It’s a familiar refrain…
Without hard evidence to support their claims, climate denialists are attacking the process of climate-change science.
This is the line that appears before Bill McKibben’s article, “Climate Change’s OJ Simpson Moment“, which is currently touring the alarmist circuit.
It’s already a statement that only functions as an alarmist shibboleth, because it only makes sense when alarmist presuppositions are held. Let’s start at the top, then.
First, “climate denialists”… Who are they? Well, the names, Bush, Palin, Monckton, Morano, and Exxon appear. That’s about it. You can see the parameters of the narrative unfolding already. Don’t expect it to get any more sophisticated. “You can judge a man by his enemies”, someone once said. Similarly, a story that chooses such cartoonish bogeymen will undoubtedly fail to paint the world more deeply than in stark black and white.
They have no “hard evidence”, these deniers, screams the subtitle. But, as we’ve said before, this kind is an incoherent conception of “evidence”, which plays an even more confused role in McKribben’s argument. McKribben clearly uses the concept of “evidence” to speak less about material, objective truth – science, perhaps – than to establish the guilt of “deniers”. The crude polarisation of the debate into goodies and baddies (McKibben and his kind versus “the Deniers”) needs supplying with more binary categories. The goodies fight with “evidence” and “proof”. The Deniers, meanwhile, fight with only doubt. More on that in a moment.
There is a problem already with McKibben’s argument. Evidence neither speaks for itself, nor “belongs” to one camp or another. Even in a legal trial – which is the allusion really being made by McKribben – “evidence” isn’t what convicts the defendant. It is the argument – the case – which interprets evidence. McKibben, like so many climate alarmists, confuses the basis for his political ideas with the “science”. McKribben is blind to the presuppositions of his own argument. As we’ve pointed out, even if we accept that “anthropogenic climate change is happening” and that these changes are likely to cause problems, we are still not yet committed to environmental ethical imperatives, nor to its politics. This is because, as we have argued at length, the catastrophist’s presupposition is that we are impotent to cope with climate change. This presupposition contradicts the evidence from history: we have and we do cope with climate change where we are wealthy enough to do so. The catastrophist asserts his impotence over the evidence, and imposes it on the poor; he exploits their poverty for his own moral currency and unleashes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To point this out is to be a “denier” of “the science”. But in reality, all it takes to defeat McKibben is to demonstrate that a more nuanced perspective can exist. Suddenly, his prophecies are revealed for what they are: mere projections of his own political impotence and failure of imagination.
KcKibben’s article has not yet begun – we’re still at the subtitle. How does he explain his claim? What is the problem?
the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the US, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, no less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.
McKibben confuses the political argument with its putative scientific basis. The possibility that the US public have not been convinced of the political argument is not considered. No, McKibben prefers to explain the failure of his political argument as the consequence of an “onslaught against the science of climate change”. He sees his argument as scientific and the “deniers as having waged a successful propaganda war against the scientific truth. McKibben is blind to the nature of his own argument and its presuppositions.
This inability to self-reflect is characteristic of the environmental movement. Another characteristic is that it is not a mass or popular movement. That the public don’t see things the way McKibben wants them to, should come as no surprise. It might be much more a case of his argument failing than it being successfully challenged by the deniers. The public might have simply responded to environmental politics by virtue of having sufficient wit to see when the pudding has been over-egged, and when hollow political arguments are hidden behind claims to scientific authority.
That would surely be the most simple explanation. McKibben has an alternative.
The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial, an event that’s begun to recede into our collective memory. […]The Dream Team of lawyers assembled for Simpson’s defense had a problem: it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. […] So [Simpson’s legal team] decided to attack the process, arguing that it put Simpson’s guilt in doubt, and doubt, of course, was all they needed. […]If anything, they were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside.
McKibben is suggesting that the more overwhelming the quantity of evidence that exists, the more it is possible for Deniers to find problems with it, and so to marshal public opinion through the fog, to doubt..
Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won’t be overwhelming and it’s unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.
