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Conservatism and climate science

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 24 June 2014

This post is about another article I read through a reference at Climate etc. It has the same title as this post, and was written by Steven Hayward, who is apparently a conservative thinker with an interest in 'climate change'. Judith Curry is good at excerpting bits from longer pieces, but I think the original essay deserves a proper read (she thought so too).

Hayward's main point, I think, is that conservatives are not 'anti-science' (a common charge) but that they have an abiding feeling that whatever we need to do in 'combating climate change' must be done with a recognition that freedom, or liberty, are more important. I'm not sure about my own position on this general position - what about war? But then I remember that conscientious objectors were allowed to be so, and that their rights were respected. That gives Australia a tick. And Hayward is scathing about the dismissal of 'democracy' by those who think that saving the planet is vastly more important than democracy.

The final difference between liberals and conservatives over climate change that is essential to grasp is wholly political in the high and low sense of the term. Some prominent environmentalists, and fellow travelers like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, periodically express open admiration for authoritarian power to resolve climate change and other problems for which democratic governments are proving resistant precisely because of their responsiveness to public opinion - what used to be understood and celebrated as "consent of the governed." A few environmental advocates have gone as far as to say that democracy itself should be sacrificed to the urgency of solving the climate crisis, apparently oblivious to the fact that appeals to necessity in the face of external threats have been the tyrant's primary self-justification since the beginning of conscious human politics, and seldom ends well for the tyrant and the people alike.


I'll drink to that. Now our own Clive Hamilton, who is one of the most vehement of the AGW orthodox, denies that he has ever advocated 'the suspension of democracy' to deal with global warming, and you can read his saying so here. On the other hand, you can go to Andrew Bolt or Catallaxy Files, and summon up what they think of his denial. It's fair to say that his view of a democracy is somewhat odd. Here is a bit from one of his Conversation pieces:

However, the practices of democracy at times do not sit comfortably with the best advice of those most qualified and knowledgeable. Over the last decade or so, politically driven climate deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise. They have attempted, with considerable success, to undermine the authority of climate science by skilful exploitation of a free media, appeal to freedom of information laws, the mobilisation of a group of vociferous citizens, and the promotion of their own to public office. In this way, democracy has defeated science.

Really? Is this was really happened? Perhaps Clive thinks that democrats should always heed the advice of those whom Clive sees as 'the most qualified and knowledgeable', whom I take to be the politically driven orthodox. But it is surely the great virtue of democracy that people are allowed to think about things and form their own opinions. And it is just possible, no doubt at the extreme edge of things, that the people, or many of them, have come to the view that Clive is wrong, and that those most qualified and knowledgeable actually have a lot more to learn. The title of his Conversation essay is 'Democracy is failing the planet', but no doubt a sub-editor was responsible for that. Labor people are sometimes astonished that the electorate would elect any government which wasn't Labor, but there again the people sometimes decide that enough is enough.

But back to Steven Hayward, who is a lot more accessible and interesting (only a personal judgment, I admit) than Clive. I liked the next passage very much, and think he nailed that episode.

[I]t is not necessary to be any kind of climate sceptic to be highly critical of the narrow, dreamlike quality the entire issue took on from its earliest moments. Future historians are likely to regard as a great myopic mistake the collective decision to treat climate change as more or less a large version of traditional air pollution, to be attacked with the typical emissions control policies - sort of a global version of the Clean Air Act. Likewise the diplomatic framework, a cross between arms control, trade liberalisation, and the successful Montreal Protocol, was poorly suited to climate change and destined the Kyoto Protocol model to certain failure from the outset.

You can argue, like Clive, that our democratic processes have not given 'climate change' the importance that the orthodox think it deserves. But surely one straightforward reason is that the orthodox have failed to persuade the rest of us. Given that they have had virtually a monopoly of the mass media, the government and the scientific academies, doesn't that point to a fundamental problem with the 'climate change' message?

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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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