Warming or Not Warming: You Can’t Decide

by | Feb 28, 2010

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.


  1. Pat

    A major difference between proponents of AGWand opponents is that of deciding on who lies the burden of proof. To me it seems self evident that the party demanding that everyone changes their life bears this burden. Those who wish to carry on as before are entitled to demand convincing evidence.
    In as much as AGW theory is put forward as a reason for using dearer sources of energy, or indeed using less of it (entailing harder work to achieve a given result) the burden of proof must lie with the proponents. It is unnecessary to prove the theory wrong- it is only necessary to show the deficiencies in the proponents case for the proposed changes to be rejected.
    On present showing skeptics are approaching overkill- they appear on the point of proving AGW theory mistaken.

  2. George Carty

    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.

    Surely that depends on the magnitude of the climate change? If it results in temperatures increasing by a few degrees with no other changes, then it isn’t really a big deal, but some alarmists are positing that AGW will desertify vast areas of the planet (as with the New Scientist map mentioned here, which I also remember seeing in The Sun newspaper). I don’t see any way we could cope with THAT kind of climate change!

  3. geoffchambers

    For a long time I’ve been trying to identify the message which distinguishes C-R from us common or garden sceptics.

    I’ve distilled it down to this:
    1. Environmentalism is a political movement which confuses its political motivation with incontrovertible scientific truth. We sceptics remark that the scientific truth is far from incontrovertible; you argue that the logical failure lies further back; that the point is not the quality of the science, but that the attempt to ground a political movement in science is logically flawed. You can’t derive a political (i.e. moral) imperative from facts alone.
    2. Apart from this fundamental point, you develop a number of observations (which are contingent, and don’t depend on the truth of your basic insight):
    – Environmentalists lack self-reflection
    – Environmentalism acts like a popular movement, when it isn’t.
    – Environmentalists see their failure to persuade the public as due to flaws in human nature, not in their arguments. They are fundamentally retrogressive and elitist.

    As you point out, they share the basic flaw of all utiopians of wanting to do good to people whether they want it or not. Marx criticised the utopians of his own times, and attempted to provide a “scientific” basis to demonstrate the inevitability of the sorts of change he hoped to see. Maybe someone is currently working on a Green “Kapital”, but Environmentalists seem to want to short-circuit this process, by pretending that the science of environmentalism exists – outside environmentalism.
    But none of this is really in the McKibben article, since McKibben makes no attempt to argue facts. His Manichean view portrays us sceptics as the equivalent of O.J. Simpson’s crafty lawyers perpetrating a horrible injustice. Then he bases his call to environmental salvation on the twin pillars of organised religion (with his praise of “thousands of churches ringing their bells 350 times last October to signify what scientists say is the safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere”) and Nature, with this emotional appeal:
    “..That’s why, for instance, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts are so important: get someone out in the woods at an impressionable age and you’ve accomplished something powerful”.
    Well, yes indeed. Has Environmentalism really got to the point after only twenty years which the Catholic Church took two millenia to achieve?

  4. Editors

    Geoff, on the point about contingent aspects, I don’t think they are contingent, but are actually the conditions in which environmentalism is created. I.e. failure to connect with the public or the lack of a genuine political movement, the disconnect between public and politics, the need to locate a source of legitimacy for political authority, are factors which begin to explain environmentalism’s ascendency.

    On Utopian Socialists… The Utopianism of environmentalism owes more, I think, to the medieval and austere utopianism of More, (taking More at face value). More, too, took a flawed human nature (original sin) and a fragile nature (divine providence) as the basis for the social institutions he constructed. Kautsky’s Darwinian revision of More is similarly based in some spurious ideas about nature and genetics. You may be able to tell us more about the later Utopian Socialists however.

    There is a real problem with any such conception of “human nature”, whether or not it is grounded in “science” (e.g. Adam Corner in the previous post, etc). Authoritarian and elitism seem to be a logical consequence of holding with humanity as a determined, immutable object.

  5. geoffchambers

    I probably shouldn’t have used a philosophical term like “contingent” when all I meant was that the four points to your argument which I singled out are logically independent, in that any one of them might be true, even if the others were false. They are also categorically different, since the first point seems to be a point of moral philosophy, a case of the Humean principle that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” (have I remembered that right?) while the three others are empirical observations (and partly subjective to boot). I agree wholeheartedly with all four, but I wonder sometimes if you’re not trying to attack environmentalism on philosophical grounds – grounds on which they are safe, protected as it were by the normal democratic safeguards of freedom of speech, etc. Their confusion about the relation between science and politics, facts and opinion, certainly requires the kind of analysis you provide; the fact that they are unpopular, impervious to criticism, etc. requires another.
    As an experiment, I read the McKibben article before your criticism. My take was quite different to yours, even though I agree with your analysis. I was struck by how different the British and American environmentalists are in their style, i.e. how parochial the Greens are! Imagine a British Green rabbiting on about church bells and boy scouts in the woods. Given the wide variety of commenters here, I’d be interested to know the reactions of others to McKibben. Is he typical? And of what exactly?

