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July 01st 2013 print

Paul Collits

The Age of Global Warming is Over

The age of global warming is over. I refer, not to any warming of the planet that may or may not be occurring, but to the world’s apparently serious and broadly shared belief in dangerous, man-made global warming and of equally serious attempts to implement policies of enforced decarbonisation to deal with it.

Of course, the denouement will take time. There are too many vested interests involved for it all to simply die overnight. The architecture built by the warmists is quite grand, literally in the case of the ghastly and divisive wind farms. The architecture is both global and local. Think of all those grant recipients whose careers have been built on global warming, all those folks who work in Centres of Sustainability and the like. They won’t give up without a fight. But, in my view, their party is over.

There are many straws in the wind. Climate change is no longer flavour of the month, probably even in the coffee shops of Fitzroy and Newtown. There are far fewer conferences on climate change, or conferences at which climate change is up in lights. It just doesn’t get talked about so much, or at least not in the same way. There are more divergent voices in the public debate. Research grants don’t seem to be so heavily weighed in favour of climate-change-related research. Governments are backing away from climate initiatives, here and internationally. There are far fewer opinion polls about belief in climate change, a sure indicator of the perception by pollsters of the public mood.

It is quite respectable to be a doubter now and the doubts about consensus science are far more widespread. Voices that preached climate Armageddon are now more subdued. There is much tiptoeing away from the debate going on—even by the Economist. And by people hoping no one will notice that they are no longer talking about it. There is a growing glum acceptance, especially by a certain cast of academic, that the age of austerity is now here and climate policy will be the first thing to go. Even under a leftist government, climate change doesn’t have its own separate department any more. And the massive recent vote for the UK Independence Party is not just a sign that the Brits are fed up with Europe. They are fed up with the whole Cameron warmist policy mix. Five years ago, people like me who said, “It is only a theory,” would get looks of disbelief; now we can say much more confidently, “It is all a load of rubbish,” and not be laughed at.

The economist Anthony Downs wrote perceptively many years ago about the public issue attention cycle. He posited five stages through which most public policy issues travel: the pre-problem stage; alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm; realising the cost of significant progress; gradual decline of intense public interest; and the post-problem stage (“a prolonged limbo”). I think we are already at the post-problem stage in relation to global warming.

In other words, it was always inevitable that the age of global warming would end some time. During the dark days of the late 2000s, I thought the trigger would be the actual introduction of decarbonisation policies, which, I thought, the public would quickly come to see as either costly or futile or both. A former MP once told me he thought people in Australia would stop believing in it when the long drought broke. I think there is something in what he said.

When precisely and why did the age of global warming end? What event most heralded its demise? Historians of the future will debate this. Copenhagen 2009 will be a contender, no doubt; it will be remembered for the marvellous fellow who, dressed as a polar bear, wandered around with a megaphone calling, “Where is Phil Jones?” More importantly, Copenhagen heralded the end of the serious attempts by world governments over several decades to seal a global agreement on carbon dioxide emissions control.

Climategate will also be a contender. It showed what really goes on at universities, in research institutes, at peer-reviewed journals and among the climate industry generally, through the interconnections, preferments and patronage on the one hand, and the subterfuge on the other. A veil was removed, and suddenly the whole climate game looked a lot less respectable, despite the various limp faux inquiries exonerating the participants.

A third contender will be the almost total collapse—only recently, but a long time coming—of Europe’s carbon trading markets and the lack of willingness by the European Union to prop them up. This failure will pull the rug from under Australia’s carbon trading scheme, which was intended to operate after the period of the carbon (dioxide) tax.

A fourth contender will be the backing away by governments from serious commitments to “action on climate change”, now well under way. Governments are way behind public opinion on this aspect.

A fifth contender will be the penny dropping after seventeen years of stable global surface temperatures, with data released (very quietly) by the UK Met Office just before Christmas in 2012.

A sixth contender will be the global financial crisis, which after some years is beginning to demonstrate the extreme folly of expensive and worthless climate policy schemes. Austerity policies in response to the GFC will help spell the end of many costly climate initiatives. But climate policies have themselves helped cause the economic collapse, certainly in the northern hemisphere.

If this is when the age of global warming ended, when did it start? And why did it start? And what propelled it for so many years and decades? Wherein lay its appeal?

These questions are taken up with vigour and rigour by Rupert Darwall in his recently published and very substantial book, The Age of Global Warming: A History. Darwall is an economics and history graduate of Cambridge and finance writer who has worked in politics, policy think-tanks and in banking. He has links to the British Conservative Party and to the American Hoover Institution. I had not heard of him until a couple of months ago.

Testimonials from Nigel Lawson, James Delingpole and Vaclav Klaus suggested I would enjoy this book, and I did. It is a serious book that probes some of the important questions thrown up by the climate obsession.

