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Climate Denial as a 21st Century Conspiracy Theory

27/06/2013 11:47 BST | Updated 26/08/2013 10:12 BST

Conservative MP Peter Lilley's 22 June blog for the Huffington Post "Global Warming as a 21st Century Religion" provides insight into the psychology and motivation of the climate denial industry. Climate denial rests on the assumption that 97% of climate scientists who believe climate change is caused by human behaviour are wrong, and, remarkably, a small group of mostly journalists, politicians, business people, and general non-scientists - many with strong links to the fossil fuel industry - have managed to disprove the link between human behaviour and climate change, and in doing so unearthed a global science conspiracy.

Addressing the science, Peter Lilley makes the assertion in his article that "Alarmists are reluctant to admit that the global surface temperature has not increased for 16 years". The statement is simply false. A quick glance at Data from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows the annual mean average for surface temperature for 2012 was 0.11°C higher than 1997. Interestingly, a similar claim became the subject of an awkward BBC exchange with climate scientist James Hansen, where the interviewer spent most of the time debating this false controversy, providing a case study for just how uninformed most journalists are on the subject.

Peter Lilley goes on in his article to say "If you climb a hill and reach a flat plateau you are higher than before - but the plateau is flat, not rising." Although as shown above, the plateau exists only in Peter`s imagination, let`s suppose it is real. What he says is correct, though he misses the implication of his own analogy: that the plateau is by definition not the top of the hill, but a section on an overall rise. If you study a graph of global surface temperature you will see over a period of decades temperature is continually rising, as predicted by climate scientists. So to return to Peter`s analogy, weather could be defined as the individual steps, where a previous step could very well be higher than the current one, but climate is the journey, which when measured over long periods, is constantly rising.

Peter Lilley`s self-presentation is revealing too. Nowhere in his article or Huffington Post biography does he declare he is the Vice Chairman and Senior Independent Non-Executive Director for Tethys Petroleum, a company which according to a Guardian article he holds at least $400,000 worth of share options, in addition to receiving regular quarterly payments of £11,750 for 30 hours` work. The presentation of his education is hazy too, in his article he mentions having studied "physics at Cambridge", but on his official website it says "natural sciences and economics".

On the subject of business Peter says "Action by Britain is pointless unless China, India and Africa join in." If you take his statement, arrange the countries and continent into various different orders, and repeat it, the irrationality becomes clear. The benefit is to act now, to become an architect of the modern world, in an exciting technology revolution; those who cave in to the narrow interests of fossil fuel lobbyists, will eventually fall behind, lose international respect, and diminish their influence.

The article ends with an unconvincing lament for the world`s poor, proclaiming "They will remain poor until they harness energy like us." Yet the world`s poor are much better acquainted with the damaging effects of climate change than us. A study carried out by the DARA Group concludes that climate change is contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year, mostly in poorer parts of the world. Rather than emulating us, many developing countries are creating new paths and strategies, investing in renewables, and building different energy infrastructures and economies.

Peter can call climate change science a "cult", say it is for "filling the void" for those who have (quoting G.K Chesterton) "stopped believing in orthodox religion". It only aids in making him sound more ridiculous. His theories have no more credibility than faked moon landings or giant monsters in Scottish lakes.

But Peter is right to sense a conspiracy, though it is one much closer to home. In full view, and obliquely, the fossil fuel industry has poured money into a global propaganda campaign to aid in exploiting every last bit of coal, oil, and gas on the planet; echoing the tobacco industry`s prior attempts at discrediting the link between smoking and cancer, only this time the danger of the misinformation is several orders of magnitudes greater, and must be overcome if humanity wishes to retain prospects of a meaningful future.

The best path forward may be for citizens with the luxury of free time to pursue personal research projects, draw inspiration and action from them, and work to create a media that oppose the widespread falsehoods; a task which is made greatly more achievable with the internet. Once sufficiently acquainted with the concepts and data of climate science, the baseless theories of the denial industry lose all plausibility. A positive side effect of this - if successful - could be the cultivation of a humanity with a greater sense of responsibility, autonomy, and self-expression.

Not all will not be around to face future generations, but those who are, will be questioned, and asked what they did to rise above the clanging of the empty barrels of the fossil fuel industry. We still have time to build a good answer.