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The history of global warming

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 30 May 2013

A few weeks ago I wrote about a book which had not then been published, but would be at the end of April. It seemed interesting enough to order a copy in advance, and I did so. The book is The Age of Global Warming. A History, by Rupert Darwall, published in London by Quartet Books. It was indeed worth buying, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to discover how we got into the extraordinary scare about anthropogenic global warming.

AGW may be a problem for later generations, because an increase in the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should lead to warming, all other things being equal. But all other things are never equal in the domain of climate, we are likely in time to move to other forms of generating energy cheaply, and more warming may on balance be good for humanity anyway. What cannot be denied is that AGW has been a scare of quite unparalleled proportions, with world leaders talking about 'saving the planet', with those who questioned the assumptions of the scare being labelled 'deniers', and with world leaders meeting again and again in conferences here and there to try and solve the 'problem' by bringing about a global agreement to limit the burning of fossil fuels.

Rupert Darwall studied economics and history at Cambridge, before working as an investment analyst. There is enough about the science in the book to satisfy your curiosity about that aspect. What he has done well is to provide the history of the development of the scare, with the ghostly figure of the Rev. Thomas Malthus, he who predicted at the end of the 18th century that we would one day run out of food, always hovering, and being rediscovered in every generation.


Darwall argues that there are three elements to the scare, the first factual (or very likely to be), the second and third being propositions. The first is that increased burning of fossil fuels has caused temperatures to rise. The second is that rising global temperatures will cause immense damage to the environment and to humanity. The third is that developed countries should lead the way in making large cuts to carbon dioxide emissions, by replacing carbon fuels with renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

All this is familiar enough to anyone really interested in AGW. Where Darwall adds real strength is his patient account of how Western leaders were drawn into believing that they had a mission to save the world, the first being Mrs Thatcher, as I mentioned in my little obituary for her. It is an intricate story, and he does it very well. Also, he has managed to interview a number of the participants, and that adds an authenticity to his story.

What I think is missing is why it was that the electorate of the Western world fell for the scare. Darwall argues that 'environmentalism took the Marxist concept of the alienation of the working class from the means of production and applied it to the rich man's alienation from nature. In doing so, environmentalism triumphed in developed societies, dominating the politics of the West where Marxism had entirely failed'. Yes, but why did it triumph? What was it that shifted the locus of thought and feeling from the notion of material progress and building that I remember well from the 1960s?

The 1960s is also the period of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and, a little later, the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth. And we did get richer, three to four times richer, from the 1950s to the present. Environmentalism has had a great success, though slowly and in useful ways in the beginning. So Darwall's key proposition has strength to it, and I argued yesterday that as we got richer people discovered that materialism didn't finally satisfy: there had to be more to life than new cars, white goods and overseas travel.

And I've added to that the declined of organised Christianity at least in a number of Western countries, our own included, so that some at least were looking for a spiritual answer to the question What is it all for? There is no doubt that the passion associated with global warming has a quasi-religious tone to it. The use of 'denier' as an epithet is an obvious example, as is the use of 'consensus' arguments, really odd strategies in an area that is thought to be about science and rational enquiry. To be told that 97 per cent of priests believe in God ought to come as no surprise. To be told that 97 per cent of climate scientists believe in AGW, however, ought to produce the reply 'So what?'

Good books can't answer every question. Darwall says that 'To explore global warming is to journey through the mind of contemporary Western man'. How I wish he had done that! Perhaps he is already working on it. Someone ought to.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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