A climate of conspiracy

David Runciman writes: What is it about climate change that makes it such fertile ground for conspiracy theory? There are two possible answers. One is that we live in a conspiracy-minded age, fuelled by social media, in which any hot-button issue is liable to be hijacked by accusations and counter-accusations about the dark forces at work, pulling the strings. On this account, climate conspiracism is just a reflection of our increasing propensity towards paranoid name-calling in the name of political debate (just take the Labour leadership contest). But the other possibility is that there is something distinctive about the politics of climate change that makes it particularly vulnerable to charges of conspiracy. The truth is that it’s a mixture of the two.

We need to be careful about assuming that there is more conspiracy theory around now than ever before, notwithstanding its greater visibility online. Research in the US indicates that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories has been fairly constant over the past hundred-plus years. The overall volume of conspiracy theory doesn’t much vary, only its target: when a Democrat is in the White House, conspiracy theories focus on the hidden influence of foreign powers (Obama is really a Muslim, etc.); when it’s a Republican, they focus on the hidden influence of Wall Street.

But there have been periods of heightened mistrust in government during which conspiracy theory tends to get more ecumenical. One was the 1890s, when a global depression produced widespread suspicion of ‘moneyed’ interests on both sides of the political divide; another was the 1950s, when fear of communist infiltration cut across party lines. We are almost certainly living through another such period now. Since the financial crisis, mistrust of established institutions has spread across the political spectrum. What the Tea Party and Occupy movements have in common is that they don’t accept the official version of events any more. [Continue reading…]

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