Darwall’s work is by no means the first book-length account of key aspects of the period of widely-held belief in global warming. Christopher Booker of the London Daily Telegraph, an international champion of scepticism, covered some of the same ground in The Real Global Warming Disaster in 2009, and has written a largely positive review of Darwall’s work. Our own Aynsley Kellow has written eloquently of the noble-cause corruption of environmental science, in his book Science and Public Policy. Pat Michaels, Roy Spencer, Bob Carter and Ian Plimer have dealt with the science. Nigel Lawson has dealt with the economics and the politics. Steve Goreham’s Climatism is valuable, and indeed touches of some of the themes advanced by Darwall. Delingpole’s Watermelons emphasises the now widely appreciated nexus between environmentalism and anti-capitalism, with the ultimate green aim of tearing down industrial civilisation. Andrew Montford (alias Bishop Hill) dismembered the infamous hockey stick of the litigious Michael Mann. Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist makes the case powerfully for the gloom merchants to take a deep breath and have a good lie down, for all will be well due to human creativity and innovation. Austin Williams in The Enemies of Progress has filleted the whole sustainability scam. Bjorn Lomborg, a believer in man-made global warming, has written treatises on why climate mitigation policies will impoverish us and are not the way to go—even if one accepts the consensus science. The literature is indeed considerable.

But Darwall’s is the most complete account to date of the history of the climate change idea. He tells the whole story—the science, the politics, the economics, the international networking—in graphic and compelling detail. He stakes a claim to becoming the historian of global warming, or, at any rate, the first.

In some ways, it all began around 1988, the beginning of the modern age of global warming, or in Darwall’s terms, the second wave of twentieth-century environmentalism. The now infamous (and concocted) appearance of James Hansen before the US congressional committee was one of the key developments at that time. But 1988 was, in many ways, the end of the beginning.

Darwall goes much further back, to the antecedents and precursors of the modern era, to the scientific pioneers of greenhouse effect theory, Arrhenius and Callendar (who actually welcomed the carbon-dioxide-caused warming they thought they saw coming). He also goes to the philosophers of science, from Francis Bacon to Kuhn and Popper, and to the architects of the modern environmental movement, including E.F. Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful), Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring), the less well known Barbara Ward (“Madam Sustainable Development”) and the Canadian environmentalist Sir Maurice Strong.

Darwall revisits the various forms of catastrophism that have gripped the world. Having taken us all the way back to the carrying-capacity doomsayers Malthus and Jevons—with some fascinating asides related to Marx and Engels on environmentalism—he weaves in the particular poison of the Club of Rome, Paul Ehrlich and the whole “limits to growth” thinking and policy advocacy of the 1960s and 1970s. And he tells the detailed story of the political push thereafter—the first American Earth Day in 1970, the endless conferences, starting with Stockholm in 1972, the United Nations endeavours, the Brundtland Commission, the Rio Earth Summit, the Kyoto protocols, the seemingly endless COPs (Conferences of the Parties), the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the deal-making between the developed economies and the Third World, the Nobel prizes and the unedifying Al Gore phenomenon.

Darwall makes the perceptive and memorable point that “with global warming, environmentalism had found its killer app”. For my money, one of the great strengths of the book is that Darwall shows us how we got to the starting point in 1988; how, in effect, the world was manoeuvred into a position of believing.

Darwall doesn’t just catalogue the scientific antecedents and debates. He engages them in depth. In particular, his treatment of the methodological underpinnings of science, and the ways in which climate scientists get their scientific endeavours exactly wrong, is developed lucidly. Kuhn’s discussion of paradigms, scientific revolutions and the sociology of science is very important for understanding the human herd mentality that does not exclude scientists. (Terence Kealey has argued that we shouldn’t expect scientists to be anything more than flawed advocates of various positions.) And Popper’s falsification thesis—itself disputed by critics from within both philosophy and science circles—is fundamental to the question of whether what has passed for climate “science” is really anything of the sort.

Darwall is very good on the science, and on the distinction between “science” and “predictive opinion”. But the abandonment by climate scientists of the need to verify their claims is at the heart of Darwall’s belief that the science is the critically weak point of the “idea” of climate change. Darwall is firmly on the side of those who regard science as being the empirical testing of verifiable and falsifiable hypotheses. Building computable predictive models (or GCMs, general circulation models), however powerful, does not cut it. As Darwall notes, “computer models thus attained an independent reality in the minds of climate scientists”. For the real scientists quoted by Darwall, describing simulation runs as experiments upended the whole scientific enterprise. So too did the attempt to “hide the decline” and other perversions and concoctions.

Darwall suggests that “without the possibility of verification, truth becomes meaningless”. But this does not seem to matter to the true believers in an age where, as David Stove might have said, “anything goes”. Perhaps it is only in the current, postmodern age where “truth” itself has largely been abandoned as a core operating principle—in the academy and in society more broadly—that an idea as harebrained as catastrophic man-made global warming could take root and prosper.

