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August 09th 2012 print

Steven Kates

The Climate of Opinion

Robert Manne knows no more about climate science than I do.

Robert Manne knows no more about climate science than I do. It’s been an issue since the 1970s and I have been following it with the kind of interest anyone following political issues is apt to take. And the more it rose to become one of the centrepieces of the left, the more I kept a watchful eye on how it would develop. Manne has now written an article in The Monthly for August, “A Dark Victory” with its subtitle the actual main point, “How Vested Interests Defeated Climate Science”.

The gist of what he wrote is that here is this scientific theory that is so well attested to by every reputable authority across the globe that if the human race had any sense at all it would be rushing in every direction to save itself from the impending threats created by greenhouse gases. And up until a few years ago the threats had been so well recognised that actual steps were being taken to rescue ourselves from this disastrous outcome but then, just as reason was about to prevail, those with power, money and influence on the right side of the political spectrum came along and changed the climate of opinion so that now we are far less likely to take the necessary steps we were about to take only a handful of years before. We will, in time, be cursed by our descendants (p29) for not having taken the appropriate measures while there was still time. Instead we are potentially heading for the fate predicted by NASA’s James Hansen where, as described by Manne, “inevitably all the polar ice on Earth will melt, raising the level of the oceans by 75 metres and turning the planet into an alien, barren and unrecognisable place.” (p22)

The issue raised by Manne is not, however, whether global warming a genuine problem. That is done and settled. The question he wishes to raise is how the tide was turned so that the climate action that seemed so inevitable has now receded to the point where it is clear nothing at all is going to be done by anyone. And it turns out that it is a combination of right wing think tanks using near on unlimited amounts of money from conservative sources to sow doubt by raising scepticism as a legitimate point of view. It is the disgraceful manufacturing of doubt (p24) in a political environment where according to Manne:

a rational citizen has little alternative but to accept the consensual core position of climate scientists. Discussion of the point should long ago have ended. That it has not is the most persuasive possible example of the feebleness of reason, the futility of argument and the failure of politics. (p23)

All very well, but unless you are going to shut down political debate, end all argument and allow whatever temporary consensus that may exist at some moment in time to persist for ever without possibility of change, this is how it must be. Because when all is said and done, the answers given by climate scientists are nothing more than the commencement of a series of political questions. Whatever communal decisions we make must be filtered through the political process. And therefore we all get to participate in the debate, whether we are, to use Manne’s own classification, sceptics, contrarians or denialists, the three forms of unreason he lists.

But what really had me take notice was this:

Ageing conservative white males are many times more likely than any other segment of the population to be denialists. (p28)

Being myself an ageing conservative white male[1] I found myself, and not for the first time, dwelling on my refusal to have at any time accepted the arguments of the global warming crowd. I have followed the debates and read the literature and listened to the scientists and have come out of it unconvinced. It turns out that I am part of that one band, that single stratum that has resisted all such arguments. It naturally warmed me to my fellow ageing conservative white male cohort but you do have to wonder why we have been singled out in this way either for our blindness to reality or for our ability to see through a sham and a con.

Now I must accept that I have been white and male all my life, but I have not always been aged and, along with many others of the post-war generation I belong to, have not always been conservative. But to have lived through the 1960s did provide an opportunity to reflect on many a scam in the name of science that has left me, and possibly many others, with a jaundiced eye of sorts when I hear fantastic claims about science and what it has shown. Those younger than us have, unfortunately for them, never had the opportunity of being subjected to the kinds of nonsense that we, when young, were surrounded by on all sides. I won’t get the order right, but allow me to go through some of the major stages along the way towards a sceptical outlook that I value as part of my own lessons in life. Whether with global warming this well developed scepticism to the fantastic and implausible is letting me down and making it impossible to see reality as it is seen by Robert Manne and others of his tribe is just how it is. We are what we are, just as he is what he is. We can be no other.

Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb

There is, firstly, Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb (1968). This, his most famous book, starts with his most famous statement.

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Needless to say, none of this happened nor have his “scientific” credentials been tarnished a whit. He has apparently just this year in 2012 been made Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Right, wrong? Who cares? On he goes with nary a pause. Good luck to him but for me it was one of those lessons in science in that the word of a “scientist” is not gospel and the more fad-like those beliefs are, the more resistant you should become. Mass acceptance of the implausible is a sign not so much that a theory is valid but that it fills some psychological need in those who take it up.

The Club of Rome

Related to Ehrlich and population had been the debate over oil depletion along with our other natural resources. This has been a perennial going back to William Stanley Jevons in the nineteenth century who had argued that the world would soon run out of coal. Oil is now the resource that is most frequently cited as the likely candidate for exhaustion but so far, if anything, these hydrocarbon sources keep expanding. It is a staple of economic theory that there will always be no more than around twenty years of proven supply available since once there are twenty years’ worth around, it is pointless to find any more since any new deposit would not be needed for at least another 21 years.

The centre for this argument was provided by what is called “The Club of Rome”. This is from the “Club of Rome” Wikipedia entry:

It consists of current and former Heads of State, UN bureaucrats, high-level politicians and government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists, and business leaders from around the globe. . . . 

