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You’d be mad to support climate change science (so count me in)

March 18, 2010

In a recent forum debate, a poster suggested I wouldn’t look at science that didn’t agree with my position – that I displayed confirmation bias. I have a standard response to this, which is that I’ll look at anything that isn’t junk science. If it’s credible science, why would I not study it?

The poster who challenged me did so on the basis of how he sees things. To him, this is a debate to win, and because he thinks that’s what I’m here to do, that I have an agenda, it seems obvious to him I’m going to select only that science which supports it (and I have to add that in all likelihood, that’s what he’s doing). This assumption is made because the denialists do have an agenda, and it is largely political. They attack the science, because for them, climate change science is a proxy for socialism, or a token of some movement towards a ‘world government’ that is essentially socialist in nature.

They oppose this, and because the basis for climate change is scientific, they end up attacking the science because they take it as a tool of ideologues. In making this unfortunate conflation, they also project the same motives and concerns on people like me, because if their agenda is to oppose the left, in their eyes I must be another lefty ideologue opposing the right, supporting climate change as a means to my own ideological ends. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my case. 

Thinking about this, I realised there was something strange going on. I don’t have an agenda, so I cannot ‘win’ an argument. I am a messenger for science, and as best I can I try to correct errors when they appear in discussion threads. But as for aim and intent, I don’t have a favoured outcome. Well, actually – I do, but it is the opposite of what one might expect. I want anthropogenic climate change to bugger off. There is nothing on this earth would please me more than for somebody to prove conclusively that we are not responsible for climate change in any way shape or form. Trouble is, nobody can.

My generation were brought up with a sense of duty. Not much of one, but enough to accept the notion of deferred gratification. I – we – worked hard, saved up, did without; we believed we could have our cake, but only after we’d paid for it. Now I’ve paid in full, it turns out the cake is bad for me.

Actually, that isn’t right either. It’s not that the cake will be bad for me. It’s that the cake will be bad for some other bugger, and in the future. If I ignore climate change and carry on as usual, how much difference will it make – to me. Will I personally make climate change substantially worse if I fly to those exotic places I was waiting all my life to visit? I don’t think so. When climate change really kicks in, will my house be any more expensive to heat if I get a BMW and give it a kicking (I love driving)? Things are going to get bad in all likelihood, and I’m not going to alter it much, one way or another. Just a victim of my time.

So there it is: I’m basically fighting for something that stitches me up, will make everything more expensive, will cause great disruption to me personally, lower my standard of living and restrict my choices. I’m fighting for this? What the fuck am I doing? What on earth could compel me to support such a personally regressive agenda – at least when measured in conventional terms.

The answer, to misquote Big Bill, is this: it’s the science, stupid. That’s how compelling I find it, and that’s the measure of it’s quality – assuming I can tell the difference, of course. Fact is, I find the scientific evidence to be so ruthlessly and irritatingly compelling, I end up supporting measures I hate. And all the time I’ve been writing this, I’ve been trying to avoid asking the hard question: why have I adopted a position so detrimental to my life? I’d love to tell you it was because I’m so bloody nice I’m worried about future generations, but actually they can look after themselves, and will. I’d like to say it’s a moral choice, the right thing to do, and get all sanctimonious about it. But the truth is this: I just can’t lie to myself. There is logic in supporting climate change mitigation, because I am otherwise required to ignore it, dismiss it, and probably oppose it, and by doing so I commit a terrible crime against myself: self-deceit.

