The Climate of Post-Truth Populism
Science vs. the People
Has politics ever been about telling the truth? Recent declarations of the rise of a “post-truth” era irresistibly provoke this question. Declared the 2016 Word of the Year, “post-truth” describes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” One of the best examples of the accuracy of this diagnosis is the depiction of climate change in the distorted narratives of right-wing populist parties and politicians, such as theUK Independence Party (Ukip), the German party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump’s recent withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord hardly came as a surprise to many. Indeed, researchers have found that, in general, parties of the political right are more likely to articulate skepticism regarding both the reality of climate change and its political importance. Recent research on the European Parliament, for example, has shown that the more to the right a political group is, the more likely they are to be hostile to policies that aim at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is certainly possible to track a tendency within the rhetoric of right wing populist parties to reject both the concept of anthropogenic climate change and the research that underpins it. The climate spokesperson for Ukip, for example, speaks of global warming as a “ non-problem.” Ukip’s 2015 manifesto states that it will repeal the Climate Change Act, abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change, withdraw from the EU’s emissions Trading System, and invest in the coal industry and the development of shale gas. This year, the party has stated that it will “end wasteful subsidies to ‘renewable energy scams’.” Similarly, the AfD declares in its manifesto that “decarbonization” is but the German government’s strategy to legitimize the “Great Transformation of Society” (a term the party uses to label the ongoing decarbonization project in Germany, which according to AfD coincides with de-industrialization). It is argued that carbon is in fact beneficial for plants and therefore desirable.
But if we probe deeper behind this denial of climate change science, a more complex picture emerges. Analysis of the ways climate science is characterized by the AfD, Ukip, and Trump reveals a paradoxical relationship with science itself. They portray climate science and scientists not simply as removed from everyday reality and “common sense,” but also as very much opposed to “real science” too. Science is not entirely rejected; rather it is used against climate scientists who are dismissed as conspiratorial and unscientific elites. How can we understand this inversion of scientific “truth”? Why might it resonate with the other populist claims?
Populist “Common Sense”
The adjective “populist” applies to varying political groups and parties from both the left and right, but what they all have in common is the assertion of a sharp opposition between the “elites” and “the people.” The rejection of political and economic expertise is integral to many versions of populism. When conservative UK politician Michael Gove stated that “people in this country have had enough of experts” in a discussion regarding the economic implications of Brexit, he was merely reaffirming populist anti-elitism.
The populist rejection of climate change can be understood as not just anti-elitism but more specifically as anti-intellectualism, as outlined by Richard Hofstadter: a suspicious attitude to experts working in laboratories, universities, or diplomatic corps and a more general dislike of the educated classes. The populist hostility to climate science can be understood as incorporating both a suspicion of policies that put economic growth in question and a response to the perception of climate scientists as members of an international “establishment” elite.
The anti-intellectual dimension of populist politics is seen in the way in which populism refers to “common sense” as it simultaneously constructs the content of that “common sense.” Ukip has always asserted “common sense policies.” In an article by Paul Nuttall, now the party’s leader, he announces that the party is summed up by the ideology of “common sense-ism,” apparently would be exemplified by “ripping up the hideously expensive and nonsensical Climate Change Act.” Ukip responded to a report showing the rise in carbon emissions in Britain and the likelihood of the country missing its emissions targets with the headline: “Common sense prevailing.” Bernd Lucke, the founder of German AfD, based his party’s underlying narrative on common sense not as but opposed to ideology: it was precisely in opposition to European ideology that he argued in favor of common sense as the justification for a German exit of the monetary union. While Lucke originally used this term to legitimize AfD’s outright criticism of a European monetary union, the label has long outlived its creator. Similarly to Ukip, the German populist party labels itself the “common sense party.”
Such resistance to the assertion of dangerous anthropogenic climate change, of course, neatly legitimizes the rejection of unpopular policies that threaten socio-economic upheaval and a drastic reduction in European standards of living.
It is therefore no surprise that populist parties reject the “expert” consensus on climate change. But what is striking is the way that science is nevertheless heralded as a critical tool for combating that elitist narrative.
Here is Trump, speaking on Earth Day earlier this year: “rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.” This disingenuous rhetoric is clearly at odds with the big cuts made by his administration to science, energy. and environmental programs. But it is echoed by other right wing populist parties. In its manifestos and pamphlets, to be sure, Ukip steers clear of referring directly to science. In Ukip’s “Energy Policy” pamphlet, science is only mentioned once — in relation to research by UK”s Royal Academy apparently showing that fracking is safe and clean; scientists are only mentioned once, in relation to the claim that “the sun is more important than CO2 in determining global climate.” Yet in interviews, its representatives are more expressive, asserting their support for an “unbiased” scientific approach to climate change. Ukip’s energy spokesperson Roger Helmer, for example, does not stop at attacking mainstream science and dismissing “climate hysteria” and “climate alarmism”; he also presents alternative research and data: “We think the relation between human activity and CO2levels is open to question, while the relationship between global temperature and atmospheric CO2 levels is hugely open to question, especially as there hasn’t been any global warming for the last 18 years according to satellite data.”
Ukip’ s spokesperson on climate change explains: “Ukip would appoint a Royal Commission on ‘global warming’ science and economics, under a High Court judge, with advocates on either side of the case, to examine and cross-examine the science and economics of ‘global warming’ with all the evidential rigor of a court of law.” He asserts the importance of “a rational, balanced approach to the climate debate since 2008.” More generally, “British science” is constructed as an object of nationalist pride, lauded by Ukip as being “the envy of the world,” and apparently it is by freeing itself of the red tape of the EU that Britain will once again enable its scientists “to… become true global pioneers.” Ukip may be anti-intellectual, but its rhetoric, apparently, is not anti-science.
