‘Why Al Gore is too chicken to debate me’

Christopher Monckton, the Third Viscount of Brenchley and well-known climate change sceptic, tells spiked he was censored by Gore.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech

Imagine if a well-known British environmentalist – Zac Goldsmith, say, or the less well-off but just as eco-committed Prince Charles – was on his way to Congress in the US to take part in a debate about climate change, only to be told at the very last minute that he was no longer welcome. That he was being denied this prestigious public-speaking platform for unspecified reasons.

There would be uproar, and understandably so. There would be op-eds and email circulars telling us that probably oil-funded, behind-the-scenes men had intervened to silence the green voice and to allow the other side – the sceptical, denying, twisted side – to have free rein in the debate. Someone would mention the c-word.

Yet reverse the roles, and replace the ‘silenced environmentalist’ with ‘silenced sceptic’, and no one seems to mind. At the end of last month, one of Britain’s most controversial climate change sceptics – Monckton, the Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, or whom I prefer to call ‘Christopher Monckton’ – was invited by Republicans to testify on climate change at the House Energy & Commerce Committee, one of the oldest standing committees in the US House of Representatives, alongside a ‘celebrity witness’ offered up by the Democrats: none other than Al Gore. But something dramatic happened while Monckton was in the air. Upon landing in the US, he was told that he could not testify after all; that Democrats had vetoed his appearance; that, in the words of one Republican insider, Gore had ‘chickened out’ of debating him.

‘It is believed that never before in the history of Congress has the Minority been refused its choice of witness’, Monckton tells me. He had been invited by Joe Barton, the ranking Minority (Republican) member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, to give testimony alongside a then unnamed ‘celebrity witness’ put forward by the Majority (the Democrats). But as soon as the Democrats told the Republicans that Gore, maker of the movie An Inconvenient Truth, was to be their ‘celebrity witness’, and the Republicans revealed that Monckton was to be theirs, the Democrats reportedly ‘immediately refused’ to allow Monckton to testify. And given that the Minority had ‘failed’ to come up with a respectable, appropriate witness, the Majority took the unusual step of choosing a new witness for them. ‘The one person they did not want testifying alongside Gore was me, for I would have destroyed forever what little credibility he still retains’, says Monckton, cockily.

Clearly his reputation precedes him. Monckton, whose grandfather was chief legal adviser to King Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis and whose father was a much-decorated major-general in the British Army, has had a colourful (some might say coloured) career. He was an adviser to Thatcher in the 1980s. He later invented the famous geometric Eternity Puzzle. He won no votes when he tried to get elected to the House of Lords in 2007 (this being the House of Lords, it wasn’t a normal, democratic election: there were 43 candidates for the seat and 47 voters). As is befitting a former Thatcherite, he has some extremely wayward views: he was involved in the right-wing Committee for a Free Britain in the 1980s, whose members, amongst other things, backed scab miners during the miners’ strike of 1984/85, and in 1987 he wrote an article arguing that the only way to deal with AIDS was to ‘quarantine all carriers of the disease for life’. Today, Monckton is most famous, or infamous, for being a sceptic – or, in the words of one green writer, a spouter of ‘pseudo-scientific gibberish’ (1).

Monckton says environmentalism has become a ‘new religion’ that is intolerant of dissent. He believes Democrats refused to allow him to testify because ‘they know, from earlier testimonies, that I know enough about the science to expose [Al Gore’s] lies in detail’. Certainly the Democrats seem keen to protect Gore, the failed president turned global prophet of man-made doom, from one of his sternest, most relentless critics. In 2007 Monckton wrote a widely distributed essay titled ‘Thirty-Five Inconvenient Truths: The Errors in Al Gore’s Movie’, and he helped with the distribution of Martin Durkin’s climate-sceptic film, The Great Global Warming Swindle, to schools in the UK after it was revealed that the government planned to send Gore’s film to schools. Gore, honoured with the Nobel Prize and fawned over by governments, the media and both moderate and radical greens, is more used to being treated as a secular version of the Dalai Lama – that is, Beyond Criticism – than as a mere mortal whose ideas should be submitted to the messy and potentially embarrassing rigours of public debate. Little wonder House Democrats vetoed Monckton.

Monckton, who goes further than many other climate change sceptics in that he argues there ‘will not be any “global warming” crisis caused by human influence on the climate’, seems to believe that Gore and others are afraid to debate him because, secretly, they are uncertain of their case. This is a common belief in sceptical circles: the idea that greens run from or shun debate because they know that their science, or ‘The Science’ as they call it, is shaky, and they are petrified of being exposed as charlatans before the eyes of the world. ‘The Democrats know that Gore has lied and lied and lied again to exaggerate the non-existent “threat” of “global warming”’, says Monckton, ‘and that I would have exposed those lies in detail’. I’m not convinced. It isn’t because they fear they are wrong that environmentalists are uncomfortable with debate; it is because they are utterly convinced that they are right.

