Let’s pick apart this politics of doom

‘Climategate’ confirms what many of us already knew: that claims of future catastrophe are political, not scientific.

Ben Pile

Topics Science & Tech

A sixth of the world’s population – the billion or so people who live downstream of Himalayan glaciers and depend on them for water – must surely be relieved. Just a few months ago, ‘consensus science’ held that these vast tracts of ice would be gone in just a few decades. The implications were stark. Water wars and climate refugees would spread out from the region, consuming society in Gaia’s revenge. If the direct effects of climate change didn’t kill you, the social chaos they unleashed would.

Now that the death of the Himalayan glaciers has been deferred by some three centuries, we can take a sober look at the situation facing people living in the region. The truth is that they have more years ahead of them to find alternatives to relying on Himalayan meltwater than have passed since the Industrial Revolution began to transform our own landscape. That should be plenty of time.

For the furore around ‘Glaciergate’, we didn’t actually need to know that Himalayan glacial retreat was exaggerated to know that the disaster story it seemingly produced was pseudo-scientific bunk. The plots of such disaster stories are written well before any evidence of looming doom emerges from ‘science’. What really underpins the climate change panic is the way in which politicians have justified their own impotence by appealing to catastophe.

This helps to explain the reaction of the political establishment to the various scandals that have beset the IPCC and leading climate scientists in recent weeks. In response to the allegations levelled at individuals and institutions in the climate establishment, the UK climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, has declared war on climate sceptics on both Channel 4 News and in the Observer. But the ironic consequence of Miliband’s intervention has been to acknowledge that disagreement exists. Miliband now recognises an enemy that only a few months ago consisted of a tiny number of ‘flat-earthers’, according to his boss, Gordon Brown. Given that sceptics are not usually engaged, just ignored, a declaration of war is a sure sign that he is on the defensive.

Ed Miliband on Channel 4 News

Miliband says, ‘I think the science and the precautionary principle, which says that there’s at the very least a huge risk if we don’t act, mean that we should be acting’. This use of the precautionary principle puts the position of climate alarmists back by a decade. The argument for action on climate change once depended on just the possibility that changes in climate could cause devastating problems for humans. Scientists had not yet produced a consensus. The political stalemate seemingly ended after the infamous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph was published in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report (TAR) in 2001. It was held to be, at last, the conclusive evidence that man indeed had altered the climate. Here was the fingerprint on the ‘smoking gun’ that pointed towards our imminent demise.

By retreating to the precautionary principle rather than simply defending the notion of scientific consensus, Miliband concedes a lot. The scientific consensus around climate change has stood as a powerful source of political authority in lieu of democratic legitimacy. In the light of events and arguments which undermine this authority, Miliband is fighting for his government’s credibility, not to save the planet.

He protests that, in spite of the new climate scandals, the ‘overwhelming majority’ of scientists nonetheless still hold with the idea that mankind has altered the climate. The recent revelations are just dents, caused by procedural oversight, in an otherwise robust case, he seems to say. But actually, this does not really get to the heart of the discussion about climate. A scientific consensus about the climate’s sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions is not equivalent to a scientific consensus about human society’s sensitivity to climate. There is a huge difference between these two ideas, yet Miliband’s argument rests on the idea that they are equivalent. And it is on this point that sceptics have not yet made much progress. While banging away at the science of climate change, they have failed to tackle the wider argument about our capacity to deal with the unexpected. What sceptics need to explain is how climate and society have become so confused.

This confusion has other ramifications, for example in the familiar claim that Miliband makes, that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. This in turn depends on the reinvention of ‘social justice’ as ‘environmental justice’, as if inequality is a natural phenomenon as inevitable as wind or rain.

But poverty is not a natural phenomenon. It is a tragic conceit to believe that by not driving our cars we will somehow make life better for those who cannot even dream of owning a car – much less having a road to drive it on. The problem is that people are poor, not that their climate is slightly different. We can see this fact demonstrated in the horrific scale of devastation in Haiti. An event of similar magnitude in a more economically developed country would not have claimed so many lives. It is not enough to say that carbon emissions cost lives, or anything like it, because the principal factors that determine the outcome of natural phenomena relate to an area’s level of development.

However, as Miliband’s words reveal, world leaders have given up on the idea of development as the means through which people can enjoy better protected and more rewarding lives. This can only have the consequence of producing and sustaining poverty, making greater numbers of people vulnerable to nature’s indifferent whims. The way in which the political class has surrendered to climate panic is a comprehensive admission of our leaders’ own impotence. Only if we take their inability to produce domestic or international development for granted can we conceive of changes in weather patterns as inevitably catastrophic.

For example, over the next three centuries, the people living beneath Himalayan glaciers might construct dams to collect the rain or snow that falls there, but which does not remain as ice. It is not inconceivable that Asians might also provide a greater proportion of their water needs through desalination plants. The world has been reorganised around the tenets of environmentalism precisely because the notion of using development to provide protection from natural disaster is now deemed to be impossible.

World leaders have projected their catastrophic sense of impotence on to the world. Just to make sure that politics cannot intervene, they have brought forward the date of the ecopalypse, to render any alternative and any debate impossible. It can’t happen soon enough for them. A failure of imagination has been passed off as the conclusion of ‘climate science’ and as the opinion of ‘the overwhelming majority of scientists’, but as we can see, the premise of impotence and catastrophe is a presupposition that is political in its character and not a conclusion produced by science.

In turn, if the notion of catastrophic climate change is reduced to a mere article of (bad) faith, the institutions of climate politics – all of which have been constructed on the premise of catastrophe/impotence – cease to have a legitimate basis. The IPCC, the Stern Review, the Kyoto treaty, Copenhagen, the Climate Change Committee and the legislation and reorganisation of public life that have followed in their wake have not been created to save the planet from climate catastrophe, but to save politicians from the collapse of their own authority. That is what Miliband’s war is about.

The scandal is not really in the fraud, exaggeration, or deceit – if that is what they were – committed by particular researchers, or the failure of the IPCC process to identify that certain claims were false. The scandal is that politicians seek moral authority in crisis. It was not ‘science’ that produced stories of imminent catastrophe; it was the bleak doom-laden politics of this era. Scientists merely extrapolated from this scenario, into the future, taking the logic of the political premises to their conclusion. The politics exists prior to the science. In reply, sceptics, with a more positive vision, ought to demonstrate the gap that exists between the science and the story, and how it might end differently if we start from more positive ground.

If Miliband wants a war, he can have one. But the battle lines should recognise that the politics of catastrophe is prior to the science of catastophe, and that another outlook that emphasises our ability to control events is possible. Environmental problems will always occur, but it is how they are understood that counts. We cannot understand ‘what science says’ until we understand what it has been told, and what it has really been asked. Science has been put to use to turn the billion people living beneath Himalayan glaciers into political capital by the IPCC to prop up the likes of Ed Miliband. It is only now that he has been deprived of the authority that those billion lives – or deaths – gave him, that he wants a war.

Today’s politicians need catastrophes because they have no other way of creating authority for themselves. But the catastrophe is in politics, not in the atmosphere.

Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog, and a philosophy and politics student at York University.

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Topics Science & Tech


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