Submitted by Professor Bob Ryan
The debate between advocates of CAGW and ‘sceptics’ is a rerun of an old argument between those who take a pessimistic and those who take an optimistic view of humanity. Following the collapse of communism – an extreme version of the pessimists’ creed – those who took that position had to regroup around a new agenda. This post, which is an opinion piece, argues that in searching for their new Trojan Horse the pessimists discovered, in climatology, the ideal opportunity to bring together science, political expediency and social uncertainty in a way that would enable them to capture the political high ground. – Professor Bob Ryan
Although many of us would prefer it otherwise arguments are won through the heart as much as through the mind. To turn the tide against the advocates of CAGW we should recognise that fact and understand what has been happening over the last 20 years. I believe that it is only through recognising the ‘global warming’ debate for what it is that we can make sense of the violence and antagonism it has generated and come up with a successful counter-narrative to the CAGW position.
Throughout recorded history individual and political opinion has always polarized into two camps. There are those who fundamentally believe that humanity is irredeemably lost, that people must be subordinated to social control and that individual choice cannot lead to desirable social outcomes; and there are those who take the opposite view. This is what I describe as the ‘pessimistic’ and the ‘optimistic’ view of humanity – this distinction has been manifest in many ways: the catholic versus the protestant, the communist versus the capitalist, and now those who support the CAGW version of environmentalism and those who do not.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s the pessimists were in disarray. Communism, the creed which had emerged as the 20th Century expression of the pessimists’ agenda had collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. For a short while those who believed that humanity could, through individual action and freedom, create a better world appeared to have won the argument. The retreating left had to find something – anything – to turn the tide in their favour. They needed a much more sophisticated argument to express their world view – an incontrovertible argument that would allow them to capture the moral high ground and be sufficiently alarming in its implications to win over politicians and populations to their agenda. The beauty of CAGW is that it cannot be fixed by the individual or indeed the individual state. It needs a global solution because if runaway global warming has the potential to wipe out a large proportion of humanity then action to prevent it must be equally drastic.
However, the last dozen years have not been good for those who take a more optimistic and liberal view of humanity. The turn of the century brought a nasty dose of millennium angst and a fundamental questioning about where we go from here. Y2K, the dot.com crash, 9/11, financial boom and bust have all produced fertile ground for the pessimists to regroup and in climate science they found their Trojan Horse. Here was a relatively new science bringing under a single umbrella a wide range of sub-disciplines: geo-physics, oceanography, meteorology and many others – all populated by scientists who whilst not technically involved in atmospheric physics might well be sympathetic to the central CAGW message.
By good fortune for the pessimists, a small sub-group of relatively modest UK and US research institutions had been developing their specialism investigating the recent history of global temperature change and the role of CO2 and other atmospheric gases in regulating the climate. Bring them together with a group of savvy and articulate politicians of the (mainly) left, establish a UN panel with the remit of winnowing out of the scientific literature anything which supported the CAGW position and marginalised anything that challenged it, and the Trojan Horse was assembled.
The attack came on two fronts: first the CAGW narrative had to be sufficiently persuasive to win over those scientists whose research, no matter how tangential to the central thesis, would give it added credibility. With this a claim of ‘scientific consensus’ could be established supported by the various scientific bodies who in one way or other act as mouthpieces for the scientific community. Second, the political agenda had to be captured. In this the pessimists were aided by another social and political change.
Across the major economies, politicians had found it increasingly difficult to relieve their populations of their cash. The old approaches to the taxation of income were no longer viable – so called ‘progressive’ taxation and the ‘welfarism’ it supported were becoming very unpopular. Politicians, who by and large are a pragmatic lot, had to find ways of relieving us of our cash by stealth. In the UK, for example, hundreds of tax wheezes were invented to raise taxes in ways the political class hoped would go unnoticed. Furthermore, stealth taxes are much harder to avoid – no accountant or tax lawyer can reduce the tax you pay when you buy a new TV, fill your car with fuel or buy an airline ticket. So the last 20 years have been characterized by a search for new ways to relieve us of our money. In CAGW, the scientific and moral argument could be made for the ultimate stealth tax. Use energy and we will tax you.
And so we have it: a potent brew of political fundamentalism, fiscal expediency, social anxiety, uncertain science and huge vested interests. I do not think science can now resolve the debate about global warming. It is not that the science is of no consequence – it has simply been marginalised in the much bigger social and political debate that is underway. Scientists are highly specialised, discoveries come in bits and the knowledge gained is provisional. For the young working scientist cracking the next problem and publishing the result is the main priority. They will interpret the significance of what they discover, just like the rest of us, according to their underlying beliefs about the way the world works. But as far as the bigger picture is concerned their views are no better than anyone else’s.
The positive message is that the tide is now beginning to turn against the pessimists. Climategate and all that went with it gave hope to those arguing against the CAGW orthodoxy. But in the end the revelations were not conclusive. What is and will be conclusive is the fact that the climate is simply not playing ball. The balmy climate of the last 50 years may be coming to an end. Global temperatures appear to have steadied over the last ten year, the rate of increase in sea level is slowing and across the planet things are not quite going the way the prophets of doom would have us believe. It is not decisive yet but in 5 years it might well be, and as further good quality research establishes the role of other forcings in climate change the pessimists will have to look for another outlet for their world view. But be of no doubt – they will. The battle will be reengaged but next time on a different stage.