It always seems to me that scepticism about the health risks of passive smoking is likely to go hand in hand with scepticism about the threat of global warming (AGW). There are after all a number of similarities. Both are concerned about trace amounts of gases in the atmosphere. Both gases are said to pose threats that are 40+ years down the line. Both threat assessments are backed by science of one sort or other. Both threats are attended by massive media campaigns. Both threats are accepted by governments. They’re structurally very similar. So the likelihood is that anyone who is sceptical about one will also be sceptical about the other. And in my own case I am indeed sceptical about both. And I generally find that people who regard passive smoking as a health risk also regard global warming as a threat. I’ve created a poll for readers (first one I’ve ever tried).
But in my own case, while passive smoking is a hot button issue about which I have very strong views, I don’t have very strong opinions about global warming. I’m just sceptical about it.
Why am I sceptical about AGW? I know exactly when my scepticism started, and that was a couple of years back, while watching a news programme. "It’s official. The debate is over," the announcer declared. "Global warming is happening. Humans are to blame." As soon as I heard those words – "The debate is over" – I became sceptical, because in science the debate is never over. Science progresses by always sceptically calling the conventional wisdom – the current consensus view – into question. When that stops happening, science becomes dogma.
In additiion, I hadn’t heard the debate – the one that was now over. It seemed to have been a debate that had largely taken place out of public view, and whose conclusions were now being drawn to their attention.
Over the subsequent two years, I’ve not seen or heard any debate about AGW either. This isn’t very surprising, given that the debate is over. All I’ve heard has been repeated assertions of the real threat of global warming, and how we must all cut down our carbon footprints, and build windmills. The only real debate about it takes place on the internet, which is where all genuine debate seems to take place these days. And as far as I can make out, AGW scepticism has been mounting on the internet.
But this evening, on the BBC’s Any Questions, the Spectator’s sceptical James Delingpole and Green pundit Jonathan Porritt were (gasp!) permitted to cross swords.
In terms of presentation, I thought that Porritt was the clear winner. He came over as measured, authoritative, and restrained. Delingpole came over as loud, pushy, and slightly abusive.
But in terms of the substantive points they made, it was the other way around. Porritt appealed to authority. He appealed to the authority of the vast majority of climate scientists, of the Royal Society, and of governments all around the world, who believed that AGW posed a real threat. Porritt expressed anger at media ‘lies’ that were being peddled (media ‘lies’ I’ve not seen or heard). He seemed genuinely concerned about mounting public dissent. He seemed to believe that most of the audience had been taken in by these lies (although it subsequently emerged that they were mostly AGW true believers).
Porritt’s entire argument was from authority: If all these scientists and all these governments believe the threat, who are you to deny it, punk?
And, indeed, who am I to disbelieve them?
But I don’t think anyone is bound to believe something just because a bunch of experts say so. If nothing else, everyone has their own common sense view on anything. They have their own personal opinions, built on their own experience. And if I ask myself whether global warming is happening, I have to say that, over my 60 year lifetime, it does actually seem like it’s warmer these days than it used to be. My childhood in the 1950s saw plenty of snow in southern England, and I’ve not seen much of it at all for the past 20 years. But it wasn’t a steady rise in temperature. Some years were a lot hotter than it is now, and some years were a lot colder. So if I ask myself whether I discern a long term trend, I have to say that no I don’t, really. I simply don’t have a personal sense of any kind of relentless climb in temperatures. So I’m not predisposed to believe in AGW.
And when it comes to authorities, I know enough about the history of science to know that what is the consensus view at one time has quite often gone completely out of fashion a few decades later. Scientists are forever changing their minds. Who is to say that the current bunch of expert scientists won’t change their minds in a few years time? And climate science is a rather new science. It’s not old and well-established like Newtonian science. And I’m not impressed by their computer simulation models, because I’ve written enough simulation models myself to know how dangerous they can be. Why the hell should I put my faith in these people?
And furthermore, AGW is now a thoroughly political issue. Jonathan Porritt has a whole set of green values (some of which I share) which amount to a political programme which is not structurally different from any other political programme (such as Communism, for example). Politicians aren’t scientists. They’ll quite happily bend the facts to fit their agenda. Climate science has become politicised. And nobody trusts politicians. Why should I unquestioningly believe in the authority of IPCC climate scientists when I don’t believe the US and UK governments or the political parties in the US and UK?
I’ve not advanced any scientific reasons for accepting or denying AGW here. I could if I wanted to. I’ve restricted myself to considering the way the whole debate (if there is any debate) is framed. It bothers me that "the debate is over". It bothers me that there’s a naked appeal to scientific authority. It bothers me that a supposedly authoritative climate science is still in its infancy. It bothers me that it seems to rely a great deal on computer simulation models. It’s in these things that my scepticism is rooted.
On Any Questions, Jonathan Porritt dismissed fears of England being covered by unsightly windmills, asking whether people would prefer to be covered by 7 metres of water as sea levels rose. But are sea levels rising? I’ve yet to hear of any port having to be rebuilt or relocated inland because of rising sea levels. In my personal experience, I’ve not noticed any rising sea levels over my lifetime. It looks just the same as it ever was.
I think I’d change my mind if it was getting palpably hotter year after year, and sea levels were visibly rising. Scepticism would vanish overnight. But it’s not happening.
Better be safe than sorry, scream the warmists. But that doesn’t wash either. For if, as some people believe, we’re facing 40 years of cooling, and we’re anyway on the brink of the beginning of the next ice age, we might well end up feeling very sorry if we took steps to counter global warming, only to be met with global cooling. Life on a colder planet will be much, much harder than life on a warmer planet. We should know that because we’re currently living in a 20,000 year long interglacial period during which pretty much everything we call human civilisation arose.
One good thing about this dispute is that it will be resolved pretty soon. Within 10 years, I’d guess. Either warming will continue, and sea levels will rise, or they won’t. One way or other the debate really will be over. So we can all just wait and see. I’ve no idea whether I’ll end up looking like a wise sceptic or a stupid one.
(P.S. Some idle thoughts of mine on past Ice Ages)