The global warming theme has produced some emails for me, more indeed than comments on the website. And for the most part, they are familiar in their messages. One kind expresses regret that I have written something that isn’t exactly what the reader wanted (let alone the opposite of what the reader wanted). The other admonishes me for not recognizing that I cannot know anything about global warming, and am right out of my depth. Don’t I understand that there are experts, and why aren’t I nodding as they speak? Who am I, a mere political scientist from the past, to offer opinions on this subject? And so on.
True debates on global warming within our society hardly occur. I’ve taken part in two public debates on the subject, and in both cases the speakers gave prepared papers to an audience who asked their own questions. We didn’t get another opportunity to engage with each other. So the two perspectives – the many perspectives – do not encounter each other.
There’s a straightforward reason. The orthodox view of global warming, the one adopted by governments, the executives of the scientific academies and the IPCC, is dominant. Why would those in the dominant position see any point in debating the issue with opponents? In truth, any real debate would be a case of people arguing past each other. By and large, those from the orthodoxy want to talk about mitigation policies (like curbing greenhouse gas emissions) and how to implement them, while the dissenters want to talk about weaknesses in the science (which for the orthodox is ‘settled’).
So I see my role as being an advocate for the middle ground, for finding out more. But for many deeply involved, especially the orthodox, there is no middle ground. There is only revealed truth. Clive Hamilton, a professor of philosophy, said some years ago that the question was not to believe, but whom to believe. And he had no doubt that the people to believe were the proponents of anthropogenic global warming.
My response at the time was to ask why he had to believe in anything. Shouldn’t a philosopher be asking questions, and coming to his own view after some work? Apparently not. The experts have spoken, and that is that. I find that position intellectually incoherent. If you think you cannot know anything about a subject, because it is simply too difficult, then an appropriate stance would be to say that you can’t have a position on it, and do nothing.
But Clive Hamilton and those like him are ardent advocates for a position which they say they do not understand, but agree with. The shape and detail of the global warming issue change every week, as new data, new papers and new possibilities appear in the journals and the blogosphere. For the true believers the only papers, data and possibilities worth considering are those that support the orthodoxy. In a sense, the rest don’t exist, and are never considered.
One of this group, who emailed me, said that I was trying to engage him in a debate about climate science. Didn’t I understand that he would not be led there? Didn’t I understand that I was out of my depth? There was no engagement here, either. Had we got further I might have asked him how he knew I was out of my depth.
What we have in this field is a kind of religious belief. I don’t mean, on the part of the scientists, though there are some, like James Hansen, who have left traditional science far behind in their activism. You only have to read the major websites in this field to realize the depth of feeling on the part of those believe that the future of humanity – the very future of the planet itself – is at stake, through what they see as our heedless consumption of fossil fuels.
I think that they need to cool down and do some reading and thinking. But they see people like me as betrayer of mankind’s heritage as well as of their grandchildren, and I suppose of my own, all 13 of them. They want action. Now! Such attitudes do not make for cool and practical debates. Nonetheless, I plug on, offering my two cents’ worth, reading about new findings as they become available, and getting surer, every day, that we really have a lot more to learn about climate – yes, the experts too. Most of them would agree.