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We're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Don't ask me to help out
Highlighting the climate crisis is not 'alarmism', as critics say. Big Business wants an exclusive focus on climate because it downplays the true reasons for alarm
A small section of my followers are excited that someone on Substack has written a “rebuttal” that supposedly “tears apart” my recent article on the climate crisis. Loathe as I am to promote climate scepticism, for those who are interested it can be read here. Its supporters seem to believe it outs me as a deep-state plant, or dupe, or shill, or some other nefarious figure you would be best advised to shun.
The author’s “rebuttal” gains an air of plausibility, I suppose, because this is a rare instance where my analysis looks, at least to the casual reader, like it overlaps with current orthodoxy. I think there is a climate crisis. The BBC thinks there is a climate crisis. Ergo, I am no better than a state-corporate stenographer, if not actually working for MI5.
The author of this “rebuttal” does much to muddy the waters on my actual arguments by setting up straw men and by misrepresenting the fact that my central argument is that the current orthodoxy is designed to deceive us and make us do nothing to avert the climate crisis.
Very belatedly, the BBC, along with politicians and the corporations, concedes that the climate crisis is real and we therefore need to invest in lots of new expensive technologies that are supposedly going to save us. I argue that the climate crisis is real and that the new technologies being so aggressively promoted are mostly not going to help, and that instead the climate-crisis discourse is being weaponised to make Big Oil and other corporations even richer, while nothing effective is actually done.
Those aren’t the same, or even similar, positions. They are radically different ones.
In general, I avoid engaging with attacks of this kind – which is sadly what they are, rather than good-faith efforts to engage in dialogue. And I’m not going to get into the weeds of this one, if only because life is short. But because a surprisingly large section of my followers seem suspectible to this kind of climate “scepticism”, I wish to make a few general points about why this – and similar critiques – should not be taken seriously.
Also, and some readers may find this helpful, my response here requires me to restate the original arguments contained in a very long, digressive piece in far more compact form. That may help bring my key arguments into clearer focus.
Notably in his “rebuttal”, the author avoids addressing either of the two tracks of history I set out as important evidence to make my case:
First, the scientific principles behind global warming were understood very well back in at least the 1950s. The scientists who had most intimate knowledge of what the fossil-fuel industry was up to (because they were employed by Big Oil) were soon able to make precise predictions – in secret, of course – about how much carbon would be pumped into the atmosphere and what effect that would have on global temperatures decades before those effects took place.
Second, the fossil-fuel industry, politicians and the media concealed or downplayed that information for as long as they could. They dramatically switched tack only recently, exactly at the point their own scientists had correctly warned that it would no longer be possible to conceal from the public the tangible effects of increased atmospheric carbon on the weather. At that point the corporate-state complex became enthusiastic about paying lip service to climate change, while doing nothing. That was because, by that time, they had refashioned the discourse to make it look like they were part of the solution rather than the problem.
The author ignores these arguments, presumably because he doesn’t have any good arguments of his own to contradict them.
Instead he offers boilerplate climate scepticism, of the kind Nigel Lawson specialised in and the BBC endlessly indulged for a couple of decades, when there was still time to act, and before Big Oil had had time to get its misdirection game together.
Tellingly, the author relies on figures like Dr Judith Curry who are quite open about their ideological opposition to climate activism. Like many others, she correctly understands the political implications of a climate crisis: it means free-market capitalism must be abandoned. Many on the left similarly don’t like a climate crisis because it poses major challenges to current Western ideas of individualism.
The author of this piece has as his Twitter bio: “There is no ‘greater good’ than personal liberty.” It’s not even as though he is hiding his priorities. You can love personal liberty as much as you like – I’m a pretty big fan myself – but changes to the climate happen, as they have for billions of years, entirely independently of your and my personal ideological preferences. To think otherwise is a form of narcissism.
There are lots of people, especially on the left and right, including scientists, who don’t like the implications of a climate crisis because it disrupts their political value system. There are lots of people, especially liberals, who embrace the climate crisis – the “alarmists”, as the author calls them – because they don’t properly understand the political implications of the crisis, or because the politicians and media have successfully persuaded them that, correctly, nothing is really going to change.
My article was pointing out that all of them are engaged in a nonsense debate – because the climate is going to respond to planetary processes, such as carbon cycles, entirely independently of any of their or my belief systems. The author “rebutting” me sidesteps this point, instead trying to drag the debate back into futile, time-wasting political tribalism.
As I highlight in my piece, it’s not even as though the climate crisis exists as a one-off. We have ecological collapse beginning on every front – something that, by focusing exclusively on the climate crisis and supposed solutions to it, the state-corporate complex can usefully ignore.
