I am an intellectual blasphemer
When Alexander Cockburn, author of the forthcoming book A Short History of Fear, dared to question the climate change consensus, he was punished by a tsunami of self-righteous fury. It is time for a free and open ‘battle of ideas’, he says.
While the world’s climate is on a warming trend, there is zero evidence that the rise in CO2 levels has anthropogenic origins. For daring to say this I have been treated as if I have committed intellectual blasphemy.
In magazine articles and essays I have described in fairly considerable detail, with input from the scientist Martin Hertzberg, that you can account for the current warming by a number of well-known factors – to do with the elliptical course of the Earth in its relationship to the sun, the axis of the Earth in the current period, and possibly the influence of solar flares. There have been similar warming cycles in the past, such as the medieval warming period, when the warming levels were considerably higher than they are now.
Yet from left to right, the warming that is occurring today is taken as being man-made, and many have made it into the central plank of their political campaigns. For reasons I find very hard to fathom, the environmental left movement has bought very heavily into the fantasy about anthropogenic global warming and the fantasy that humans can prevent or turn back the warming cycle.
This turn to climate catastrophism is tied into the decline of the left, and the decline of the left’s optimistic vision of altering the economic nature of things through a political programme. The left has bought into environmental catastrophism because it thinks that if it can persuade the world that there is indeed a catastrophe, then somehow the emergency response will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice.
This is a fantasy. In truth, environmental catastrophism will, in fact it already has, play into the hands of sinister-as-always corporate interests. The nuclear industry is benefiting immeasurably from the current catastrophism. Last year, for example, the American nuclear regulatory commission speeded up its process of licensing; there is an imminent wave of nuclear plant building. Many in the nuclear industry see in the story about CO2 causing climate change an opportunity to recover from the adverse publicity of Chernobyl.
More generally, climate catastrophism is leading to a re-emphasis of the powers of the advanced industrial world, through its various trade mechanisms, to penalise Third World countries. For example, the Indians have just produced an extremely cheap car called the Tata Nano, which will enable poorer Indians to get about more easily without having to load their entire family on to a bicycle. Greens have already attacked the car, and it won’t take long for the WTO and the advanced powers to start punishing India with a lot of missionary-style nonsense about its carbon emissions and so on.
The politics of climate change also has potential impacts on farmers. Third World farmers who don’t use seed strains or agricultural procedures that are sanctioned by the international AG corporations and major multilateral institutions and banks controlled by the Western powers will be sabotaged by attacks on their ‘excessive carbon footprint’. The environmental catastrophism peddled by many who claim to be progressive is strengthening the hand of corporate interests over ordinary people.
Here in the West, the so-called ‘war on global warming’ is reminiscent of medieval madness. You can now buy Indulgences to offset your carbon guilt. If you fly, you give an extra 10 quid to British Airways; BA hands it on to some non-profit carbon-offsetting company which sticks the money in its pocket and goes off for lunch. This kind of behaviour is demented.
What is sinister about environmental catastrophism is that it diverts attention from hundreds and hundreds of serious environmental concerns that can be dealt with – starting, perhaps, with the emission of nitrous oxides from power plants. Here, in California, if you drive upstate you can see the pollution all up the Central Valley from Los Angeles, a lot of it caused, ironically, by the sulphuric acid droplets from catalytic converters! The problem is that 20 or 30 years ago, the politicians didn’t want to take on the power companies, so they fixed their sights on penalising motorists who are less able to fight back. Decade after decade, power plants have been given a pass on the emissions from their smoke stacks while measures to force citizens to change their behaviour are brought in.
Emissions from power plants are something that could be dealt with now. You don’t need to have a world programme called ‘Kyoto’ to fix something like that. The Kyoto Accord must be one of the most reactionary political manifestos in the history of the world; it represents a horrible privileging of the advanced industrial powers over developing nations.
The marriage of environmental catastrophism and corporate interests is best captured in the figure of Al Gore. As a politician, he came to public light as a shill for two immense power schemes in the state of Tennessee: the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory. Gore is not, as he claims, a non-partisan green; he is influenced very much by his background. His arguments, many of which are based on grotesque science and shrill predictions, seem to me to be part of a political and corporate outlook.
In today’s political climate, it has become fairly dangerous for a young scientist or professor to step up and say: ‘This is all nonsense.’ It is increasingly difficult to challenge the global warming consensus, on either a scientific or a political level. Academies can be incredibly cowardly institutions, and if one of their employees was to question the discussion of climate change he or she would be pulled to one side and told: ‘You’re threatening our funding and reputation – do you really want to do that?’ I don’t think we should underestimate the impact that kind of informal pressure can have on people’s willingness to think thoroughly and speak openly.
