THE OVERTON WINDOW
The Public Emergency of Climate Change Denial
The presence of climate change deniers and sceptics poses an unappreciated public emergency to states and society. This movement’s role in abating effective response to the increasing climate crisis has a destructive impact on effective long-term policy in the ‘Western’ world.
The movement is characterized by a range of unjustified and supposedly scientific views on the presence and scope of climate change. It’s mainstream presence partially depends on an appeal to the ‘spectrum of ideas’ argument that journalists and educators have a responsibility to present all sides of an issue to allow individuals to draw their own conclusions. What this amounts to is a demand on journalists and educators to discuss the merits of what amount to conspiracy theories, legitimizing unjustified and unsavory ideas that were moved out of the light of day for a reason.
A goal of the movement is to bring their unsubstantiated opinions into the mainstream and stymie the political and social efforts to reduce the impact of climate change. Most of this is done by attempting to keep policies that fail to address or, worse, successfully muffle the impact of climate change.
The concept of widening the set of politically acceptable policies as decided by mainstream voters is called the ‘Overton Window’ by political scientists. The denialist movement strives to widen these to include policies of climate indifference that directly exacerbate the impact of climate change. Preserving policies of ignorance within the Overton Window would lessen the fears of those that believe climate policy is a vehicle for more nefarious political interests and would allow the fossil fuel industry to operate unhindered for the foreseeable future.
It is this threat which should convince democratic governments to recognise the movement as a public emergency. Criteria for deciding what constitutes a national public emergency comes from an international legal dispute in 1969. Known as the Greek Case, it came after numerous states within the Council of Europe began pressuring Greece to withdraw from the Council for numerous violations of international human rights. The ensuing legal case in the European Human Rights Commission provides us with the following criteria for determining whether a national crisis constitutes a ‘public emergency’:
"It is estimated that the five largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend around US$200 million dollars every year to block effective policy targeting climate change."
Firstly, the movement must be actual or imminent. Secondly, the effects of the crisis must affect the whole nation, hence the public nature of the emergency. Thirdly, the crisis must jeapordise the continuation of everyday life within the society. Finally, the crisis must be exceptionally threatening for the society to manage relative to other challenges facing the state.
A Real and Imminent Threat
The crisis concerning the denialist movement meets these characteristics with ease. The movement is actual and imminent. The denialist movement consists of separate social, political, and economic groups with a common interest in spreading skepticism and denialism. Members of these groups with demonstrable influence are media organizations that publish unfounded skepticism, politicians ideologically opposed to the concept of climate change, or petrochemical multinationals. It is estimated that the five largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend around US$200 million dollars every year to block effective policy targeting climate change.
If the movement is successful and climate change was left significantly unaddressed, the consequences guarantee that every nation on earth will be impacted. Enlarged bushfires in Australia, the shrinking landmasses of many Pacific nations, and growing food insecurity are just a few of the truly global impacts of climate change.
The Situation is Complex and Challenging
The continuance of everyday life in society will be one of the first casualties if the anti-climate change movement is successful in diminishing effective responses to climate change. The sowing of doubt in society removes incentives for individuals to change their lives in a carbon-neutral way, and the pernicious consequences of the movement’s widening of the Overton Window interferes in the ability of national governments to enact effective and efficient measures against climate change.
The movement is exceptionally difficult for states to deal with, especially democracies. The combination of the high stakes associated with climate change and the movement’s influence over policy makes them incredibly challenging. They are inhibiting responses to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Even in a best-case scenario, prevention of measures to alleviate climate change will increase the likelihood and magnitude of natural disasters and burden trillions of dollars of infrastructure damage.
What Governments Can Do
There are a range of solutions available to both individuals and policy makers to reduce the impact of this public emergency. However, the steadfast protection of free speech in most Western countries, not to mention the dangerous precedent set by widescale suppression of speech, rules out most governmental actions to contain the spread of misinformation. Consequently, an active effort by responsible media, educational organizations, and governmental institutions to disseminate scientifically backed accurate information and clarify legitimate points of debate is vital.
"In the United States... unprecedented private funding necessitates far higher expenditure than the Federal Electoral Committee can currently provide."
Measures at the level of politics will be the toughest to establish. Greater efforts must be made to reduce the monetary relationship between industry and politics. This is much harder than it sounds. However, some policies are realistic and would be hugely beneficial, such as better disclosure of funding and moving back towards the public funding of election campaigns. In the United States, adequate public funding of political campaigns is still a possibility, but unprecedented private funding necessitates far higher expenditure than the Federal Electoral Committee can currently provide.
Climate denialism is a public emergency and must be treated as such. It is far from a fringe movement and its influence is as real as it is threatening. Unless immediate informational and political action is taken, it will remain one of many obstacles to our ability to collectively deal with climate change effectively.