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July 01, 2005

The quality of the global warming debate

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - continues his series on G8 and Global Warming: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: a sceptic's account of global warming and its humbugs. Richard D. North considers the role of the Royal Society in the global warming debate.

The quality of the global warming debate
The global warming (GW) debate is desperately crude. The "true believers" on GW the main propagandists of the IPCC consensus tend to believe that anyone who argues against the merits of taking action (even small and ineffective action) is betraying both science and the planet. They seem to believe that small actions are a crucial step in the right direction whose value must be talked up, certainly not down and (one sometimes feels) not even about.

This is one of the very few cases where mainstream scientists talk very much like the Green campaigners who have been attacking their sort for years. That's to say: they emphasise to the point of exaggeration the negative impact of man's activities (even when they also have positive effects). They emphasise the open-ended horror of what may unfold. They espouse a good deal of state intervention, regardless of cost or likely effectiveness. And they blame as heartless profiteers anyone who suggests an alternative approach.

The role of the scientific establishment
The international scientific "establishment" is now firmly on-side with the basic scientific "consensus". The difficulty is that the statement of the world's national scientific academies in June 2005 was less than useful. It reaffirmed the least controversial parts of the consensus and said that "prompt", "cost-effective" action was necessary. Sure. Mr Bush can say he's diverting tax-payer dollars on exactly that principle. Mr Blair can say that the political realities are not as the scientists believe (if they think about them at all).

Oddly, in the GW debate, some of the most respectable voices in British science have so forgotten the tradition of science and political debate that they have asked the media to close their ears to the deniers, contrarians and sceptics. This would be the first debate in the modern history of free societies in which the public was thought to need defence from one side of an argument on the grounds that the men in white coats thought they were bad. Surely the Enlightenment ideal is that arguments will survive and thrive if they are proved valuable in debate, experiment and experience, and will whither if they cannot look after themselves.

For decades, the Royal Society has debated and agonised over its role as Britain's oldest and most senior science body. It has wanted, rightly, to pronounce on the major issues of the day. Its senior figures have wanted both to enlighten and enthuse the public about the thrill of science, and have wanted to prove that it is relevant.

On Genetically Modified Crops, a case analogous to GW (but with many differences), the Royal Society came down very cautiously in favour in principle of GM. This was possible partly because their pronouncement allowed that each use of GM would have to prove itself benign and useful. On nuclear power, the Royal Society has insisted that this technology is an important contender in the competition to be helpful to GW.

You might argue that someone who approves of a pro-nuclear, pro-GMO body ought to think twice before criticising it for being pro-GW "alarmism".

Yes, but I fear that the Royal Society and many other bodies are so frightened that they will be thought to condone complacency on an issue of life-and-death that in the matter of GW they have felt it right to err on the side of caution. To which I repeat: their role is robust argument, even more than it is saving the planet. And if they wanted to save the planet, they should point out how inadequate the public's response is likely to be.

In general it may be useful to say that amongst scientists who are "public intellectuals" that is, who play a wider role in cultural and political life there is often a rather surprising arrogance in style. It is as though such people, being used to knowing what it is to be right in some more or less tangible form, knowledge transfer some of those certainties and confidences into areas which are far more complicated or open-ended. I have noticed this in the remarks of people as diverse as Lewis Wolpert, Richard Dawkins, George Porter, Robert May and David King and Steve Jones.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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