Fools, rogues, and Copenhagen

Columnists, like tourists, must resist the impulse to shout when speaking normally does not get them what they want. But, with snow piling up outside, the climate change industry jetsetting around Copenhagen, and billions of dollars at stake, it is necessary to make a few observations about the real "deniers" on this issue.

Consider an Agence France-Presse story that made its way into Wednesday's Citizen and who knows how many other newspapers around the world. It began, "If the evidence is overwhelming that man-made climate change is already upon us and set to wreak planetary havoc, why do so many people refuse to believe it? The UN's panel of climate scientists, in a landmark report, described the proof of global warming as 'unequivocal.' That was two years ago, and since then hundreds of other studies have pointed to an ever-bleaker future... Yet surveys from around world reveal deep-seated doubt among the public."

To explain this important state of affairs, the story went on to quote a philosophy professor at the University of London blaming "the individual reluctance to give up our comfortable lifestyles" and "a professor of psychology at Knox University in Illinois" that "We are told a thousand times a day, notably through advertising, that the way to a happy, successful and meaningful life is through consumption" before suggesting "a darker explanation. It is the human instinct to shut out or modify a terrifying truth: that the world as we know it is heading for a smash."

I cannot help wondering how many readers, after the crucial opening sentence, said we must get the views of a professor of psychology at Knox University in Illinois. A far more rational response would be to ask scientists: Is the evidence so "overwhelming"? Which got me wondering: Who does AFP assign to cover this vexed scientific question anyway? According to one of their websites, the author of this article has been with AFP since 1995 and "Before becoming a health, science and environment reporter in January 2007, he worked in the agency's news graphics service, as a lifestyle editor, and in a business development unit for new media." If the media have a former lifestyle editor interview a professor of psychology at a university you never heard of and pronounce ex cathedra on science, it may not be a great mystery why circulation and revenues are declining. Moreover, at the risk of spoiling the lavish Copenhagen party, including importing limousines from around Europe to pamper the simple-lifestyle elite, I venture to suggest that, in addition to doubts about details, the public is aware that science does not proclaim dogma and excommunicate heretics the way the alarmists claim it does.

Long before global warming was a gleam in Al Gore's eye, Richard Weaver criticized the use of "science says" as a high rhetorical trump card in the modern era. "Science is not," he warned, "as here it would seem to be, a single concrete entity speaking with one authoritative voice .... there are many scientists holding many different theories and employing many different methods of investigation. The whole force of the word nevertheless depends upon a bland assumption that all scientists meet periodically in synod and there decide and publish what science believes. Yet anyone with the slightest scientific training knows that this is very far from a possibility."

Many members of the public know at least that much about science. Those who've done a little homework on climate change know climate is immensely variable in ways the computer models can't explain even for known past events. They know many scientists dispute the claims of the warmers even though great gobs of government money are available only to those who endorse the panic. And now they know that statistical chicanery as well as rhetorical bludgeoning has been employed to conceal the extent of scientific uncertainty. But this truth cannot be hidden or ignored any longer.

Let me therefore praise a very revealing piece of honesty that appeared in the National Post on Saturday. Britain's High Commissioner to Canada, described as a "climate-change believer," opened a print debate with Terence Corcoran on global warming with "I will grant that climate science is in its infancy. There are so many variables, positive and negative feedback loops and cycles within cycles that only fools or rogues pretend to be sure of what is going on. Our climate models are barely predictive."

Indeed. Only rogues and fools pretend to be sure. But that's what's blaring out of Copenhagen, amplified by too many uninformed journalists.

That is why there is so much doubt among members of the public. And given the importance of the issue, scientifically and economically, it bears repeating.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson