Festival of Ideas: A Climate of Conspiracy: a heated debate

24 October 2014, 18:00 - 19:30

Room 3, Mill Lane Lecture Rooms, 8 Mill Lane, Cambridge

Festival of Ideas logo  This event is part of the Festival of Ideas 2014



The climate change debate, like many political controversies, is riven with accusations of conspiracy. While climate conspiracy theories may seem a distraction from the challenge of dealing with a changing global climate, they provide a starting point for an exploration of a related burning issue: the state of democratic politics today, and the hopes we invest in it.

This lecture will begin with an impersonation: a double-act. Two members of the University’s Conspiracy & Democracy research project, Professor David Runciman and Dr Alfred Moore, will represent two very different types of climate conspiracist.

Here’s a quick guide to their world views. Conspiracy theory one: climate change is a hoax. Environmentalists and scientists have secretly coordinated to conjure the fear of a warming planet in order to justify their own ideological projects and serve their own professional interests. They mask disagreement and present the world with a 'consensus' that nobody is allowed to question. The veil was lifted by the Climategate affair, which showed leading climate scientists colluding to suppress awkward data, hide their own work from critical scrutiny, and marginalise dissenters. Climate scientists are bound by membership in big institutions, research universities, and intergovernmental panels. Dissenting experts are free of the pernicious compromises of institutions. Behind the science of climate change lies conspiracy. Conspiracy theory two: the climate change conspiracy is itself a conspiracy. There is no credible disagreement on the science of climate change. The only dissent comes from industry-funded studies, think-tanks and websites. They are following the tobacco industry playbook of manufacturing doubt and emphasising uncertainty, in order to prevent public action that would cost them money. Climategate was a manufactured controversy. Those emails didn’t reveal a conspiracy or a cover-up. They revealed the ordinary backstage of scientific life, conducted under intense pressure from partisan opponents. And is it a coincidence that the emails were leaked just days before the Copenhagen summit on climate change policy? For all their obvious differences, these two ways of looking at climate change have a surprising amount in common. They both focus more on discrediting the narratives of their opponents than on identifying an actual conspiracy. They both draw on a conflicted view of science, seeing it as corrupted and endangered by their opponents, but appealing to the norms and images of science as a way of uncovering the truth. They both present the issue in terms of a Manichean struggle with the highest possible stakes, the future of a free society and the future of the planet. And they both express in a new way some long-standing anxieties about democratic government.