Broad based intellectual empowerment
22 November 2017 16:43 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The climate pendulum is swinging

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

The coronation of emperor Trump has upsides and downsides. Among the upsides is that he’ll try to reverse decades of alarmist climate policy. Sceptical scientists and policy wonks will get a few years in the sun, and that’s a good thing for the planet and its people.

The orthodox view of climate change is stated by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body formed by member governments to give scientific support to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty which aims to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system”.

The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report finds that warming of the climate system is unequivocal and unprecedented in recent history, and that human infuence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

Throughout its assessment, the panel qualifies its findings with adjectives describing confidence levels and quantifying likelihood. Implicit in such adjectives is the notion of uncertainty. One would think, therefore, that the political climate change establishment, as represented by the IPCC, would welcome further scientific research that seeks to improve the quality of particular claims, or debunk them.

Many scientists have weighed in on the matter, whether merely through research, or by taking public positions on particular aspects of climate change. Some of these positions have supported the preconceived aims of the UNFCCC, which were established at the treaty’s adoption 25 years ago in Rio de Janeiro. Some, however, have undermined the apparent consensus on which the treaty was based. Such is the march of scientific progress.

However, in the popular media and even in school curricula, the drumbeat about catastrophic climate change has been loud and persistent. An inordinate amount of credence is given to historical data, which is based on incomplete records of varying quality, opaque “corrections” which always seem to make the past cooler and the present warmer, and even proxies for temperature – such as tree rings – which do not even agree with instrumental records where they overlap.

As if the historical record was not uncertain enough, the predictions of computer models, which disagree with each other and are unable to fully capture the complexity of the climate system, are routinely treated as certain beyond dispute.

Being sure about the future is a curiously anti-scientific position to take.

Scientific results or opinions which are not consistent with the mainstream view that climate change is a serious crisis that requires urgent government-led action to sharply reduce human carbon emissions have been met with extraordinary campaigns to discredit the scientists involved. Dozens of sceptics have been subjected to witch hunts that have deeply affected their professional and even personal lives. In some cases, the pressure has caused them to withdraw from the field.

In a blog post about her resignation from Georgia Institute of Technology two weeks ago, climate change professor Judith Curry openly stated her disenchantment with the climate establishment: “A deciding factor was that I no longer know what to say to students and postdocs regarding how to navigate the CRAZINESS in the field of climate science. Research and other professional activities are professionally rewarded only if they are channelled in certain directions approved by a politicised academic establishment – funding, ease of getting your papers published, getting hired in prestigious positions, appointments to prestigious committees and boards, professional recognition, etc. How young scientists are to navigate all this is beyond me, and it often becomes a battle of scientific integrity versus career suicide (I have worked through these issues with a number of sceptical young scientists).”

Climate alarmists have been aghast at the request by Donald Trump’s transition team, shortly after his election as the next US president, that the Department of Energy provide a list of employees and contractors who worked on climate change issues. But however chilling such a request sounds, it is far from unprecedented.

In 2015, Democratic congressman Raúl Grijalva, the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, addressed a letter to seven institutions requesting details about the compensation, research funding sources and even e-mail correspondence of prominent sceptical scientists. This rightly raised concerns about academic freedom among their senior scientific peers.

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator, went even further, proposing prosecutions under racketeering laws designed to rein in the Mafia. Criminalising opinions about government policy is a grave threat to academic and political freedom, biases the policy response to climate change, and risks discrediting the discipline of climate science itself.

As if oblivious to the implicit threat to themselves, a group of 20 scientists led by Jagadish Shukla endorsed Whitehouse’s extraordinary proposal in a letter to US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch and Barack Obama’s chief science adviser and perennial alarmist, John Holdren. The chairman of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, responded to Shukla and his attorney, requesting information about the appropriation or misappriopriation of millions of dollars of taxpayer funding that was intended for climate research and not for political lobbying, as well as for allegedly double-dipping by drawing generous salaries from both his government-funded non-profit and his employer, George Mason University.

Shukla is hardly unique. Although climate change activists routinely point out alleged conflicts of interest among climate sceptics, the climate change movement has itself become a multibillion dollar industry supporting millions of jobs. A large and growing “green technology” industry depends heavily on government subsidies, contracts and regulations, and is supported by environmental lobby groups with annual budgets running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

It pays to be a climate alarmist. The financial connections at the nexus of academia, government and private industry, funnelling hundreds of millions of private and public dollars to climate change causes, are well documented.

Donald Trump’s apparent attempt to interfere in private and public science will be no more welcome than that of Grivalja, Whitehouse, Lynch, or Obama, but the outrage from the climate establishment smacks of hypocrisy.

Science has always been best served when scientists of different leanings are able to promote their views, challenge each other, and publish their findings without fear. Having long been silenced by the climate establishment, sceptics will breathe a sigh of relief, even as climate alarmists get a taste of their own medicine.

It is likely that Trump will try to yank the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, having declared climate change to be “bullshit” and a “Chinese hoax”. He promises to replace one set of crony-capitalists, dependent on regulations that favour left-wing causes, with another, dependent on regulations that favour right-wing causes. His goals are no less partisan than those of the Obama administration.

However, the pendulum has hung too far one way for far too long. Trump is not all-powerful. His influence will probably have a moderating effect on the kind of apocalyptic climate extremism that is ubiquitous in politics, science and society today, and which demands totalitarian interventions to suppress industry and limit human prosperity.

Instead of inculcating impressionable children with guilt-ridden neuroses about how they’re destroying the planet, a Trump presidency might instil in them a sense that human prosperity and progress is not an evil curse, but a blessing. Instead of presenting the pessimistic predictions of computer models as undisputed facts, a Trump presidency might restore scientific dispute and uncertainty to their rightful place in public policy debates. Instead of threatening to throw sceptics in jail for their opinions, perhaps a Trump presidency will allow frank and open contestation between opposing viewpoints. Instead of supporting the green technology industry through subsidies and mandates, Trump might level the playing field, so consumers can choose for themselves what mix of energy is both sufficiently clean and economically efficient. A Trump presidency will probably knock the climate change establishment down a peg or two, but that only means they’ll have to convince people with honesty and humility, instead of appealing to their own unquestionable academic authority to ram political conclusions about scientific subjects down plebeian throats. Perhaps sceptical scientists will no longer have to risk their careers for refusing to kowtow to the beliefs of a professional and political elite.

A Trump presidency fills many with foreboding, and rightly so. Just as Barack Obama and other presidents before him abused their powers, so, in all likelihood, will Trump. He is an excellent example of why libertarians argue that the power, size and scope of government ought to be limited. You might like it when your party is in power, but you’ll regret having signed over all those powers when the opposition replaces them.

However, just as the Obama administration was not only about spying on innocent civilians, expanding government bureaucracy, ruling by executive order, bailing out delinquent banks, and droning enemies merely on the president’s say-so, a Trump administration will not only be about executive power, religious fundamentalism and crony-capitalism. It will have upsides too. Giving the climate change industry a long-overdue shake-up would be a great start. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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