by Eloise Harding
Introduction: the shifting landscape
Environmental scepticism as an ideology has spent the past six years on a political rollercoaster. From a niche political outlook with a moderate public face and a wealth of conspiracy theories hiding in the shadows, it developed a level of prominence in mainstream discourse with the advent of leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. The more extreme forms of scepticism—such as outright denial of climate change—blended in well with the emerging ‘post-truth’ political culture, described by Jane Suiter as one ‘where appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions’. The public face of environmental scepticism also evolved to incorporate some of the political characteristics of the leaders who embrace it. In the aftermath of the 2020 US election, however, it faces the loss of one of its more powerful proponents.
I will start with a bit of background from the timeline of my 2019 article. As is the nature of such things, the initial submission was slightly longer ago, and in the first instance reviewers were concerned that the article dealt with an ideology too inconsequential to be worth investigation. I mention this, because it did not remain the case. While I was doing the research that would lead to this article, environmental scepticism—usually manifested in public conversation as climate change denial—was moving from a niche political outlook to part of mainstream discussion, thanks largely to the presidential campaign and electoral victory of one Donald Trump. As I write this blog post, Trump prepares to (grudgingly) vacate the White House and hand over the reins to Joe Biden. Early indications suggest that environmental scepticism may suffer a dent to its role in mainstream discourse. The size of this dent depends on the strength of the ideology in its remaining proponents when a powerful ally is removed. However, we should not assume that it is going to fade out of public consciousness any time soon.
In addition to the increased prominence, there was also something of an ideological evolution in the public face of environmental scepticism—what Michael Freeden would describe as a shift in proportionality. As a thin-centred ideology (one without a fully developed conceptual core of its own), environmental scepticism must by necessity graft onto more developed ideologies to survive on the political landscape. Until 2016 or thereabouts, there was some ambiguity about the political leanings of environmental scepticism as an ideology. While the USA had always had undercurrents of outright climate change denial stemming from right-wing think tanks such as the Heartland institute, for the rest of the world the public spotlight tended to be occupied by the more measured approach represented by Bjørn Lomborg.
Lomborg, a left-liberal political scientist with some environmentalist tendencies of his own, has always claimed to be motivated by humanitarian concerns and particularly by concern for people in the developing world. Climate change, he argues, is a far less urgent problem than many environmentalists regard it as, and ranks lower than a range of other concerns when measured with regard to the respective cost in human lives. In short, he portrays climate change as a problem, but not the most urgent problem: it can be sidelined until the more urgent issues have been dealt with. Previously, the more overtly denialist manifestations of environmental scepticism relied on moderates such as Lomborg to give their arguments a veneer of humanitarian respectability, lifting some of the suspicion away from what is often seen as a corporate shill.
For the past four years, however, a serving US President who has variously described climate change as a ‘hoax’ on Twitter and, on acknowledging that it might be real, proceeded to claim on live TV that the climate ‘might change back’, has provided a replacement source of respectability. Indeed, the locus of ‘respectability’ has been moved somewhat by a changing political culture: Donald Trump has no scientific expertise and his political rhetoric has a tenuous relationship with the truth, but he did gain just over half the electoral votes in 2016. As such, the image of environmental scepticism has shifted away from global humanitarianism and towards an insular variety fuelled by right-wing populist and nationalist values and in which outright denialism plays a more central role.
Environmental scepticism today
The basic conceptual landscape has remained largely consistent from 2015 to now. Environmental scepticism has three basic core concepts, the removal of which would significantly alter the nature of the ideology: deep anthropocentrism, a form of Prometheanism, and a suspicious framing of environmentalism and the motives of environmentalists. The most significant adjacent concepts—proximity to which helps to shape the core—are a highly specific framing of science and, maybe surprisingly, climate change denial itself. I say surprising because environmental scepticism and climate change denial are often seen as synonyms, with the latter having more of a public profile. However, while denial plays a key role in how environmental scepticism functions in practice, the ideology of environmental scepticism would not collapse entirely were it removed. For example, it is feasible to accept as Bjørn Lomborg does that climate change is a genuine, but exaggerated and non-urgent, problem (what Stefan Rahmstorf calls ‘impact scepticism’); or indeed to argue as Trump does that the pattern of global warming may spontaneously reverse (‘trend scepticism’).
