The Climate Wars - and the damage to science
Matt Ridley (picture: John Watson)
At the heart of the debate about climate change is a simple scientific question: can a doubling of the concentration of a normally harmless, indeed moderately beneficial, gas, from 0.03% of the atmosphere to 0.06% of the atmosphere over the course of a century change the global climate sufficiently to require drastic and painful political action today? In the end, that's what this is all about. Most scientists close enough to the topic say: possibly. Some say: definitely. Some say: highly unlikely. The 'consensus' answer is that the warming could be anything from mildly beneficial to dangerously harmful: that's what the IPCC means when it quotes a range of plausible outcomes from 1.5 to 4 degrees of warming.
On the basis of this unsettled scientific question, politicians and most of the pressure groups that surround them are furiously insistent that any answer to the question other than 'definitely' is vile heresy motivated by self-interest, and is so disgraceful as to require stamping out, prosecution as a crime against humanity, investigation under laws designed to catch racketeering by organized crime syndicates, or possibly the suspension of democracy. For yes, that is what has been repeatedly proposed by respected and senior figures in the climate debate...
Meanwhile it is now commonplace to hear scientists and commentators express disillusion with democracy as a forum for resolving this issue. One scientist muses that forms of 'good' authoritarianism 'may become not only justifiable, but essential for the survival of humanity in anything approaching a civilised form', while a leading newspaper columnist wrote, of China's climate policy: 'one-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages'.
To me, given that most environmental scares never turn out as bad as first feared, given that climate change has proceeded much more slowly and mildly than expected since 1990, and given that there is now a vast vested industry in alarm, thanks to munificent public funding, this feels like an over-reaction. That is to say, although I am in the 'possibly' camp, above, I cannot understand why so many people who should know better - in science academies, in parliaments and in international agencies - tolerate this vicious intolerance of a different position, let alone join in with it. Nor can I understand how so many politicians and scientists have grown more confident, not less, that future global warming will be catastrophically dangerous, even as estimates of climate sensitivity have come down and as real-world warming has consistently underperformed models, with the discrepancy growing larger every year.
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