Combating the growing influence of climate sceptics


A fascinating new study commissioned by Oxfam and produced by digital mapping agency Profero has shed new insights into the way climate sceptics’ networks operate. The study’s conclusions, as yet unpublished but seen by Left Foot Forward, were presented to a closed meeting of campaigners on Wednesday night.

Profero’s study analysed online coverage of the “Climategate” debacle that broke last November, tracking its progress from fringe blogs to mainstream media outlets over the ensuing weeks and months.

CC-Networks-small

Tracing the online paper trail back to its source, the researchers concluded that:

• The ‘Climategate’ story was first aired on climate denier blog The Air Vent, before wending its way onto more popular sceptic sites Climate Audit and Watts Up With That, and then featured by James Delingpole in his Daily Telegraph blog – whose followers propagated it further;

• From thereon in, the story was picked up by a wide range of media outlets, and went global –the culmination of a concerted effort to push it into the mainstream;

The timing of the CRU email leak was calculated to have maximum impact on the Copenhagen negotiations, with the second wave of sceptic attacks after Christmas deliberately timed for when the environmental movement was at its weakest, exhausted from the UN talks; and

• The speed of information flow within the sceptic community, with its rapid publication of sceptical “research”, is far quicker than any scientist or NGO could hope to match – and handily unencumbered by peer review or sign-off processes.

This meant that because almost no-one from the climate movement responded to or rebutted the sceptics’ arguments, they ended up owning the story.

This allowed them to shift what political theorists call the “Overton Window”: the acceptable parameters within which a debate can be conducted. Suddenly after Climategate, it became acceptable for the mainstream media to question the fundamentals of climate science.

As cognitive linguist George Lakoff has written, if you don’t contol the way an issue is framed, you don’t control the debate. Climate progressives allowed this episode to be written on the sceptics’ terms. The result? A sizeable drop in the public’s belief in climate change (although the freezing winter may also have played a part in this).

Profero’s study then looked at the character of the online climate sceptic networks that permitted this information flow. It discovered that the sceptic community is extraordinarily well-networked and interwoven, with sites like Climate Audit and Climate Depot acting as hubs for a wide range of other individual pundits and bloggers. (And no, I’m not going to give these sites free publicity by linking to them.) Of the top five most linked-to climate commentators, four are climate sceptics.

The one exception was Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who was also the only significant voice countering the sceptics during the whole Climategate debacle. “I have seldom felt so alone,” he wrote early on in the scandal, with justification – Oxfam’s study shows that almost no-one bothered to back him up in defending the integrity of the science.

In many ways, the tactics revealed by Profero are not new. They were first tried and tested by American neo-cons in the 1970s long before the internet became a tool for campaigning. What is new is that the patterns of activity are now traceable, which means that the progressive response to climate scepticism can be more strategic – that is, if we listen to the findings.

Indeed, the reports’ insights should give pause for thought to progressives contemplating the strength of their own networks. Stuart Conway, the study’s co-author, declared simply that “there are no progressive networks” – just hubs of activity here and there, lacking interconnection. Whilst a number of blogs buck this trend – honourable mentions include Treehugger and, yes, Left Foot Forward – the pro-environmental community as a whole lacks brio and responsiveness.

It’s not that there we don’t have the numbers: it’s more than we’re not using our numbers effectively. NGOs, notably, were nowhere to be seen during the debate. Whilst there were some good reasons for this – NGOs feared they would be simply seen as “the usual suspects” in rebutting deniers – this clearly left a vacuum that needed filling by an activist community.

After presentation of the study, discussion moved onto filling that vacuum: how we can better combat sceptic networks and strengthen our own. The discussions ranged far and wide, and I’d love to tell you some of the creative ideas discussed, but you’ll have to watch this space…

For now, though, let me close with a challenge for progressive readers: one of the study’s more obvious conclusions was how effective climate sceptics are at commenting on forums, posting stock arguments, and linking back to sceptic sites. This is unsurprising for anyone who has ever trawled through comments left behind after any climate change article. By the time you read this, there will doubtless be sceptical comments posted beneath this blog, too.

So here’s what I’d like you to do:

• Read the comments, and if you notice any that cast doubt on the validity of climate science, post a response, be polite and use facts;

• You might like to make use of the handy checklist of arguments to counter deniers over at Skeptical Science;

• Link to some of the dirt dug up on sceptics’ funding by SourceWatch; or

• Refer to the discussions at RealClimate and Climate Safety.

Oh, and remember to check out James Delingpole’s column at the Telegraph. If any of it makes you angry, you might like to let him know. Did I say be polite? Scratch that.

