Unlike their brethren in the US, here in Europe they live in the shadows. European law protects the identity of their sources of funding and their networks are closed. Their meetings are generally held behind unmarked doors and they have an aversion to the press. Closely linked to the rising wave of right-wing populism in Europe, their numbers are growing – and so too is their quiet influence in the corridors and sessions at the European Parliament. These scientists, retirees, engineers and farmers – by a great majority male – are united by a common belief: that global warming has nothing to do with human activity. They maintain climate change science is ‘flawed’ and that its policies should be overturned. They are the climate change sceptics.
Trump is a welcome arrival for climate change deniers, and America’s departure from the Paris Climate Agreement has given a well-Tweeted boost to all those seeking to undermine anti-global warming efforts. “It is a [fictional] narrative of the left and the UN that fossil energy destroys the world“, the director of US-based think tank The Heartland Institute, and advisor to President Trump, was happy to state on record. European climate change deniers are paid rather less attention, and bemoan the fact that any press coverage about them is ‘prejudiced‘, ‘negative‘, ‘fake news‘. Yet in the heart of Europe, climate change sceptic researchers, certain politicians and representatives of industries that stand to lose the most when anti-global warming policies kick in (e.g. coal mining and agriculture), hope to follow the lead of the States.
It was quite a team that set out to work on a new long-term research project about the rise of European climate change scepticism. Apart from my role as photographer for the protagonists’ portraits, there were journalists for both newspapers and radio (one of whom, Annika Joeres, I’d collaborated with last year on a prize-winning reportage about immigrants being sheltered illegally in the French Alps), and a TV crew for Germany’s ‘Monitor‘ – all based in various locations across France and Germany. Together and alone, we hunted down these elusive sceptics in Portugal, Brussels, Germany, Paris and the back-end-of-French-nowhere (taking the train to reduce our carbon footprint – the sceptic’s assertion that people can fly and drive as much as they want with zero impact on climate change hadn’t quite convinced us). Clearly they weren’t going to be the easiest people to interview, or the most willing subjects to pose for a press photographer’s portrait. However, this would be the first in-depth investigation into what is being increasingly called ‘Clexit‘ in Europe, and we were determined to meet the key players, find out about their movement and bring them, partly at least, out into the light.
Guinness: a solid foundation for climate change expertise
Our starting point was a climate change denier conference in Porto. Before the evening’s port and cheese was sampled, delegates of this ‘Basic Science of a Changing Climate‘ loudly ooohhh-ed and ahhhh-ed their agreement with speakers. The equations and charts projected briefly on the wall during these talks, which had such intriguing titles as ‘Climate: like atomic physics where we are the atoms‘ and ‘11 facts you must know to avoid being deceived by the AGW [Anthropogenic Global Warming]’, appeared to serve more to decorate the background wall than to increase general comprehension of each speaker’s world view, many containing text far too small to read atop colourful yet incomprehensible graphics. The lecture theatre was occupied mostly by men of a senior age, white of face and grey of hair, and they seemed to be having a jolly time at this ‘old boys club’, a safe space for them to debate, grumble and be united in the face of Conspiracy (the UN, government, press, the general public).
During one of the event’s coffee breaks, I was told that carbon dioxide is a marvellous natural fertiliser, very good for plants & animals, and that reducing its levels in the environment would mean dead plants! droughts! and dead animals! I asked one gentleman how he had ended up a climate expert and was surprised to learn that his CO2 knowledge stems from early career experience as an employee of Guinness in the 1970s, when he was part of a team working out how to get more of the gas into the drink to make it creamier (for anyone interested, the solution was to add nitrogen to make smaller bubbles. But I digress…)
Big guns in Brussels
Over in Brussels, in and around the European Parliament, we made some different, new, climate change sceptic acquaintances. These sharper-suited (and probably better-paid) individuals were there to make things happen (or rather Not happen, as the case may be). The welcome given to us by the clean-shaven, young, blond representative of the German Farmers’ Association, for example, in a luxurious private office a stone’s throw from the EU Parliament buildings, was as smooth as one might expect from a publicity-sensitive, professional lobbyist. I understood nothing of the interview, conducted as it was in German, so once my work as photographer was done and the portrait was taken, I just happily helped myself to fine coffee and biscuits, entirely detached from the heated turn that the interview appeared to be taking.
Stuart Agnew, member of the European Parliament for UKIP (far-right UK Independence Party) is the kind of chap the lobbyists have in their sights. This nearly 70-year-old Norfolk farmer, who thinks that the science proving man’s actions are behind climate change is ‘made up‘, and is against any law to reduce emissions, not only has a valuable vote when new climate change policies are proposed, but is – astonishingly – currently secretary for LIFE, the main programme for climate action in the EU. Sitting proud in his bare office, whose main item of decoration was a limp union jack flag, he chewed the cud about chickens (he has 35,000) and told the journalists “I have been completely successful…Climate scientists and the media are panicking“. “Yes“, he sighed with satisfaction, “the climate changed deniers are slowly getting their points across“.
Right from the start, I knew that I would have very little time to make each portrait – if the subjects would even agree to being photographed – and begged the journalists time and time again to let me shoot before their ‘challenging’ interviews began. I also knew that the locations and light of our meeting places would probably be less than ideal for an interesting series of environmental portraits, but was determined to show some element of nature in each image. So I dragged my reluctant subjects outdoors to photograph them when it was possible, or got close to a window or pot plants in a meeting room when it wasn’t. However, what seemed most important to me to capture was the shady, hidden nature of these men’s influencing roles. So I decided to shoot my subjects straight-to-camera and worked with a mobile flash, small softbox and a willing journalist as photographers’ assistant to take side-lit portraits and created a ‘dark side’ effect for each sitter (you can read about my making of another side-lit portrait here).
Near death in a Peugeot
As expected, I experienced varying degrees of hostility from my portrait subjects. The first words that came out of Piers (leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy’s brother) Corbyn’s mouth when I was introduced were “Are you the Enemy?” (although I managed to persuade him that I wasn’t, and we ended up having a nice chat about ants). Lord Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monkton of Brenchley, perhaps the only person ever to have been thrown out of a UN climate change summit for impersonating a delegate from Burma to get his point heard, beckoned me over after I took his portrait and growled darkly “You’re the photographer, but tell me the truth, who sent you?“. At least I didn’t get physically attacked, which is more than I can say for TV colleague Achim, who got violently shoved by one of our subjects in a video that got 188,000 views, definitely not great for climate change sceptics’ PR.
However, the very young ecology spokesperson of the Rassemblement National (the new name for the French far-right National Front party) nearly put me in hospital. We were in Marine LePen’s constituency, in a France as far from the glossy French Riviera as I could dream up (shops boarded up, smashed windows and the general air of depression of an ex-coal mining area) and he had insisted on driving journalists and photographer across town in his L-plated Peugeot to make the interview and portrait beside an abandoned windmill. On the way back, continuing to eulogise about his vision of patriotic ecology, he apparently hadn’t seen a massive red, traffic light at an approaching junction. I yelled “Stop!!!“, slapped the dashboard, and was glad of his 21-year-old reactions.
As for the nuts and bolts of the story, I’ll let the final articles do the talking. Financially supported in part by the Investigative Journalism for the EU grant, we worked with press partners across Europe. Mediapart tells the story in French, Suddeutsche Zeitung in German (tear sheet below), and both UK broadsheet and German environmental magazine features are on the way. Watch this space…