In praise of scepticism

“Sow doubt.” That tactic was how the spin doctors advised the fossil fuel industry to deal with accusations about global warming. After all, that line had kept the tobacco industry profitable for decades.

Clive Hamilton highlights that scam in his latest offering, Scorcher, the Dirty Politics of Climate Change.

Hamilton’s sub-title demonstrates how successful the dirty energy lobby has been. Where they sowed doubt, Hamilton has harvested confusion.

The phrase “climate change” is the prime instance of the want of precision in controversies about the future of our planet.

Being against “climate change” makes as much sense as opposing the earth’s going around the sun. Both are facts of life, and have been so for millions of years. What is worth worrying about is whether human activities are increasing the greenhouse effect, and to what effect.

The folding of global warming into climate change violates a root of logic. Junior school children can understand that while all dogs are animals, not all animals are dogs. Why did Hamilton not maintain the distinction between warming in particular and change in general?

It seems that fashion has displaced rigour. Four weeks ago, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Monica Richter told an industry forum “there is no doubting that climate change is the new black.”

All my “doubts” about “climate change” arise from a style of arguing that turns “sceptic” into a dirty word, akin to denier.

Descartes made hyperbolic doubt the basis for inquiry. Do not rely on authorities or on common sense. Authorities such as the Bible claim that the sun goes around the earth. That text is supported by our experience of looking eastwards every morning. Both are wrong.

The “climate change” acolytes do worse than rely on authorities. Doubt anything they claim, and they intone back: “The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree with … whatever’. The realities of nature are not decided by majority opinion. Moreover, the majority of experts have been wrongedy-wrongedy-wrong.

For instance, Stephen Jay Gould recounted that, around 1960, his professors told him to attend a lecture to laugh at a Geologist visiting from Tasmania who proposed that continents drifted. Similarly, fifteen years ago, papers showing that infections caused ulcers would not have won you a Nobel Prize.

The flip-side of appeals to authority has been a resort to ad hominem. 

Late in 2004, the environmentalist David Bellamy flew in to oppose wind farms and to doubt global warming. His critics dismissed their erstwhile hero as a “one-man wind farm himself”. The ACF’s Don Henry suggested that the visit “had more to do with theatre than with substance.”

Bellamy needed lessons in humility from such masters of hyperbolic self-doubt as David Suzuki, Tim Flannery, Jared Diamond and Clive Hamilton.

Snow on the Dandenongs and the heaviest falls on Mt Bulla for seven years provide further proof of “Climate Change”, if not of global warming. Keeping that distinction in mind is a precondition for not being swindled.

A second line of defence against mumbo-jumbo is to recall that the philosopher Karl Popper promoted falsifiability as essential to the logic of scientific inquiry. He reasoned that any hypothesis which is so structured as to be incapable of refutation is pseudo-science.

The “Climate-Change” band trumpets all data about rising temperatures as evidence to buttress their hypothesis. However, not so long ago they were perplexed by inconvenient truths such as the occasional severe winter. On the face of it, such cold snaps surely count against global warming? This is where the “Extreme Event” comes in handy.

The “Climate-Change” faithful now have the power to levitate above the embarrassment of awkward evidence. To deal with exceptions, they have conceived the metaphysical category of the “Extreme Event”. This phrase does not refer to weather which has extreme consequences, such as the past 48 hours in Victoria. The significance is altogether different. The “Extreme Event” is a device for ruling out the very possibility of contrary evidence and, thus, for denying the prospect of Popperian falsification.

The “Climate Change” sophists proceed thus: the anthropogenically-enhanced greenhouse effect does more than push up average temperatures. It also increases instability. So, while a denser greenhouse mostly makes the planet hotter/drier, it will also make it colder/wetter in some places at certain times.

That Janus outcome is indeed possible. Hence, to decide whether each event is evidence for or against one or other of the current explanations for the latest changes in climate, we need to specify causes. The devastation from Hurricane Katrina was so extreme because of policies of US governments. It is pseudo-science to attribute every hurricane or blizzard to an amorphous “Climate Change”.

If all swings in the weather are worshipped as manifestations of “Climate Change”, that hypothesis is elevated above the realm of rational enquiry. Its advocates have entered the domain of theology where all outcomes - even the cruelest - are accepted as God’s working in his mysterious ways to reveal his omnipotent Goodness.

Anthropocentrics rising
Opposition to the ABC’s screening of The Great Climate Change Swindle does not grow only out of a high-minded concern to maintain scientific standards. Nor is the resistance merely a self-interested urge to sustain the flow of research funds into their computer projections. Beneath the outrage and the grant-grubbing rests a residue of anthropocentrism.

That seedbed seems passing strange. After all, the contemporary wave of environmentalists arrived 40 years ago denouncing the view that humankind had the right or the power to control the natural world. The theologically-blighted put the blame on the injunction in Genesis to subdue the earth. The philosophically ill-trained blamed Rene Descartes for presenting animals as unfeeling machines. Cultural critics trotted out industrialisation and even capitalism as highways down which hubris had danced our species towards destruction.

The ecologists pointed out that the notion of Progress had all gone horrendously wrong. The advance of technology had led to the Holocaust and to the prospect of thermo-nuclear annihilation. The poor had gotten poorer while the wealth of nature had been plundered to the point where resources such as water and air, not just oil, were running out.

This picture had turned 19th-century anthropocentrism on its head. Humankind still had the power to control nature for the worse but not enough wisdom (of the Elders?) to protect the survival of its own species. The fable of inevitable progress had been replaced by one of inevitable disaster.

This outlook laid the basis for the welcome given to the “Climate Change” hypothesis which is a particular version of how our species controls the planet for the bad. The slender consolation was that humankind is still in command.

However, the ecologists’s message was not all gloom. Humans were stuffing up Gaia, but the redemptive power remained in our grasp. We had the chance to turn away from doomsday. Thus did the third bout of anthropocentrism take command.

In sum, humans still have the power over nature that was assumed in the 19th century. We have the power to redirect the patterns in nature – climate. Our sins reveal the persistence of our power over nature. Now, we have the chance to reassert that power for the good by changing our light bulbs.

To mock faith in the conventional wisdom about “Climate Change” is thus more offensive to its true believers than Creationism is Richard Dawkins. The unstated assumption in the current catastrophic mentality is that our species remains central to what happens on this planet. So, cheer up. Our decisions still decide what happens to nature.

Confronted by the next Ice Age, will heirs to the devotees of “Climate Change” want to nuke the encroaching glaciers?

The Darwinian truth that we are the subjects of nature, as individuals and as a species, is too demeaning to contemplate. The hardest truth is that nature is indifferent to our dreams and our nightmares.