Regular readers of this blog will know that we’re been trying to develop the idea that a great deal of politics exists prior to the science in the argument for a political response to climate change. This was the basis of our criticism of studies such as the GHF’s and WHO’s reports of (respectively) 300,000 and 150,000 deaths a year attributed to climate change – all of them in the world’s poorer regions. You can only make this kind of statement, we argue, if you take for granted that poverty is a ‘natural’ effect. Otherwise, logically, the cause of so many deaths is in fact poverty, not climate change. And on the other hand, we try to point out to sceptics that, as much fun as debunking hockey sticks and exposing Climategate emails is, the political debate does not rest on science. Looking for the ‘smoking gun’ to ‘debunk’ global warming fears merely reproduces the mistake that alarmists make – it expects science to answer the political debate.
When we make this argument elsewhere, it seems to appear to our counterparts as though we are saying that somehow politics is prior even to material reality, which would seem to deny material or formal reality by making it somehow dependent on social reality in some kind of postmodern sleight of hand. This isn’t what we’re arguing. What we are suggesting is that the politics is prior to formal reality in the argument, but not in formal reality. It is a conceit of the warmists that they imagine their own argument to be perfect models of the world, such that to take issue with it them is to deny the causal universe itself.
In the real world, it is possible to presuppose certain things, and to model and project scenarios from these social, or political presuppositions. There is nothing wrong, or unscientific about this. But the assumed premises are easily forgotten, and from these projections, it seems, comes an argument for the politics that the projection presupposed. This in turn is passed off as ‘science’, ‘speaking’. The GHF and WHO’s projections, for instance, have to presuppose that poverty is an immutable fact in order to make the claim that 150,000 / 300,000 deaths a year are caused by climate change (rather than by poverty). This in turn becomes an argument for policies which aim to mitigate climate change for the putative benefit of ‘the poor’, but in reality miss entirely the factor which makes people vulnerable to climate – poverty, and lack of wealth more generally.
Our citing the cases of the GHF and WHO is not intended to make the argument that ‘therefore all climate politics is wrong’, of course. However, this kind of thinking is evident in virtually every argument that we have seen which posits the human consequences of climate change as a basis for political action. It is a mistake that the GHF and WHO make. It is a mistake that was made when it was assumed that the lives of millions of people would be at risk from the exaggerated Himalayan glacial recession. And it seems that it is a mistake that is almost built into the operations of the IPCC.
The next move in any discussion is the trump card… the end-of-the world story that does not depend on modelling projections from presupposed scenarios. There remains a risk that greenhouse gases will cause runaway climate change. There remains the possibility that sea level rise will be so rapid and so high that it really does inundate society’s adaptive capacity. A small rise in temperature might unleash vast clouds of methane from under frozen land. Just a few degrees of warming may cause a mass extinction event, destroying the world’s biodiversity and capacity to support life. And so on. Only scientists can really understand these risks.
It’s a curious thing to happen. Anyone can construct a superficially plausible disaster story and then demand that only the scientist with the exact pertinent qualifications can stand in the way of its moral authority. It is the straightforward application of the precautionary principle.
Such arguments are scientific only in the sense that they are expressed in technical terms, or require some technical knowledge to unpack them. They are not claims of the same order that are made more often in the debate that attempt to match theory with empirical evidence.
It makes no difference what that actual numerical values of such risk calculations are. That the scenario they depict is remotely plausible makes ignoring them – rhetorically speaking – as good as inviting them. The mere possibility that your existence is threatened is held over the debate in much the same way as a gun to the head. Not simply the worst-case scenario, but the worst-possibly-imaginable scenario carries more weight in debate than anything rational. And it is passed off as “science”. To challenge it is to “deny” science. This is not a phenomenon that it is unique to climate politics.
If people want to take issue with our contention that climate politics are prior to climate science, they are most welcome. They could, for example, argue that we are overstating the degree to which the politics is prior. We are unaware of any extant sociological accounts of science that deny any confounding effect of politics in the scientific endeavour. A good argument might be made, for instance, that science’s quality control measures of peer review, replication and the like are more effective than we credit when it comes to squeezing out messy humanity from the process, or that political and scientific institutions are better than we believe at appraising their own biases, fears and desires when commissioning, conducting and interpreting policy-relevant scientific research. But, as a general rule, that is not what happens.
Rather, we are accused of denying material reality, of attacking or disprepecting science… of postmodernism gone mad. Which is as funny as it is infuriating. Because to deny that climate politics is – to a greater or lesser degree – prior to climate science is as at odds with reality (and even the academic consensus) as the notion that the causal universe is merely a product of our collective imaginations. If we are wrong, it is only by degree. It’s an argument we would enjoy having. But it’s not going to happen when just to broach the subject is seen as a sign that we are anti-science. It is those writing us off as such who are wrong in absolute terms.