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October 01st 2008 print

John Izzard

Sunbeams from Cucumbers

There was a most ingenious architect who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof and working downwards to the foundations: which he justified to me by the like practice of those two prudent insects the bee and the spider.
                                Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (Voyage to Laputa)

Jonathan Swift would have just loved Australia’s political and scientific debate regarding “climate change”. It would have reminded him of Gulliver’s visit to The Academy, “where a man of meagre aspect … had been for eight years upon a project for extracting sun-beams out of cucumbers, which were to be put into vials, hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers”.

Gulliver went on:

He told me, he did not doubt in eight years more, he would be able to supply the Governor’s gardens with sunshine at reasonable rate; but he complained that his stock was low and intreated me to give him something as an Encouragement to Ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.

For those of us seeking guidance through the mystical corridors of “global warming”, “global cooling” or “global dimming” (neatly packaged as “climate change” to cover all three possible scenarios)—as well as shrinking ice packs, melting glaciers, rising seas, growing deserts, encroaching shorelines and shrivelling river-beds—a rereading of Jonathan Swift may be just the thing. As the morally empowered scientific and political elite encourage us to “throw off our carbon chains”, they should at least tell us what they think we should wear in their place. Cucumbers?

Swift’s satire held up the pompous peddlers of arrant nonsense and humbug (of his age) to public ridicule. Whether today’s men of science are correct in forecasting economic doom and catastrophe for planet Earth, or whether the old girl will do what she has always done and “self-correct”, most of us will never live to find out. It seems we sceptics don’t have the intellectual capacity to prove or disprove their scientific theories and predictions. But then, do they?

After all the scientific investigation since the 1990s—when “climate change” captured the imagination (and public research funding) of tens of thousands of scientists—their “proof positive” gets down to one thing, computer modelling. Unfortunately, computer modelling isn’t science—it’s computer modelling. If Swift was told that one day the world’s future would be guided by a machine, it would have reminded him of another of Gulliver’s encounters at The Academy, when he met the “Advancers of Speculative Learning”.

Gulliver was taken to a room with a huge square machine with forty iron handles, ten on each side of the machine. The shafts of each handle contained many square wooden blocks; upon each side of these blocks were pasted one word of the Laputian language. Students turned the handles and the professor in charge took note of the lines of words as they formed during the turning. They occasionally created parts of sentences but more often gibberish. Gulliver reported: “the professor showed me several volumes in a large folio already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together; and out of those rich materials to give the world a complete Body of all Arts and Sciences.

It also wouldn’t have been lost on Jonathan Swift, the inductive argument (those three cats are black therefore all cats are black) used by climate change bullies. The difficulty sceptics have in countering or at least questioning the proposition “that the rise in atmospheric carbon is caused by human activity”, therefore “an increase in global temperatures is (or will be) due to man-made carbon”, is the closed mindset in the scientific, political and media arena. Like all “true believers”, climate change evangelists are not interested in either alternative explanations or opposing theories—or for that matter, proof.

Most sceptics don’t dispute that atmospheric carbon has risen in the past century. Their beef centres mainly on whether our scientific heritage of rigorous research and standards of proof is being hijacked by a cult-like mix of scientific exhibitionism, ideological bullying and political expediency. If the explanation for the increased atmospheric carbon is clearly human activity, and the impending climate change is inevitable, why are adherents to climate change theory carrying on like religious fanatics? It would seem because they haven’t proved their case!

Swift would have recognised the religious fervour, now so much part of our climate change debate. Gulliver discovered that the Kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu had been conducting endless wars with each other over which end of a boiled egg should be opened. Both the Big-Endians (Blefuscu) and the Little-Endians (Lilliput) strenuously followed the doctrine of their prophet Lustrog who, in the 54th chapter of his Brundrecal (their Koran), stated “That all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end”.