Darwall also engages some of the other key scientific fallacies of the global warming protagonists, like Stephen Schneider’s (and others’) attempted reversal of the onus of proof in climate change debates—the so-called null hypothesis inversion—that Bob Carter has tellingly addressed.

For Darwall, climate science has turned science into a branch of “global therapeutics”. Science has, perhaps, been changed forever, and twisted out of shape, re-formed as something utilitarian and ideological, entirely removed from its original purpose of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. This is a gazillion miles from Michael Polanyi’s “republic of science” and Bridgman’s quest for truth. Grounded epistemology is out the window. Dissent, a core element of true scientific endeavour, is to be crushed.

The lineage in the twentieth century from environmentalism to sustainable development to global warming to climate change is critical to the story, and here, perhaps Darwall is at his best. He details the strategies, tactics and manoeuvres of the protagonists and the international political plays of the global warming movement’s chief proponents and their fellow travellers. The interconnections of ideas and politics, of science and public influence, of science and propaganda gravy trains, of environmentalism and the NGOs and churches, of multilateral politics and ideas about world government, are told in fascinating detail. The push by the ideologues of doom was intense, multi-layered and sophisticated.

Some have already noted Darwall’s reminder of the late Lady Thatcher’s early championing of political responses to global warming in the late 1980s. Various warmists have made capital out of Thatcher’s apparent adherence to the theory of man-made warming. But as Booker and many others have pointed out, she well and truly revised her earlier position in her book Statecraft.

For Darwall, the story of global warming is one of scientists and environmentalists storming the policy citadel. He describes two environmental “waves”—the first in the 1960s with all the predictions of finite resources and gloom and doom, and the second in the 1980s, with the great global warming scare. The linking of the two waves and the key personalities of the linking process are at the heart of the book.

Sixty-six pages of end notes attest to the book’s scholarship. This is no polemic. As Darwall says, “Global warming is a highly contentious subject and a history must be faithful both to evidence and to context.” He draws on an enormous breadth of sources. He even quotes Roger Scruton (in relation to the invention of experts backed up by the apparatus of scholarship, research and peer review), and the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby (“the Prime Minister doesn’t want the truth, he wants something he can tell Parliament”).

Darwall himself saw his task as following Nigel Lawson in “shining a light into the darkness of climate change”. We owe him a considerable debt. While many of us have known a fair bit of the story for quite some time, due in large part to the Australian heroes of the climate wars named above, Darwall still brings much that is new and revealing to the table.

One of his main contentions is that “the science is weak, the idea is strong”. For Darwall, “global warming was an idea in search of evidence”. But the idea has been extremely powerful. It has captured the whole globe in so many ways. As he stated at the book launch: 

The science is inherently weak because it is not capable of being falsified in the here and now. It is weak because it doesn’t appear to preclude several years of standstill in average global temperature, or even, for all I know, declines in average global temperature. Neither does it preclude it snowing in March—contrary to one of the most famous prophecies made by any climate scientist.

 

 Now to the idea. Or rather the ideas, because global warming is a confluence of ideas into one Big Idea. Scratch the surface of global warming, and you’ll invariably find concern about there being too many people in the world.  

This is a particularly important insight. Global warming took root in the popular imagination because some people wanted to believe in the whole sustainability thing, and needed therefore to believe in man-made climate change. I often think that global warming is not the reason climate alarmists favour renewable energy. Rather, the reverse. They believe in global warming because this is required in order to justify their bedrock belief in resource depletion and the consequent need to drive an insistence on renewable energy. (For this reason, the farcical national renewable energy target, so harmful to our economy and yet supported by both sides of politics, is central to the whole climate agenda.)

In his concluding chapter, Darwall lists some of the casualties of the age of global warming: global warming policies he describes as a “costly fiasco” (absent a global agreement, the policies are pointless); the deterioration of Western prestige; the opportunity costs in lost innovation; the hits to the reputation of science. These costs are massive.

Does Darwall agree with me that the age of global warming is over? He doesn’t really say. I would have liked a stronger finish from the book, and for it to have addressed far more systematically this question, “Is it over?” and another: How on earth did so many come to believe all this rubbish? For, while he masters the way the global game developed, there has been another game going on. Why the punters signed up in such great numbers is another story.

Many people will argue that my own conclusion—that the age of global warming is over—is wrong, or at least premature. The beliefs will go on for a time, and the pieties will continue to be recited. But this is merely the echo chamber of mutual support in its death throes. The dismantling of the infrastructure has begun, perhaps in Queensland first (in Australia) and also elsewhere, and it will continue and gather pace.

The wild ride that climatism has been these past years, so eloquently documented by Rupert Darwall, will fade. The fade-out has begun, and I think it is irreversible. One academic has called climate science a “collective learning process”. It is likely to prove the costliest learning process in human history.

Paul Collits is an Associate Professor in the Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development at the University of Southern Queensland.