I cannot be selfish about this. People have shitty lives so I can go shopping and endure joyful confusion because there is so much choice. The idea that their lives will get even worse is simply not acceptable to me. So yes, I am making a sacrifice, but I do it so I can look myself in the mirror and not be secretly disgusted at what I see. That disgust, that turning away, is so corrosive it eats at us all our lives, making us unhappy at a very deep level. I have to be responsible for myself, knowing I can’t be responsible for anyone else. Turns out, this is about duty after all. My duty to myself.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon Willace permalink
    March 18, 2010 8:44 pm

    A very moving piece, I have circulated it. You have saved me a great deal of time, putting into words what I have struggled with for ages, why on earth do I do this?, the article can even be included in a Christmas stockings for my family who think I’m a weirdo for obsessing over this one issue.
    I relate, I can see their point of view, but cannot expect them to follow my every word as they have the day to day distractions to negotiate while I ponder the inevitable outcomes of our present day and past actions.
    My efforts lead me towards trying to change normal human behavior, communicating science plays its part but critical analysis of economics and political sciences play a part in my research as I search for an alternative path suited to the motivations of human kind that may become catalysts for change.
    You think its hard convincing others that AGW is credible but just try recognizing that this suggested link undermines all their faith in present day beliefs from bible to the true believers of consumerism and the globalization of the industrial dream, then sit back and come up with an emergency contingency plan.
    Head in the sand attitudes works against business as usual because it ignores the building AGW arguments and the pressure to change will kick the big black and white flightless bird right up the arse hole. Unfortunately this idiot bird is quick on its feet that also have large claws to lash out with, should it be disturbed so be careful.
    Reality sets in when people finally realize that the consumer economy cannot continue to enable 4 billion people to survive under business as usual regime while using finite raw materials without alternatives so changes are inevitable. All while the impacts of AGW converge in the same space of time to threaten any survivors.
    I see a bleak future, but I could ignore it, instead I’m looking at the world with a view to enjoy it and observe its decline from different vantage points as I use my last years to visit those exotic places and write about my observations.
    I know what must be done, but can I do anything more than to point out what will be obvious to those who read GP, so it is better for me to echo GP at this stage, he is doing a fine job in educating and by the time he is ready to do something more substantial we might all be ready for the next task.
    In times of disaster the time for preparation has past.

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    March 19, 2010 8:54 am

    Interesting comment, Simon, and thanks for it. I think it’s a balancing act we’re engaged with here. Reading about the 1930s in Britain, I am struck by how similar our situation is now. Back then, Churchill and a few others saw very clearly – and accurately – what was coming. The establishment and the public were having none of it. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a concerted campaign against Jews, describing them as economic migrants inventing stories about their persecution. It’s owner, Lord Rothermere, actually sent a letter in the summer of 1939, congratulating Hitler after his annexation of Czechoslovakia.

    What changed the public’s attitude? The constant reports of military activity, the re-armming of Germany, the growing internal persecution of Jews, the annexation of Czechoslovakia. But the most potent factors were of course the invasion of neighbouring countries. Even after we declared war, not much happened (the ‘phony war’) but there was no need to convince the public after the bombs started falling in May 1940.

    So it’s a matter of time and evidence. Climate change, peak oil and gas, resource depletion – all these are as yet putative threats, and we’re not responsing in any meaningful way because as yet, the business as usual lobby is managing to conceal the evidence, spin it out of sight or simply deny it. The recent revelation that the IEA has been fudging it’s oil reserve figures for years is a good example of this. So we wait, and if we’re right, things will progressively get worse. At some point, everyone will wake up to what is happening. Let’s hope the wake-up call doesn’t come too late to address the problems without the enormous cost and upheaval that will otherwise be inevitable.

  3. Patrick Adams permalink
    March 23, 2010 1:40 am

    Climate science has taken a kicking lately. Scare fatigue? If scientists warn that there is a 25% chance that some new virus will cause widespread death and mayhem, and nothing happens, this is perceived as crying wolf again. Science is by its nature a humble discipline, because it is only ever as good as the likely statistical outcome. The media are quick to sensationalise warnings, and the public often fail to notice the staistical probability bit. Science appears confusing and contradictory.

