The Climate Change 'Debate': Who Gains?

by Steve McGiffen, Ph.D.

Posted April 7th, 2010

One of the more bizarre phenomena of recent years, as well as one of the most instructive, is the widespread idea that there is continuing doubt that the climate is changing, and that human activities are responsible for this change. There is, in fact, no such doubt, other than in the general scientific sense that all things are open to doubt.

The belief that the case for climate change is weak, not proven, or invented by sinister forces, can only have become so widespread because of the disturbing lack of general knowledge about science which exists throughout the world. It is reinforced, however, by an equally widespread failure to understand the nature of power, the nature of information, and the relationship between the two.

Let's begin with the lack of understanding of science. Whilst it is unfortunate that so many people are unaware of the most basic facts about the world and the universe in which they live, it is not so much this lack of empirical information to which I'm referring. As those I have taught will know, I have a terrible memory, and would need to check my facts before writing anything which involved, say, the laws of thermodynamics, or the order of geological epochs. Not knowing such things, or not being able to remember them, is sad, but it has relatively little impact on our ability to understand areas of knowledge outside the natural sciences. Not so the ubiquitous level of ignorance about the scientific method, for this allows people to make the most preposterous statements and get away with them.

To illustrate this, take the idea that NATO, or the European Union, is responsible for having maintained peace in Europe in the era following World War Two. It is perfectly reasonable to argue this as an opinion, but to many people it appears to need no argument. We have had NATO since 1949 while the European Community, the EU's predecessor, was founded in 1957. Since then we have had relative peace in the ever-growing areas of Europe to which their remit extends. This, however, says nothing about causality. I may as well say that the elephant repellent I built at the entrance to my garden in rural France has been highly effective, a fact which can be demonstrated by the  fact that my potager remains unmolested by elephants. Simply to present two facts (NATO + EU/lasting peace, elephant repellent/untrampled vegetable plot) says nothing whatsoever about causality. Causality can be tested only by experimental methodology and this methodology, with rare exceptions, is not available to political or social 'scientists'. We cannot watch what would have happened in a Europe without NATO, or the EU. We are, in other words, in the realm of informed opinion, and not science at all. On causality, we can only speculate, though with varying degrees of confidence. There are methodologies – multiple case study, for instance – which help get round this problem, but the problem itself remains.

This is not the only way that people's ignorance of science allows them to believe the most preposterous things, or to present opinion as if it were fact. We are all familiar with the claim that evolution by natural selection is 'only a theory'. Less familiar is the corollary of this: so is every other set of ideas which is based on a wide set of observed facts. This does not apply to 'ideas' such as 'intelligent design', which fits no observed facts whatsoever, or the idea that the moon is made of green cheese or (my favorite) that the universe was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (see Each of these is based on 'faith', which so far as I understand it is precisely an ability to believe things for which there is no evidence at all. This makes faith a personal matter between you and whatever you have faith in, which may be a deity or deities, 'humanity', or, as in my case, a chronically unsuccessful soccer club. There cannot possibly be any clash between such ideas and science, which is evidence-based. They simply inhabit different realms of human experience. Faith may sustain us if we find ourselves in an airplane which is plummeting toward the ocean or a mountain range; only science can help ensure that our chances of doing so are vanishingly small.

I could give countless examples of this failure to understand that science is a unique form of knowledge and not simply another Weltanschauung, and of the dangers inherent in this failure. But I feel I have made my point, and so want to move on to what I call above “the nature of power, the nature of information, and the link between the two.”

Most statements, including this one, are ideological. I hesitate to say 'all statements' as I have an aversion (at least when sober) to such sweeping statements, but even such an absolute may arguably be defensible. If I tell my students that the IMF and WTO are instruments of neocolonialism, this is clearly an ideological statement and one which, in a pedagogical context, I would feel the need to balance with references to, for example, these institutions' own websites, where you will find a  rather different view expressed. If I tell them that Russia is not a member of the WTO, I don't feel the need to refer them to a website which argues the opposite. That would plainly be absurd. The statement doesn't appear ideological. It's simply an incontestable  fact. Still, the fact that I have chosen to tell my students this incontestable fact, to do so in a particular context, to juxtapose it with other facts, may well make it ideological. Consider the far right newspaper in London some decades ago which defended the content of its front page by arguing, correctly, that every story was true, and taken from a mainstream source. Each consisted of an  account of a violent crime committed by someone from an ethnic minority. The untruth was in not accompanying this with accounts of similar crimes committed by whites, or by admitting the selectivity. By selectivity, facts can be transformed into ideology, and truth into lies.

Ideology is ideas in the service of interests. The idea that the climate is changing is ideological. The idea that it is not, or that the explanation for the change lies in natural cycles, is also ideological. How to decide which is true? Well, one can begin with the fact that 99% of scientists in relevant disciplines are convinced that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, and that it is dangerous. But taken on its own this won't do. Go back less than half a century and you will find the people who discovered tectonic plate activity subject to opprobrium and ridicule, to take just one example. It is, of course, important to study the evidence, and in my view it's everyone's responsibility to know enough science to be able to do so. We can't all be experts on climate science any more than we can be experts on drama, but we are all capable of developing the ability to form intelligent judgments of a scientific proposition as much as we can of a play or movie.

In relation to complex questions of science such judgments will always be limited, but they will be less so if we begin by asking the most important question one can pose of any set of ideas, any Op-Ed (including this one), any article in any journal or newspaper: if I accept this, believe what I am being told, who gains?

Regarding climate change, clearly the fact that virtually all scientists are convinced means that they gain if we believe them. You could list others who would gain, including non-scientists whose living depends on this belief, such as employees of environmental NGOs, and a few relatively small companies selling alternative energy sources and so on.

On the other hand, who gains if we don't believe them? Well, one answer is that in the very near future it will become clear that in reality nobody does, but I am talking here of beliefs, and not reality. Those who gain from rejecting the idea of climate change include some of the world's most powerful forces, those who make their living from selling carbon fuels, those who maintain their power by generating irrational beliefs in the US and other populations, those who control an economic system so irrational and destructive that it must grow year-on-year, or wither away and die.

On the one side, men and women in white coats who are routinely presented as figures of fun in mainstream culture; environmentalists routinely reviled in popular 'news' outlets such as Fox News and in the (British, very right wing popular newspaper) Daily Mail. And, usually half-heartedly, some politicians, though in parliamentary democracies it's hard to get a man or woman who has to run for reelection every two or four years interested in anything beyond polling day, while of course those who run undemocratic countries also have to be careful what they do and say if they want to hang on to power.

On the other side of the divide stand, and by no means half-heartedly, Big Oil, Big Coal, big capital, and the media which they increasingly own and which take an ever-increasing proportion of their 'information' from corporate press releases.

One side is saying we need to make big changes to the way we live and do business, the other is saying everything's fine. The side that's telling us we can continue guzzling gas and burgers is also the one that in the US and much of the rest of the world owns every significant media outlet. The one that's telling us we have to change our ways is faced with explaining scientific ideas to a scientifically illiterate world.

If people would learn to think logically about such matters as causality, would learn a little science, and, most of all, learn that the first question to ask about any statement is 'Who gains', the climate change deniers would be taken no more seriously than those who deny the Holocaust.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the Op-Ed section of this website are the views of the authors of the articles and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the American Graduate School in Paris as an institution.

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