It is also possible to regard global warming as a real but natural phenomenon (‘attribution scepticism’), not caused by humans and as such not our responsibility to fix. An element of denial does, however, help environmental sceptics reach definitive conclusions on some of the moral balancing acts which arise around climate change and carbon emissions. For example, when faced with a decision regarding whether to restrict human freedoms in order to reduce emissions (the UK’s upcoming ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles being the latest example), the ability to sideline the realities of climate change makes the preservation of freedom seem like the obvious priority.
In economic terms, meanwhile, the costs associated with adopting lower-carbon business practices are usually justified by reference to the associated benefits in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change. Denying or diminishing these benefits again casts doubt on whether the costs are really worth it. So, in brief, climate change denial plays an important role in shaping how environmental sceptics engage with everyday moral dilemmas, but can be classified as helpful rather than essential to the formation of environmental scepticism as an ideology.
With that in mind, let’s look at the core concepts. The first of these is deep anthropocentrism: broadly speaking, the idea that only human interests matter. For example, Bjørn Lomborg’s arguments in The Skeptical Environmentalist hinge on the idea that ‘the needs and desires of humankind represent the crux of our assessment of the state of the world’, because ‘people debate and participate in decision-making processes, whereas penguins and pine trees do not’. Lomborg, I should point out, does not discriminate between groups of humans when making this assessment: if he has distinct priorities, they lie in the developing world. He does, however, create a clear line of division between human and nonhuman interests, which can be construed as a competition for resources.
Other environmental sceptics, more openly intent on politicising the issue and usually (although by no means inevitably) coming from the right, frame this as a direct and immediate conflict between human interests and environmental concerns. When I wrote the original article, my main example of this pattern was UKIP’s Roger Helmer, who regarded green energy policies as a surefire route to fuel poverty for the elderly. More recently, Donald Trump has framed environmentalism as a threat to the ordinary American. Trump’s rhetoric on this topic ties deep anthropocentrism in with the populist conception of the ‘pure’ people (see the work of Cas Mudde for more detail) who are under threat from a ‘corrupt’ elite. In doing so, Trump unwittingly helps to resolve a contradiction in the use of anthropocentric—literally, human-centred—reasoning to sideline phenomena which are having dramatic negative impacts on particular groups of humans.
Leaders such as Trump, Australia’s Scott Morrison and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are overt and unashamed in identifying a particular anthropos on whose interests their anti-environmental rhetoric and policies are centred. Put simply, the interests of the groups who would allegedly be negatively impacted by increased environmental protection are given greater weight than those currently feeling the effects of industrial water pollution (USA), rising sea levels (Australia’s island neighbours) and forest fires (Brazil). It should be noted that there is also a nationalist dimension to this modified deep anthropocentrism, particularly regarding climate change, with many world leaders dismissing the possibility that their own country will suffer significantly. Indeed, the UK’s Michael Gove has been heard to proclaim that global warming will be beneficial for Britain: it will sweeten our grapes and enable us to produce home-grown sparkling wine that ‘will soon bring a level of cheer to British drinkers greater than that provided by French champagne’.
Gove’s comments bring me to the second core concept of environmental scepticism, namely a form of Prometheanism. Broadly speaking, Promethean outlooks see all problems—including environmental ones—as ultimately solvable through the wonders of human ingenuity. Examples of Prometheanism in action include the large-scale overhaul of agricultural practices in the Green Revolution and the use of genetic modification to produce hardier crops. Some would also put geoengineering in the Promethean category. In itself, it can refer to a pro- or anti-environmental outlook: however, certain forms lend themselves to absorption into the environmental sceptic’s canon of ideas.
Prometheanism is usually seen at the less overtly denialist end of environmental scepticism, since it requires at least a grudging acceptance that such problems exist and require solutions. Milder forms of Promethean environmental scepticism (such as that embraced by Bjørn Lomborg) refer merely to harnessing and gaining mastery over nature, for example the ability to transcend through technology and innovative farming practices the limits on nature’s capacity to provide resources. More extreme versions regard nature as irrelevant. Peter Huber, in a book titled Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists, argues that due to human ingenuity we could feasibly and justifiably ‘Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers.’
