The Lowest Uncommon Denominator

by | Jun 12, 2011

The Guardian’s ethical agony aunt, Leo Hickman complained yesterday that,

Climate sceptics flirt with intelligent design and Islamophobic group

Leaving aside the question about whether or not it is true that the group really is in the business of promoting Islamophobia and ID, so what? Even if it were true, why shouldn’t sceptics ‘flirt’ with them? Says Hickman,

Here we go again: prominent climate sceptics gathering together to meet under the welcoming awning of a right-wing, libertarian thinktank. And some people still choose to question the notion that climate scepticism tends to be far more motivated by rigid ideology rather than reasoned objections to the science?

Accepting an invitation to speak at a debate, is on Hickman’s view, equivalent to being an advocate of that group’s agenda or purpose.

But this is nonsense. Let’s imagine that a creationist, Islamophobic organisation held debates on those issues. Imagine also that it invited an Islamic scholar and an atheist evolutionary biologist, and they accept the invitation. Would that scholar and atheist, by virtue of accepting those invitations, now stand against Islam, and against Darwin’s theory? Of course not. So why would they accept the invitation? To answer questions about Islam and Darwin, of course, to offer a defence of them, and to challenge the opposing perspective. Debates and conferences are opportunities to exchange and challenge ideas. Conferences and debates are riven through with differences of opinion. If they were not, they would be called rallies instead.

Hickman continues,

This time the event is being held in Los Angeles and has been organised by a group called the American Freedom Alliance, which claims to be “a non-political, non-partisan movement which promotes, defends and upholds Western values and ideals”.

On Sunday, it will host “Big Footprint: Is Green the New Tyranny” at the UCLA Faculty Center. Speakers on the programme include Lord Monckton, Benny Peiser, James Delingpole, Phelim McAleer, Steven Milloy, Christopher Horner, and Richard Lindzen – all of whom are very familiar figures to anyone conversant with the climate debate.

As far as I am aware, these sceptics are not known for their views on creationism and Islam. I know one of them to be very religious, another an atheist. So in what sense is it meaningful that sceptics have accepted an invitation to an ‘intelligent design and Islamophobic group’?

There are two main problems for activist journalists like Hickman. First, he appears to claim that the sceptics are only able to see the world through ideological filters. Second, the implication is that his own argument is blessed by the gift of perfect sight — it has removed ‘ideology’ from its vision.

The trouble with this is that it gets things the wrong way round. Environmentalism is an ideological phenomenon, as has been discussed at length on this blog. In summary of the arguments here: environmental politics precedes environmental science, in spite of environmentalists’ claim to the contrary. That prior-ness of the political to the science is the presupposition of a highly dependent, determined, rigid relationship between the environment and human society (e.g. environmentalists make an equivalence of sensitivity of climate to CO2 and society to climate). Finally, that determined relationship is itself premised on quasi-mystical ideas about nature’s tendency to produce ‘balance’, and a low estimation of humanity. Meanwhile, nothing can be said about sceptics in general to characterise their perspective.

There is nothing that actually defines climate change scepticism. It’s not like environmentalism, which has at its core an eco-centric view of the world. This perspective gives the environmental movement identity: it has shared values, aims, beliefs — its ideology. It also therefore gives its critics grounds from which to criticise it. Climate sceptics, on the other hand, bring a range of views to the climate debate. Some of them may well be religious, and some may well be ‘ideological’ in the sense that Hickman uses it, but there is no core, positively-expressed philosophy of scepticism. To put that more neatly, climate-environmentalism is a particular perspective that attracts criticism from a range of other perspectives.

Hickman wants to say that scepticism is a particular, ideological phenomenon. But he is unable to take issue with scepticism in general — it has no defining premise. Hiding his own ideological perspective behind ‘science’, he is forced to look around the issue of climate scepticism without ever actually confronting it in the terms in which it is expressed. So instead, like many angry environmentalists, he looks for the connections: sceptics associated with energy companies; sceptics apparently in bed with people with odd and nasty ideas. And these are taken as the fundamental expression of climate scepticism, even though they have nothing to do with climate change. This sets up the polarised, binary moral dimension of the debate, with which we are all familiar. To take issue with climate change alarmism is to find oneself in a camp with all the bad people. To be a climate change denier is to be a religious nutter, a racist, on the ‘right wing’, and so on. What gets discussed then, is not the matter at hand — the climate, and what to do about it — but what links who to what. Neither the science of the climate or ‘ideology’ of either environmentalism or its critics ever gets discussed.

And how could it ever be discussed, when the presupposition is that any dialogue with climate change deniers — aka racists, aka religious nutters, aka bad people — is itself illegitimate?

Hickman’s framing of the climate debate is a defensive manoeuvre. However, it has been very successful. Environmentalists have been able to close down debate, and shut out criticism by sustaining the view that climate change scepticism is variously the result of particular agendas. It’s a simple strategy: you find the most unpleasant act or argument from somebody, however loosely associated with the opposite side they are, and suggest that it says something about the movement in general. In other words, you find the lowest uncommon denominator, and treat it as the lowest common denominator to suggest that it divides the other side. An example of this is the treatment by eco-journalists of the death threats made against climate scientists in Australia. Hickman tweeted,

Guardian now reporting death threats sent to climate scientists in Oz. Would be nice to see sceptics utterly condemn it

The implication, of course, is that sceptics must apologise for the actions of what Hickman presents as their comrades, as though they were somehow culpable.