The “blessing” that climate change theory has bestowed is the realisation that a whole raft of Earth’s ills, so nobly revealed and exposed during the past thirty or so years (by “ignored” scientists), can be now gathered under the umbrella of climate change. Scientists are no longer ignored. Deforestation, threatened species, atmospheric pollution, resources depletion, farting cows, conspicuous consumption, rainless skies and over-population are all now part of the “big picture”. And with any “big picture” what is needed is a prophet to tell us how we should crack our eggs. Enter Kevin Rudd.

To get a grasp of the task ahead for any “prophet” (and the sizeable ego required) we need to consider what a big picture is like. The Mesozoic era lasted about 185 million years and consisted of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. It was the era of early plant and animal life, leading to dinosaur domination. Its final collapse saw the extinction of over 95 per cent of the then existing marine life and perhaps 75 per cent of terrestrial life. The possible cause, or causes? Massive volcanic eruptions, an asteroid hit or rising temperatures from continent formation—all scenarios associated with a changing atmosphere or climate. The notion that mankind has managed to engineer a potential massive climatic change within 100 years takes (without proof) a gigantic leap of faith. But to imagine that mankind can “control” Earth’s climate takes more than a leap of faith. It requires dogma.

Gulliver was taken by the Lilliputians’ preoccupation with climate, and more particularly the sun. “These people are under continual disquietudes, never enjoying a minute’s peace of mind,” he said. They think “the face of the Sun will by degrees be encrusted with its own effluvia, and give no more light to the world”:

When they meet an acquaintance in the morning the first question is about the Sun’s health; how it looked at its setting and rising and what hopes they have to avoid the ‘stroak’ … they are apt to run into the same temper that boys discover, in delighting to hear terrible stories of sprites and hobgoblins, which they greedily listen to, and dare not go to bed for fear.

Jonathan Swift used the fictitious Gulliver to expose the hypocrisy he encountered in the eighteenth-century English Enlightenment, and, in his depiction of the Kingdom of Lilliput, the Court of George I. In Lilliput there were two political parties, the High-Heelers (the Tramecksan) and the Low-Heelers (the Slamecksan). While the High-Heelers were the guardians of the Constitution, the Low-Heelers were the administrators of government. The Crown Prince of Lilliput, clever little devil, wore one high-heel shoe and one low-heel shoe, so walked with a hobble.

Kevin Rudd has hobbled himself with one of the most outrageous promises since King Canute attempted to hold back the tide, or the alchemists of old promised to find the formula to turn base metal into gold. Both were risky propositions. Kevin Rudd exudes a touch of both royalty and alchemy.

As Australia is about to enter the “Ruddaceous Period” of climate change speculation, moral anguish and plans to “save our planet”, we might be wise to take a closer look at Swift’s notion of “Advancers of Speculative Learning” and examine exactly what today’s practitioners want us to believe, and what they expect us to do. What we do know is that:

  1. There has been an increase in atmospheric carbon (and other gases).
  2. We are using an unsustainable amount of coal, oil and other resources.
  3. Human activity might be causing some atmospheric carbon build-up.
  4. Atmospheric carbon might cause a rise in global temperatures.
  5. Major reduction in atmospheric carbon will require world compliance.
  6. World compliance will require curtailing Third World development.
  7. There are many scientists who are sceptical about “climate theories”.

What we don’t seem to know is:

  1. Whether “indications” of warming are carbon- or sunspot-induced;
  2. Whether carbon dioxide is actually the correct atmospheric gas to blame;
  3. Whether ice-melt in east Antarctica is higher that ice-gain in the west;
  4. Whether coral-bleaching is induced by calm seas, climate or chemicals;
  5. Whether ice-melt in the Arctic is caused by solar or volcanic activity;
  6. Whether the Murray River is the victim of “climate change” or “climate”;
  7. Whether it’s the weather 

The war of the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians over how to crack open a boiled egg has creepy similarities with our present-day climate wars—although in our instance it has become the Good Eggs (climate change disciples) verses the Bad Eggs (climate change sceptics).

