Global Warming

There are certain issues which should be matters of objective science but due to their consequences soon become entangled in politics and ideology. Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea1, compares Copernicus’ discovery that the Sun is the centre of the solar system with Darwin’s discovery of natural selection. He notes that by the time Galileo got in trouble with the Inquisition in the early 17th Century, the heliocentric theory of Copernicus had already been published and discussed by scientists for over fifty years. As such, despite the efforts of the Church, the heliocentric theory of the heavens had already been tested and accepted by the majority of Europe’s scientists with no ideology to hamper or distort the process. In contrast, the deep and powerful consequences of the theory of natural selection were noted right away; and so even today, one hundred and fifty years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, it is still thoroughly entangled with politics, religion and ideology. This is a pity, for truth should inform ideology, not the other way around.

Global Warming is another such issue. The measurement of global temperatures, the measurement of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, the modelling and prediction of climates: all these things are in principle objective scientific endeavours. If there were no political or ideological reasons for doing otherwise, they would be undertaken by various different scientists at various different institutions, who would then share the results of their research in peer-reviewed journals, which would gradually lead to a consensus.

Unfortunately, the prospect of massive climate change has opened a door to politicians and ideologues. If the Earth is in danger, they say, then something must be done. Naturally, whatever it is that must be done, must be done by the government. Only governments can possibly cope with a disaster of this magnitude. Leaving aside, for the moment, the possibility that in fact the government is the last institution one would want to interfere in anything of any real importance, we clearly already have a strong motivation for politicians to wish that Global Warming were real.

If Global Warming is real, then governments must be strong enough to deal with the threat. We need an active, powerful state to thwart this global menace. This appeals not only to politicians, who are usually more than happy to support any notion that grants them greater power and fame, but also to those who dislike capitalism. Global Warming, in economic parlance, is a market externality. A free market, so the theory goes, cannot adequately cope with Global Warming: for the good of the whole planet, we must restrain capitalism.

Thus politicians, pseudo-environmentalists and socialists all have something to gain from promoting the view that Global Warming is a real and imminent threat. Understandably, those that would prefer to keep the state out of the market, not to mention other aspects of our lives, do not like this. They see Global Warming being used as an excuse to expand the state, to take away their economic freedom and impose an authoritarian socialism.

Now Global Warming, which should be a matter for objective scientific investigation, has become an ideological matter. If you are an anti-capitalist and in favour of a powerful state, you support the theory that mankind’s industrial activity is endangering the planet. If you are a capitalist and in favour of a minimal state, you deny that theory and denounce those who claim Global Warming is real as “scare-mongers”.

Being something of a libertarian myself, at least where economics and the modern state is concerned, I have for some time hovered around the outskirts of the latter camp. I still have no doubt that many people who are most vocal about the danger that Global Warming poses are so because the consequences of such a position suit their ideological preferences rather than because they have any understanding of the scientific issues. However, I have been forced to concede that actually the weight of scientific evidence really does support the thesis that Global Warming is real and that it is to a significant degree caused by the emission of greenhouse gases by human industry. Its consequences may not be as dramatic as some millenarians would like but, I must admit, it does seem to be real.

Of course, we still must decide what to do about it. There is an argument to be made that the best way to prepare humanity for disaster is to ensure that as many people as possible live in a wealthy, secure and technologically advanced society. Such people can afford to adapt to changing circumstances and have the ability to do so. For example, much of the Netherlands is already below the sea-level. Thanks to their wealth and technological abilities, they are able to keep the sea at bay. In contrast, a relatively small rise in sea-level would be diastrous for Bangladesh. Perhaps they too could achieve the security of the Netherlands with a bit more free trade and capitalism.

[1] Daniel Dennett. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 1995. (p. 19)

Published in: on June 14, 2009 at 4:48 pm  Comments (4)  

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve posted a few of my own challenging the probable bias of the socialist/environmentalist ‘climate change industry’.

    I also particularly like the way this compiled series of links exposes something of the extent of ‘wolf’ being cried by the media.

    I can’t refute the idea of man being responsible for changes in the environment, and I would certainly not deny that the climate is subject to change. However, I recall the BBC (of all organisations!) reporting around the beginning of the year that the average global temperature had not actually risen at all in the previous ten years. If this is the case then it really does seem to cast a shadow of doubt over everything we are told about the climate getting significantly warmer.

  2. I have also made the claim that global temperatures did not rise over the last decade (I actually claimed that they fell) which is something that I got from a libertarian commentator on Samizdata. I think the best objective evidence I have found for that claim is this: 3 of 4 global metrics show nearly flat temperature anomaly in the last decade – a post on the Watts Up With That? blog.

    However, an important point made in that blog post is that ten years is much too short a time period from which to extrapolate any long-term trends.

    I no longer doubt that Global Warming is a real phenomenon. I am also pretty sure that human industry plays a significant causal rôle through the release of carbon dioxide (and methane). However, I also do not doubt that this unfortunate fact is being used by anti-capitalists/pro-big-statists as an excuse to promote their cause, probably with detrimental effects not only for human society in general but also for our attempts to deal with Global Warming.

    It’s the same old story: every environmentalist movement seems to get hijacked by socialists before long. It is a great shame — I would support genuine environmentalist movements wholeheartedly — but the world is sadly full of people who desire power over other people.

    Anyway, I’m off to the garden to sit in the sun, drink weissbier and read a rather good book.

  3. Good post. Reminded me of a documentary _The Great Global Warming Swindle_.

  4. Yeah. Sadly, that documentary is itself a bit of a swindle. Its entry in Wikipedia has a good summary of the criticisms made against it.

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