Climate Science and the Climate Debate

by | Nov 28, 2010

I’ve been too busy for blogging recently. To break the silence, I thought I’d post this presentation I gave at a debate at York University this time last year. The discussion was about the view often expressed by environmentalists that there is no need for any further scientific debate.  Needless to say, our side won the vote about the motion.

One of the most striking characteristics of the climate debate is the almost routine confusion of politics and science.

“Climate change is happening”, we’re told, time and time again, therefore “we need strong, radical, international frameworks on climate change”, laws, regulation, and maybe even rationing in order to prevent a disaster.

In this view, we need to fundamentally change our economies, our industry, and our lifestyles. And we need institutions to be put in place to make sure this happens.

This has even become an argument against democracy itself. This argument holds that the public are too stupid to understand the gravity of the situation we face. Democracy therefore becomes no more than a means to satisfy individual greed and indulgence in the face of catastrophe.

“We are fiddling with our ipods and plasma widescreen TVs while Rome burns.”

My argument here is that to forbid the discussion of the science of climate change is therefore to forbid the discussion of the organising principle of today’s political institutions.

We cannot challenge it because it exists behind closed doors. It exists on computer simulations, guarded by today’s priests: a holy order of climate scientists.

The scientific proposition that CO2 causes or will cause catastrophe has formed the basis of a system of ethics and a system of politics. This system is environmentalism, and it exists in contrast to human-centric systems of thought and politics. It informs the creation of supra-national political organisations, such as the UNFCCC and treaties that follow in its wake. It informs our industrial transport and the energy policies and strategies of our government. It establishes the relationship between individuals and the state.

We take it for granted that this proposition, or set of propositions, is true, because science is, in today’s world, the last seat of authority.

The question I have is about whether that desire for political authority exists before or after climate science. I believe that the politics is prior.

The unstated premise of environmentalism is that politics is impotent to face the challenges of development.

Once this view has been established, once we decide that politics is pointless, catastrophe becomes a given.

As I argued on Tuesday, catastrophe is inevitable, only if we take it for granted that we cannot organise the world to combat poverty through development, i.e. through the creation of wealth.

We hear so often that climate change will be worse for the poor, but we never interrogate this claim to ask whether it might be better to address the issue of poverty than to attempt to make other people’s lives better by driving less.

So we hear that the 300,000 deaths attributed to climate change are a bigger concern than 40 million deaths — and the rest — from poverty, throughout the world.

This dysnumeric moral calculus is owed to our politicians’ inability to generate authority for their political ideas in political terms: by asking you to engage with them, for instance. It is owed to their inability to connect with the public. This has driven politicians to search for another basis for their authority. Contemporary politics cannot conceive of a way of making life better for the millions or billions of people living in poverty in this world, never mind finding a way of improving life for the rest of us. There is no science which could serve as the basis for such an idea.

Accordingly, we are forced to accept a form of politics that is limited by the ethical imperatives seemingly issued by climate and environmental science

This, it is argued, is evidence-based policy-making.”The science is in”, and the continued debate about climate change impedes the possibility of “rising to the challenge” we are faced with. Instead, I would argue, we can see policy-based evidence making.

The catastrophes that we are confronted by, are instead the products of today’s vapid political imaginations. They confused their own impotence for material reality. No wonder the other ‘side’ does not want there to be a debate.

A continued debate might reveal just how hollow today’s political discourse actually is: what is passed off as climate science is a fig leaf. It hides our politicians shame: an embarrassment of bad faith, bad politics, and bad science.


  1. geoffchambers

    You say:
    “The scientific proposition that CO2 causes or will cause catastrophe has formed the basis of a system of ethics and a system of politics. This system is environmentalism…”
    The proposition that CO2 causes or will cause catastrophe is difficult to find in the science. It seems to exist in a Nomansland between the science and the moral imperative, hiding first under one thimble, then under the other (Steve McIntyre’s happy comparison) from which it is relayed by journalists and activists, whose constant message is “scientists tell us we must…”
    My colleague sisterdingo had a discussion about this last week at
    when one warmist stated “there is no place for the word catastrophe in the science” and then kept trying to persuade us, for days on end, that catastrophe was inevitable, proven, etc.
    They want their science to be catastrophic, but also settled and above reproach. You don’t have to be a scientist to see that they can’t have it both ways.

