Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, March 30, 2015

The collapse of the shale bubble: does it bring also the collapse of climate denial?



The Western press has been engaged in a major PR campaign destined to convince the public that Climate Change does not exist or it is not human-made. Perhaps this campaign could end soon, together with the collapse of the shale oil and gas bubble in the US 



So, we have now a presidential candidate in the US who explicitly denies the human role in climate change (and compares himself to Galileo for doing that!). He is not alone, a majority in the US senate seem to take the same position. Also, the public in the US, by far and large, seem to be less inclined to see climate change as a serious problem than the public in every major country in the world (image below from Ecowatch.
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Are Americans more stupid than the rest of the world? Probably not; on the contrary, the US has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, just as it has the best universities, the largest number of scientists, the largest number of Nobel prizes, and more. But then, why do Americans deny so strongly the human role in climate change? The favored explanation that can be read on the web is that it is due to cultural factors and, in particular, to a diffuse "anti-intellectualism" in the American culture.

That might be, but an entity such as "anti-intellectualism" is hard to define and one could argue for it being present in many other countries. I think we should look for something else. One element that we may examine is that the disbelief in the human role in climate change has a starting date: look at this image (from Gallup)



You see the remarkable dip in the belief in anthropogenic climate change that occurred approximately between 2007 and 2010. So, what happened that caused such an effect? Likely, one important factor was the 2009 "climategate" story, the diffusion of stolen e-mails exchanged among climate scientists. We may also see another, smaller, drop in 2013-2014 that might be related to the meme of "climate change has stopped" that started to be diffused in late 2012. But neither story, alone, is enough to justify such a major effect. Both had to be promoted and diffused in the media to have an impact. The real cause of the changing public perception is how both stories were managed as part of an anti-science public relations (PR) campaign. 

But, then, why is it anti-science PR so much more important in the US than it is in the rest of the world? Here I think that we can find an interesting correlation with some economic factors. The PR storm that attacked climate science goes in parallel with the development of the America shale oil and shale gas industry which grew to become a major component of the US hydrocarbon production in little more than ten years.



Bubbles grow on belief, and belief is the result of successful PR campaigns. It was PR that, for a while, managed to generate powerful memes such as the US "energy independence" or "a century of abundance" of shale gas. The main pitch for the shale industry came with the period of fastest growing production; approximately starting in 2005. As the industry grew, the public perception of the climate problem went down.

It is well known that PR works best when it is question of demonizing an adversary and it is no surprise that it was used in this way by the fossil industry. One target was their main competitor: renewable energy. But much more damaging to the shale bubble was climate science and the concept of "unburnable carbon." If ever this idea were to take hold of the law making process, then, it would have been the end of the legend of "a century of abundance". Hence, climate science and climate scientists were a legitimate target of the PR campaign by the fossil industry.

The toxic legacy of this anti-science campaign has left a deep impression on the American public. The "anti-intellectualism" that some people claim to be a cause of the skepticism of the public about the climate problem may actually be an effect of this campaign.

Now, with the collapse of the oil market, it is likely that we'll see the bursting of the shale bubble. Prices may recover, at least in part, but never again the industry will be able to regain the past momentum and to speak of "centuries of abundance" to come. So, in parallel, are we going to see the end of the anti-science PR campaign? Will climate science denial collapse together with the shale industry? Maybe not right away; the effects of these campaigns are often long lasting. But, at least, from now on, they'll have less and less money to use to spread lies around (*).



* Unless some other lie can be found












Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)