    On the other hand, faith in science is absolute. Medical science, agricultural science, rocket science etc have performed wonders. If the world runs out of energy, science will come to the rescue. If we need a new form of transport, ditto. This faith in the ultimate ability of science to solve all our problems abounds. I am sure that while many doubt what climate scientists are saying, they also believe science will rescue us with some new trick up its sleeve.

    Science is the new religion. Where it supports us we worship it. It is wondrous and mystical, central to our culture. We know how to use a TV, a PC and a mobile, but most have no idea how these gadgets actually work. But when science gives us bad news, it is heresy.

    I like your 1930s analogy. Trouble is, climate change is not perceived as an immediate threat, and humans dont react to long term problems. Animal instincts of fear, flight, fight only deal with the here and now, and, for the vast majority, the altruistic conscience you display doesnt register. But, who knows what black swans are round the corner. A hot dry summer combined with record high oil prices could change things dramaticaly. And thats only a good probability!

    Public opinion is very fickle indeed. An unforeseen event will render our opinions obsolete instantly. If climate science has a poor reputation, so does politics, banking and business. I wonder who will be in the spotlight next?

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    March 23, 2010 7:58 am

    “If climate science has a poor reputation, so does politics, banking and business”.

    Good post Patrick. I thought this was a particularly telling remark, and you left off religion. All in all, pretty much every institution has a bad name now, which leads one to wonder just what it is we’re trying to achieve as a species.

    You might be interested in the essays at http://www.gpwayne.com, because each of the analytical studies is a deconstruction of one specific institution – I discuss advertising, the war between religion and science, the acquisition of knowledge, and perhaps most contentiously, I ascribe the corruption of everything we do to our overpowering desire for profit, material, spiritual, actual. Have a look if you have time.

  5. Patrick Adams permalink
    March 24, 2010 1:16 am

    Thanks Graham. Your essays are spot on (I did actually have a look a few weeks ago). Particularly relevant is the slavery of debt, which drives the consumer machine. I notice your recurrent theme, of society versus the individual. May I suggest that you consider another tier – the community, or tribe.

    Years ago I read Desmond Morris – The Human Zoo, and The Football Tribe. As a former ecologist myself, I found them very relevant to human nature. Humans are evolved to work in small groups together as teams. Not everyone wants to be part of a larger society, nor do they just want to do their own thing by themselves. We work best in small communities, where everyone knows the other members, towards common aims.
    Thats how smart companies organise themselves, as does the military, and why team games were so valued at public schools, and also why football is so popular.

    My version of Utopia would be where society was organised around that principle. Communities are not just the tribal village, but exist in many ways and on many levels and overlap. The key is they must consist of units small enough for the individual to have an personal role. Decentralisation of political and economic power, with wider society co-ordinating, not dominating, is essential.

    Community renewable energy projects, allotments, urban farms, community shops etc usually work well and act as an incentive for others to follow.

    When the crunch comes – no oil, no money, no food – which will probably happen at the same time as climate change undermines the great car/McDonalds economy (although how and when this will happen is subject to so many variables!) we will all need to revert to basic tribal instincts to survive. The sooner we prepare the more of us will.

    Patrick

  6. gpwayne permalink*
    March 24, 2010 7:55 am

    That’s a really good suggestion – I haven’t paid any attention to organisation on the ‘tribal’ level, yet I remain fascinated by great ape studies (Jane Goodall’s work, for instance). I must pay some attention to this and update the text.

  7. Jack Savage permalink
    March 29, 2010 1:28 pm

    “I ascribe the corruption of everything we do to our overpowering desire for profit, material, spiritual, actual.”

    So, no political agenda there then.

    Busted,mate.

  8. gpwayne permalink*
    March 29, 2010 1:41 pm

    Well Jack, if you think that’s political, perhaps you could describe what political system it belongs to, or what political framework you think encompasses the relentless desire for profit?

    In fact, the observation is moral, not political.

  9. Jack Savage permalink
    March 29, 2010 2:58 pm

    The capitalist car crash?

