Saturday, November 04, 2006

Apocalypse maybe?

Mike Hulme Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has expressed concern at the apocalyptic language that increasingly surrounds the climate change debate:
"[O]ver the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country - the phenomenon of "catastrophic" climate change.

It seems that mere "climate change" was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be "catastrophic" to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term - and its bedfellow qualifiers "chaotic", "irreversible", "rapid" - has altered the public discourse around climate change.

This discourse is now characterised by phrases such as "climate change is worse than we thought", that we are approaching "irreversible tipping in the Earth's climate", and that we are "at the point of no return".

I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric.

It seems that it is we, the professional climate scientists, who are now the (catastrophe) sceptics. How the wheel turns."
I wish I understood the science but I think I know a wee bit about history and sociology and a couple of things stand out in this whole debate:

1) People's position on the science is obviously conditioned by what they want to believe and how it fits in with their world view. Many free-marketeers are unhappy to take on board the idea that an externality the scale of climate change could have been produced by industrial capitalism because it implies more government intervention in the economy. The statist left tend to believe the more apocalyptic predictions for exactly the same reasons. How many make up their minds based on the evidence? I suspect most are like me and don't have a sufficient understanding of the science to do this.

2) You hear a lot about a 'scientific consensus', along with accusations of 'flat-earther' directed towards those who dissent. I for one am completely unimpressed with this idea. It's only a 'Hardy Boys discover the Enlightenment' approach that can allow people to believe that Galileo was the last scientist to find himself on the wrong end of a consensus that subsequently proved to be false. Scientists are human beings and have interests - careers and reputations - to defend. If there were a greater awareness of history out there, I think we would hear less about the priestly authority of 'consensus'. "Cleaning surgical tools will reduce infection? How absurd."

3) As Matthew Parris of the Times pointed out a while ago, the idea of the apocalypse is a legacy from our religious past and like it or not, it is deeply-ingrained in our collective memory. It doesn't mean climate change isn't happening but it seems likely that our responses to it are conditioned by this.

4) George Monbiot is an annoying twat who is representative a a significant strand who appear to be unable to see any upside to industrial capitalism. Every time you take a flight you kill someone, he once intoned. Except when he takes a flight to promote a book, in which case it's ok. Thing is, the sort of cost-benefit anaylsis he must be secretly doing (unless he's a complete irrationalist) to justify taking a flight in such a self-regarding manner never gets applied to the wider problem. Climate change is killing people and will kill more people in the future? I'm sure that's true - but would Monbiot and his ilk care to estimate how many of these are alive today solely as a result of technological advance and its application to the business of production? Because they tend not to do this.

Mike Hulme also points out that other annoying upper-class twats* - like Tony Blair - tend to echo the more apocalyptic language of the climate change campaigners. But I doubt Fettes boy understands the science either.

*My judgment, not his.

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