whose solution involves transnational institutions centred in the UN and staffed by experts fulfils a great liberal (using this term in its American sense) dream of drawing power away from nation states and creating a liberal world government. Thus, Inhofe's book locates the rise of the climate change issue in the long history of attempts to increase international cooperation and build global regulatory institutions. This conspiracy narrative starts with climate scientists and ends with world government.

The second conspiracy narrative also starts with the 'climategate' scandal, but here the focus is not on the emails themselves, which are taken to simply reveal the ordinary backstage language of scientists under intense and hostile scrutiny, but rather with the timing. As Phil Jones put it in an official statement on 24 November 2009:

"In the frenzy of the past few days, the most vital issue is being overshadowed: we face enormous challenges ahead if we are to continue to live on this planet. One has to wonder if it is a coincidence that this email correspondence has been stolen and published at this time. This may be a concerted attempt to put a question mark over the science of climate change in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks." [My italic]

If we want to know where the real conspiracy lies, on this second account, we can again follow the money. It's the fossil fuel lobby, stupid. Consider a recent documentary, titled Greedy Lying Bastards, which explores the networks of money and power behind organized climate change denial. A far more sober and academic analysis in Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, reaches a similar conclusion. They argue that big oil is following the same playbook as big tobacco before it, namely, intentionally manufacturing doubt and uncertainty about well understood risks in order to extend the time in which their activities can go unregulated. Not only is it the same playbook, but it is being carried out by the same players. In this case, it is right wing cold-war scientists like Fred Seitz. Their chapter on climate denialism concludes (p.213): "We take it for granted that great individuals - Gandhi, Kennedy, Martin Luther King - can have great positive impacts on the world. But we are loath to believe the same about negative impacts - unless the individuals are obvious monsters like Hitler or Stalin. But small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organized, determined, and have access to power."

A quick health warning: Although we each presented one of these conspiratorial narratives, these were not our own personal views on the issue. Rather, we reconstructed the conspiratorial accounts from the statements of participants in the public debate.

A further health warning: We do not claim that these are two equal and opposite 'conspiracy theories'. I can well imagine someone complaining that one conspiracy narrative is a lurid fantasy put about by cynical political actors. And the other one is simply true. Or vice versa. But we were taking no stand in our presentation on whether one is better supported than the other.

A third health warning: We are not saying that all the people cited above are conspiracy theorists. 'Conspiracy theory' is a highly flexible and pejorative label. Few people self-designate as conspiracy theorists. Some people think the term conspiracy theorist should only apply to those who imagine a conspiracy and are wrong. (This is why we typically don't call the claim that Nixon covered up his office's involvement in the Watergate break-in a 'conspiracy theory'). There is a lively philosophical literature devoted to these sorts of questions (see this special issue, for instance). We were talking about the different ways people have imagined conspiracies behind aspects of the public debate about climate change.

We went on to deconstruct these stories, and to ask why it might be so tempting to talk in conspiratorial terms.

And we concluded with some disagreement, but of a different sort, namely a disagreement about what it means for democracy when debates about serious issues are conducted in a language of conspiracy.