…reigning supreme, is the “zombie argument”: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down[http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462]. “Homeopathy worked for me”, and the rest.
Zombie arguments survive, they get up and live again, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at realclimate.org, with refutations. There are huge lists[http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2008/07/how_to_talk_to_a_sceptic.php] of them everywhere[http://scholarsandrogues.wordpress.com/2007/07/23/anti-global-heating-claims-a-reasonably-thorough-debunking/]. It makes no difference.
“CO2 isn’t an important greenhouse gas”, “Global warming is down to the sun”, “what about the cooling in the 1940s?” says your party bore. “Well,” you reply, “since the last time you raised this, I went and checked, and it turns out that there were loads of suphites [sic] in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had back then, and the odd volcano, so that’s sort of been answered already, ages ago.”
Goldacre’s sulphites example is very poorly chosen, and for a professional sceptic, he appears remarkably willing to defer uncritically to zombie lists of zombie arguments. Moreover, if zombie arguments are what bothers him, what about those deployed by the living dead of the climate orthodoxy? Here are some of the claims repeated ad nauseam by and in support of the climate change orthodoxy, along with our responses:
1. Climate change will be worse for the poor.
Everything is worse for the poor. The issue is poverty and inequality, then, not climate. Small differences in climate that produce negative human effects do so because of a lack of wealth or otherwise a lack of civil infrastructure. The outcome of policies and international agreements to limit productive activity and development can therefore only increase inequality and decrease wealth, putting poorer people closer to their environment, for a marginal – if any – positive change in the weather. Environmentalism will be worse for the poor.
2. An organised and well-funded network of climate change deniers has distorted the public debate.
The environmental message has been faithfully and sympathetically reproduced by the UK’s media. The BBC’s output is predominantly green, and its news rarely covers the climate debate critically. The few hours of programming that have been broadcast on UK television networks that have given an airing to scepticism have become the object of anger. But you can probably count the number of such programs broadcast in the last decade on one finger. Meanwhile, there are many hours of programming each week, reflecting the orthodox, consensus position, within lifestyle, current affairs, science, and ethics programming.
Print media is more divided, with all papers occasionally featuring sceptical perspectives. In the case of UK newspapers, the Guardian, Independent have clearly climate-orthodox editorial agendas – climate change is anthropogenic and a looming catastrophe, and we must all reduce emissions now. The Times and Telegraph are more sceptical, but not (Christopher Booker aside) of the idea that the planet is warming and much of that is anthropogenic. The Daily Mail does take a more sceptical view of the basic science, to the fury of environmental activists. The Sun, Mirror and Express are widely assumed to push a sceptical line, but they clearly do not – see here, here, and here.
The three main political parties embraced the green agenda comprehensively, each promising to take it more seriously than the last. Yet the principles these parties have taken up have not once been tested democratically. No party has dared to step out of line on the climate issue.
The public debate has been entirely dominated by the orthodox position. If there has been an attempt to distort the public debate it has been entirely ineffectual. It does not get airtime. It has not bought politicians. It has failed to establish an organised, institutional response. The media is dominated by the environmental message, companies go out of their way to demonstrate their environmental ethical credentials, politicians rarely ever dare to challenge environmental issues. The image of the climate sceptic remains one who speaks for himself rather than one who speaks from within the academy, party, corporation, and against the majority of his peers. Yet the public have not been convinced. This can’t be explained as the consequence of a new trust in mavericks, and the influence of a conspiracy to distort the debate.
As for the ubiquitous claim that the debate has been skewed by corporate funding – especially oil money – what tends to be forgotten are the much larger sums available to the likes of Greenpeace and WWF to push their own exaggerated alarmist line.
3. There are just N years/months/days left to save the planet
Or in the words of Susan Watts, science editor of the BBC’s prestigious Newsnight, ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.’ The argument for action to mitigate climate change has always depended on generating a sense of urgency to get itself heard above the background noise of apathy, disinterest and disengagement from contemporary politics. The comprehensive change in our political, economic, and industrial mode of existence that greens want to create will take some persuasion. Accordingly, those riding the climate change bandwagon have had to illustrate their narratives with claims about when climate change will reach its ‘tipping point’, when we can expect disaster to arrive, and at what point we will pass the deadline for creating the comprehensive legal and institutional response to climate change. As there is a perception that the public conceive of climate change as some far away distant prospect, this strategy is perhaps intended to bring the realities of climate change closer to our imaginations. Yet it depends on myth-making, and overstating the predictive abilities of climate science.