  6. Chuckles


    For me McKibben is typical of an extremely tiresome class of American commentators who think that the world ends at the US borders.
    viz. the list at the begining of the article – Bush, Palin, Morano, Exxon. O.J Simpson moment etc
    Not in the class of the fragrant Romm however.

    And I’m not sure that the ‘getting some Boy and Girl Scouts in the woods at an impressionable age’ would go down well with a certain demographic.

    But a good article, insightful and enjoyable to read. (clearly catering to my prejudices).

    You may enjoy Mencius the batsh*t insane commenting on the subject as a McKibben contrast here:


  7. Peter S

    One word we hear with almost the same dull predictability as ‘denial’ from the advocates of man made global warming is ‘overwhelm’. They are never slow to let us know they have been ‘overwhelmed’ by the evidence. Finding himself similarly overwhelmed, Bill McKibben stops short of telling us how such a state-of-mind affects his judgement or his ability to meaningfully respond to what is overwhelming him.

    As the OED’s definition of the word suggests, having ‘too much of something’ – in Bill’s case, too much evidence – renders the recipient ‘ineffective in dealing with it’… and as misanthropy underpins much of the AGW idea, perhaps Bill’s over-consumption of evidence is simply a gluttony for punishment (although whose punishment is open to question).

    Beyond this, the alarmist messages imply that ANYONE exposed to the ‘evidence’ for AGW can only be overwhelmed by it, and that ‘denial’ is one attempted – yet ineffective – coping strategy for dealing with it in this state-of-mind. In fact, if we are overwhelmed – as the alarmists insist we must be – then any strategy for dealing with both the cause (the evidence) and the effect (our ineffectuality) will necessarily fail (according to the OED’s definition). This of course leaves the door open for the only remaining option anyone overwhelmed ever has… to submit to the control of an external authority.

    Perhaps it is with this end in mind that being overwhelmed has become such a cliche in the warmist’s limited and transparent agenda.

  8. Mooloo

    Claiming AGW opponents are in denial is the new “false consciousness”. A lovely strategy since it is, by definition, correct.

    Some of these people need to meet actually overwhelming evidence.

    The prosecution’s problem in the OJ Simpson case was two-fold. Firstly the evidence wasn’t anywhere near overwhelming. It’s not like anyone watching the case was overly surprised with the acquittal. Too much didn’t fit.

    More importantly, and something McKribben might do well to dwell one, there were distinct impressions of bias in the investigation. Now a biased investigation can get the correct result, but no-one should be surprised if people don’t trust that result.

    It’s much worse with AGW. Too many inconvenient facts that don’t fit, and a hugely biased prosecution team.

  9. Alex Cull

    Some good points made here.

    “There’s also the deep love for creation, for the natural world. We were born to be in contact with the world around us and, though much of modernity is designed to insulate us from nature, it doesn’t really work. Any time the natural world breaks through—a sunset, an hour in the garden—we’re suddenly vulnerable to the realization that we care about things beyond ourselves. That’s why, for instance, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts are so important: get someone out in the woods at an impressionable age and you’ve accomplished something powerful. That’s why art and music need to be part of the story, right alongside bar graphs and pie charts. When we campaign about climate change at 350.org, we make sure to do it in the most beautiful places we know, the iconic spots that conjure up people’s connection to their history, their identity, their hope.”

    A very revealing piece; Mr McKibben comes across as naive, although refreshingly upfront. “…though much of modernity is designed to insulate us from nature…” What does he mean? Insulate us from nice things like sunsets and pretty flowers? Or insulate us from not-so-nice things like Arctic blizzards or driving rain? The (maybe rather obvious) point I would make about the natural world he describes – the sunsets and the pleasant hours spent in the garden – is that they are appreciated because we have a warm house to return to, where we can switch on the central heating, boil a kettle for tea and sleep in a comfortable bed afterwards. Take a bunch of Western nature-lovers (of which I am one, as well) and strand them in the middle of a wilderness without the means to light a fire, cook, hunt or build a shelter and (unless one of them happens to be Bear Grylls) it will be a case of goodbye pretty sunset, and hello Lord of the Flies. Or take that hour spent in the garden and extend it into a lifetime of back-breaking subsistence farming – not much time for sunset-appreciation, or art and music in the turnip fields!

