There are various reasons why people have jumped on board the climate change bandwagon. Some reasons are better than others. Some people have genuine concerns about the environment and believe that science is saying that things like Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) are in fact taking place, and we must act now. Fair enough. We all should be conscious of our obligations to planet earth, and certainly many scientists are claiming human activities are contributing to climate change.
But there are other reasons for all the hoopla about AGW. For some, this simply becomes a good platform to continue various political protests. For example, many lefties have been quite disillusioned following the collapse of Marxism. Their anti-capitalism, anti-big business and anti-economic growth agenda took a bit of a battering with the fall of the Iron Curtain. But radical environmentalism became a neat platform for these critics of the West to continue their crusade.
Indeed, it was a double boon to the radicals. They could continue their attack on the West, on growth, and on the free market, while appearing to occupy the high moral ground, in aligning themselves with concerns about the environment.
Of course some of these radicals may well have genuine concerns about the planet as well. The point is, mixed motives are unavoidable here, as in most other contentious debates. And conservative sceptics of AGW can have mixed motivations as well.
Thus many of the loudest protagonists in this debate – from both sides – can come with often less than ideal, or fully objective, motivations. But scientists too can have a real mix of motives and agendas. Just because someone wears a white lab coat does not mean one is immune from arrogance, greed, error, bias or prejudice.
In 2001 Daniel Greenberg wrote an incisive book on these themes entitled, Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. He documented just how fallible and corruptible scientists can be. (My review of this important book can be read here: billmuehlenberg.com/2004/08/22/a-review-of-science-money-and-politics-political-triumph-and-ethical-erosion-by-daniel-greenberg/ )
But another motivation can be mentioned here. As Western society becomes more and more secularised, people increasingly turn to secular religions: causes and crusades to help make up for the hole in the soul, the longing for meaning, and/or guilty consciences. Many social commentators have noted how radical environmentalism has become a new religion, complete with revered texts, fundamentalist zeal, denunciation of opponents, and blind faith.
Historian Arthur Herman recently penned an article in which he picks up on these themes. He begins by looking at the science of climate change, and examines some of the motivations behind it. His opening paragraphs nicely present the case of AGW scepticism:
“It has been a tough year for the high priests of global warming in the US. First, NASA had to correct its earlier claim that the hottest year on record in the contiguous US had been 1998, which seemed to prove that global warming was on the march. It was actually 1934. Then it turned out the world’s oceans have been growing steadily cooler, not hotter, since 2003. Meanwhile, the winter of 2007 was the coldest in the US in decades, after Al Gore warned us that we were about to see the end of winter as we know it.”
“In a May issue of Nature, evidence about falling global temperatures forced German climatologists to conclude that the transformation of our planet into a permanent sauna is taking a decade-long hiatus, at least. Then this month came former greenhouse gas alarmist David Evans’s article in The Australian, stating that since 1999 evidence has been accumulating that man-made carbon emissions can’t be the cause of global warming. By now that evidence, Evans said, has become pretty conclusive.”
“Yet believers in man-made global warming demand more and more money to combat climate change and still more drastic changes in our economic output and lifestyle. The reason is precisely that they are believers, not scientists. No amount of empirical evidence will overturn what has become not a scientific theory but a form of religion.”
Herman points to the eugenics movement of last century as a good example of mass movements complete with scientific backing, pushing radical agendas with religious zeal: “This is not the first time, of course, that superstition has paraded itself as science, or created a priesthood masquerading as the exponents of reason. At the beginning of the previous century we had the fascination with eugenics, when the Gores of the age such as E.A. Ross and Ernst Haeckel warned that modern industrial society was headed for race suicide.”
“The list of otherwise sensible people who endorsed this hokum, from Winston Churchill to Oliver Wendell Holmes, is embarrassing to read today. Then as now, money was poured into foundations, institutes, and university chairs for the study of eugenics and racial hygiene. Then as now, it was claimed that there was a scientific consensus that modern man was degenerating himself into extinction. Doubters such as German anthropologist Rudolf Virchow were dismissed as reactionaries or even as tools of the principal contaminators of racial purity, the Jews.”
“And then as now, proponents of eugenics turned to the all-powerful state to avert catastrophe. A credulous and submissive public allowed politicians to pass laws permitting forced sterilisation of the feeble-minded, racial screening for immigration quotas, minimum wage laws (which Sidney and Beatrice Webb saw as a way to force the mentally unfit out of the labor market) and other legislation which, in retrospect, set the stage for the humanitarian catastrophe to come. In fact, when the Nazis took power in 1933, they found that the Weimar Republic had passed all the euthanasia legislation they needed to eliminate Germany’s useless mouths. The next target on their racial hygiene list would be the Jews.”
Herman concludes, “Real science rests on a solid bedrock of scepticism, a scepticism not only about certain religious or cultural assumptions, for example about race, but also about itself. It constantly re-examines what it regards as evidence, and the connections it draws between cause and effect. It never rushes to judgment, as race science did in Germany in the 1930s and as the high priests of climate change are doing today.”
I have said on many occasions that we should all be concerned about the fate of this planet. But we must be willing to ask hard questions about both the science, and any proposed policies. Costs, in other words, must be considered along with any possible benefits. As Herman says, before politicians “make decisions that could trim Australia’s gross domestic product by several percentage points a year and impose heavy penalties on Australians’ lifestyle, Labour and Liberal alike need to re-examine the superstition of global warming. Otherwise, the only thing it will melt away is everyone’s civil liberty.”