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A Century of Denial

Authored by Catrina Ollis
Published on 23rd May, 2022 10 min read

A Century of Denial

An image of trees growing in the shape of lungs. Some of the trees are brown and dead.

In the last one hundred years, we have watched, with varying degrees of alarm, as our climate has changed at a rate unprecedented in the earth’s natural cycle. There is finally a consensus that this is not normal, and our environmentally exploitative activities are to blame. Despite the fact that the science of climate change was understood as early as 1896, it has somehow succeeded in maintaining controversy and fuelling denial well into the present day. The root cause of this is that those in power, both among governments and corporations, have actively worked throughout the last century to undermine any environmental movements which might point an accusatory finger towards them. As a species known for its innovation and intelligence, we pride ourselves on our ability to find solutions to problems as quickly as they appear; yet the changing climate has left us reeling. What went wrong in the past century that has left us unable to unite for the protection of our planet? How did those in power so successfully alter the climate narrative, and what might this mean for our future?

If we were to cast our minds back to 1922, just two years before the first Oil Pollution Act, we would be optimistic about our chances of resolving, or at least alleviating, the effects of climate change. The twentieth century was filled with technological innovation, increased awareness of climate-related issues, and people who seemed to truly care, as evidenced by the huge celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970. There was general optimism over the fate of our planet, reinforced by the success of the Stockholm Conference in 1972 which was the first large-scale publicization of human influences on the environment. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was a breakthrough in our awareness of the harmful effects of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (commonly known as DDT, which was consequently banned in 1972) and a huge achievement for Earth’s biodiversity (Carson, 1972). In addition to this, the IPCC was founded in 1988, providing policymakers with regular scientific assessments of climate change. It seemed we were on the right track. Yet, regardless of this early progress, we find ourselves in a position today where climate change debates rage on despite the almost unanimous scientific consensus that we are, in fact, damaging the planet. How could the events and attitudes of the last century have been so inconsequential?  Perhaps the repeated interference of governments and corporations to undermine scientific fact is the answer. If we are to learn anything from the past century, it is that those in power will always choose to further their own interests over the interests of the planet.  

One of the most obvious shortcomings of politicians in the last century has been their insistence to choose the path of instant gratification. Our drive towards short-term financial gain has long resulted in us disregarding the urgency of climate change: politicians have simply had too much to gain by maintaining the status-quo. The truth is rarely convenient to those in power and thus action has repeatedly been taken to manipulate or misrepresent issues of climate change (Lomborg, 1998). Throughout the twentieth century, politicians have received significant financial backing from big oil companies and in return funded climate research in their favour, opting to investigate the branches of climate science which might maintain controversy, such as a potential warming caused by volcanic eruptions or solar flares (Oreskes, 2010). In this way, politicians were able to avoid implementing decisive climate change-mitigation policies by claiming that the science was not yet clear enough. This process may not have advocated for outright denial, but it created enough controversy to deny the need for clear action. Policies to counter ‘slow violence’ (violence which takes place gradually and often seems invisible) were deemed unfavourable for politicians as the rewards would be shown in the future and thus, they saw nothing to gain from it (Nixon, 2011). By effectively diminishing the severity of the matter, politicians had more success in advocating no need for change, evidenced by the Earth Day speech given by President Clinton in 1992 in which he urged the public to reject the notion that economic sacrifice was needed in order to achieve environmental responsibility. The crisis had been diminished to such an extent that politicians did not feel the need to even pretend that the status quo might change. This denial allowed them more security in not only their economic policies, but also in their positions of power. 