Recent developments, however, suggest that the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ may be being transcended, at least in the case of climate change. Michael Gove’s comments, mentioned above, once more add a nationalist dimension to Promethean environmental scepticism. His overall argument, about which I have written more here, alludes to a peculiarly British ability to turn a negatively-perceived phenomenon such as climate change into a positive through what might (if we want to risk falling into clichéd territory) be termed Blitz spirit. Rather than being demoralised by climate change like our neighbours across the Channel, we gain an advantage by harnessing what Gove terms the ‘opportunities of a changing climate’: in his terms, this ‘is a harbinger of the inventiveness, of the creativeness and the resilience, the imagination and the sheer joie de vivre that you can find here in Britain.’
Meanwhile Donald Trump, while less convinced of the reality of climate change, has spoken many times of America’s ability to transcend the food and fuel shortages feared by others. The common threads are the Promethean tendency to believe that no environmental crisis is insurmountable, and that some may indeed be beneficial; and the belief that the solutions will come not from human ingenuity as a species-wide trait but from the attributes of a particular nation whose collective myth includes a large dose of overcoming adversity.
The final core concept, of which we’ve already seen glimpses, is the highly suspicious framing of the motives behind environmental protection measures. The mildest version merely holds that there is money in environmental campaigning and hence an ulterior motive to exaggerate the extent of the problem. More extreme iterations of this narrative portray environmentalism as a deliberate attempt to limit people’s freedoms: indeed, as a harbinger of outright authoritarianism.
There is some variation in the perceived ideological position. For example, former Republican senator Harrison Schmidt describes climate change and measures to limit it as a ‘stalking horse for National Socialism.’ However, since the bulk of this narrative comes from environmental sceptics on the right of the political spectrum, the usual culprit is authoritarian communism. For example, the former Czech president Vaclav Klaus claims that environmental regulation reflects ‘the ambitions of communist central planners to control the entire city.’ Meanwhile in the USA the Heartland Foundation president Joseph Bast cites climate change as ‘the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.’ (The Heartland Foundation were also behind the short-lived billboard campaign featuring the ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski alongside the statement ‘I still believe in global warming.’)
This is another area where climate change denial (and occasionally other forms of denial, for example regarding the dangers of certain pesticides) comes into its own. The removal of certain freedoms to mitigate a possible environmental crisis that threatens us all can be justified (if not always implemented) relatively easily. Remove the environmental crisis from the equation by declaring it non-urgent or even non-existent, and suddenly any infringement of liberty appears spurious.
While the suspicious framing of environmentalism is still front and centre in the rhetoric of environmental scepticism, its visible form has adapted to a more favourable political climate. Environmentalism has always been portrayed as a threat to freedom, and possibly to life itself, but there has always been a level of ambiguity about whether it constitutes an enemy within or without. The explicitly nationalist politics of the world leaders embracing environmental scepticism have tipped the balance towards positing environmentalism firmly as a threat from outside, potentially aided by an enemy within in the form of the country’s metropolitan elite.
Take for example Trump’s statement, in his Paris Agreement withdrawal speech, that ‘This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States. The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement—they went wild; they were so happy—for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.’ Here, the push to mitigate climate change is portrayed not as the harbinger of a particular ideology, but rather the acceptable face of a systematic anti-Americanism on the part of the rest of the world.
Trump has previously described global warming as a hoax on the part of China in particular, intended to undermine American industry; since admitting that there may be some truth to the scientific findings, he has maintained nonetheless that any attempt to mitigate the problem has the ulterior motive of disadvantaging America to benefit its rivals. China, while named most often as a beneficiary of the losses Trump sees America sustaining, is not alone in deriving an advantage: his Paris Agreement withdrawal speech implicates the entire rest of the world. The key point, however, is that America is allegedly disadvantaged for ‘the exclusive benefit of other countries’, deriving no benefits of its own from an overall reduction of carbon emissions. Obama, he argues, was duped by economic rivals purporting concern for the environment, while he himself as the ‘America First’ president sees through the ruse.