    And then there’s the army of Mordor (that’s us, people). While Bill McKibben seems genuinely unsophisticated in his talk of “climate deniers”, there are others, such as the Independent’s Jonathan Owen and Paul Bignell, who surely don’t believe that the critics of AGW, from Steve McIntyre and Nigel Lawson down to all the rag-tag bloggers and commentators such as ourselves are part of some well-organised, lavishly-funded network puppet-mastered by giant fossil fuel corporations. Or maybe they’re not being mischievous and do actually believe it. Could it be that in the world views of some people, if there exists an organisation such as 350.org or Greenpeace, opposition must mean that there is an anti-350.org or an anti-Greenpeace to counter it? Perhaps some of them haven’t yet grasped just how anarchic, un-organised and un-hierarchical we are.

    We are all individuals (“I’m not!”, I hear someone shout.)

  10. geoffchambers

    An anti-Greenpeace is a interesting idea. What would it look like, the opposite of a tiny group of activists, financed by government to lobby the government into doing what the government wants to do anyway?
    Well, it would obviously be a large group of non-activists, which finances the government, and has no influence over what the government does with its money. Sounds to me like a definition of the British taxpayer.
    By the way, I’ve just put in my nomination for the Observer Ethical Awards,
    nominating Climate Resistance as Ethical Campaigner of the Year. The first prize is a Green recycling holiday in Europe on French nuclear powered ethical railways. Should be fine if it doesn’t snow (which it did here on the Mediterranean coast last week). Pop in for tea and muffins.

  11. potentilla

    A very good article. You note that:

    “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.”

    There is some evidence emerging that people can cope with changes even when they are poor. In fact they may be able to cope better than the wealthy. For example from this article in the Toronto Globe and Mail:


    Here is a quote:

    “If you listen to the IPCC, you might think that the indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable to climate change,” Ms. Tennberg, who is by no means a climate-change skeptic or denier, told me when I visited her at the University of Lapland this month. “But the story here turned out to be that local people are very innovative in their ways of dealing with threats. People are very poor, but they are very determined to find new ways of doing things.”

    There is no question that wealthy societies should invest in infrastructure rather than carbon reduction. Nevertheless, the wealthy continue to build in low-lying coastal areas, for example, even though there are known hazards. Poor people are more flexible in moving to safer areas and have been shown to be innovative throughout history in adapting to their environment.

  12. Alex Cull

    Peter S, it would be interesting if the social scientists aligned with AGW theory could come up with evidence from actual research which bore out their theory that we are sceptical of AGW as a sort of coping strategy because of being overwhelmed by it all. Perhaps they have made a study of sceptical individuals, but if they have, I haven’t heard of one (would be interested to read it). The description seems to belong more to the despairing “believer” end of the spectrum, for whom the 10:10 campaign was tailor-made, IMO.

    Geoff, the UK taxpayers as an “anti-Greenpeace” – I hadn’t thought of that! You have a point. And yes – guess which of these antithetical forces the government prefer to listen to!

    Potentilla: “Poor people are more flexible in moving to safer areas and have been shown to be innovative throughout history in adapting to their environment.” This is very interesting, and I think accurate in many cases (although at the same time there are poor people who are hit very hard when disasters strike, e.g. the people living in bad housing on hillsides who suffer in earthquakes and mud slides.) I think it was Jared Diamond in one of his books who described the average native Papuan as seeming more alert and resourceful than the average Westerner (although I suppose caveats might apply to the accuracy of Diamond’s reporting, if allegations in a recent libel case are true.)

  13. Robert of Ottawa

    As always, you bring out the elitist nature of the enviromental (sic) movement; a point often lost in the US where the millionare socialists run the Democrat party and are the green advocates.

  14. George Carty

    Robert, that’s not an argument against socialism, that’s an argument against allowing millionaires to dominate politics. “Millionaire socialists” are virtually by definition control freaks ;)

  15. Editors

    How did that emoticon get into this blog?!

  16. MrCPhysics

    Really an excellent article. I’m shocked that AGWers don’t get it. It never ceases to astonish me how much ‘reality’ is affected by ones point of view.

    As an aside, it would lend credibility to the article if you were to spell McKibben/McKribben consistently throughout…just a small suggestion.

  17. Punksta

    “Without hard evidence to support their claims, climate denialists are attacking the process of climate-change science”.

    I have yet to meet an AGW denialist. Has anyone here met one? Met plenty of sceptics though. And scepticism of AGW theory, and disappointment at the obvious chicanery in the climate science mainstream that gives rise to it, is not the same same thing as having having some other claim about climate.

    This common habit of trying to mislabel sceptics as denialists is just part and parcel of the abovementioned dishonesty in climate science driven by political activism..


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