  10. gpwayne permalink*
    March 29, 2010 3:56 pm

    That isn’t a political system, Jack. I assume from your lack of a cogent answer that you cannot defend your assertion and your claim to have ‘busted’ anything are rather premature.

  11. Jack Savage permalink
    March 29, 2010 9:59 pm

    Your political orientation seems to be utopianism. Good luck with that.
    Look, I do not mind you having a political agenda. I applaud it. Everyone should have one.Just do not try and deny it. This “I am just a humble scientist” does not wash after a reading of your website.
    You have an utter obsession with the “denialists”. Fine.
    But why waste your time with people you utterly despise and whom are convinced are wrong? It is like starting a website devoted to saying the BNP are not very nice.
    You protest too much.
    When you bring your knowledge of the science to the debate it is really useful. Really. It informs the debate.
    (Apart from the climb any cliff fiasco…)

  12. gpwayne permalink*
    March 30, 2010 5:39 am

    Yeah – I bolloxed up the cliff one, didn’t I 🙂 (For puzzled visitors, Jack is referring to a Guardian climate change thread where I was rather less than accurate on some science, but my embarrassment was saved by the posts being deleted anyway, and good job too).

    And good call on the politics, since the nearest I could get would indeed be utopianism – which I described in my first book as ‘the best idea we’ve ever had’ (www.gpwayne.com). Realistically, I suppose I’m closest to political theories of anarchy, for which I have a personal definition – the ultimate responsibility of the individual. And because I am a party of one, I don’t really think I have any political position, other than to say it is up to each individual to work out what is right for them, and how they fit their own position into the society to which we all belong – although this is splitting hairs a bit.

    However, we are at cross-purposes if you think I’m trying to hide my political affiliations. That isn’t what I said in the main post: what I said, and maintain, is that my work on climate change is neither informed by, nor orientated towards, a political agenda. I am not motivated to use climate change as a vehicle for some greater political change, as many seem to be on both sides of the argument. If you were to be so utterly bored as to spend time looking at the body of my work, you will find I am an advocate for as much of the status quo as possible. I do believe that consumerism is the bane of the modern world, but that is essentially a spiritual argument, as unfashionable as that is – the issue to me is of values, and the damage that consumerism at any price is wreaking on us all.

    And I have never claimed to be any kind of scientist, because I’m not. I’m just another punter like you, which is why I took issue with you in the Guardian when you said all you had to go on was the MSM. The science is hard sometimes, but not incomprehensible. I also refuse to be held hostage by science, so I make the effort, and think we all should, or we end up as so many have done, thinking science is something we are victims of because we don’t understand it and are therefore vulnerable.

    I do not have an ‘utter obsession’ with denialists, and I certainly don’t despise them. I do despise the methods of some, those who believe the means justifies the ends. Their mendacity is shocking, hypocritical and unpleasant, but it is a measure of their desperation, not some character flaw. If anything, I feel sympathy for people so driven by anxiety, and for whom moderation and facts are subservient to their desire to ‘win’ something. This should not be a confrontation, it should be a collective effort to secure our children’s futures.

    But I do not think I’m wasting my time, nor protesting too much as you put it. I have known for a long time that I cannot ever change these people, but it isn’t for them I write. It is the undecideds that matter to me, those who are confused, lost in a maze of conflict and propaganda. Mainly, I want to set the record straight on science when it is maligned or misunderstood, and mostly I want to expose the methods of those who would attempt to distort the public discourse. The fact I draw quite a lot of abuse seems to suggest I get through now and then, so perhaps there is some merit in what I do (and my work isn’t just about deniers either, that’s just the bit you’ve seen. Check out the book (it’s free) if you can keep your gorge from rising at my hopeless optimism).

    And thanks for two things – a post that wasn’t confrontational, and some points we can discuss. I don’t want to fight you Jack, I want to work with you. We must be the change we wish to see in this world, right?

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