The Paranoid Style of Climate Change Denial

How conspiracy-driven theories help the Trump administration reject science.

After the unprecedented flooding in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey, Michael Mann, a leading scientific voice on climate change, detailed the ways that climate change worsened the impact of the storm. Hurricane Harvey and, soon after, Hurricanes Irma and Maria have certainly provided real life case studies of the dire consequences predicted by climate change models: As ocean temperatures increase due to global warming, hurricanes are likely to be more severe and bring more rainfall.

But in the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Irma in Florida, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt told CNN that it would be “very, very insensitive” to have a discussion about climate change, deflecting attempts to consider its real-world impacts. Pruitt, of course, is the ideal EPA administrator for a president who, echoing Republican Senator James Inhofe, has consistently referred to climate change as a “hoax” and pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord.

Hurricanes Irma and Jose
Irma turns into a tropical depression over the Southeastern US as Hurricane Jose picks up in the Atlantic on September 12, 2017. NOAA/NASA CC BY 2.0

Through its actions and appointments, the Trump administration has elevated climate change denial to official government policy. The administration’s position represents a fundamental shift away from science toward the embrace of what Richard Hofstadter in 1964 termed the “Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Rife with “qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” the paranoid style excels at spinning alternative narratives to explain away the scientific consensus on climate change.

Making an analogy with the clinical paranoiac (while avoiding a psychiatric diagnosis), Hofstadter points out how the spokesperson of the paranoid style sees a “hostile and conspiratorial world” that is “directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life.” For those who practice the paranoid style, “a vast and sinister conspiracy” exists all around them, perpetuated by a well-organized and wily enemy that engages in secret schemes and behind-the-scene plots. The enemy employs a “gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.” Distinct from simply acknowledging an occasional conspiratorial act in history (think Watergate, a coup d’état or an assassination plot), the spokesperson of the paranoid style views conspiracy “as the motive force in historical events.”

For example, in his book, The Greatest Hoax, Senator Inhofe turns his worst conspiratorial fears into an explanation for why climate change has been elevated as a serious issue by what he calls “alarmists.” He claims that “the entire global warming, climate-change issue” is “an effort to dramatically and hugely increase regulation” and “to raise our cost of living and taxes.” Inhofe turns his concerns about the potential impacts of climate change policies (such as more regulations and higher taxes) into the underlying motivation of those involved with the issue. Many climate change denial narratives involve this type of faulty post hoc ergo propter hoc logic to claim that scientists and environmentalists have manufactured the threat of climate change for self-serving interests. The “pervasiveness of conspiracy theories in the debate about human-induced climate change” has a long track record; there is an “ease with which unverified claims and suggestions of conspiracy are disseminated among sympathetic audiences” (Lahsen 1999).

The paranoid style involves an important populist element that resonates with the Trumpian message of a self-serving “elite” diametrically opposed to the common people. For climate change deniers, this elite includes a cabal of climate scientists, political leaders, and “deep state” government officials who perpetuate the idea of human-caused climate change. In his recent InfoWars broadcasts during and after Hurricane Irma’s path across Florida, Trump-admired media host Alex Jones describes this notion of a conspiratorial elite with evil designs as he talks “about the total class system of this whole secret global scientific and military industrial elite that Eisenhower warned of,” concluding that “now this is the new super elite class.” Although specific individuals, like Al Gore, are frequently singled out by climate change deniers including Jones, this “super elite class” is often referred to as an amorphous but powerful “they” in the construction of alternative narratives.

“They” (the conspiratorial enemy) are said to “possess some especially effective source of power: He controls the press; he directs the public mind through ‘managed news’” (Hofstadter 1964). In her research on the alternative media ecosystem, Kate Starbird emphasizes that the “rejection of mainstream news is a common theme across alternative media domains,” which include Trump favorites like InfoWars and Breitbart News. These media outlets “explicitly set themselves up as opposition to mainstream, ‘corporate’ media,” or what Trump has labelled “fake news.” In his September 12 InfoWars show, Jones explains how “they’re covering it [the real truth] up in Scientific America and all these [mainstream] tech magazines.” His guest, James McCanney, derides what he variously calls the “fake weather news” and the “pretend weather news” for perpetuating what he says is a myth that “hurricanes are caused by warm water.”

Climate change deniers adopt the discourses of critical thinking and science to construct their alternative narratives. Starbird and danah boyd both note how media outlets like InfoWars appropriate arguments about media literacy, instructing the audience to be skeptical about mainstream news and do their own research. In his shows about Hurricane Irma, Jones brings on a guest billed as an expert (“a famous physics professor,” “the real deal”) to present his own scientifically packaged explanation for the destructive power of the storm (i.e., it was geoengineered). In doing so, Jones and his guest, McCanney, adopt many of the tactics discussed by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in their book, Merchants of Doubt, which include “cherry-picking data,” “focusing on unexplained or anomalous details,” and creating the “impression of controversy simply by asking questions” whether the answers help their own case or not.

The paranoid style breeds a form of post-truth cynicism that destroys confidence in science as a tool for guiding thoughtful responses to issues like climate change.

As Jones and McCanney cast doubt on the view that the intensity of this season’s hurricanes could be attributable to factors related to climate change, they present their own case as certain (“There’s no question Hurricane Irma was manipulated,” says McCanney). After McCanney provides his (pseudo)scientific explanation of the way space-based lasers can be used to “drag these things [hurricanes] around,” Jones concludes that the facts have been “hiding in plain view” but have been given undue attention by the mainstream media. The onus is on the viewers to be more skeptical.

For many, the idea that Hurricane Irma was geoengineered by an elite cabal in a secretive false flag operation to perpetuate the “hoax” of anthropogenic climate change sounds more like a parody skit or a sci-fi action film. (If you’re wondering, Jones talks about the movie Geostorm and introduces it as further evidence in support of the geoengineering narrative.) While Alex Jones’s lawyers have characterized him as “a performance artist” who is “playing a character” (perhaps akin to a professional wrestler), there is no doubt his media outlets have a real influence on views in the age of Trump—the president himself often amplifies the ideas promoted by InfoWars.

Jones epitomizes the paranoid style introduced by Hofstadter—a style that Jesse Walker (2013) claims “is American politics” and not merely a style practiced on the fringe. Even if viewers reject the specific narrative spun on his post-Irma shows, the Alex Jones YouTube channel offers other alternative climate change narratives that more realistically attempt to “use science against itself” to sow doubt and confusion (Oreskes & Conway 2010; see also, Pomerantsev and Weiss 2014, Starbird 2017). This underscores the ultimate impact the paranoid style has on American politics: It breeds a form of post-truth cynicism that “can effectively shut down debate on legitimate issues by moving the discourse into the realm of ideologically distorted fantasy” (Hodges 2015). It destroys confidence in science as a tool for guiding thoughtful responses to issues like climate change.

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality (2011), and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.

Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2017. “The Paranoid Style of Climate Change Denial.” Anthropology News website, October 11, 2017. doi:10.1111/AN.640

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