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Back to the wall

10 Nov 2021 | OP ED Watch

If you’re fed up with conferences like COP26 and the endless drone from the IPCC, you’re not alone. And it’s not just people like us, either. Greta Thunberg seems to have had it, in more ways than one. Or take Naomi Oreskes… please. The woman who launched the 97% consensus ship of fools recently called for the abolition of the IPCC’s Working Group 1 because (wait for it) the science is settled, so why do more science? The Union of BC Indian Chiefs said the Glasgow “climate summit has been widely considered to be humanity’s ‘last chance’ for international coordination on limiting the heating of earth’s climate to fewer than 1.5 degrees Celsius and maintaining a livable planet” so we assume it’s widely considered that there’s no point doing COP27. As with the Lancet tossing in an editorial diagnosing COP26 as “Last hope for the climate”. So no more such meetings, right? Instead it’s time to put up or shut up. If the science is settled, get on with the job. If you believe there’s an emergency and know what to do, back to the office to get it done. If not, fall silent and depart. Whatever you do, don’t sit around with the engine idling… figuratively or literally. Unless the whole point is to keep coming up with excuses for travelling to big conferences.

From the department of people so far out in left field they emerge from the fog, George Monbiot in the Guardian gripes that “In some respects, preventing climate breakdown is highly complicated. But in another, it’s really simple: we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. All the bluster and grandstanding, the extravagant promises and detailed mechanisms discussed in Glasgow this week amount to nothing if this simple and obvious thing doesn’t happen.” So once again, if it does happen or if it doesn’t, why have another COP? Or study?

As for Ms. Oreskes, she is among other things a historian of science. But we think she might want to study some economics at this point, especially the confounding branch known forbiddingly as “Public Choice Theory” that explores the behaviour of governments not as if they were omniscient and benevolent but as if they were composed of politicians, bureaucrats and activists, all just as self-interested as private entrepreneurs, but responding to different incentives. It might explain why they keeping having lavish, very public meetings.

It’s not just that any agency looking to increase its budget today is well-advised to throw climate into the pitch, even if its day job is, say, national security. It’s that to stop holding COP conferences would toss this crowd off the gravy train onto some cold hard ground, and force them to confront Greta Thunberg’s challenge to put up or shut up.

We did warn that Ms. Thunberg might find youthful fame and adulation to be a ride on a tiger. And her language seems to be deteriorating as she tries to amp up the emotion rather than the analysis. But she has a point here on substance, as she did back in January when she expressed frustration with “three decades of blah, blah, blah” and “Today, we hear nations and leaders all over the world speak of an existential climate emergency. And yet instead of taking the immediate action you would in any emergency, they set up vague, hypothetical, distant targets way into the future”.

She also claimed to understand “that the world is complex” and on that one we have serious doubts that she does. Brushing aside “today’s systems” in favour of we know not what is reckless. And not incidentally. Rather, the activists have painted themselves into a corner with their “ten years to save the planet” mantra decade after decade, claiming the solutions were easy and all we needed was the political will and a calendar on a whiteboard for easy erasure and revision.

At one point Prince Charles actually tried counting off the months but it became, well, unsustainable. And the politicians have cornered themselves too, by claiming to believe in the urgent crisis, in the science and in the solutions, and then rushing in pompous circles about the matter going “blah, blah, blah” until one day they found ten years had got behind them.

Getting out of this trap is going to be awkward. People respond to incentives not just in the sense of buying fewer apples if the price rises relative to that of pomegranates, but also when it comes to self-esteem. It’s far easier to repeat a mistake than retract it, at least in the short run. But as one of us warned years ago, for “the Establishment” to put all its eggs in the climate basket risked a dramatic further rending of the social fabric if they turned out to have been as wrong as they were loud.

Unfortunately the politicians have been preening about saving the planet from the purple sky dragons and will look increasingly stupid admitting they had no idea what they were talking about. And the press has been in cahoots with them and journalists, too, are allowing vanity to cloud their vision. Thus the New York Times killed off Canada’s polar bears again just in time for COP26. I mean what are you going to do, admit you imagined the whole thing?

In a scathing review of Oreskes’ new screed Why Trust Science? Christopher Essex argues that she has long since lost sight of what science is, and is peddling something very different and very dangerous. In response to the title Essex notes: “A scientific perspective would proceed better from an auxiliary question: should we trust science? The answer to that question is completely straightforward and simple: no!” Science, he says, begins with not trusting what you have been told. The book should have been called Why Trust Not Trusting? But that approach is not what Oreskes has in view.

As Essex shudders, in her book she introduces the term “thought collectives” to describe not just what science is, but what it ought to be. “Whatever the philosophical problems in previous incarnations of science, they are solved, by this radicalism that turns science into human sociology.” Essex points out the overarching ambition of her scheme: “truth is found in the collective instead of the individual. The flaws, which were the basis of the criticisms Prof. Oreskes deployed against epistemological pictures of the past, pale in comparison to the flaws in a view that allows identity politics into the business of scientific truth.”

Of course like Michael Mann, she will presumably claim she was right until the very end, and her bankers will be happy. But what of the politicians who embraced these and the other shouters? How can they stagger back to solid ground, emaciated and ragged, from the heart of this dismal swamp while preserving our belief in their skill as navigators?

One comment on “Back to the wall”

  1. As Mark Twain stated in his autobiography, " “The glory which is built upon a lie soon becomes a most unpleasant incumbrance. … How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!

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