The Story of Climate Change

In August 2006, influential UK think tank the Institute of Public Policy Research published Warm Words: How are we telling the climate change story and can we tell it better, a review of the way the media discusses climate change and in particular how it handles the question of whether climate change is caused by humans. It concluded that the alarmist language typical of the ‘climate change discourse’ is counter-productive, because it implies that the situation is so bad nothing can be done about it. Amongst their recommendations for addressing this situation was the following:

To help address the chaotic nature of the climate change discourse in the UK today, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.
(Warm Words, p.8)

There’s lots that interesting about this statement, not least the IPPR’s apparent belief that their audience for ‘popular communications’ would never read the document or find it at all sinister. Yet some did and interpreted it as a straightforward incitement to deceive the public. I think the truth is more subtle. On one hand the IPPR do appear to be sincere in their believe that man-made climate change is real; on the other they tacitly acknowledge that the science is not conclusive. Effectively they know the evidence isn’t solid enough to back up their position and so they make a leap of faith. Fair enough, but they hope to deny us the information on which to make a similar decision for ourselves. They just want us to blindly follow suit. It reveals something about the IPPR’s mentality that nowhere in the document do they reflect upon the idea that it’s ok for people in the media to say one thing amongst themselves and another to the public.

We can’t know for sure how many in the media read this report and took it to heart. There’s certainly been no noticeable reduction in climate change alarmism since its publication. But while the environmental lobby have been behaving ‘as if climate change exists and is real’ for years, it seems to me that they did begin to assert this in an increasingly aggressive way in the wake of the report.

Of course, they might be right. But if the debate were to be conducted only on their terms, how would we know? Indeed, a common argument put forward by environmentalists is that climate change is just too complex and technical for the average person to understand, and as a result ‘denialists’ find it easy to bamboozle Joe Average with facts, figures and rhetoric. Science Museum Director Chris Rapley crystallised this point of view in his description of a public climate change debate:

“It was fascinating to watch how easy it was for someone who wants to make a point to drop down to a technical level, at which point 96 per cent of the people in the room are not competent to judge the merits of the technical case and so are making their decision on no more than someone’s posture, timbre of voice and whether the person looks honest or dishonest.”

In doing so he revealed a dim view of the public’s ability to rationally judge a debate. And although his point is aimed at sceptics, it would apply equally to those on his side of the climate change debate, as the practice of flinging about obscure stats and references is not confined to the sceptics. To Rapley’s credit he at least argues that the way forward is for climate scientists to improve and strengthen their arguments. But in general, the eco-lobby argues that such technical discussions only distract and confuse the public and so should be kept out of the public sphere. This amounts to a call to shut down debate; to suppress any information which doesn’t fit the ‘bigger picture’.

Anyhow, the debate does not entirely turn on technical matters; it involves philosophical and political questions about subjects like risk, the nature of scientific evidence, and the relationship of humanity with the planet we live on. And you don’t have to be a climate scientist to see that many environmental arguments rely upon ad hominem attacks and fallacious reasoning. Take the notion of ‘climate change denial’ as an example of both. As has been widely pointed out, this weasel phrase is calculated to 1) suggest psychological shortcomings on the part of the ‘denier’ and 2) draw a parallel with holocaust denial. The absurdity of which would be unwittingly articulated by one environmentally-minded writer who argued, without irony, that climate change denial and holocaust were the same, except that ‘holocaust denial denies the past, climate change denial denies the future’. Quite how it is possible to ‘deny the future’ when it hasn’t happened yet was not made clear.

Other have pointed out that the much vaunted notion of a ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change misrepresents how science works. Consensus is irrelevant in science and any claims that a subject as complex as climate change is 100% settled and understood should raise eyebrows. Even the much-cited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports are treated as sacrosanct by environmentalists, only claims to be 90% certain that humans are responsible for climate change. That leaves a not insubstantial 10% margin of doubt, which is surely worthwhile of consideration and investigation. And besides, as has been argued on Spiked Online, science can only tell us the physical facts. How we respond to those facts is a matter for politics.

So almost two years on from the publication of the IPPR report, what has been the effect of ‘behaving as if climate change exists and is real’? Well, despite repeated claims that ‘there is no debate’, environmentalists have been forced to rethink their arguments and shift their position in light of a series of revelations casting doubt upon the AGW hypothesis, not least the recent admission that global temperatures have not risen for a decade. And for a debate that never was, climate change has certainly generated a lot of passionate column inches and blog posts not to mention scientific papers, both supporting and attacking the AGW hypothesis. It also seems that the increasingly shrill tone taken by the environmental movement has prompted a number of scientists to say ‘enough is enough’ and publicly question some or all of the climate change hypothesis. One thing is certain, the number of people willing to admit scepticism has grown.

And just last Sunday, a poll published in The Observer found that ‘most Britons doubt climate change’. Whether or not you agree with all the reasons given by those polled, this can be seen as a sign of intelligent behaviour; an indication that, despite years of being fed a party line, people still have a healthy sense of scepticism and can make up their own minds on such matters. But according to the logic of the environmental movement, it just means the public have been duped.

So while one would hope this poll would prompt a rethink on the part of the media, it only seems likely to intensify calls to silence dissenters. The latest of these has come this week from NASA’s James Hansen who called for oil chiefs to be put on trial for crimes against humanity for spreading ‘misinformation’ about climate change. No doubt oil companies do engage in self-interested spin from time-to-time, but the implications of what Hansen is suggesting should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who gives a fig for freedom of speech.

Personally, I suspect the truth about climate change is somewhat more prosaic than the apocalyptic scenarios beloved of alarmists such as George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Al Gore. The environmental movement after all has a long history of exaggerating its case in the pursuit of what it sees as the greater good. Monbiot has even written in defence of ‘crying wolf’ as a tactic. Yet if the media wants to keep telling ‘the Story of Climate Change’, it would do well to remember what happened to the protagonist of that particular tale.

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