UPDATE 23/3:

Profero, the digital mapping agency behind the Oxfam report have posted a message on their website. They say:

“We’re really excited that people are taking an interest in what we do and hats off to LeftFootForward for getting the scoop on this piece of work but we’d like to clarify what’s being discussed (most of the conversations focus upon a visual representation of some of the key conversations in the form of a landscape map) as it should be understood in the context of an entire report (120 pages or so) which hasn’t been made public.

“The report as a whole applies our own bespoke models and frameworks to both quantitative and qualitative data in order to bring to the surface complex dynamics and issues which would otherwise pass un-noticed if an automated technological monitoring solution had been used in isolation.”

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  • http://www.cinemaprojectionists.co.uk Steve Grimley

    These people are not skeptics, they are Ostriches, burying their heads in the sand so they can’t see whats coming.

  • http://leftoutside.wordpress.com Left Outside

    Climate Ostrich, I like that a lot!

  • http://twitter.com/red_eck/status/10792160843 Alex Naysmith

    RT @leftfootfwd: Combating the growing influence of climate sceptics: http://cli.gs/NEhyE

  • http://twitter.com/ving_faction/status/10794971197 Ving Faction

    Combating the growing influence of climate sceptics http://j.mp/bOwvfa

  • http://twitter.com/climatesock/status/10798146295 Climate Sock

    Combating the deniers' influencer – great article on Left Foot Forward http://bit.ly/96hqEX

  • Eddy

    Has this story been triple-checked to avoid any further embarrassment?

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  • http://bastardoldholborn.blogspot.com/ Old Holborn

    Oh joy. Goebbels would be proud of you Will. This pesky internet eh? If it hadn’t been for us pesky kids, you might’ve just got away with it.

  • RobW

    This is bizarre. You seem to be suggesting there is some sort of over arching plan or even conspiracy among climate skeptics. Have you considered that it may happen spontaneously very much like the free Market does. With individual actors reponding to the relevant Market information? Maybe that is why the left find it difficult to compete because they think there has to be some sort of plan.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/billy_blofeld/ Billy Blofeld

    The most revealing evidence that you demonstrate is that the BBC and Guardian are closely linked and that they are at the heart of the “supporters” network.

  • Leo

    Interesting point. One of the immediate consequences of Climategate for the media has been that sources like the BBC and the Guardian have changed the focus of their coverage. For a few months now their climate change stories have overwhelmingly been about whether or not people believe it’s happening, and whether or not the science can be trusted. For this issue, is it right for them to appear in the “Supporter’s Network”?

  • http://twitter.com/guyshrubsole/status/10815623323 Guy Shrubsole

    Written a new blog on combating climate sceptics' networks: http://tinyurl.com/ylbdheu

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  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/billy_blofeld/ Billy Blofeld

    @Leo,

    Don’t worry. The BBC are still firmly in the supporters network. The BBC’s views on climate permeate all programming – even childrens TV.

  • http://kingofwrong.blogspot.com The King of Wrong

    Combating anti-skeptic propaganda: http://bit.ly/9sV1du

  • http://twitter.com/greenrupertread/status/10816261818 RupertRead
  • Josh

    Sounds like the global cooling deniers are getting desperate. Dear old Willy, it must be a bitch for evidence based blogging when the evidence dosen’t support your discredited, Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyite, Leninist, Fascist theory. What a shame

  • http://torylies.blogspot.com Richard Blogger

    @Leo The BBC and the Guardian are news sources, they have to report news. It is true that they have columnists who give opinions (OpEds in American-speak) like Monbiot, but it is clear that they are opinions not reporting. Similarly Delingpole is an OpEd columnist and not a reporter.

    So in this debate one must remove the columnists (where someone says “this is my opinion” regardless of how expert they are – in Monbiot’s case – or knuckle headed they are – in Delingpole’s case) and look at the reporting.

    Reporting means looking for credible sources and checking them, and getting more than one source. It means throwing away “beliefs” and presenting facts. It also means getting both sides of the argument and letting the readers/viewers/listeners decide. That’s good journalism.

    Unfortunately we are in a situation when this rarely happens. Churnalism, as Nick Davies popularised (though it’s not a term he created) is a lazy, but cheap, form of journalism that has taken over the media. It is journalism by press release.

    These days it is how loud you can shout that matters, not whether you are right. And in the climate debate the people with the loudhailers are the deniers.

    Are blogs “news” or “journalism”? Well there is a lot of debate amongst journalisms about this, and no one has yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Will’s “call to action” to address the deniers claims on their sites is nothing new. Before the internet anyone could print up a flyer with a cheap duplicator machine and put their point of view across. The internet just does the same thing but on a wider scale. Do I think there is any point? No. The denier sites are the places where die-hard deniers go to smugly congratulate themselves on being ignorant. You cannot change their minds. Far better to address comments on the main-stream sites, the main newspapers sites, the main TV sites where people are more open-minded. In those places Will’s advice is very pertinent, presenting the facts in a polite way makes people more willing to listen. The loud hailer bearers then come across for what they are: ignorant and bullying.

