The rise and rise of Climate Blasphemy

Today’s Ofcom ruling on The Great Global Warming Swindle strengthens the censorious forcefield around climate change experts.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Free Speech

The blasphemy laws are dead and buried in Britain. Courtesy of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, which passed into law on 8 July 2008, it is no longer a common law offence to speak or publish any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous words relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible. Thank Christ (or whoever) for that.

Yet just as religious blasphemy collapses under the weight of satirical operas featuring Jesus Christ in a nappy and shelf-hogging books about why God is dead, or a bastard, or both, so a new form of scientific blasphemy is emerging to take its place.

You can say what you like about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but say anything reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous about a climate change scientist and you will be punished. You won’t receive a literal lashing, but you will get a metaphorical one. Speak ill of a climate expert and you’re likely to be stuck in the stocks of the public media and branded as a fact-denying, truth-distorting threat to public morals.

Increasingly in the climate change debate, no dissent can be brooked. I mean none. That is why, from the thousands and thousands of hours of TV programming devoted to climate change issues last year – from news reports on the threat of global warming to the lifestyle makeover shows imploring us to Go Green – only one has been singled out for censure. The one that questioned whether climate change is occurring. The Great Global Warming Swindle by maverick filmmaker Martin Durkin.

Today, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) has published a lengthy document censuring Channel 4 for showing Durkin’s film on 8 March 2007. Yet what is striking about Ofcom’s ruling is that it slaps Channel 4’s wrists, not for any inaccuracies in Durkin’s film (of which, it is claimed, there are many), but for its ‘unfair treatment’ of climate change experts.

Ofcom rejected complaints that Durkin’s film was factually inaccurate on the basis that it did not ‘materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence’ (1). Yet it upheld or partly upheld complaints by Sir David King (Britain’s former chief scientific adviser), Professor Carl Wunsch (of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, all of whom say they were treated unfairly by the film.

Yet, as far as I can tell, King, Wunsch and the IPCC – an extremely powerful body which, come on, is surely robust enough to deal with one TV documentary having a pop at it – were simply submitted to the rough-and-tumble of testy journalistic debate.

Part of King’s complaint is that during a lively interview in The Great Global Warming Swindle one of its contributors, Professor Frederick Singer, said we had now reached the mad situation where: ‘[T]he chief scientist of the UK [is] telling people that by the end of the century the only habitable place on the earth will be the Antarctic. And humanity may survive thanks to some breeding couples who moved to the Antarctic.’ (2)

King says he didn’t say that. Well, not in so many words. What he actually said during a testimony to a House of Commons Select Committee in 2004 was this: ‘Fifty-five million years ago was a time when there was no ice on the earth; the Antarctic was the most habitable place for mammals, because it was the coolest place, and the rest of the earth was rather inhabitable because it was so hot. It is estimated that it [the carbon dioxide level] was roughly 1,000 parts per million then, and the important thing is that if we carry on business as usual we will hit 1,000 parts per million around the end of the century.’ (3)

In short? If we keep on driving, flying, building and consuming then the earth in 90 years’ time will resemble the earth 55million years ago – when the Antarctic was ‘the most habitable place for mammals’. Okay, King didn’t say the Antarctic would become the ‘only habitable’ place for humans but he did very strongly imply it would become the ‘most habitable’ place.

And in a speech to the Climate Group in April 2004, he reportedly went a step farther. The Independent on Sunday of 2 May 2004 reported: ‘Antarctica is likely to be the world’s only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked, the government’s chief scientist Sir David King said last week.’ (4) [Emphasis added.] King never complained about that report.

As for the second sentence in Frederick Singer’s contested interview – where he said ‘And humanity may survive thanks to some breeding couples who moved to the Antarctic’ – this actually refers to a statement by James Lovelock, who said in 2006: ‘Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.’ (5) Channel 4 says that, given that David King is on record as saying Antarctica could be the ‘only habitable place on earth’ and ‘the rest of the globe could not sustain human life’ (6), it was not unreasonable to deduce that he, like Lovelock, was of the view that humanity could only survive if it started breeding in the Antarctic.