It is their conviction that they are, in Gore’s words, engaged in a ‘generational mission, with the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose’, where The Science plays the role of The Truth and the CO2 plays the role of Evil, that environmentalists can brook no dissent or ‘heresy’. Theirs is a profoundly moralistic movement, which comes complete with stories of good and evil, and, in Gore’s words, with ‘the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence’ – and like all religious-style ‘generational missions’ built on simplistic morality and mythical scenarios of future, weather-driven punishment for our sins, it does not lend itself to rational discussion or alternative viewpoints.

Hence its non-adherents are not just labelled ‘wrong’, but morally suspect: they are ‘deniers’, ‘heretics’, even psychologically flawed (2). Real scientific investigation always involves dissent and debate; so do normal political projects. But a ‘shared and unifying cause’ that is stuffed with goodies and baddies and is designed to allow those ‘suffering from a loss of meaning in their lives to find hope’ (yes, Gore again) does not. History tells us that.

Environmentalism is innately, almost casually, hostile to dissenting views. From the Democrats turning away Monckton, to greens who complain that sceptics are given too much media coverage, to the demand that there should be future criminal tribunals to try and punish ‘climate change deniers’, environmentalists do not conspiratorially draw up blacklists of unacceptable individuals who must never be allowed to challenge their ‘lies’ but, even more worryingly, simply assume that open debate is potentially destructive and that dissenters are dangerous.

So the UK climate change minister, Ed Miliband, recently said that opposing windfarms should be as ‘socially unacceptable as failing to wear a seat belt’. And in a recent debate with climate change sceptics at a film festival in Amsterdam, Franny Armstrong, director of the much-lauded (including by Miliband) The Age of Stupid, predicted – without a flicker of shame – that in 50 years’ time, when ‘hundreds of millions of people have died [as a result of runaway climate change]’, there will be an ‘environmental court [and] climate sceptics will be charged with those murders’ (3).

In short, the words of sceptics are murderous. These sceptics – Monckton, David Bellamy, Nigel Lawson, Bjorn Lomborg – will be as guilty of murder in Bangladesh and other parts of the world reportedly threatened by climate change as if they had strangled those poor people with their own hands. The erosion of the distinction between words and actions, and the explicit attempt to make it socially taboo to raise awkward questions about the politics and science of environmentalism, speaks to a rather terrifyingly censorious streak in the green outlook, and reveals the extent to which non-debate is being normalised across society. This is something worse than a behind-closed-doors conspiracy to protect Al Gore’s ‘lies’ from irritating challengers, as Monckton seems to see it. It is the slow but sure, instinctive and all-encompassing creation of what John Stuart Mill called ‘custom’: a new general way of seeing things, a new kind of conformism, of the sort which, as Mill said, ‘stands as a hindrance to human advancement’. Custom is the enemy of freedom and progress, said Mill: ‘The progressive principle, in either shape, whether as the love of liberty or of improvement, is antagonistic to the sway of Custom.’ (4)

Monckton sees environmentalism as a monstrous creation of the left. ‘Logic and the left are strangers to one another’, he says. Yet while the vast majority of the left has embraced environmentalism in recent years, there is little ‘left wing’ about the green outlook. Indeed, the rise and rise of environmentalism, which springs more from the traditionalist, aristocratic desire for conservationism than it does from old left-wing projects for progress and development, can be seen as representing the death knell of once-progressive left-wing politics.

Where people on the left once argued that the problems facing humanity were social ones, requiring social solutions, today they see everything from unemployment to Third World poverty as a ‘natural problem’ that requires restrictions on individual behaviour in order to prevent further planetary destruction. Where once the left argued that we needed more production and consumption in order to liberate humanity from need, today they say we must have less in order to liberate the planet from man’s ‘carbon footprint’. Environmentalism is not ‘the left’ in action; it is the ideology that has replaced the end of politics and in particular the demise of the left’s once principled insistence on social visions of the future and on the creation of more resources for the benefit of humanity.

This, too, explains the lack of debate today. When the problems we face were recognised as social, the onus was on political contestation and debate, as different groups with different social visions clashed about how things should be fixed and improved in the future. When the problems we face are re-labelled as issues of ‘natural limits’ – with only one possible fixed solution: reshaping people’s behaviour in order to prevent them from recklessly transgressing those ‘natural limits’ – then it is intolerable for people to dissent or to demand more or to question the consensus. To do so is not only wrong or risqué or daring, it is potentially destructive and harmful to future generations. It is the equivalent of murder, or at least of driving a car without wearing a seat belt. Environmentalism simply cannot countenance true, meaningful debate.

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

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill wondered why environmentalists demanded Martin Durkin’s film The Great Global Warming Swindle be consored because it contained contained scientific errors, but were happy to accept Al Gore’s mistakes as ‘good lies’. Elsewhere, he examined global warming’s chilling effect on free speech. Ian Murray wondered if environmentalism the opiate of the liberals. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Free speech.

(1) This wasn’t gibberish. I got my facts right on global warming, Guardian, 15 November 2006

(2) See Psychologising dissent? Now that’s Orwellian, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) See the debate in Amsterdam here.

(4) On Liberty, John Stuart Mill: read it here.

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

Topics Free Speech


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