In a recent essay, Peter Berger, Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, argues that contemporary culture appears to be in the grip of two seemingly contradictory forces: one towards relativism, where there are no absolute truths whatsoever; the other towards fundamentalism, where an alleged absolute truth is militantly and uncompromisingly affirmed. The idiomatic formulas for these opposing forces he describes are, respectively, “Let us agree to disagree” versus “You just don’t get it”.
Berger argues that neither of these extremes can play a legitimate role in civil discourse, and that both are, in fact, closely interlinked and can easily morph one into the other. “In every relativist”, he says, “there is a fundamentalist about to be born, and in every fundamentalist there is a relativist waiting to be liberated”. Both forces, he maintains, are products of the pluralising effect of modernisation, and both serve only to shut down reasoned debate.
Reading Berger’s essay, it is hard not to see the rise of climate alarmism as a Western form of the second of these trends, as left-leaning environmentalists, schooled in cultural relativism, reduce the complexities and uncertainties of climate science to a singular unquestionable truth: catastrophe looms unless we take urgent action. “Repent now or pay later” is the solemn warning of the Stern Report.
Time and again we read that the debate is over, “climate change just is”, and denialists should get their heads out of the sand. Sceptics are dismissed out of hand, usually ad hominem, often with little more than a cursory glance at their CVs.
UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is the latest prominent figure to cast aspersions on the infidels, saying that “the few sceptics who continue to try to sow doubt should be seen for what they are: out of step, out of arguments and just about out of time”. His list presumably includes a number of significant names in the area, such as Robert Lindzen, Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hardly a fringe commentator in the debate.
It is astounding that on an issue of such alleged urgency, leaders such as Annan are unable to see the value that a sceptical eye can bring to any debate. It should be unnecessary to emphasise that history is populated with figures who remained resistant to universally accepted truths and subsequently revolutionised our thinking.
Australia’s 2005 Nobel Prize winners, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, fought long and hard to overturn a stubbornly established consensus that stomach ulcers were caused by physiological stress - hardly a Copernican revolution, but I wonder just how many Nobel Prizes the long-suffering victims of this problem would like to award these two open-minded scientists, now that a simple treatment with antibiotics is available. It was Einstein who said: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
Environmentalists are shrewd to label anyone who scrutinises the economics and science of climate modelling as “denialists”, implying more than disagreement, but a psychopathological resistance to the fearful truth. Denial, as a pop-psychological term, is bandied about too readily these days, especially when it relates to future uncertainties, not past occurrences.
There is a corresponding psychological behaviour that could be pertinent to climate alarmism, namely compliance. This describes a devastating lack of resistance to persuasion and unquestioning acceptance of authority, a particular concern of psychologists who study human susceptibility to bullies, cult leaders, despots, advertising and, of course, the passing whims of ideological fashion.
Our most firmly established scientific theories undergo years of rigorous testing before they are welcomed into the category of accepted fact, and even then remain open to challenge. Yet reports such as Stern's are widely taken as gospel before they have been subjected to the intense scrutiny that the importance of the subject demands. There are already signs that major elements of the report will not survive such scrutiny.
Sceptical analysis of this sort should be openly encouraged. A society that resists debate and demonises those who would question dominant ideas is in an unhealthy state, and paves the way for its demise. Unlike computer-generated climate projections, history provides us with verifiable evidence of where even the best of intentions, unquestioned, can lead.
For a similar opinion see Brendan O’Neill. Also Nigel Lawson, who concludes his review of the Stern Report: “It could not be a worse time to abandon our own traditions of reason and tolerance, and to embrace instead the irrationality and intolerance of ecofundamentalism, where reasoned questioning of its mantras is regarded as a form of blasphemy. There is no greater threat to the people of this planet than the retreat from reason we see all around us today.”