A sideways step from climate panic to Malthus
Recent statements by the Royal Society shows that it has turned from a scientific institution into a nakedly ideological one.
It has been an annus horribilis for the environmental activists and politicians who insist that the world needs to act on climate change. There was ‘Climategate’, the leak from the University of East Anglia of compromising email discussions between climate researchers; questions about the provenance of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); concerns about the competence of IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri; and the failure to find a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen.
These events have dented confidence in climate science. Claims that ‘the debate is over’ seem to have given way to an acknowledgement that doubt exists. Reflecting these developments, the Royal Society – Britain’s most prestigious scientific body – has issued a new short guide to the science of climate change that is substantially more equivocal than its previous statements. Some have welcomed this change in the character of the climate debate, but there isn’t much to celebrate because the ideas underpinning climate anxiety have not been challenged.
Not so long ago, climate change was – according to some – ‘the defining issue of our era’. On the face of it, the special domestic and supranational political and economic institutions – the IPCC, the Kyoto process, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, and so on – that followed such claims were a response to the ‘defining issue’. But to sceptics of these political ideas – if not the science – this was less about constructing ‘global solutions to global problems’ and more about the fact that global solutions need global problems. The job of establishing the basis for these political projects fell to science. But science is fickle. It turned out that the defining issue of our era was not so easy to define.
In 2005, during the peak of climate hysteria and the drive to create an international political response to climate change, the Royal Society entered the political debate forcefully and published A Guide to the Facts and Fictions About Climate Change – a report which spoke unequivocally about official climate science and those who dared to challenge it.
The guide declared: ‘There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emission. Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded.’
The science academy had attached itself to a side in the climate war. It was now not only identifying the basis on which the climate-related political institutions would be built – defining the defining issue – it was identifying the enemy of that process and engaging them in battle. But rather than cementing the foundations of these political institutions, the Royal Society had undermined them. The aggressive position it had assumed had shown that science is a corruptible institution. The claim was that the ‘deniers’ had particular motivations, and so produced bad science. But the Society’s position rested on the assumption that climate scientists were unimpeachably honest.
By the time the Society published Climate Change Controversies: A Simple Guide in 2007, it had polarised the climate debate into camps divided by simple, cartoonish categories: ‘scientists’ and ‘deniers’. One side was dispassionate, objective, and not motivated in the slightest by financial interests or political ideas; the other consisted of nothing less than scientific prostitutes peddling lies. But most of all, the Royal Society had created an expectation that science could produce unambiguous and instructive moral and political statements.
The events since winter 2009 have demonstrated that these standards and expectations were unrealistic. Science did not consist of pure, virtuous individuals, who were impartially and dispassionately informing the debate with unimpeachable evidence. Science could not provide a basis for the construction of new, climate-change-solving political institutions. Claims had been made on behalf of the scientific consensus which simply didn’t stand up to closer inspection.
The new report issued by the Royal Society at the end of last month is more circumspect than its predecessors. Gone are the claims made about ‘myths’ and financial interests contaminating scientific objectivity. It now presents ‘the science’ within three categories of certainty: ‘aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement’; ‘aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion’; and ‘aspects that are not well understood’. This restatement will say little to anybody with an existing knowledge of the issues it relates to, and so the document looks now more like a rearguard action designed to define permissible areas of debate and discussion.
In a similar move, the BBC published its new guidelines, which promise that its coverage of climate issues will be more ‘inclusive’, and ‘ensure the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected’. The hitherto unchallengeable IPCC – the body that produces the ‘scientific consensus’ – has announced in the wake of criticism that the teams constructing its next report will take ‘guidance’ on the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed literature, the way it handles uncertainty, and its error-checking.
Although rank alarmism has been deprived of some of the certainty it once seemed to enjoy, there is not much to celebrate. These changes are not the consequence of a successful challenge to climate science in an open, technical debate, but to errors in procedure exposed by the media’s appetite for scandal. Most importantly, these changes have not come about as the consequence of a public debate about the values and ideas that underpin environmentalism. So while sceptics have attempted to challenge climate politics by questioning climate science and the over-statement of its consequences, this approach leaves the political character of environmentalism unchallenged.
For instance, the introduction to the Society’s latest report reveals: ‘Changes in climate have significant implications for present lives, for future generations and for ecosystems on which humanity depends.’ This claim exists prior to anything which emerges from climate science. It stresses society’s dependence on natural processes at the expense of an understanding of our capacity creatively to respond to our circumstances. And it is from this that many of the subsequent claims made in the climate debate draw their moral authority. For instance, it makes a political priority out of finding some relationship of ‘balance’ between nature and the human world, rather than addressing the problems caused by inequality within it. And it is this scepticism in relation to our capacity to deal with present and future problems which is also the basis of neo-Malthusian ideas about overpopulation and resource-depletion.
It is no coincidence that, as it was preparing to moderate its statements on climate change, the Society has been seeking to intervene in the debate about population. In July this year, it announced that it would be ‘undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures’ (see A prejudice in search of a scientific disguise, by Brendan O’Neill).
Climate change has served as the encompassing environmental narrative. It was used to connect the human and natural worlds, and to provide a basis for many political institutions that, without a climate crisis, would simply lack legitimacy. The forcefulness with which claims about climate change were presented and their abstract nature made climate-centric politics ever less plausible. However, if players in the climate debate are beginning to sense the exhaustion of the climate issue, they are able simply to slide into the population debate.
The perspectives of environmentalism do not begin with science, but with the anti-human and unscientific premise of our dependence on the natural world. This outlook goes unchallenged because of a perception that environmentalism is a pragmatic solution to purely scientifically-defined problems, and a belief that it can be answered in purely scientific terms. This encourages a sense of passivity, a sense of ‘leave it to the experts’.
But experts are rarely interested in allowing debate. Rather than passing a sceptical eye over the wildly exaggerated claims about climate change that led to the events of the last year – or even answering its critics – the scientific academy was busy fulfilling a new political function. It provided the basis for new and powerful political institutions in the place of a public contest about the values and ideas that inform them. This gap was hidden behind ‘science’.
It will likely be the same with the debate about population. Instead of finding solutions, today’s scientists seem to thrive and find new purpose in the atmosphere of doom and catastrophe created by the environmentalists’ narrative, and seem keen to emphasise the impossibility of progress beyond natural limits.
Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog.
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