Maybe. Maybe not. That point is up for debate. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in Durkin’s film, King was simply paraphrased – and, yes, ridiculed – as part of a provocative, polemical interview. That kind of thing happens all the time.

Professor Wunsch complained that he was not told beforehand that the film was a polemic against global warming theories. That is unfortunate, but again it is quite common in journalism. Reporters frequently do not divulge their entire motivation when setting up interviews, because they know that if they did some interviewees would tell them to get stuffed.

Part of the IPCC’s complaint is that one of the film’s interviewees – Professor Philip Stott – said: ‘The IPCC, like any UN body, is political. The final conclusions are politically driven.’ (7) I’m sorry, but that is simply legitimate political criticism, whether the IPCC likes it or not. Why is a UN body, which is staffed by hundreds of people and funded by millions of pounds and which has access to thousands of normally compliant journalists, complaining to Ofcom about a 90-minute documentary shown on Channel 4? What is it saying exactly? That no one may criticise it, ever?

Of course it is very serious when journalists wilfully or maliciously misrepresent people’s views, and when they do they should be reprimanded. Yet paraphrasing, mocking, criticising and not giving the entire reason for your investigations… if all of these journalistic tactics were censured every time they occurred, there would be no TV reporting left. Certainly there would be no documentaries worth watching.

The Ofcom report sends a clear message: climate experts are off limits. You can get your facts wrong; you can even use questionable graphs – but you must not be ‘unfair’ to The Experts. It is striking how similar the new Climate Blasphemy is to the old religious blasphemy. It, too, is based on protecting named individuals from ‘scurrilous’ or ‘hurtful’ words. Those who commit Climate Blasphemy are said to have been duped or had their palms greased by wicked oil companies – the contemporary equivalent of saying they are possessed by the devil. And their utterances are said to threaten the survival of mankind – by giving people a green light to continue acting in an eco-irresponsible fashion – just as the old blasphemers were accused of jeopardising the saving of mankind with their warped, wicked words.

You don’t have to endorse Durkin’s film, or the ‘alternative’ climate-change theories that he and others have put forward (I, for one, do not), to be concerned about the censuring of anyone who challenges any part of the politics or science of climate change today. Rather, this is about upholding openness, scepticism and the right to question everything, in the world of journalism and in the world of science.

Given today’s blasphemous atmosphere, it is not surprising that serious voices are now calling for a law of blasphemy on environmental matters. Earlier this year in Philosophy Now, Paul Keeling said it might be time to restrict the ‘mockery of nature’, by which he means ‘an insincere, disrespectful or trivialising portrayal of nature’ (8). Such mockery ‘implicitly excuse[s] and perpetuate[s] our abuse of the natural world’, he said, and by reining it in we could get rid of car adverts and holiday adverts and presumably pesky TV documentaries, too.

We’ve only just been liberated, far too late, from England’s archaic laws of religious blasphemy. Let us not submit so easily to the informal laws of Climate Blasphemy emerging all around us.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on Spiked

Brendan O’Neill assessed the reaction to Martin Durkin’s The Great Global Warming Swindle. Simon Singh took issue with O’Neill’s view. Brendan O’Neill also argued against the politicisation of science and the attempt to have Durkin’s film corrected before its DVD release. Ethan Greenhart considered the ethics of censoring climate change deniers. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) See Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin, Issue 114 (pdf), 21 July 2008

(2) See Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin, Issue 114 (pdf), 21 July 2008

(3) See the Minutes of the House of Commons Environmental Audit, 30 March 2004

(4) Independent on Sunday, 2 May 2004

(5) The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years, Independent, 16 January 2006

(6) See Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin, Issue 114 (pdf), 21 July 2008

(7) See Ofcom Broadcast Bulletin, Issue 114 (pdf), 21 July 2008

(8) See Mocking the environment, Comment Is Free, 27 January 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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