Climate Change Denial – How to Spot It

I found out about FLICC set of denial tactics when doing an online course run by University of Melbourne this month. See the previous post. The acronym stands for the five tactics of climate change denial :

Fake_Experts   F= Fake Experts              Logical_Fallacies  L= Logical Fallacies

Impossible_Expectations I=Impossible Expectations            Cherry_PickingC=Cherry-picking

Conspiracy_Theories  C=Conspiracy Theories

At first FLICC all seemed a pretty straightforward and reasonable set of criteria. However when I tried some of the examples in the courses, I soon found that it wasn’t!

It’s definitely easier to identify aspects of FLICC when it’s a subject that I have some background knowledge of but even then, I’m still finding myself rather baffled as to which part of FLICC is happening. I suspect that there are probably FLICC overlaps in what people say when they deny what’s happening.

I came across an article with a climate change denier in The Guardian the other week so I thought I’d try analysing it for FLICC content. It’s an interview with Lord Nigel Lawson who was Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (ie Finance Minister) and Energy Secretary in the 1980s. He heads up a climate change denial setup in UK called the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The full article is here : Second Coming of Nigel Lawson

I’ve extracted some of what he says about climate change. The “I” in the article is the interviewer, Jane Merrick. So here goes…

Extract 1:

When I ask him (ie Lawson) how he feels about the label of “climate-change skeptic” (although some environmental campaigners would choose the word “denier”), the peer, who was also Thatcher’s Energy Secretary, says:

“I would rather you call me a climate-change dissenter because my objection is to the policies that are being pursued. There is no global warming to speak of going on at the moment. If you look at the Met Office statistics, that’s quite clear. But there could be, there clearly could. If it does happen, there would be a much slower process than the alarmists pretend. But the important question is, what do you do about it? This is where I am in complete disagreement with the parties of the Establishment.”


Making reference to Met Office Statistics gives Lawson apparent credit as at least a well-informed layman. Really though this is cherry picking. He’s referring to the hiatus in surface air temperature rise that’s been observed 1998-2012. He’s not giving the whole picture and he doesn’t acknowledge that his argument that therefore no warming is going on just now is weakened by other data. Observations of sea temperatures, ocean acidity observations, sea level rise and other measures, all  show that global warming is continuing but in a different pattern just now than in preceding decades.

His acknowledgement that ‘global warming could happen but that if it did happen it would be much a slower process than alarmists present’… is clever, I think. He’s already established his apparent credentials by telling us that he knows what the Met Office data shows. He is now avoiding being seen as an out-and-out loony climate change denier by acknowledging that it is possible for the climate to change. (UK Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher, who had a degree in chemistry, acknowledged the possible effects of increasing Greenhouse Gas (GHGs) concentrations back in the 1980s) Then he makes an assertion that any change would be slower than alarmists declare. So two things there. He doesn’t offer any backup data for that assertion. Unsubstantiated statement operating as a red herring? And then he uses the derogatory term ‘alarmist’ which comes under an ad hominem fallacy of reasoning where you attack your opponent personally rather than critiquing his data.

Extract 2:

Yet how can he justify his position when 97 per cent of scientists say that global warming is happening now? Lawson corrects me: “It wasn’t 97 per cent of scientists – but what they did was take a whole load of papers which they selected and then they said 97 per cent of the papers said, as I have, that it could well happen. The only people who are in the 3 per cent were people saying, ‘No way it could ever happen.’ ”


Again I think this is clever. It refers to the consensus amongst climate change scientists and also to the consilience amongst their data. By consilience is meant that independent data from different approaches all point to the same conclusion. For climate change studies, consilience  includes studies of ice cores, ocean surface temperatures, ocean acidification, GHG emissions, land surface temperatures, tree rings, glacier observations, precipitation patterns. All of these indicate significant warming of the planet. The interviewer made a mistake by saying 97% of scientists. Lawson pounces on that and is correct in saying that it’s not 97% of scientists. It’s actually 97% of climate scientists and their research papers. But he doesn’t acknowledge the greater expertise of the selected scientists. So he misrepresents the facts, a form of logical fallacy.  He then uses ‘selection’ as a pejorative term implying that something was done to skew the results to what ‘they’ wanted. So although it’s not explicitly stated by Lawson, there’s an implied conspiracy theory accusation at the scientific community.

Extract 3:

But even David Cameron, who as prime minister has played down his green credentials, has linked the winter floods and last year’s devastating Typhoon Haiyan to global warming. “He’s talking through his hat,” says Lawson. “There’s been no increase in their number or intensity at all. All the experts are clear that you can’t link [these events] to warming, not surprisingly because there hasn’t been warming.”Cherry_PickingMisrepresentation

Again an assertion is made by Lawson, this time about typhoon intensity, without any backup reference given. Winter floods in the south of England get ignored despite there being some evidence that the weather that brought them was linked to a blocking pattern due to a changed jet stream pattern over Europe. In his immediate next sentence he correctly states that individual events can’t be linked specifically to warming. This time he’s happy to quote that experts are clear about this. This is cherry picking in that he’s happy to quote these experts when they say something that apparently supports his view. And cleverly again, he links the experts’ open acknowledgement of the limits of what, as yet, can be confirmed about individual events into his assertion that no warming has occurred which is a misrepresentation.

Extract 4:

Lawson’s strong personal views would be easily dismissed if he had no influence on the Government. Yet he has: George Osborne has become an enthusiast for shale gas, something Lawson has, through his Global Warming Policy Foundation, been advocating for a number of years; last year, the Chancellor announced tax breaks for fracking. Lawson has a “high regard” for Osborne, whom he says has “depth” and “thinks”, and the pair talk from time to time.

Fewer than half of voters support fracking, I point out, but Lawson is having none of it. “They don’t know anything about it, understandably, because it’s never happened in this country. There is a ridiculous campaign of misinformation by its opponents, which people can’t judge properly”. He says 99.5 per cent of what is used in drilling for shale is water and sand, and only 0.5 per cent is a “totally harmless” chemical, polyacrylamide, used in face creams.

I’ve put this extract in just so you seem how vociferously Lawson complains about a campaign of misinformation by people who can’t judge properly. He is himself a disseminator of climate change misinformation, of course, but in the case of fracking he wants the opposite of what the protesters want so they’re the ones who are misinforming people. I haven’t done any research to find out if what he says about the composition of shale drilling fluid is correct. Even if it is correct, he is keeping quiet about the other problems associated with fracking. I don’t know if the fracking procedure in UK is the same as in US but there are certainly problems arising in US with contaminated water supplies. So I’d bet there’s some cherry picking going on here too. As well as his sheer brash neck complaint about a campaign of misinformation! And of course no mention about the contribution to CO2 emissions that would arise from shale gas usage.

Conclusion: I never liked Lawson when he was an active politician. In the UK, I suppose he still has some standing left in some quarters and some credentials as a reputable and intelligent politician. He clearly trades on that to give his statements weight.

I like him even less now that he’s an active climate change denier. But he is clever. And he obviously knows how to use a range of linked statements to create an overall sense of apparent reasonableness. Some of his statements are true; some are false; some are cherry picking; some are misrepresetnations; some are unsubstantiated red herrings; some are attacks on the honesty of scientists.

This has been a very useful exercise. I usually just shout at Lawson when he’s on TV. I might now be able to explain a bit to other people what exactly he’s up to!!

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