The IPCC: a Vatican for the twenty-first century?

The problem with the IPCC is not that some of its science is dodgy, but the fact that it elevates science per se above politics and democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Science & Tech

In recent weeks there has been a rare meeting of minds between climate-change sceptics and climate-change alarmists.

Both the doubters of green-leaning end-of-the-worldism and the promoters of green-infused stories of doom agree that the main problem with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is that some of its science is duff. Seriously duff. They might reach different conclusions as a result of their critique of the IPCC’s bad science – the sceptics argue that the IPCC is completely untrustworthy; the alarmists say there just needs to be a ‘spring clean’ of the IPCC’s scientific closet – but these normally horn-locked camps agree on the central premise: that the problem is dodgy science.

This represents a shallow, uncritical approach to today’s tyranny of environmentalism. The real problem is not the promotion of bad science per se, but the use of science – any kind of science, whether good or bad, insightful or stupid – as a source of moral and political authority and a driver of public policy and international development. For anyone who considers himself a progressive, the ultimate scandal, above and beyond all the admittedly titillating stuff about ‘Emailgate’ and the melting glacier nonsense, is the idea that scientific fact, which is fundamentally just information, should determine how society is organised, how political problems are approached, and what people should expect from life.

It is the substitution of science for morality, and the interests of the climate for the interests of mankind, which is the real shocker of recent years, not the odd ridiculous graph or shrill claim about the Himalayas.

It is no doubt true that the recent climate-science scandals have been very revealing. For those of us who have had the experience of environmentalists accusing us of being ‘deniers’ and ‘doubters of The Science’, as if science is a gospel truth that you question or ignore at your peril, they have also been quite enjoyable. From the revelations that academics at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia bent over backwards to keep ‘deniers’ out of respected journals, and tried desperately to wriggle out of Freedom of Information demands on their work, to the exposé of the bizarre story of the Himalayan glaciers melting by the year 2035, which turned out to be the flighty speculation of a single scientist, the scandals have revealed that leading lights in the climate-change story sought to suppress debate and demonise their opponents and allowed their moral conviction about humanity’s hubris bringing about the end of the world to sprint ahead of the ‘scientific facts’.

The scandals reveal – to those who don’t read spiked and therefore did not already know this fact – that many climate-change alarmists are intolerant and censorious. Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, has attacked the sceptics who are asking entirely rational questions about some of the IPCC’s claims, accusing them of indulging in ‘skullduggery of the worst kind’. He says those who ‘deny’ climate change are the same as those who claim that ‘asbestos is as good as talcum powder’ (eh?) and he hopes these ‘climate-change deniers’ rub asbestos ‘on their faces every day’ (nice). Sceptic, kill thyself! Behaving more like a secular Vatican than a genuinely Enlightened, open-minded, inquisitive gathering of investigative scientists, the IPCC’s overlords treat dissent as something disgusting.

Of course it is a serious problem when wrong or skewed or speculative science is promoted as ‘the truth’ to the public. And what the recent climate-science scandals reveal is that such dodgy science becomes more likely the more that science is politicised and used to motor social policy and social-control initiatives. The elite flattering of scientists as oracles of wisdom whose work can help both to illuminate and possibly offset what is allegedly the worst crisis mankind has ever faced – global warming – must inevitably pollute and distort the scientific process. The knowledge that one’s scientific findings will potentially become the stuff of political intrigue and deal-making, that one’s graphs might become world-famous and generation-defining, cited by everyone from Gordon Brown (not so impressive) to Barack Obama (quite exciting), cannot help but influence the way that science is conducted and promoted.