4. The vast majority of scientists agree that…
The ‘scientific consensus’ that late 20th century warming can be attributed to human activity is routinely confused with the putative consequences of climate change – particularly social effects – and the political arguments for climate change mitigation. But even if there exists a consensus about the temperature record and its cause, there remains less of a consensus about what the first, second, third, and Nth-order effects of climate change will be. There is, for instance, much less agreement about how global warming will turn into sea level rise, species extinction, and human effects. The consensus on attribution cannot reasonably extend to represent an agreement about what the effects of climate change are, and what is the best policy response is. The failure to delineate the principle cause and its effects, and the effect of its effects, is a mistake that leads to the unhelpful polarisation of the climate debate, opening up proponents of climate change mitigation policies to the criticism that they have hidden prejudice and bad faith behind ‘science’.
5. The IPCC consists of N-thousand of the worlds top climate scientists who all agree…
It is frequently argued by scientist activists, politicians, and campaigners that the IPCC represents thousands of the worlds top climate scientists. This is a misconception of the IPCC, of its contributors, function, purpose, and process.
The IPCC does little science itself, and does not measure the opinions of the contributing authors. It is divided into three working groups, focusing respectively on the physical science basis (WGI), impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (WGII), and mitigation of climate change (WGIII), each reviewing the existing literature in their fields. Each of these working groups is further divided into chapters, and again into sections. A contributing author to chapter 3 of WGI may never enter a working relationship with a contributing author to chapter 4. They may have very little to say about each other’s work, and are not asked to agree or disagree with it.
WGII and WGIII cannot be characterised as populated entirely by scientists, as the zombie argument claims. Instead, these working groups consist of social scientists, economists, and other non-climate and social-scientific disciplines. Moreover, as their task is to understand the impact of climate change on human society, we have argued that this process requires political and subjective precepts which assume a relationship between society and the climate/environment. These precepts and assumptions are not necessarily well-grounded in science, and take as their premises the conclusion to their own study: environmental determinism, and the inevitability of catastrophe. Worst still, these prejudices are the tenets of political environmentalism. That is to say that the IPCC’s work is ‘institutionally environmentalist’, and has been established to fulfill a political need: not simply to provide the political process with evidence with which to make decisions, but to give moral authority to governments embracing the same environmental agenda.
7. The politics flows from the science
The implication of the argument that ‘the science’ attributing global warming to human activity is settled is that this creates imperatives to cease such activity, and to reorganise life around the principles of environmental sustainability. Frequently, politicians making arguments for mitigation express their adherence to ‘the science’, and that ‘the science is clear’. Creeping lines on charts representing the loss of Arctic sea ice return each summer, and are held each summer to speak for themselves as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ signaling our imminent demise.
But the environmental argument in fact posits a political claim prior to science. It holds that human society can only exist within unchanging environmental circumstances, and that the normal process of politics must therefore be suspended in order to balance the concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. ‘The science’ merely serves to confirm that the world is changing, rather than to substantiate the basis of environmental determinism. As we argue often here on CR, ‘the politics is prior to the science’ in the climate debate, and the emphasis both ‘sides’ in the debate place on science impedes any progress on understanding the political claims either side are making. As we also often say, in order to understand what ‘science says’, it is necessary to understand what it has been asked.
As Goldacre observes, the same arguments return to the climate debate. But his perspective is too narrow, and he neglects to scan his critical eye over the substance of the claims made by the camp he seemingly attaches himself to. In the process, he has summoned up an inconvenient metaphor.
Environmentalism is zombie politics. It is oblivious to human ambitions, desires and development, other than it seeks to devour them as it turns humans into copies of itself: lifeless, purposeless, walking corpses that would be better off dead. Human life is reduced to meeting necessity and politics becomes the process of managing subsistence rather than contesting ideas about possible futures. It turns humans against humanity.