  • Climate Zombie arguments

    @Josh – “Sounds like the global cooling deniers are getting desperate”

    Sorry Josh, but global cooling was a theory that died in the 1970s: http://tinyurl.com/3yzczf

    Sounds to me like it’s the climate sceptics who are the desperate ones – digging up dead arguments and trying to breathe life into them again…

  • http://motls.blogspot.com/ Luboš Motl

    Well, I am offended that The Reference Frame, my blog, isn’t in the graph – the authors haven’t really gotten to the core yet. ;-) More seriously, it’s completely crazy for the IPCC to appear in the middle, and connected to Pielke Jr only. Is that a joke?

    The traders with fear are so obsessed with the form – the question how to brainwash others and “frame” the issue in the most professional Goebbelsian way – that they completely miss the question whether they’re actually right about anything, and whether most people can really be fooled all the time about anything.

    While the human stupidity is almost infinite, it’s also true that most people don’t reach these infinite limits. Most people have actually understood that something is really unhealthy about the community (and its method) that produces the bombshell propositions of the kind that humans are threatening the climate.

    If there’s somewhat sane in the AGW movement, she should ask the question what she should fix about herself, before she asks how her complete lack of scientific integrity, ability, and will to think about the climate rationally should be optimally imposed upon others.

  • http://bastardoldholborn.blogspot.com/ Old Holborn

    Only Labour can stop summer. Using all your money. vote Labour

  • http://twitter.com/speckl/status/10821604644 Becky Luff

    RT @leftfootfwd: Combating the growing influence of climate sceptics http://cli.gs/NEhyE

  • http://minkomi.com Dan Brown

    Can we drop this ‘denier’ term, it’s far too charged a word for this sort of discussion. Something this important should be led by the science and it’s clear to me that the science is not yet settled.

    Climate change is happening, as it has always done, but are we actually causing it? I’m not so sure.

    What I do know is that the raw temperature data should have never been deleted. That alone is what put me in the skeptic camp. It just seems unscientific to me.

  • Guy S

    @ Dan Brown: You may not be so sure, Dan, but thousands of scientists are: http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm

    Your raw temperature data claim is nonsense. The data sets are still available to view at the various meteorological offices where CRU / UEA obtained them. See http://mediamatters.org/iphone/research/200912010030

  • http://www.climatesock.com Leo

    @Josh – you missed Anarcho-Syndicalist and Bolivarian.

    @Richard Blogger – very much agree about focusing on mainstream sites.

    I’m more concerned about the idea that good journalism necessarily requires balance. Certainly journalism should present facts to help readers to make up their own mind; otherwise it’s comment, not reporting (as you say).

    But that doesn’t mean that it’s always appropriate for a journalist to go looking for, and report, an argument that rejects the premise of what they’re writing about. Just because the Flat Earth Society have sent out some press releases doesn’t mean that every story about Nasa should include a quote from their spokesperson saying that the moon landings were faked.

  • http://minkomi.com Dan Brown

    @Guy S Thanks for the links, very interesting. We need something like that Media Matters site over here, as it was widely reported the data was deleted and so I formed my view.

    The other site will take me longer to digest, but I will check through it when I get a few hours spare.

    Let me just say I’m not a climate scientist obviously, but I am interested in the truth. That’s why the raw data is important to me in forming my own view, as are the methods used to interpret that data.

  • http://convenientlies.wordpress.com/ Tim H

    @Richard Blogger,

    It’s a little ironic that you cite Nick Davies in making that particular point. In Flat Earth News, Davies actually refutes precisely that point: he points out that the selection of facts and sources, their arrangement, framing, and so on, are all activities that require decision-making, and that such decisions are never neutral. He also criticises the dominant convention of reporting “both sides”, which he sees as tending to reinforce the conventional wisdom.

