Why Climategate won’t stop climate-change alarmism

Those UEA scientists indulged in dodgy academic activity, but they did not invent the politics of global warming.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

As the Copenhagen summit on climate change kicks off, the ‘Climategate’ controversy – or ‘Climaquiddick’, as some Americans have christened it – rumbles relentlessly on.

Some climate sceptics want to know why Copenhagen is going ahead at all, when Climategate is so obviously the ‘final nail in the coffin of the “Anthropogenic Global Warming” myth’. The revelation that leading climate scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) indulged in some very dodgy academic behaviour, including dumping inconvenient data and talking about suppressing sceptical scientists, shows that the world has been ‘duped’ by the ‘conspiracy of the century’, we are told, and it is now surely time to call off the ‘global warming hysteria’ (1).

As a sceptic who edits a sceptical magazine, I am always keen to pick apart the stifling political consensus on climate change. But this attempted use of Climategate to finish off the science and politics of global warming unfortunately shows how intellectually shallow is today’s climate-sceptical lobby, the mostly right-wing individuals for whom climate-change alarmism is a liberal left-wing conspiracy to increase taxes and punish the rich. The one question – and it is a question of supreme intellectual importance – that the Climategate-obsessives fail to ask is this: why does climate science, whether faulty or not, have such traction in society? Why is it embraced, elevated and eternally cited by the media, politicians and international organisations? By focusing on the alleged power of the scientists to dupe, the Climategate campaigners wilfully overlook the broader question of why society is so receptive to science, or scientific stories, that purports to show that the planet is frail and vulnerable and thus that human beings must restrain themselves.

The Climategaters seem to take a Scooby Doo view of events, where a sinister individual in a mask is apparently conning the rest of us into thinking we live in a dark, doomed world. So all we need to do is whip off the mask, listen to the foiled evil man say ‘You pesky kids!’, and then put the world to rights again. They focus myopically on the seeming superpowers of the scientists, who ‘duped the world’ with their ‘scam’ (2). This is ‘the biggest fraud in world history’, apparently (3). Some are even quite forgiving of journalists, explaining that they were easily hoodwinked by the UEA posse because ‘they don’t really understand climate science’, while politicians are apparently too proud to admit that they were fooled, so, er, they are going ahead with the multimillion-pound, time-consuming, doom-discussing extravaganza that is Copenhagen mainly to save face (4).

Of course it is true, as Andrew Orlowski argues on spiked today, that the Climategate controversy raises pressing questions about how climate science is conducted in an era when such science is also flattered and indulged by politicians and used to motor political and moral crusades. As Frank Furedi argued on spiked previously, Climategate shines a particularly harsh spotlight on the deeply degraded institution of peer review, which has become more like a mates’ club of back-patting patronage than an airtight way of ensuring that only rigorous research makes it into the most respected science journals (5).

Yet it is important to note that however duplicitous, self-congratulatory and censorious they were, these scientists, this small group of individuals at the UEA, did not ‘invent’ global warming, either the concept or, more importantly, the moral crusade. Rather there was a pre-existing, fairly longstanding and profound moral and political doubt about economic growth, humanity’s capabilities and the past and future of human society itself, which, over the past 10 to 15 years, the science and politics of global warming has moulded itself around, giving some coherence to a deep, historic crisis of humanity.

Climate-change sceptics, while asking many legitimate questions about the bastardisation of science and the top-down shrinking of humanity’s horizons, have long viewed the politics of climate change as a sinister and super-clever conspiracy. Before Climategate they tended to see green campaign groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, as effectively the kidnappers of reason and the thwarters of sensible government in the name of pursuing their own narrow-minded, people-loathing agendas. (Such a conspiratorial outlook was expertly expressed in the late Michael Crichton’s brilliant romp of a novel, State of Fear, in which greens even try to engineer real-world catastrophes – a tsunami, a few flash floods – in order to push forward their misanthropic politics. Yep, they use clever, human-invented, weather-warping technology to bolster their arguments for a more back-to-basics, prehistoric style of existence. Brilliant.) (6)

