What Climate Change Can Do For the Left

A review of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, by Mike Hulme (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

More than a few people will be tempted to buy this book based on the promise, implicit in its title, that it offers an examination of the ideas and motives of both sides in the global warming debate. But that is not what this book is about. Rather, it is the musings of a British socialist about how to use the global warming issue as a means of persuading "the masses" to give up their economic liberties. The fact that the author, Mike Hulme, is a scientist who helped write the influential reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and many other influential government agencies makes this book more disturbing than informative.

In his preface, Hulme frankly admits that his perspective is colored by his politics - "democratic socialist"(p. xxxiv) - and it soon becomes apparent that the only disagreements about climate change he's aware of are those occurring between the left (people who think like him) and the far left, people he describes as "eco-anarchists" (p. 268), "eco-socialists" (Ibid.), and "eco-authoritarians" (p. 309). Opposition from centrists, conservatives, libertarians, and nonideological opposition from scientists who dispute his alarmist spin on the complicated data of global warming merit hardly any mention.

In this 365-page book, I counted just six references to people who don't share the author's belief that global warming is a crisis, with the first not appearing until page 72 and two of them to the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, who hardly counts. (Lomborg says anthropogenic global warming may be a scientific fact, but it would cost too much to do anything about it.) Only two of the five "skeptics" (or "realists" as they preferred to be called) are actually quoted, the rest just mentioned in passing.

Holme accepts, apparently without reservation, the Gospel of the IPCC:

"The IPCC ... has constructed and presented a powerful scientific consensus about the physical transformation of the world's climate. This is a reality I believe in" (p. 325).

Since he produced the climate scenarios used by the IPCC in producing its reports (according to his bio on an unnumbered page in the book), he is essentially projecting the product of his own research and imagination onto the entire scientific community.

The notion that science can be determined by government agencies proclaiming to speak on behalf of entire scientific communities might be passively accepted in Old Europe, but it is jarring for an American reader. Opinion polls show two-thirds of us do not believe global warming is man-made and more than 30,000 American scientists (including more than 9,000 with Ph.D.s) have signed a petition saying there is no convincing scientific evidence that human activity will cause catastrophic global warming. A group of scientists called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) has produced an 880-page rebuttal of the latest IPCC report containing more than 4,000 references to peer-reviewed science.

There is a debate taking place about global warming in America, and it is not the one described by Hulme as being between those who favor "cap and trade" and those who favor even more radical changes in "political, social, and economic behaviour" (p. xxvii). Rather, it is about how much of the warming of the late twentieth century was natural and how much was man-made, whether the consequences of that warming were on balance positive or negative, and whether anything should be or could be done to prevent or delay future warming. This debate - the real public policy debate - is entirely missing from this book.

Convinced that the scientific debate is over and he won, Hulme devotes most of his attention to finding ways to overcome "barriers other than lack of scientific knowledge to changing the status of climate change in the minds of citizens - psychological, emotional, and behavioural barriers" (p. 215). He attempts to explain the public's failure to respond to his calls for action in terms of popular theories of irrational group behavior, such as anchoring, fear of change, and so on. He lacks the power of introspection that would have led him to understand the fountains of his own irrational beliefs.

The real purpose of this book isn't revealed until late into it. "The idea of climate change," Hulme writes at page 326, "should be seen as an intellectual resources around which our collective and personal identifies and projects can form and take shape. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us." According to Hulme, climate change can do a lot: "Because the idea of climate change is so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical, and spiritual needs" (p. 329).

In other words, socialists like Hulme can frame the global warming issue in such as way as to achieve seemingly unrelated goals such as sustainable development, income redistribution, population control, social justice, and many other items on the liberal/socialist wish-list.

Like the notorious Stephen Schneider, who once said "we have to offer up scary scenarios make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts one might have . . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest," Hulme says "we will continue to create and tell new stories about climate change and mobilise them in support of our projects" (p. 330). These "myths," he writes, "transcend the scientific categories of ‘true' and ‘false'" (p. 341). He suggests that his fellow global warming alarmists promote four myths, which he labels Lamenting Eden, Presaging Apocalypse, Constructing Babel, and Celebrating Jubilee.

It is troubling to read a prominent scientist who has so clearly lost sight of his cardinal duty -- to be skeptical of all theories and always open to new data. It is particularly troubling when this same scientist endorses lying by others to advance his personal political agenda.

Read this book if you want insight into the mind of a scientist who has surrendered all moral authority to speak truthfully about global warming. Avoid it if you are looking for a book that explains why we disagree about climate change.

Joseph Bast is President of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Chicago, and editor of Climate Change Reconsidered: The 2009 Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (Heartland Institute, 2009).
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