  • http://twitter.com/bethatchange/status/10833952128 BeThatChange

    Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/barackobamarama/status/10834077978 44TH POTUS

    RT @BeThatChange: Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/greenape/status/10834125369 mark shayler

    RT @BeThatChange: Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/rodolphocuenca/status/10834147475 R o d o l p h o

    RT @BeThatChange: Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/kieranbattles/status/10834173092 kieran battles

    Interesting piece on combating climate deniers http://bit.ly/9HtAty #fixcop15 #cop15 PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/staffordtweets/status/10835516716 diana smith

    RT @BeThatChange: Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/campaigncc/status/10837693469 Climate Campaign

    RT @BeThatChange: Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • Jamie

    Dan,

    The problem is that the raw data can be misleading. Weather stations set up 50 years ago in the middle of a field may now be in city suburbs. This means that they will show significant warming due to the ‘Urban Heat Island’ effect. Climate scientists have to correct for this and hundreds of other factors, whilst also trying to make sense of ice core records, tree ring records (which have massive error margins) etc to calculate climate history over tens of thousands of years. I feel this is what many people don’t understand. Calculating warming is not just a case of averaging all the temperatures recorded over history.

    It’s complicated. Very complicated. This is why the Met Office has just purchased a new supercomputer and why all the hoo-haa over the ‘Climategate’ emails can be misleading and why I get extremely angry at people (e.g. Daily Mail columnists) who claim that they know better who have spent their entire lives working on the subject just because they have read a (scientifically questionable) by Nigel Lawson.

  • Mr. Sensible

    The Climate Sceptics have been exposed.

  • http://twitter.com/purplet100/status/10840061781 Tim Rawlings

    RT @BeThatChange: Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/peterwolf/status/10840075814 Peter Wolf

    How to combate the growing influence of climate sceptics http://bit.ly/chjz2j

  • http://twitter.com/huntingtonlane/status/10840484559 Dawn Chorus

    RT @BeThatChange: Really interesting piece on climate deniers and how their networks spread nonsense so effectively http://bit.ly/9HtAty PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/sgneist/status/10841216888 Suzy Gneist

    RT @leftfootfwd: Combating the growing influence of climate sceptics http://cli.gs/NEhyE

  • http://minkomi.com Dan Brown

    @Jamie What you say seems sensible enough to me. But I did say I’d like to know the method to normalize the data as well as the data.

    Anyway, I think this is one subject that a layman like me has no way of knowing what to believe. Or who to believe.

    Which brings me back to my original point further up the thread, that terms like ‘denialist’ and ‘flat-earther’ do not help the situation and is more likely to turn open-minded people like me away from one camp into the other. Or even away from both into a third, as yet undefined camp.

  • McHarris

    I am a seeker of truth…… you wonder if we can be silenced? I wonder how you deal with stories like this that just go to show that if there is a $ to be made someone will try very hard. Just who can you trust these days?

    Hailed as “the big new idea to save the planet from runaway climate change”, this set up a global fund to save vast areas of rainforest from the deforestation which accounts for nearly a fifth of all man-made CO2 emissions.
    http://just-me-in-t.blogspot.com/2010/03/measure-your-gullibility.html

  • http://twitter.com/frabcus/status/10866007867 Francis Irving
  • http://jamieandrews.name JamieA

    @Dan Brown for me it’s not a question about who to believe, but about who to trust.

    When I go to the Doctor to get an opinion about my health, I do so because the doctor is way more qualified than me and I therefore trust their opinion.

    I can read up about my symptoms on the internet for a long time but to take those opinions as more valid than my doctor’s would be foolish. That’s how I feel about the scientific consensus about climate change. There might be a few random people who think that rubbing foraged herbs all over my body will cure me, but those people are in the minority, and I don’t trust their knowledge and expertise as much as the vast number of qualified doctors.

  • http://twitter.com/jamieandrews/status/10866138895 Jamie Andrews

    Great post about how "Climategate" unfolded in the blogosphere http://bit.ly/doQ9X8 by @guyshrubsole

  • Ged Barker

    Interesting stuff. It seems that despite their repeated calls for scientific integrity (that coincide with a wilful disregard for actual science http://bit.ly/dyedGh) the ostriches are, shock horror, more interested in the alchemy of turning niche rantings into national stories than they are in furthering the debate. Do they remain successful purely because they are more interested in disruption than truth and/or because their’s is the loudest voice?

  • http://twitter.com/barackobamarama/status/10866708583 44TH POTUS

    RT @kieranbattles: Interesting piece on combating climate deniers http://bit.ly/9HtAty #fixcop15 #cop15 PLS RT

  • http://twitter.com/yabberdigital/status/10871658327 Yabber

    great work by our colleagues in Profero – http://bit.ly/bUwD8f not the wholestudy but a good summary by http://www.leftfootforward.org/

  • http://twitter.com/sammielw/status/10871811569 Sam Walmsley

    RT @leftfootfwd: Combating the growing influence of climate sceptics http://cli.gs/NEhyE great work from SML team @profero

  • http://twitter.com/yabberdigital/status/10871842511 Yabber

    RT @sammielw: RT @leftfootfwd: Combating the growing influence of climate sceptics http://cli.gs/NEhyE great work from SML team @profero