Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Environmental hysteria poses real challenges

Tristan Mills’s excellent article on Environmental Hysteria highlights his concern that our future – even a future where we counter or adapt to global warming – is in danger. “We need sensible debate, not hysteria,” he writes. “We should not dismiss someone because they go against the orthodoxy, we should listen and argue based upon evidence.” I heartily agree.

One of the greatest dangers that we face as a society today is the polarisation of debate and the demonisation of opponents. In the environmental arena, this has manifested itself in virulent attacks on those who question the received orthodoxy. For example, to argue that Bjørn Lomborg was wrong and to point out errors in his work would have furthered debate and aided our understanding of environmental challenges. Instead, opponents brought a case in front of the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty in a deliberate effort to destroy him and his career. The lesson of this action was clear: heresy will lead to trial by fire.

Indeed, like a fire, a lot of the environmental debate has generated more heat than light. This is a tragedy, for no matter what the truth, it will not be found in closed-mindedness. At all times, all progress has begun with people who demurred from the orthodoxy of the day. Whether their opinions became the new truth or merely helped sharpen the arguments of those who were right all along, they served mankind. Thus I not only defend the freedom of speech but positively encourage it. I would urge a rational debate with David Irvine as much as I would have with Galileo; it was on a thousand years of tyranny that the great liberals cut their teeth.

I have found myself on the wrong end of this. Having questioned environmental hysteria myself, I have been branded a global warming sceptic (or sometimes, more strongly, a denier) and given the look that left-wing friends usually reserve for oil barons and Americans that vote Republican. In fact, I have never denied that planetary average temperatures are rising, that the effect may be anthropogenic or that it may lead to negative effects. What I have done is argue that we must still entertain the debate, that dirigiste solutions should not be our first recourse, and that there may be more urgent emergencies facing the human race that deserve priority. But nobody is listening; they think I drive a Humvee.

I’ve probably done myself few favours by adopting the Devil’s Advocate approach and confronting my interlocutors with counter-arguments rather than discussing the issues in the round. That is a matter of style, and perhaps one I need to address. Nonetheless, I would have hoped that people whom I called friends would have been capable of engaging in a mature debate.

Having said this, there is an important lesson for us all, and it is not just one of style. Those who wish to promote discussion are becoming victims of “triangulation”, a devious stratagem that involves associating an opposing view with other views that are so outlandish that third parties are alienated and so give you their support. The enviro-fascists (by which I specifically mean those who would use authoritarian means to pursue their environmental agenda, or conversely those would use the environment as a fig-leaf for tyranny) would like nothing more than to paint liberals, genuine sceptics and the open-minded as short-sighted carbon-junkies in league with Big Oil or blind to the obvious truth.

As a result, those who would question environmental orthodoxy – because they doubt the science, the risks, whether it is a priority or simply whether the solutions prescribed are the best available – are in danger of ending up on the wrong side of the history. For the sake of all our futures, they need to recapture the intellectual high ground. For those who question the very fact of environmental danger, only sound evidence and rigorous method will provide protection. For those who accept that there is cause for concern but who would seek to change priorities or approaches, it is important that they stake out their own ground within environmentalism. For both groups, a steely determination will be needed if they are to weather the storm of protest that will engulf them.

In this bitterest of public debates, emotion is running high. If we are all to prosper into the 21st century, heated words call for cool heads.

1 comment:

Joe Otten said...

I'm not so sure that it is clear that Lomborg wasn't being dishonest. The Skeptical Environmentalist is a good polemic, and I would recommend it to anyone who is sure enough of themselves not to be unduly influenced by it. But it has attracted criticism for factual errors, which, had they been admitted and corrected, could have been put down to honest mistakes.

In any case Lomborg is saying, in a nutshell, that we should prioritise. And we do. Almost everything else has a higher priority than the environment. Lomborg is arguing for the status quo against a fairly extreme and minority kind of environmentalism.