YouTube Changes the Climate

The days when a whole country watched the same programme at the same time are long gone – much to the chagrin of television executives. But there’s a compensation – thanks to YouTube. With a viral polemic, you get an international debate around a series of virtual water coolers.

The Great Global Warming Swindle exploits this trend to the full. The full length version has clocked 200,000 views with as many watching various extracts. Add in other sites, in particular Google Video, and I’m guessing at a current web audience of a million. The audience will keep coming as well. Perhaps for another couple of years.

Now of course, not many of these viewers will have watched to the end. But that doesn’t matter a jot.

In 25 seconds you get soaring music, dramatic images and the meta-message (“The ice is melting. The sea is rising. Hurricanes are blowing. And it’s all your fault. Scared? Don’t be. It’s not true.”).

Watch for a shade over a minute and you get a slug from each of the talking heads:

“You imagine we live in an age of reason. The global warming is dressed up as science, but it’s not science, it’s propaganda.”

“There’s no direct evidence which links 20th century global warming to anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”

“We’re just being told lies. That’s what it comes down to.”

“You can’t say that CO2 will drive climate. It certainly never did in the past.”

“If the CO2 increases in the atmosphere, the temperature will go up. But the ice core record shows exactly the opposite. So the fundamental assumption… the most fundamental assumption of climate change [being] due to humans is shown to be wrong.”

It’s a masterpiece of concision. 70 seconds and you’ve either bought the package or not. The rest is just padding. It’s there for reassurance. To make you feel better about your choice.

Railing against this, as I’ve already argued (twice), is counterproductive. Debunking the content will only work if you’re doing anything other than preaching to the choir. Those who believe the programme’s messages are wrong need to stop shouting and start listening. Why are so many of the programme’s viewers so eager to believe?

Again YouTube helps. 1500 viewers have commented on the full version (thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – have done the same at other sites). It’s a vast focus group for those with some resources to devote to analysis.

I’ve been through the first 200 YouTube comments in a semi-systematic way. There were 80 or so comments that expressed agreement (often vehemently so) with the programme’s findings – let’s call them buyers. 30 or so non-buyers were in opposition, while the rest made points that didn’t contain a clear judgement either way.

These figures are not provided to make a statistical argument about the weight of opinion. Just to point out that I had 80 ‘buying’ comments to work with (some made by the same people), which is not bad for qualitative research. And you could have thousands if you cared to do this properly.

So what themes emerged? Which messages emerged over and over again? Let’s take them in rough order of frequency:

  • They’ve got the science wrong. Co2 doesn’t cause global warming. It’s the sun, stupid. Human activity is insignificant when compared to other factors. [These were, of course, the programme’s core messages.] “I have done my own research, explain to me why CO2 levels have stayed very high when cooling periods of the earth take place. There are other elements to factor in my friend.” Oh and weren’t these guys once predicting an ice age?
  • It’s a vast left-wing conspiracy – often with Al Gore as the movement’s evil genius. The US audience on YouTube is strong. And for many buyers (non-buyers too), climate change has nothing to do with science. It’s a wedge issue. Another battlefield where right/left, light/dark, good/evil can play out a Manichean conflict. “Shoulda killed these commies when we had the chance, now they’ve morphed into greenies, but they still believe the same stupid crap.”
  • Global warming is not science – it’s a faith. And a religion that doesn’t like anyone to disagree. Look at how badly the heretics have been treated by the establishment. “Fanatical environmentalism is now the religion of pampered Western urbanites. A documentary like this, based on solid research and hard science, is as threatening to ‘the faith’ as Galileo was, when he said the sun orbited around the earth.”
  • Someone’s got an agenda. The media. Scientists on the take. And most of all politicians who see this an excuse for another tax grab. “Wake up. This is not about conservation…its about the re-distribution of wealth. There are billions of dollars involve and Al Gore and his kind want to take the lions share.”
  • They’re going to punish the poor. Global warming is going to stop developing countries getting richer. Remember how the green deprived Africa of DDT? “My favourite interview was that of James Shikwati, discussing how environmentalists have hindered progress in Africa. ‘Killing the African dream’, as he put it. It’s sickening, just like the banning of DDT, which has caused enormous loss of life.”

Surprised by any of this? I doubt it. And nor should you be. But banging on and on about the scientific facts is only going to address one of these objections. And the more vehement scientists are, the more they risk inculcating further suspicions (see objections 3 and 4).

Also, in countries where climate change becomes a political divider, reaching any kind of consensus may become impossible. For any group, losing face is a fate to be avoided at almost any cost. In the US, in particular, one has to wonder whether there is any way, now, to build a bridge that will allow sceptics over to the other side.

Finally, the development question, which is definitely a minor theme (though not in most developing countries). I wonder if it is a polite way of expressing a deeper fear among this well-heeled audience. Is it going to cost me? If so, how much? What am I going to lose?

These are questions which we have been avoiding if at all possible. Answering with weak bromides or wishful thinking when cornered. Perhaps we need better answers, before we boast about having told people the inconvenient truth.