Leaving aside the implications of this argument for a moment (we’ll come back to them shortly), the IPCC’s mistakes are not insubstantial, and made for some of the loudest headlines, encouraged by senior IPCC members. The claim that the melting of Himalayan glaciers by 2035 would deprive over a billion people of their water supply has been found to have been bunk in two respects – barely 1% of that number depend on glacial water, and the date of 2035 has no scientific basis. McKibben may want to say that this is trivial stuff, but the lives of 1 billion people – not the binary fact of climate change – was the basis for political action. Climate change may well still be happening, but the estimation of its effects of its effects is now substantially reduced.
Of course, according to McKribben it wasn’t this fact being revealed to intelligent, thinking people which caused the perception of climate change to shift after it had caused people to think more deeply about the claims that had been made. It was clever stunts organised by the deniers.
For a gifted political operative like, say, Marc Morano, who runs the Climate Depot website, the massive snowfalls this winter became the grist for a hundred posts poking fun at the very idea that anyone could still possibly believe in, you know, physics. Morano, who really is good, posted a link to a live webcam so readers could watch snow coming down; his former boss, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), had his grandchildren build an igloo on the Capitol grounds, with a sign that read: “Al Gore’s New Home.” These are the things that stick in people’s heads. If the winter glove won’t fit, you must acquit.
Then comes more of what we’ve heard before. The deniers’ “think tanks are well-funded by Exxon”. Blah blah blah. They have their own TV news channel: Fox. Blah blah blah. “Right wing British tabloids”. Blah blah blah.
What the Deniers do, says McKribben, is appeal to our unthinking selves. We don’t want to believe in climate change, and so it’s easier for the Deniers to manipulate public opinion than it is for the good guys to persuade us of the truth. They have captured the disconnect between elite and public, and the sense that they have been ripped off. And yet he still refuses to accept that the public might just have made a good call.
And in the process, McKribben, by arguing that “the more evidence there is, the more the public are mislead” only expresses his contempt for the public for his own failure to make a convincing argument. This is absurd. One moment he recognises the problem of elitism and the public’s perception of it. And the next moment, he’s steepening that gulf by making an argument which flatters the elite. He explains the failure of the political ideas he embraces as the consequence of the public’s shortcomings: their vulnerability to manipulation of the “growing body of evidence” by “deniers”.
their skepticism isn’t the root of the problem. It simply plays on our deep-seated resistance to change. That’s what gives the climate cynics ground to operate.
The shortcoming is somehow a weakness of human nature. And so, the ultimate object of his political project – which, remember, nobody wants – is this aspect of human nature…
That’s what we need to overcome, and at bottom that’s a battle as much about courage and hope as about data.
This retrogressive and elitist view of the public is not even a secret.
those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew.
McKibben seems to want each generation to reproduce in the next, the same experiences, in some kind of ahistorical ecological utopia. He fails to reflect on why his own ideas fail to find purchase in the public, and thus he blames the public. This is characteristic of the elitism of environmental politics. McKibben considers himself to be amongst the elite – those who have overcome the aspect of human nature that makes the hoi-polloi vulnerable to the “deniers”. This setting him and his political movement apart from the remainder of humanity allows him to design the Utopia – the order of social institutions and experiences that they will be subject to – that will contain their excessive wants and nature. And who are they to disagree? McKibben assumes to speak “above” politics, and “above” humanity”.
The context of his article is the establishment’s embrace of the climate issue in lieu of a mass (as opposed to an elite) movement that does the same. This creates a serious problem for environmental politics. How can the reorganisation of public institutions according to the tenets of environmentalism be legitimate? E.g. All of the main UK political parties are now “green”, and all public institutions are now committed to “tackling climate change”, yet not after some mass political movement exerting pressure.
People like McKibben overcome this problem by indirectly attacking the concept of legitimacy. “Science” hides the environmentalist’s shame. It is used to make an attack ultimately on democracy, because it allows the expression of human shortcomings – greed, etc – to reign, so to speak, during (and causing) the manifestation of ecological crisis. It allows even the stupid and the ignorant to have their say. McKibben sits above politics, and above democracy.
This is in fact a very old political idea which holds that human nature is so weakened by original sin that, unconstrained by institutions (i.e. Church, family, state, work), humans will run amock in nature, precluding the possibility of salvation. Humans need protection from themselves, in other words. And McKibben appoints himself as your protector. Curiously, he doesn’t seem to understand when people ignore him.