Global Warming is real. The high priests of the peoples’ religion have proved it to the satisfaction of all true believers. Or do I mean science has proved it to all right-thinking people?
Famously, Donald Trump thinks it’s all a conspiracy. He also thought (thinks?) that Obama was a foreign import jihadist and the American Democratic Party is run by commuinists. So if Donald Trump thinks Climate Change is a trick, logic dictates that it must therefore be real, right?
I think it’s time we looked at some facts:
The world’s climate has been getting warmer. For a long time. Between the 15th and 18th Century the River Thames froze over in London. In the early 1800’s it stopped, and hasn’t done so since. Therefore things must be getting warmer. Of this there is no doubt.
Is our industrial activity the reason? Well no. We didn’t start to industrialise and burn fossil fuels until well in to the 19th Century.
So it’s pretty clear that the planet has been warming up for a long time prior to major human industrial activity. We couldn’t have started it, because it began before we burnt fossil fuels to any scale.
But… is burning fossil fuels accelerating this natural change in our climate? Well that’s another question. 97% of Climate Change scientists say it is, so it must be true. I mean: who’s going to argue with one scientist, never mind the vast majority? Scientists are honourable people, not interested in worldly matters, and have no reason to lie to us about stuff we don’t understand.
Scientists are no more or less honourable than anyone else; they do care about money and there are all sorts of reasons not to believe them. This is strikingly similar to the high priests of the old religions, don’t you think? And when you look at it, the same driving forces appear to be shaping their behaviour.
For a long time the sun went around the earth. The priests said so. Anyone with deviant views was shouted down as an idiot, and if they persisted they could eventually be burnt at the stake as an example to others. No one who argues with priests or scientists is going to be taken seriously. OR ELSE!
Did the priests have any proof that their view of the cosmos was correct? They had irrefutable evidence. Ask any priest and they’d tell you – everyone knew it was true so it must be. Who was going to appear foolish (or be put to death) by disagreeing with the consensus? But in reality the priest had other reasons to believe they were correct: their careers and livelihood depended on them sticking to the story. If you were a priest you had a good job for life. People would respect you, give you money, a nice house and plenty of food, and not expect you to get involved in nasty worldly stuff. Becoming a priest has always been a good career choice. The only career-limiting thing you could do would be to question the “truth”. If anyone did, other people would too, and eventually the religion would lose control. And if a priest did it, even more so. Errant priests would never do.
Is the modern-day scientist really any different? It’s always a good idea to follow the money. They have a job in research and their salary is paid for by someone. To get on in the world they need to publish papers, so they can’t remain silent. When they’re working for a university department set up to study climate change, its not politic to say that the subject is over-blown and the world would be better off studying something else. They’re going to say it’s important, and probably real (but that funding is needed for further research). So the the majority of scientists who are paid to believe in climate change that express an opinion are unlikely to express one that’s going to see them out of a job; and then torn apart by their colleagues for breaking the faith.
Ask a scientist not involved in climate change research whether global warming is caused by human activity, and they won’t have a strong opinion because it’s not their field. Or they’ll close ranks with the rest of the “priesthood”, or “scientific community”.
Likewise, I don’t know if human activity is accelerating climate change. I suspect it may well be, but I can’t discount the fact that most academic researchers of the subject also say their pay-cheque is justified. Always follow the money.
Then there are the environmentalists, myself included. I don’t bang on about human-caused climate change. I don’t know how much we are to blame. I don’t know if we can slow or reverse it. But I do know that using irreplaceable resources as though the supply is infinite is a stupid idea. I do know that polluting the environment and destroying the natural world is a bad thing. So when a government, with the backing of its high priests of science, says it wants to reduce pollution and fossil fuel consumption I’m hardly likely to disagree, whatever the government’s real motive. (I suspect the real motive is tax revenue).
So what is it with society and its deference to scientists? In the past, if you were ill, you went to the priest for help. Not just the church infirmary; you did whatever the priest told you to in order to be cured. At the very least, you had nothing much to lose by trying. In the modern world we go and see a medical scientist (doctor), as we believe their results are better than the priests. Doctors can’t cure everything, in fact you could argue they can cure comparatively little. Many ailments cure themselves and the priest or doctor gets the credit anyway. But doctors do have demonstrably better outcomes than the priests they’ve displaced. If you’re ill, anyone you believe can cure you is going to be your best friend.
And then there are the politicians. Since the beginning of time the priests have been used by rulers to persuade the populous to go along with some policy or other. Do you want to plunder the tribe up the valley? Get your holy man to call it a religious duty and the plebs will do anything you ask of them, however foolish. Even if they’re not scared of you, they are of the priest. More precisely, they’re scared of the power that only the priest understands and can control. So the tribal chief is happy. The priest is happy because the chief keeps him in the easy life, and the plebs are happy because they’re doing the right thing for them and their mates without having to think for themselves. Or they’re dead on the battlefield, but living it up in the afterlife.
Now, if you’re a politician and announce you want to hike taxes it’s unlikely to have a positive effect on your chances of re-election. Unless you can persuade the people it’s a really good idea for some reason or other. The problem is that they won’t listen to you, because you’re a politician. If you can get the high priest (or scientists) to tell them that raising taxes is virtuous, and the wrath of something will descend on them otherwise, then you can still raise the taxes you need and avoid the blame when people have less money in their pockets and you have more to spend.
I’m not saying that using taxation to reduce pollution, or finite resource consumption, is a bad thing. Anything that does that is good. But I can’t help having a nagging feeling that the motivations of governments have more to do with the revenue, as government policies usually contradict these supposed ideals unless they can make money out of it.
The switch to sustainable transport is a good example – jobs and taxes are created by cars, so building more roads is a good thing as far as they’re concerned. And they can even boost economic activity by changing the rules to encourage people to buy newly produced cars. This is contradicts the idea that they want to reduce consumption, emissions and pollution. When Trump says he wants to put industry before environment he’s just being honest.
When it comes to whether pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is a good idea, it clearly isn’t. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased rapidly in the 20th century and it can only make the planet heat up. Victorian scientists raised the red flag at the boom in burning coal, and all the evidence suggests they were correct. What’s a stretch is the idea that by reducing carbon dioxide we can stop or reverse a trend that started a long time before we started; we need to accept the earth has been warming up since records began and plan accordingly. And please stop burning fossil fuels as this would be A Good Thing in itself.
My first draft of this diatribe ended about here, but in the summer the president of the Royal Statistical Society gave a very interesting address at their annual jamboree, which deserves a much wider audience as it drew together threads concerning why people are becoming disenchanted by experts, especially where statistics are concerned.