One way in which critics are silenced is through the accusation that they are ignoring ‘peer-reviewed science’. Yet oftentimes, peer review is a nonsense. As anyone who has ever put his nose inside a university will know, peer review is usually a mode of excluding the unexpected, the unpredictable and the unrespectable, and forming a mutually back-scratching circle. The history of peer review and how it developed is not a pretty sight. Through the process of peer review, of certain papers being nodded through by experts and other papers being given a red cross, the controllers of the major scientific journals can include what they like and exclude what they don’t like. Peer review is frequently a way of controlling debate, even curtailing it. Many people who fall back on peer-reviewed science seem afraid to have out the intellectual argument.
Since I started writing essays challenging the global warming consensus, and seeking to put forward critical alternative arguments, I have felt almost witch-hunted. There has been an hysterical reaction. One individual, who was once on the board of the Sierra Club, has suggested I should be criminally prosecuted. I wrote a series of articles on climate change issues for the Nation, which elicited a level of hysterical outrage and affront that I found to be astounding – and I have a fairly thick skin, having been in the business of making unpopular arguments for many, many years.
There was a shocking intensity to their self-righteous fury, as if I had transgressed a moral as well as an intellectual boundary and committed blasphemy. I sometimes think to myself, ‘Boy, I’m glad I didn’t live in the 1450s’, because I would be out in the main square with a pile of wood around my ankles. I really feel that; it is remarkable how quickly the hysterical reaction takes hold and rains down upon those who question the consensus.
This experience has given me an understanding of what it must have been like in darker periods to be accused of being a blasphemer; of the summary and unpleasant consequences that can bring. There is a witch-hunting element in climate catastrophism. That is clear in the use of the word ‘denier’ to label those who question claims about anthropogenic climate change. ‘Climate change denier’ is, of course, meant to evoke the figure of the Holocaust denier. This was contrived to demonise sceptics. The past few years show clearly how mass moral panics and intellectual panics become engendered.
In my forthcoming book, A Short History of Fear, I explore the link between fearmongering and climate catastrophism. For example, alarmism about population explosion is being revisited through the climate issue. Population alarmism goes back as far as Malthus, of course; and in the environmental movement there has always been a very sinister strain of Malthusianism. This is particularly the case in the US where there has never been as great a socialist challenge as there was in Europe. I suspect, however, that even in Europe, what remains of socialism has itself turned into a degraded Malthusian outlook. It seems clear to me that climate catastrophism represents a new form of the politics of fear.
I think people have had enough of peer-reviewed science and experts telling them what they can and cannot think and say about climate change. Climate catastrophism, the impact it is having on people’s lives and on debate, can only really be challenged through rigorous open discussion and through a ‘battle of ideas’, as the conference I spoke at in London last year described it. I hope my book is a salvo in that battle.
Alexander Cockburn was talking to Brendan O’Neill. Cockburn is co-editor of Counterpunch and a syndicated national columnist whose work appears regularly in the Nation, the New York Free Press, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He spoke at the Battle of Ideas conference in London in October 2007. His new book, A Short History of Fear, will be published in March. The publisher has provided the following taster:
The idea that things are always getting worse, that Armageddon – in one form or another – is just around the corner, has been a common refrain since the very beginnings of Western culture. And, more often than not, the forces allegedly sending us to hell in a proverbial hand basket are shadowy conspiracies whose features are as murky as their nefarious power is supposedly all-encompassing.
Enter renegade journalist Alexander Cockburn to illuminate the darkest corners of our collective cultural unconscious. In his usual, take-no-prisoners-style, he battles an impressive collection of fearmongers and the irrationalities they espouse.
Likening the soul-saving Indulgences sold by the medieval Catholic Church to today’s carbon credits, Cockburn traces his subject through the ages, showing how fear is used to distract us from real problems and real solutions. Skewering doomsters on both the left and right, A Short History of Fear tackles: 9/11 conspiracy theories; the twentieth-century witch craze of ‘satanic abuse’; eugenics; the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, and other ‘inside jobs’; terrorism; the ‘Great Fear’ of the eighteenth century; today’s eleventh-hour predictions of planetary decline; and much more. Scathing, often hilarious, and always insightful, this is Cockburn at the top of his controversial game.
A Short History of Fear, by Alexander Cockburn is published by AK Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).