In this economically-motivated framing of the enemy, we can see a resurgence of the idea of the ‘green scare’ as the natural successor to the ‘red scare’ of the Cold War. Peter Jacques has documented how environmental issues started to enter the public consciousness around the same time Soviet-style communism was on the decline in Europe: to advocates of unbridled capitalism, a new problem was arising as the long-standing one receded. However, until recently, this element was not a key part of the public face of environmental scepticism: it was the preserve of well-funded but not well-known conservative think tanks and somewhat in the shadow of more humanitarian manifestations. In the Trump era, however, this quiet part of environmental scepticism has more frequently been said out loud, with greater concern expressed about the economic effects of environmental protection measures.
The future of environmental scepticism—some speculative points
So, what next for environmental scepticism? From January 20, 2021, it will no longer be part of the ideology of the serving US President. This development suggests a certain decline of influence. For example, the viewpoints outlined in this post and my original article will no longer define American environmental policy to the extent that they have done since the same date in 2017. Leaving aside Biden’s own moves (broadly speaking) towards greater environmental sustainability, such as placing a known environmental regulator with a strong track record in charge of the EPA, there are signs of a wider and more substantial shift towards pro-environmental attitudes. It is worth noting, as just one example, that the attempts to incorporate ‘green’ elements into the Coronavirus Relief Bill are to a great extent a bipartisan effort rather than a purely Democratic one.
Outside the US Government, the more strictly neutral parts of the mainstream media will have less requirement to treat denialist perspectives on climate change with the same seriousness as the prevailing scientific evidence. Furthermore, the loss of Trump as an ally may tip the balance regarding policy change in more environmentally ambivalent nations. For example, the need to build a working relationship with President Biden has been cited as one of Boris Johnson’s key motivations for introducing the sweeping ‘Ten Step Plan to a Green Industrial Revolution.’
However, we should be wary of assuming that environmental scepticism will fade away once Trump has passed through a more-or-less peaceful transfer of power. To begin with, he is not the only environmental sceptic to occupy a position of political leadership. The global environment still has Australia’s Scott Morrison (protector of his country’s coal industry moreso than of their island neighbours), Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (he who denies the existence of forest fires in the Amazon) and Poland’s Andrzej Duda to contend with, to name the most vocal.
It is also worth remembering the associations which have built up between environmental scepticism and right-wing populism in the past few years. It remains to be seen how strong the connection between the two ideologies is: divergence would be possible, but so would a continued convergence. While Trump’s electoral loss could represent the beginning of the end for this variety of populism, it could also merely represent Trump’s own failures and leave the door open for a more personally competent candidate of a similar political ilk. The resentments which fuelled pro-Trump sentiment in 2016 are real, including the perception that environmentalism is a danger to ‘rust belt’ livelihoods.
The liberal humanitarian iteration of environmental scepticism may also return to the fore. Bjørn Lomborg, the usual public face of this form of scepticism, was positing the respective fights against climate change and pandemics as opponents for scarce resources before the advent of coronavirus; we may yet see a resurgence of this narrative, aimed at the ‘green’ elements of many recovery packages. In the past year, Lomborg has been joined on this ideological stage by Michael Shellenberger, a former environmental activist who is keen to apologise for ‘crying wolf’ on climate change. Shellenberger is the founder of a thinktank named ‘Environmental Progress’, whose London office is fronted by former Extinction Rebellion activist Zion Light. It is feasible that, if the association with leaders such as Trump begins to fade, this more moderate form of bounded environmental scepticism—with some pro-environmental tendencies and a level of scientific awareness—will gain prominence and be more difficult to challenge.
In short, the future trajectory of environmental scepticism is currently difficult to predict due to the sheer range of possible variables in play. It will be interesting to see the prevailing form it takes when the dust settles from the US election, and consequently where it will fit in the wider discourse on tackling environmental issues.
 Jane Suiter, ‘Post-truth Politics’, Political Insight 7(3) (2016), 25–7.
 See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (London: Allen Lane, 2014) for a more detailed picture of this strand.
 Speech at Countryfile Live, 2018.