Hickman’s colleagues at The Guardian have made much of some extreme anti-environmental actions recently. Hickman, Monbiot and Damian Carrington have themselves received email and phone threats, according to Carrington in an article in January. Carrington asked for comments below the line to suggest why this might happen.

So it’s clear that even in issues such as climate change there is an active fringe of people deploying violent rhetoric and hate mail against those with whom they disagree. Could that tip the balance between thought and action in the mind of an unstable individual? It’s a worryingly plausible thought.

My suggestion was that in order to make the use of violence legitimate, it is necessary to first dehumanise the people you had targeted. The anti-human agenda of environmentalism, therefore, might say something about the violence of the likes of the Unabomber and other environmentalists, that Carrington seemed to have overlooked in favour of looking at only death threats against environmentalists. The Unabomber’s manifesto, after all, bears uncanny resemblance to many articles in the Guardian. My comments and references to them were deleted and my account at the Guardian deleted.

Doesn’t this speak most loudly about the fact that those of a greenish hue have real difficulty answering their critics? It is almost as if they need to be the victims of death threats in order to portray climate sceptics in such a way. They need to be able to associate environmentalism’s critics with things such as creationism (never mind the mystical and mythological premises of their own perspective) and racism.

I challenged George Monbiot for similar attempts to smear his critics on Twitter recently. I asked him to account for his argument. Did he respond? Yes, by blocking me from his twitter feed: an action designed to prevent abuse of twitter by those making nuisances of themselves, and using the application to abuse others. There is no difference, it seems, in the Green mind between challenging a view, and abusing the holder of that view. So much for dialogue, the environmentalists are too nervous of criticism to permit it. They only want public debate on their own terms. No sceptics allowed.

To be fair to Hickman, he was prepared to have a discussion with me, via twitter. This is a limiting format — about as limited as it can get. I had pointed out to Leo in a ‘tweet’ that it was a problem for him that he concentrates on the alleged associations of sceptics, rather than the substance of their argument. Being the Guardian’s ‘ethical’ man, he should take criticism of environmental ethics seriously. He didn’t really like the ‘ethical’ tag, he told me. Odd, for the author of books called ‘A Good Life’, and ‘A life Striped Bare: My Year Trying to Live Ethically’. The discussion continued, as best it could in such a limited format, with me asking Hickman about the problems of eco-centric ethics. It came to an end because, it seemed, he felt that the use of ‘what ifs’ in a conversation about the substance of his ethical perspective, were ‘high theory’, and belonged in a philosophy seminar, not in the real world. It seems obvious that the author of many articles and a number of books about environmental ethics, who seems to want those ethics to be brought to bear over public policy has a very shallow, narrow, and hollow understanding of ethics.

This experience is consistent with each of the limited occasions I have been able to actually get environmentalists to have a discussion. It always begins with the guilt-by-association argument against sceptics, who fly in the face of scientific evidence. Period. Once they concede that this is not a binary debate — that the debate is more complicated that ‘climate change is happening’ versus ‘climate change is not happening’ — discussion explodes, exposing the mystical, mythological and ideological prejudices of environmentalism. No wonder, then, that environmentalists are terrified of debate, and not only refuse to participate in it when it creates the possibility of embarrassing them; they are terrified of it happening at all, and so have to resort to making claims about the associations of the participants of other discussions, rather than the substance of that discussion.

So, then, what is there to say about the conference in question?

This is what Hickman says,

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that some of them are happy to accept the invitation of an organisation that has promoted intelligent design and seems to tread a very fine line indeed between fighting “Islamic fascism” and outright Islamophobia. Are these speakers happy – or even aware – of the company they will be keeping this weekend? Is it fair to assume they did their homework on this group before accepting their invitation to be flown to LA to participate in the event?

I have no idea what the American Freedom Alliance ‘really’ stands for other than what it says on its about page:

In America, faith is voluntary and cannot be imposed;
In America, faith is consistent with freedom of inquiry, critical thinking and the application of reason and logic;
In America, faith tolerates those who question, those who change their faith and those who reject faith altogether.
It is affirmed by the American Freedom Alliance that humanity thrives on freedom of conscience. Without it, the human personality and its potential for goodness, creativity and altruism are stifled. To the extent that freedom of conscience is denied, the opportunities for oppression, coercion and totalitarianism are multiplied exponentially.

Oh, such evil…

To the claims that the AFA are ‘creationist’, and ‘Islamophobic’, the website does seem to link to material that speaks about the ‘rise of Islam’ in Europe, threatening Western culture; and there seems to be links to literature that attempts to challenge at least part of the evolutionists account of life on Earth. I think this is a bit silly — I don’t believe Europe is being ‘Islamified’, and is doing a grand job of rejecting the enlightenment all by itself, no help from without. I also have little time for the creation debate. (And anyway, don’t we see prominent muscular atheists making similar statements about Islam?) But however silly these are, the AFA appears to commit itself to debate on these matters:

All residents of Southern Calfornia, regardless of political persuasion, religious beliefs, philosophical stance or scientific conviction, are invited to join us in these vital discussions on who we are and where we came from.

