A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Why is the liberal elite European left so unsophisticated over climate change?

The culture wars between America and Europe, so well analysed by a thoughtful Ohio resident in an e-mail to Melanie Phillips [now posted on her online Diary (November 10) and very much worth the read], are in many ways encapsulated by the eternal wranglings over the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The unthinking, and rather unsophisticated, arrogance of the liberal European 'elite' over Kyoto, however, does not stand up to close philosophical scrutiny.

Weather and climate change every second, of every minute, of every day, of every week, of every year, of every decade, of every century, of every millennium, of every eon. As I stressed in my Wednesday blog (below), there is no such thing as a 'stable', or a ‘sustainable’, climate. Moreover, temperatures are never static for a second; temperatures are always either rising or falling, and at all temporal and spatial scales. Thus, to say that we are experiencing ‘global warming’ is little more than a half-truism, assuming that ‘rising’ and ‘falling’ approximately equal-out through geological time. Around 50% of the time we must be ‘warming’, at whatever interval we consider weather or climate. Therefore, as long as our scientific instruments are sufficiently sensitive to measure the ‘rising’ and the ‘falling’, ‘global warming’ and ‘global cooling’ are matters of fact, although both may take place simultaneously, if spatially-separated, a phenomenon frequently encountered, for example, in Antarctica and Greenland.

Philosophically-speaking, this is ‘global warming’ seen as an empirical entity. Yet, even at this level, in all honesty, we still don’t know whether we are today 'warming' or 'cooling' on a longer time-scale. Some temperature curves continue to hint at a slight recent 'cooling' or, at the most, a minuscule 'warming', overall from the 1930s and 1940s, as do certain corrected satellite and balloon measurements. In addition, there remain grave doubts about the reliability of our temperature measurements over the oceans, as well as on the land, because of the so-called urban ‘heat-island’ effect, while changes in the measuring instruments themselves make inter-generational temperature comparisons difficult.

But, since the late-1980s, ‘global warming’ has been turned, especially by the liberal elites of Europe (and of the Boston (Beacon Hill)-New York-Washington axis) into much more than this, having been re-constructed as a semi-empirical entity, or incomplete symbol, which cannot be easily verified or falsified. In this sense, 'global warming' has morphed into what Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) called in Critique of Judgement a matter of opinion, i.e. an “object of empirical knowledge which is at least in principle possible, but is impossible for us because the degree to which we are capable of empirical cognition is not sufficiently high.” It is thus in the same category as the example recalled by Stephan Körner (in his book, Kant, 1955), namely the assumption that other planets are inhabited by rational beings. Such semi-empirical entities are ultimately neither verifiable nor falsifiable because of the continuing technical limitations involved.

And the technical limitations of our current climate models and knowledge are, in reality, horrifying, with even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admitting openly that we know next-to-nothing about 75% of the main proxy (summary) factors implicated. We therefore cannot allow the Global Warmers’ key antinomy to persist, namely that: “Climate is the most complex coupled non-linear chaotic system known, yet we can control it by adjusting just one set of factors.”

‘Global warming’, as a semi-empirical entity, is thus an ‘empty’ phrase, fundamentally unverifiable and unfalsifiable in a strict ‘scientific’ sense, but one which can be empowered with meaning by those who have the motive to do so. Accordingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, since the early 1990s, this intrinsic linguistic ‘emptiness’ has been filled by a great Barthesian myth, especially in Europe, but by all those who feel the deep need for such a legitimizing ‘science’. The myth asserts that current ‘global warming’ is both faster and worse than at any previous time, that it is not ‘natural’, and that it has to be be caused by human hubris, and that the main culprit must be, inevitably, America the Evil Empire. Here we witness one of the clearest examples of the 'culture war' so carefully analysed by Melanie's correspondent from Ohio. The concept has been translated into a matter of faith, transcending “the theoretical use of reason.” For the good folk involved, following Kant again, ‘global warming’ has become neither a matter of knowledge nor of opinion, but wholly a matter of 'morality', nay, of religion. Paradoxically, where 'global warming' is concerned, it is the liberal European elite left that is 'evangelical' and 'fundamentalist', not much-abused Middle America. LEELs are desperate for 'global warming' to be 'true'.

Moreover, ‘global warming’ has been turned into the number one evil of the world by Sir David King and his like, terrorism notwithstanding. It is seen as the ultimate product of the Mordor of the present age, George W. Bush starring as Sauron, ‘Lord of the Rings’, with his genetically-modified orcs and spouting smokestack industries. It is the inevitable outcome of a Faustian pact with the devils of capitalism, industrial growth, and profit. It is Christ tempted down from the High Places to the ruin of the modern world. It is the ‘Shire’ of Europe pitted against all the metal, mills and miasmas of Erin Brockovitch's America. It is Harry Potter versus the Voldemort of greed and gas-guzzling.

Dangerously, we have allowed this myth-making to lead to the authoritarian, but totally impractical, Kyoto Protocol, to the foolish assumption that we can create a stable, ‘sustainable’, unchanging climate (an oxymoron of the First Class), and to the viewpoint that climate change must be ‘bad’ for everybody. Sadly, there are going to be some extremely disappointed people. The Kyoto Protocol is a scientific and economic nonsense that will cost the world dear in economic terms while doing absolutely nothing the stop an ever-changing climate. And the idea that climate change is bad for all has been thoroughly challenged in many recent publications, such as Global Warming and the American Economy (Edward Elgar Publishing), edited by the economist, Robert O. Mendelsohn, of Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

So, Europe, can we please become a little less arrogant and liberal elitist and a little more sophisticated about the concept of ‘global warming’? It may even do some of us some good! And, instead of throwing yet more money and political energy after bad by trying 'to halt' (the daftest infinitive in the Global Warmer's lexicon) the inexorable and the inevitable, let’s use that money and political will more wisely and fairly to assist lesser developed countries (LDCs) to grow stronger, more adaptive economies that will enable them to cope better with change.

Philip, totally fed up with Lady Magnesia Freelove (hat tip to Private Eye), Harold Pooter, Michael Moore Mayhem, and all their pontificating ilk. The above is adapted from an earlier piece first published in America. Coffee time!

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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