The AfD largely parallels Ukip’s approach to science. On the one hand, Germany’s guiding culture supposedly rests on a “scientific and humanistic tradition.” The manifesto demands the reinforcement of the “scientific ethos” and the return to impartiality and financial as well as political freedom. On the other hand, climate science is portrayed as highly politicized: the AfD program dismisses the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a powerful international actor with its own political agenda, which bases its actions on a rigged system of models that actually lack any definitive predictive power. The dismissal of the practices in the field of climate science is a recurrent theme also in interviews and speeches: Party members repeatedly present themselves as “informed and educated insiders” who have seen through the “rigged system.” Frauke Petry, for instance, argues from her perspective “as a scientist” when she attacks the German Green Party for its climate policies and claims that the “hypothesis of human-made climate change is not proven.”
Populist parties, then, assert that climate science is therefore “not scientific.” Paradoxically, they defer to “real science” to refute the expertise of climate scientists. The “scientific data” referred to here, however, are not real challenges in an honest debate, but rather unscientific at best and dangerous fictions at worst. Populists, in sum, have created their own ecosystem of alternative facts. And yet the ideal it disseminates has a hold. Why? Precisely because the “common sense” ideal of science holds that, when done properly, it provides neutral, objective, and certain facts. But the further twist here is that the issue of climate change is commonly presented by proponents of robust action in a way that actually reaffirms this problematic picture of science.
Science is frequently referred to as offering certain facts — that is, objective truths — that should straightforwardly determine political decisions. Climate scientist Melanie Fitzpatrick, for example, complains about “the consensus gap” between what scientists know and what the public believes: “The science is clear. But because public perception of scientific consensus is an important element for public support of action for climate change, this gap needs to be narrowed so that we can move ahead with policies to reduce heat-trapping emissions.” This simply doesn’t follow. Science can inform policy making, but it cannot dictate it. Not only is the assertion that tackling climate change involves emissions reductions hardly a matter of consensus, but there are other values and issues in play that may trump the goal of emissions reductions.
Still, climate change is commonly depicted as an issue that should transcend the petty squabbles of messy politics and simply heed the science. Accordingly, a group of scientists authors a letter in which the first line baldly states that “human-induced climate change is an issue beyond politics.” In the dominant “post-political” presentation of climate change exemplified by this statement, there is a collapsing of political decisions into scientific knowledge: “undisputed matters of fact” are apparently established by scientific expertise, which “becomes the foundation and guarantee for properly constituted politics/policies.”
Such an assumption of a linear connection between science and politics is problematic. As scholars accept, scientific advice is not “neutral” but can serve particular power interests or tacit commitments. Indeed, science itself is shaped by political decisions and its social context. This should not imply that scientific data are arbitrary or irrelevant, but it should provoke a profound wariness of any claims that fully objective truth can usurp the political nature of debates on highly contested issues. It therefore is dubious whether any golden era of “truth” really existed; this was always an illusion in the construction of which the “post-political” discourse colludes with the “post-truth” diagnosis.
Consequently, resistance to scientific expertise arises perhaps not just despite, but perhaps actually because of, its growing role in policy making where people’s varying interests are concerned. Thus, the flip-side to the “post-political” technocratic affirmation of climate change is the populist “post-truth” denial of climate change. We can understand the two as intimately connected.
Furthermore, populism sets what we might call an anti-intellectual trap: denying climate change by rejecting scientific knowledge claims forces the scientific community and individual researchers to react against what appear to be ill-informed or even outlandish counterclaims. Climate scientists and politicians are backed into the position of (re)claiming scientific authority when their findings and procedures are seemingly deliberately distorted and misrepresented. Their reaction, however, simply reaffirms the depictions of science set by populists and deniers. Popular “science expert” and TV personality Bill Nye, for example, claimed in a talk-show that human activity accounted for “100%” of global climate change and that deniers of this fact suffer “cognitive dissonance.” Likewise, in an interview with a German radio station, renowned climate scientist Anders Levermann stated that there is “simply is no doubt” about the causes and effects of climate change. While the frustrations of scientific experts are understandable, it is also dangerous to insist on one’s intellectual superiority in public debates, for this offers populists the perfect opportunity to lament the “lecturing” of “ordinary people” by an aloof elite. This is only exacerbated by the tendency some scientists have to dismiss the intelligence of many in their audience. By tempting professional scientists to insist on the superiority of their knowledge, climate populists achieve what they need the most: the singling-out of a very visible yet distanced enemy provides them the opportunity to side with the “common sense” of the “ordinary people.” It also reaffirms the problematic assumption that science should offer 100% certainty. This is also dangerous because when it fails to do this (as it must) it is too easily undermined.
Science is a battleground for politics. But it is also utilized as a weapon. As we have shown, it is reasonable to ask whether this development really represents a sea-change in politics or whether science has always been used to shore up particular political positions and to dismiss others. It is dubious whether “objective facts” ever really “shaped public opinion” as independently as the “post-truth” diagnosis suggests.
But the question that particularly interests us is not the validity of the diagnosis but rather its hold. Why are we so obsessed with the existence of “post-truth” politics at the moment? Is it that we long for an era in which science could tell us what to do? Or is it rather that the manifestos of populist parties wield a sinister power and that branding them as “post-truth” is a way to delegitimize them? Tackling the ideologies of these parties, we suggest, will not just involve dismissing their knowledge claims, which is surely not difficult, but confronting the political truths that have allowed these knowledge claims to gain such a tenacious grip.