Highlighting the climate crisis is not “alarmism”, as critics insist. The exclusive focus on climate is actually a way to underplay the alarm. It corrals an entirely reasonable sentiment into one, limited arena, one where bogus solutions can be offered to reassure us, providing cover as Big Business further enriches itself. What we truly need is an urgent debate about how the climate crisis fits into a much more general, even more terrifying, planet-wide ecological system collapse provoked by humans. Among the writers here on Substack trying get to grips with these issues is Paul Kingsnorth. (Please feel free to highlight others in the comments below.)
The author of the “rebuttal”, like other sceptics, demands that we wait and see how things unfold – as though we haven’t already been waiting for decades and seen exactly how things are unfolding. Things are unfolding as the climate experts warned they would, except the problems are mostly happening faster than expected because science is inherently conservative in the way it arrives at its conclusions. Time is not on our side.
Even if you imagine there is some room for doubt, you should still be pushing hard for things to be done to minimise climate change and related ecological catastrophes if only on the precautionary principle – because if they aren’t done, and the models are only half right, not only humanity but most complex life forms are going to be royally screwed.
We are about to set the evolutionary clock back by many tens of millions of years. If you understand Earth as a complex, living entity where humans have emerged as the pinnacle of consciousness after billions of years of evolution – the only place in the universe where we know for sure that has happened – continuing to trash the planet because doing something to stop it might infringe on our “personal liberty” seems short-sighted, to put it mildly.
A more interesting argument – one I ponder often and would struggle to respond to – is whether what is happening to us is inevitable: that we are operating in accordance with a universal principle, or what used to be called a “divine plan”.
Many cosmologists believe the universe exploded into existence from an initial singularity, in a Big Bang, that will one day either reach the limits of expansion and contract back to another singularity or stretch so far the universe becomes infinitely diffuse, lifeless and cold.
We observe that stars burn ever more brightly for billions of years till they consume so much of their fuel that they collapse, either into a cold world or a black hole.
Must we follow the same pattern? Do planets like Earth that host ever more complex, ever more conscious life eventually produce a life form that manages to overcome the physical restraints placed on its growth and ends up destroying the very conditions that made its existence possible?
This is a philosophical and spiritual question, as much as it is a scientific one. Which makes it no less meaningful or important.
Everything else looks like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Do it if it makes you feel better, but don’t ask me to join you.
Prof Barbara Hariss-White has kindly alerted me to an interesting new essay in the London Review of Books by Prof Geoff Mann, which deals with questions of uncertainty and politics around climate modelling, as my “rebutter” thinks he is doing. But Mann reaches conclusions that are directly opposed to my critics’ do-nothing approach.
Mann admits that predictions based on climate models must concede a significant degree of uncertainty. Put most starkly, our own reckless actions warming the planet could all be reversed overnight should a mega-asteroid crash into Earth, throwing up vast quantities of dust that block out sunlight. Then, we would be facing global cooling, not warming.
There are too many variables to make crystal-ball predictions. But, as Prof Mann also notes, the direction of travel we have set ourselves on is clear to all but the most deluded. In reality, he observes, the fact of uncertainty ought to have us more worried, not more complacent:
The point of highlighting the vertiginous degree of uncertainty is that we might not be making nearly as big a deal of climate change as we should. We are, as a result, tragically under-prepared for the possibility of really bad outcomes, yet at the same time far too confident in our level of preparation.
Science is dealing with probabilities, and the broad range of probability is that we are in serious trouble and that time is not on our side. Prof Mann makes a further, important point about our current political responses to the climate crisis:
A precise calculation of the ‘optimal’ carbon tax is nothing more than a claim that the best way forward is to perch the gargantuan machine of contemporary capitalism as close as possible to the precipice without tipping us all over the edge. That is neither efficient nor optimal. It is a myopic and recklessly arrogant approach to the unknown fate of life on earth.
What we need is a much more honest assessment of what we do not or cannot know, which is, among other important things, where the edge is. We might, in fact, be past it already, treading thin air like Wile E. Coyote before the fall.
We need to stress too that conclusions about our direction of travel are not uncertain – and do not depend primarily on evidence.
Even were there no scientific data yet showing an impending climate crisis, even were there no real-world evidence that “normal” weather is breaking down – and there are both – it would still be clear that our actions are driving us towards a climate catastrophe. Why? Because our societies are committed by every parameter to endless growth – especially in terms of resource extraction and economic expansion – that conflicts in its very essence with a bounded, finite eco-system that has taken billions of years to find the delicate balance necessary to support us, a highly conscious life form.
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