The Club of Rome raised considerable public attention with its report Limits to Growth, which has sold 12 million copies in more than 30 translations, making it the best-selling environmental book in world history. Published in 1972 and presented for the first time at the International Students’ Committee (ISC) annual Management Symposium in St. Gallen, Switzerland, it predicted that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of the limited availability of natural resources, particularly oil

I have kept my watching brief on this as well which has been a constant thrum ever since its founding in the 1960s. And in all of these forty years, economic growth has never yet been hindered by resource depletion at any time in any place. All that this has done is add to my resistance of theories of catastrophe which grows more resistant every year that none of these scare stories turns out to have been even remotely true.

Global Cooling

Nor should I neglect the global cooling argument of the 1970s. The planet was cooling and we were heading into an ice age. Here is the first paragraph from a report in Newsweek published on April 28, 1975. The report was titled “The Cooling World”.

There are ominous signs that the Earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production – with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only 10 years from now. The regions destined to feel its impact are the great wheat-producing lands of Canada and the U.S.S.R. in the North, along with a number of marginally self-sufficient tropical areas – parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indochina and Indonesia – where the growing season is dependent upon the rains brought by the monsoon. (Source: http://denisdutton.com/cooling_world.htm)

The same thing as now, only with the reverse direction in temperatures. It didn’t last long since average temperatures have since the mid-1970s begun to rise instead of fall. But if you were not told that this passage was about falling temperatures, you might have thought it was from the latest IPCC Report.

Y2K

But then possibly the most instructive example of them all was the threat of Y2K. Just a joke today but taken seriously at the time was the concern pushed by every computer scientist in the world, that with the turning of the century from 1999 into 2000, computer clocks would all mistake the actual date for 1900. The story went that when computers were first being engineered, the amount of disc space was so restricted that only two digits were used for the year. Therefore as the date ticked over from 99 to 00, rather than going forward in time, many computers would fall back into the past. The error would then lead to major discord in computer run technologies.

Who knows how many millions were then spent on trying to rectify this problem and who knows how much money was made by all those computer scientists in fixing computer programs. I knew of no computer scientist who was in any way sceptical. A genuine problem we were told. And on New Years eve 2000 there was not a plane flying anywhere in the world. Since no one could be certain, and since it only involved in the first instance a few hours of downtime, it was not all that costly to avoid the risk. However, by that same afternoon, everyone was flying again and since then not a word, and no apology either. This is the closest cousin to global warming in that the collective expertise of the world assured us there was a problem to fix and that it would cost heaps of money to do. So heaps of money was spent and here we are with nothing to show for it other than a number of computer scientists living in somewhat larger houses than they might otherwise have done.

So Why Would I Not be Sceptical?

So this is the kind of background we ageing conservative white males bring to the global warming debate. In my view, the world is a better place because of this scepticism. We probe and mistrust all of those gung ho science types who think that their creaky shifting models are all that’s needed for the rest of us to fall into line with their recommendations. We have heard it all before. We are not buying this on the say so of a bunch of climate scientists who are no more informed about the future than computer scientists were in 1999 or the Club of Rome in the 1970s or Paul Ehrlich in the 1960s. You have models and you have your beliefs. Fine, but let’s really test them, make sure they stand up under the pressures that they need to withstand if we are going to take the kinds of drastic actions you seem to recommend.

Because it is also the case that what I, as an ageing conservative white male, understand more than anything else is that if you give these people power to deal with this confected emergency they will never willingly give it back. They will want to run your life for the good of the planet as they seek out and find even more reasons to add to their power and ask for ever more money to find the cure. They argue that the risks are infinitely high and therefore the only answer is to pay an almost infinitely high price to forestall this potential climate catastrophe.

Robert Manne may well see in James Hansen a reborn St Francis of Assisi but all I see is another Uri Geller. He may see climate scientists as the most noble and selfless conclave since the Knights of the Roundtable but what I see are a bunch of rent seekers looking for the next government grant.

As an ageing conservative white male my hope is to pass on to the next generation a world of rising prosperity and greater personal freedom. It is not a small matter that to follow the Robert Mannes of the world would mean that we would leave behind a world far less prosperous and far less free than it is today. Manne treats these as if they are trivial matters, that given the speculations of these climate scientists, thinking about the effects on our standard of living or on personal freedom should be mere dust on the balance, given virtually no weight at all.

Well I have news for him and the rest. We are not going to give up our way of life, our personal freedoms and our prosperity on the say so of those who seem to care nothing at all for these considerations or even seem to be unaware that they are an integral and important part of this debate. These are considerations that constitute the conservative element found in that ageing conservative white male classification. Tell me just which freedoms I should put at risk and how much the future wealth of the world ought to be diminished to pander to these climate change fantasists. Manne and the rest of the global warming crowd will have to be a lot more convincing than they have so far been before I sign on to a program that will put at risk a very great deal that I care about in the social order we have taken many centuries to create and to do so in exchange for no obvious benefit of any kind that I so far have been able to see.

Dr Steven Kates is an economist teaching at RMIT University in Melbourne. His most recent book is Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader which was published by Edward Elgar in 2011.

 


[1] This seems to me, to use the vernacular of the left, ageist, racist and sexist. It is also conservativist which is a form of discrimination never discussed. It is discrimination against persons of a conservative disposition. It is never discussed because it is a form of discrimination fully supported by the left.