The climate change disciples have seized the moral high ground, depicting all who question their faith with contempt and ridicule. The media, scientific and political celebrities (particularly on the ABC) leap into the fray with the frenzy of a religious cult. So to some degree we are dealing with two issues, a cult and dogma.

With most cults, an overarching requirement is the creation of “impending doom”. Salvation is offered by “believing in” and by “paying homage” to dogma. Acts of piety or offerings to the cult are the norm. Deviation from the group’s “pronounced truth” usually involves censure, ridicule, expulsion from the group—or much worse. A dedicated priesthood, or charismatic figure or figures usually has authority. A prophet is always handy. With followers, first an open, then closed mind, is usually essential.

Dogma tends to be a collection of things—beliefs, morals, prejudices, rewards, punishments and illogical concepts—all totally accepted by the true believers. A common thread with religious cults is that their “collective notions” are more important than “individual issues”. Rarely can you belong to a religion or cult by just “believing” in one element of their faith. But interestingly, dogma tends to be bristling with “escape clauses”, which can be of enormous help, especially to the dogmaticians.

Climate change has developed into a crusade. The faithful have accepted the climate change dogma without challenge and are now marching on the “carbonarti” with full vengeance, armour shining, lances poised. The enemy has been identified, the task ahead clearly defined. Off we go!

But little attention has been paid to exactly who climate sceptics are, and what they stand for. The first thing they seem to have in common is that they won’t be bullied by “superannuated intellects”. A second feature is their determination to question. A third characteristic might include an obsessive dislike of the mob and mob mentality. A fourth credential might be an intense aversion to being swept up in faux causes with faux solutions to faux problems.

A key weapon used by climate change crusaders is the often stated (or implied) idea that climate change sceptics are not interested in the state of the planet, don’t care about the future, are resource gluttons and have little concern for their fellow human beings. In fact, however, climate sceptics would love to see the planet not scalped of forests and trees, cities not polluted with smog, alternative sources of energy, non-flatulent cows and the monkeys with the rose-madder arse swinging freely in the trees of Madagascar—all worthy objectives. What many sceptics would say is that we should be doing these things anyway, without the omens-of-doom from an as-yet-unproved scientific theory.

Kevin Rudd’s strategy to “save the planet”, to date, has centred on two main battle plans—signing the Kyoto Protocol and establishing a “cap and trade” emissions scheme. The first sounds a bit like Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” scrap of paper, while the second follows that ancient precept of “great leaders”—if it moves, tax it.

But while Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme has the pong of a tax, it has more in common with the Indulgences organised by the Catholic Church to help pay for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Martin Luther strongly objected to this rort. Sixteenth-century Indulgences (a sort of Sin Trading Scheme) allowed the pious to commit a sin, then pay money to the church to obtain forgiveness. Of course the “sinner” (usually wealthy) would have done what any sharp operator of the times would then do—up the peasants’ rent to pay for the indulgence. Sounds awfully like an Emissions Trading Scheme.

Luther took exception to the Pope’s Indulgence Tax Commissioner, Friar Tetzel’s, comment, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. It could almost be a heading in the Ross Garnaut report.

Shrewd observers will have noticed the lack of deafening howls of protest from the nation’s banks, financial institutions and money-movers about the introduction of a carbon tax, and the commercial trading of such. Once the Taipans of China, the money-moguls of India and the cash-strapped lads of Wall Street (to say nothing of the Sheiks of Araby) get a handle on carbon trading—well, the coffers of No.1 Martin Place are going to get very, very … “carbonated”.

All this, of course, gets us back to the sunbeams and the cucumbers. While Swift’s satirical notion that sunbeams could be stored in cucumbers is a bit of a giggle, the truth that carbon is captured and stored in plant life isn’t. Trees in particular are our greatest carbon-capturer after the oceans. Trees are planet Earth’s great air-conditioners. So you would think that in any plans to revive the planet’s atmosphere, trees would be a major component of the Rudd government’s carbon reduction. Think again! Think Swift.

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