In numerous cases throughout the twentieth century, climate denialism went hand-in-hand with anti-communist sentiment. This notion may seem slightly incredulous today (though still prevalent if you really dig into it), but it was hugely influential in Europe and America during the aftermath of the Cold War, when it seemed everyone was on the lookout for hidden political agendas against the capitalist system. To many, regulation was the road to communism and so the notion of needing to change the fuel we use, the cars we drive and the food we eat was an immediate cause for concern among those who worried for their ‘individual liberties’ (Oreskes, 2004). Environmentalists began to be called ‘watermelons’ in the 1980s (green on the outside, red on the inside) and George Will famously exclaimed that environmentalism was “a green tree with red roots” (Oreskes, 2004). Even today, particularly in countries such as Australia who still have an economy which leans heavily on the extraction of fossil fuels, this sentiment persists under a new name: ‘the cult of climate change’ (The Spectator, 2019). Similar to the earlier fears of communism, this ‘cult’ attempts to control our lives in the name of controlling the climate. This fear of being coerced into climate action seems to be another desperate push against the necessity of change, one which stands to benefit only those who continue to profit from business as usual. 

Working tirelessly to influence governments in their attempt to deny the impending climate catastrophe over the last century have been the fossil fuel corporations themselves. Of course, they too had everything to lose if the world began to look elsewhere for its energy consumption needs, which explains why they have contributed the most money towards the movement's demise. These companies have donated huge sums of money to leading political parties in order to ensure their loyalty in the future whilst also peddling their own subtle forms of propaganda (Thomas, 2011). This is all in spite of the fact that fossil fuel corporations have long been aware of the impacts of their work on the environment. In fact, big oil companies such as Shell and ExxonMobil conducted research into the effects of their products as early as 1967, concluding that their work significantly damaged the environment as well as the health of all living things (The Guardian, 2021) (EPA, 2004). Nevertheless, the weight of this knowledge did not sway them from the draw of economic gain and so these findings remained unmentioned for another fifty years (Merline, 1997). The power of these companies has meant that this denial has persisted throughout the century and into the present day: despite new ‘green’ campaigns and pledges to convert to sustainable energy, these companies still scour the globe for new sources of fossil fuels, all whilst receiving substantial governmental support. To use the British government as an example, their support of fossil fuel corporations may have something to do with the £1.3 million donated to the ruling Conservative Party from fossil fuel interests since 2019 (The Guardian, 2021). This abuse of money and power mirrors the actions of previous industries under pressure, particularly that of tobacco and chlorofluorocarbon which were also heavily financed by their respective industries to ensure the claims of their harm remained controversial rather than fact (Oreskes, 2011). If we could just note the pattern between each of the cases, perhaps we could realise the absurdity of continuing the controversy surrounding climate change and begin taking decisive action before it is too late. But alas, as noted by Thomas Hobbes four centuries ago, “men will lie about the rules of geometry if they find it is in their interest to do so” (Hobbes, 1651).

Ultimately, this past century has failed us when it comes to dealing with our changing climate. Financial gain has trumped progressive change time and time again with the early environmentalist movements of the 1970s beaten down and villainised as fear-mongering communists. All the while, politicians were receiving vast amounts of financial incentives from fossil fuel corporations to ensure their continued support. It is saddening to think about, and it certainly encourages a pessimistic view of the future. Can we truly take the action needed to mitigate the horrific effects we are having on this planet if we know that those who are most able to bring about mass change are also the ones who benefit the most if all remains the same? The patterns of the past continue into the present day: climate controversy and denialism are still rife within our society because it is easier to live in ignorance than to undergo change. COP26 has come and gone with many a pledge made to limit the warming to 2 degrees. Yet, will this be enough to combat the damage done in the past century? Our pledges of ‘by 2030’ or ‘by 2050’ simply allow us to carry on just as before - a problem saved for future politicians. It is impossible to say whether the needs of our planet will outweigh the needs of our pockets in time, but from observing the habits of the last hundred years, it seems more likely that we will go on debating until our climate summits are being held underwater. 



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Authored by Catrina Ollis

Catrina Ollis

Catrina is in her third year of reading History and Politics at the University of York. Catrina is currently on a year abroad studying at the Pantheon-Sorbonne in Paris.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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