We can see this in the spreading like wildfire of the crazy Himalayan story. Some now claim, disingenuously, that the melting glacier thing was just one little claim in the IPCC’s 3,000-page report. This slyly overlooks how that one little claim became one of the most widely cited pieces of climate-change evidence amongst both green-leaning journalists and world leaders. Why did that happen? Not because it was scientifically airtight – it was no such thing – but because it chimed perfectly with the ridiculous Biblical prophecies of a future doom brought about by mankind’s sinful behaviour that underpin green thinking today. The glacier claim suggested that millions of people in Asia would run out of water and die of thirst or spread around the world like crazy, politically destabilising ‘environmental refugees’, and it was this – the Stephen King-style, teenage story of forthcoming horrors – that made the ‘glacier science’ attractive to political leaders and green activists. The political hunger for useful science distorted scientific truth, leading to the widespread dissemination of something that was incorrect but which neatly expressed the contemporary moral disdain for mankind’s reckless, wanton behaviour.

So, yes, bad science is always problematic, and bad science looks to me like the inevitable outcome of the relentless exploitation of science for political purposes today. The various ‘Climategate’ scandals suggest that the most alarming-sounding science tends to get bigged up, and that peer review has become an increasingly politicised, back-patting exercise where science that is ‘politically right’ gets elevated over science that is ‘politically wrong’. But it is not enough to pick apart the bad science of the politics of environmentalism, and to call for the IPCC either to apologise for that bad science or to expunge it in the interests of putting its documents once more ‘beyond criticism’.

The bigger, more profound, historic problem is the elevation of science itself to such a sacred, esteemed position in politics, society and international debate. In many ways it doesn’t matter if that science is airtight or flimsy – its sanctification is deeply problematic either way.

Fundamentally, the IPCC is a scientific crutch for elites that are bereft of political vision and stunningly lacking in an inspiring or human-based morality. Science has become one of the only sources of authority for politically exhausted and morally bankrupt governments and institutions. Unable to put a convincing moral case for their actions, government and activists now simply say ‘The Science demands…’; incapable of truly representing human interests and human desires, governments and activists now claim to be acting on behalf of ‘the climate’, which must be appeased, or phantom future generations, who must be protected; uncomfortable with the future, which they see as a time of confusion and chaos and potential doom, governments and activists now look at scientific reports in the same way that scarf-wearing crazy women once looked at tea-leaves at the bottom of cups, to try to decipher all the terrible things that will happen and all the punitive things we must do right now in order to prevent such things from happening. Science is a comfort blanket for elites that have lost all their traditional sources of authority.

This is bad news for anyone who is passionate about inquiry, debate, ideas and the question of human need, desire and the Good Society. Today’s political santification of science reduces everything to pie charts and line graphs, where politics, policy and development are discussed and determined by the impact they will allegedly make on the climate rather than on the grounds of what is necessary to improve mankind’s living standards and liberties. The process is deeply censorious, too – anyone who questions ideas of ‘sustainable development’ or stands up and says ‘what people need and want right now is more important than what your invented, blackmailing “future generations” need and want’ is denounced as ‘anti-science’, a ‘denier’ of scientifically revealed truths.

The replacement of collapsed ideologies and morality with the new authority of The Science rigidifies politics and policy and severely limits the scope for debate and the expression of human interests. And this is the case even when the science is good, or correct, or solid. Even then, science is simply information, which can be useful and enlightening, of course it can – but information is not truth, and it cannot tell us what is good for humanity, how we should shape society, or what visions we should hold for the future. Those are matters of politics with all the messy stuff which that entails: the clash of competing interests, debate, arguments, fights, conflicts, thinking, imagination, and so on.

The politicians and green activists desperately calling for the IPCC to get its house in order, to get rid of the crap science and only keep the allegedly good stuff, know which side their bread is buttered. They know that the IPCC is the emperor’s last shred of clothing, providing otherwise denuded rulers and campaigners with a form of unquestionable authority for their backward, killjoy, misanthropic agendas. They are really demanding the preservation of the IPCC by any means necessary because they value the way it provides them with a God-like authority for Orwellian action at a time when serious democratic debate is noteable by its absence. And perhaps we should call for the abolition of the IPCC, not because some of its science is daft, but for precisely those same reasons.

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).)

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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