The politics of global warming

When I reviewed An

Inconvenient Truth last month, I complained that "it will be far too

easy for Republicans to dismiss this film as liberal propaganda." Little

did I know. MoveOn has now got

into the act, at a webpage whose address is

– that "political" in the URL more or less gives the game away.

Climate change is a political issue, but the key task for those who would push

it as such is to prevent it from becoming a party political issue.

Science does not have a left-wing bias, and even though it’s relatively rare

for a politician like Al Gore to have a scientific background, it’s far from

unheard-of and it’s not at all confined to lefties. (Margaret Thatcher, remember,

read Chemistry at Oxford.)

Yet in the US, it would seem, things are very different, largely as a result

of the influence and importance of the religious right in politics. Since these

people know the Truth, and know where to find it, it follows that anything which

contradicts that Truth is wrong. Most glaringly, of course, this applies to

evolution: since the Bible is right, Science must be wrong. And since scientists

are unanimous that evolution is right, it therefore follows that it is entirely

possible for the entire scientific community to be wrong about something. And

once people have doubt about the ability of scientists to get something like

evolution right, then pretty much anything can be questioned: that HIV causes

Aids, that people can be born homosexual, that emissions of greenhouse gases

cause climate change.

Note that you don’t even need to be a creationist in order for the creationists’

propaganda to do its work in this respect. All you need to do is be sympathetic

enough to the creationists as to believe that there’s actually a meaningful

debate: that even if the scientists are right, they might have been

wrong. Once the possibility that basic science is wrong has been raised,

it becomes vastly more difficult to persuade anybody that science can be trusted

on anything.

Last night, I had a mildly exasperating conversation with a guy called Sam,

who had read Michael Crichton’s anti-environmentlist novel State

of Fear. "I’m a lefty, I took a course on the environment in journalism

school, and even I found the book compelling," he said. Crichton, of course,

is the novelist and Bush

buddy who has carved something of a second career out of asserting that

global warming, insofar as it exists, is not much of a problem and is not anthropogenic.

One of the arguments that Sam found most compelling was when he said that since

carbon dioxide accounts for much less than 1% of the atmosphere, it really can’t

have much of an effect.

Sam even had a novel explanation for how it is that the entire scientific community

could be wrong, while a few brave voices (like, er, Bush and Crichton) could

be right. I don’t think that he was particularly religious; in any case, it

was clear that a call to Biblical authority would hardly convince me. So instead

he pulled out his trump card: "You should really read The

Structure of Scientific Revolutions," he said. "It proves

that all scientists can be wrong."

I could almost hear Thomas Kuhn rolling in his grave.

But on a much more basic level, there was a general theme running through my

conversation with Sam: the idea that there are things that science can’t explain.

He brought up the origin of the universe, the origin of the planet, the origin

of life. He said that science couldn’t explain how light can be both a wave

and a particle at the same time; and he was most insistent on the teleological

questions: why have we evolved? For Sam, life had to have some kind

of meaning, beyond the personal or interpersonal. Science couldn’t provide that

meaning, ergo there were shortcomings to science, and non-scientists such as

he could feel pretty confident dismissing an entire scientific discipline on

the basis of reading a science-fiction thriller.

One of the problems with any attempt to explain science to a non-scientific

audience is that the audience has to trust its interlocutor to be fair in its

marshalling of the facts and the scientific literature. Andy Revkin can say,

for example, "that humans are clearly warming the earth and this will have

profound consequences later in the century" – but if you don’t trust

Revkin to accurately summarise what we know and what we don’t know, then his

years of reporting on the subject will never convince you.

There have been hundreds of attempts to summarise the climate change facts;

Al Gore’s film is only the latest. More documentaries will be made; more books

will be written; more magazine articles will appear – although they will

have to be very good indeed to be better than The Climate of Man, the

series for which Elizabeth Kolbert and the New Yorker won a well-deserved


award this year. And all of them will sit on top of the scientific literature.

If there’s a deep-seated mistrust of the whole praxis of science, then none

of these things is likely to grab the popular imagination, and politicians will

continue to be able to ignore global climate change with impunity.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. On an individual level, it can be done,

through pointing people to just some tiny bit of the primary literature. Anybody

who sees for themselves the rigour of pretty much any scientific paper will

take much less convincing that when the whole body of scientific literature

comes to exactly the same conclusion, then that conclusion must actually be


But there will always be skeptics with unfalsifiable skeptical positions. The

great thing about the "intelligent design" arguments against evolution,

or the Crichtonist arguments against anthropogenic climate change, is that they

feel no need to posit scientific (ie, falsifiable) theories of their own. If

one part of one scientific model turns out to be wrong, they use

that not as evidence that scientists are doing their job, but rather as

evidence that "every single global climate model you ever heard of is completely

useless and inaccurate". The scientists are placed in an impossible position,

where any corroborating evidence is ignored and any real or imagined problems

with the models are magnified to enormous proportions.

I feel that the only way that scientists are going to be able to sway public

opinion is going to be when the religious right stops waging its current war

on science. If religious leaders treated science with respect, then Americans

might stop looking for reasons to mistrust scientists at every available opportunity.

Unfortunately, the attacks on scientific consensus seem to be getting bolder

and stronger – which means that Americans have more reason than ever to

doubt the likes of Al Gore and his science-based arguments.

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