  2. Ben Pile

    Indeed, Geoff, that should be:

    “The seemingly scientific proposition that CO2 causes…”

  3. geoffchambers

    There’s a discussion of Eco-schools, a truly Orwellian government-supported programme at:
    which is right up your street. I commented:
    “…Environmentalism is an ideology, no doubt, and so like many -isms which have come and gone, has its roots in the “social unconscious” – the invisible workings of our society. The Marxisms and Fascisms which so marked the 20th century were born in violence, and gave rise to unspeakable horrors, but at least claimed a semblance of democratic legitimacy in being genuine mass movements. Environmentalism is none of these things, yet has achieved power in all our institutions, from political parties to primary schools…”

    to which BBD added:
    “Not many here are regulars over at Climate Resistance, which is a shame”.

    The BishopHill discussion was sparked off by the comment of a teacher on a Telegraph thread, and echoes a long-running discussion on the infiltration of school exams by off-topic environmentalism at Harmless Sky:

    The anger and concern expressed at the original Telegraph article and at BishopHill and Harmless Sky suggest that this might be the subject to light a spark of protest. It wasn’t theology that got Luther nailing his theses up, but anger at indulgences. Likewise, it’s not Climategate, but something that affects our lives like our children’s education, which will move people politically.

  4. Dominic

    In the interests of full disclosure, BBD = Dominic in comments here.

  5. Philip

    “…this might be the subject to light a spark of protest.”

    Paradoxically, I’m a little surprised that the threat of the lights going out hasn’t had that effect.

    PS: I didn’t realize you were a colleague of sisterdingo. Please pass on my regards for her many excellent statements.

  6. Philip

    Not sure whether this is good or not, but I got a response from the great man himself accusing me of “using exactly the same sleight of hand” as Patrick Moore. I’m a little surprised – and pleased – to find out that he apparently thinks I know enough about this to be able to apply such a tactic.

  7. JMW

    “Notice that George is at it again – targeting Patrick Moore this time…”

    Just read a few links of Moore’s that Monbiot links to in his “article”.

    My short verdict is I don’t think he read [read: read and understood] a damn paragraph of any of the articles he linked to at all; just picked whichever line would cause the most number of jaws to hit the floor and went with that, in the hopes that nobody at the Guardian would show a greater level of reading competency than Monbiot.

    And he calls himself a journalist. Hack is more like it.

  8. Philip

    “just picked whichever line would cause the most number of jaws to hit the floor and went with that”

    Ever since Geoff got me interested in following Monbiot’s blog more closely, I’ve noticed this as a main line of attack on just about any environmental issue – pick whatever individual facts or quotes show problems in the worst possible light and ignore the bigger picture. I suppose the justification is that this kind of tactic brings specific problems to people’s attention. Trouble is that since there is no balance, the keen Monbiot followers all end up with a twisted view on the reality of these issues – and that unfortunately seems to include many of the current UK government! He’s at it again in his subsequent post:

  9. SPAM - Julie K. - SPAM

    Believe it or not we can solve the Climate change (very probably) just on the political level. Yes, we need strong and radical movements on worldwide base to mitigate the impact (mostly) of human’s activity on the environment. Well, if you doubt that politicians are not capable to do that, who else then?


  10. j ferguson

    What is a real estate spammer?

  11. Ben Pile

    JF, Julie’s comment linked to her real estate website. The purpose of posting here with a comment which barely related to the discussion was to make it appear to search engines that her site was popular. The more pages that link to your site, the more likely you are to appear near the top of internet searches.


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