The sceptics’ focus on conspiracy, on fundamentally external elements, whether it is scientists locked in their labs or head-in-the-cloud greens, speaks to their unfortunate lack of intellectual seriousness and rigour. The truth is that climate-change orthodoxy, the politics of climate change, with its themes of restraint, uncertainty and anti-dissent, comes from the very top of society rather than from underneath it or outside of it. It emerges from within the institutions of society itself, expressing their profound contemporary discomfort with economic growth (so that economic sluggishness is redefined as ‘low-carbon forward planning’), with the uniqueness of human existence (so that human beings are redefined as little more than the ‘emitters of carbon’), and with our ability to make a better, more progressive, more fruitful future (so that ‘future generations’ are redefined as the victims of our eco-hubris in the here and now).

Today, a profound sense of uncertainty about the world we live in, a sense that things are spinning out of control and that we don’t know how to control them or even whether we should, informs the outlook of the political and cultural elites. As a consequence of some important shifts and collapses over the past 15 and more years, there is a political and moral vacuum at the heart of society – and the science and politics of global warming has moved to fill that vacuum, providing something of a rationale and a ‘story’ for society’s already-existing downbeat, misanthropic outlook. This means that green groups and climate scientists have much traction today, and a power and influence beyond their intellectual capabilities or vision, as they are instinctively invited to provide scientific authority and to further furnish today’s political story with ‘facts’ or ‘imagined future scenarios’. And this in turn can have a worrying impact on the objectivity of the science being called upon (7). But it doesn’t mean that these ‘outsiders’ are driving the collapse of reason and rationality.

Time and again, the story of global warming – and, yes, I do mean story: that combination of scientific findings, political prejudice and hysterical future predictions – is pushed forward to promote some very contemporary values. It expresses, neatly and instinctively, an array of concerns to do with human agency, morality and the future. The idea of the ‘eco-footprint’ subtly demolishes the idea of human ownership of the Earth, which held from the Book of Genesis through to the Enlightenment, re-presenting us as guests in a ‘warehouse of resources’ (8). The notion of ‘sustainable development’ speaks to our lack of vision for, or even comfort with, the future, so that the idea is that we ‘sustain’ the small-scale things that we have right now rather than seeking to overhaul them with big, mind-expanding breakthroughs (9). The notion of ‘The Science’, the authority most frequently cited in relation to the global warming story, speaks to the demise of political contestation, of politics itself, so that there becomes only one way of seeing the world and where anyone who questions it is a ‘denier’. Even the past is now interpreted through the prism of climate change and catastrophe, speaking to humanity’s alienation from its own gains and breakthroughs (10).

But most of all, the story of global warming has arisen to express uncertainty. Our world is fragile and unpredictable, to the extent that we don’t know if our civilisation will be completely flooded or only a little bit flooded (them are the choices, apparently). Science might be exploited to deepen this story, and greens might be brought into international conferences to give it some youthful campaigning gloss; but fundamentally it comes from a society at sea (no pun intended) in which new forms of thinking and ideology have emerged to express deep self-doubt and even self-loathing. If climate change hadn’t provided the story, something else would have. Which means that Climategate will do nothing to stop Copenhagen, far less ‘the global warming bandwagon’ (11) – and it also means that, while putting scientists on the spot and questioning how they work is very important, it is not a substitute for a far-reaching political and moral debate about the intellectual state of our world, and our visions for the future.

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. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See, for example, Climategate: the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’? by James Delingpole, Daily Telegraph, 20 November 2009

(4) Climategate Line-Up of the Men Who Duped the World With Flawed Science to Support the Global Warming Scam, Central Illinois Project, 2 December 2009

(5) See We don’t need another conspiracy theory, by Frank Furedi

(6) State of Fear, Michael Crichton, HarperCollins, 2005

(7) See We don’t need another conspiracy theory, by Frank Furedi

(8) See Mankind is more than the janitor of planet Earth, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) See Anything ‘sustainable’ is not worth having, by Frank Furedi

(10) See, for example, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas, Fourth Estate, 2007

(11) Climategate: five Aussie MPs lead the way by resigning in disgust over carbon tax, James Delingpole, Daily Telegraph, 26 November 2009

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Topics Science & Tech


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