Hickman concludes:

So, my central question is simply this: are these climate sceptics – particularly ones such as Peiser and Lindzen who like to position themselves away from the fringes as mainstream speakers for their cause – proud to be speaking under the banner of this organisation?

But the sceptics there are not ‘speaking under the banner of this organisation’. They are meeting to discuss the following topics:

10:00 am – 11:15 am:
Morning Panel – Global Warming: Alarmism or Looming Catastrophe?
11: 30 am – 12: 45 pm: Morning Breakout Sessions
a. The Al Gore Road Show: The Media and Global Warming
b. Are there Financial Incentives for Advocating Global Warming.
c. Is there an Element of Religiosity to Global Warming Advocacy?
1:45 pm – 2:45 pm: Afternoon Keynote: Michael Shaw
Agenda 21 and the U.N. Mandate for Social Revolution
2: 45 pm- 4:00 pm: Afternoon Panel:
The Sustainability Agenda: Who Gains, Who Loses?
4:15 pm – 5:30 pm: Afternoon Breakout Sessions
a. The Drive towards Population Control/ Non Governmental Organizations and their Power
b. ICLEI and its Impact on Local Government / The Challenges to U.S Sovereignty
6:30 pm: Cinema Gateway Screening of Cool It!
9:00 am -10:30 am
10:30 am – 11:45 am: Morning Keynote: Wesley J. Smith
Is the Animal Rights Movement Attempting to Destroying the Concept of Human Exceptionalism?
12 noon – 1:00 pm: Morning Panel
Transhumanism, Deep Ecology and Ecocide: How Are Shifting Social Attitudes Re-shaping Our Appreciation of Human Uniqueness?
Lunch film screening: The Bio-Ethics Debate: What Value Has Human Life?
2:15 pm- 3:30 pm: Afternoon Plenary : Chris Horner
The Great Energy Debate: Are Fossil Fuels Really on the Way Out?
3: 45 pm – 5:00 pm: Afternoon Panel:
Ethanol, Solar and Wind Power: What Are the Costs, What are the Benefits?

This looks to me to be perhaps the most interesting programme of any debate about the climate or environment I have ever seen. I am an atheist (though I don’t wear the badge on my lapel) and would count myself as a ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’… I don’t care what the alleged links between the organisers of this event are or what their agenda is… I am glad these debates, with these topics are being held, and these questions asked about the agenda of environmentalism. The discussion about Islam and Islamophobia, creationism and evolution can happen elsewhere, at another time. All agendas need scrutiny, especially those with such far-reaching influence as the environmental movement seems to have achieved.

But Hickman et al seem resistant to the idea that eco-centric ideas should be challenged. They seem to be against debate. And the reasons for this seem obvious. They are terrified of debate, not simply because they do not trust any organisers who dare to challenge environmental orthodoxy, but because they do not trust individuals — whatever their persuasion — to come away from such a debate having made up their own minds about the arguments they have been exposed to. The censorious and elitist character of the rhetoric from environmentalists are not the marks of self-confidence, or trust in science: they are aware of the fragility of their own perspective. The debate between environmentalists and their critics is not divided on ‘science’. It is divided by a lie about what it means to criticise environmentalism. Only one half is allowed to speak.


  1. Russell C

    I’ve been digging into the long-term smear of skeptic scientists for 17+ months now, this idea that skeptics are “motivated by rigid ideology rather than reasoned objections” is a particular mainstream media talking point I’ve seen several times. Others include the idea that skeptics are too greedy to change their lifestyles to save the planet, too ignorant about settled science, can’t handle oppressive news and instead deny the obvious, etc, etc. Everyone one of these is presented in order to distract the public from hearing complaints about what’s wrong with the underlying science.

    It’s positively staggering how long they’ve gotten away with this, it is nothing more than a shell game and it can’t possibly last. We have to remember that we outnumber the MSM, and unrelenting pressure on asking tough questions will have results. The MSM is facing such dilemma with another of their oft-repeated talking point, please see my latest article about that: “Will MSM Look into the Global Warming Abyss and Find Their Character?”

  2. Donna Laframboise

    Another solid post. Please keep ’em coming. Particularly love this line:

    Conferences and debates are riven through with differences of opinion. If they were not, they would be called rallies instead.

  3. Peter S

    When it comes to debating, we might wonder if the refusal to exchange is prior to the environmentalist belief. The claim being made is that because the world is ending, exchange no longer has any value. Or, looked at another way, exchanging is presented as an obstacle to a far more important activity… saving the world. Making room for exchange, it seems, causes the world to end.

    So it’s worth asking whose world would end if exchange was insisted upon and the space set out for it to be entered into (despite the dark threats of the risks involved)? As most adults know from experience, a new world can’t begin until the old one has been let go of… and the single most defining aspect of the grown-up world is its allowance for – and its value of – mutual exchange.


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