Science vs the Right: state of play
I stopped arguing with self-described “skeptics” on the topic of global warming some time ago, and I don’t intend to start again. I am however interested both in trying to promote sensible policy outcomes and in considering the broader political and cultural implications of the debate. For this purpose, there is no need to argue about hockey sticks, global warming on Mars or any of the other talking points that chew up so much time on the Internets (for anyone who is actually in doubt on any of these points, this is a useful resources
I’ll start with some facts that are, if not indisputable, at least sufficiently clear that I don’t intend to engage in dispute about them
(i) All major scientific organisations in the world endorse, in broad terms, the analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which states that the world is getting warmer and that, with high (> 90 per cent) probability, this warming is predominantly due to human action
(ii) Most prominent politicians, thinktanks, activists, commentators and bloggers on the political right in Australia, the US and Canada (along with a large section in the UK) reject, or express doubts about, this analysis. The uniformity of views is particularly notable among conservative thinktanks.
The dispute between mainstream science and the political right has now been going on for at least fifteen years, and has already had some profound impacts. At the beginning of this period, the right could plausibly present itself as the pro-science side of the “Science Wars” in which the enemies were the massed forces of leftwing postmodernism (a powerful force, given their near-total control over departments of English literature), sociologists of science and the wilder fringes of the environmental movement. However, this was always a storm in a teacup, ignored by the vast majority of scientists.
By contrast, the current war is being fought for high stakes, with the end result either a disastrous defeat for the institutions of mainstream science or the intellectual discrediting of the entire political right. There has been no significant convergence between the two sides. On the contrary, even as confidence in the mainstream scientific consensus was solidified be the released of the IPPP Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the rightwing opponents of science were buoyed by the La Nina event of early 2008, which produced a sharp, but temporary drop in temperatures, particularly in the Pacific. Comparisons with the El Nino peak of 1998 enabled them to announce that global warming had stopped, a point which was amplified in vast numbers of opinion pieces, blog posts and public statements, though not, to my knowledge, defended by any peer-reviewed statistical analysis.
Even such an obvious fact as the melting of Arctic ice, confirmed in the most direct fashion possible by the announcement of regular shipping routes around the Pole, with associated territorial claims, has been the subject of endless quibbles (attempts to restate these quibbles in comments will be deleted).
Furthermore, unlike the endless culture war disputes where the debating tactics of the right have been developed, there is a fact of the matter regarding anthropogenic global warming, which will sooner or latter become undeniable. Either global warming will continue, finally confirming the mainstream scientific viewpoint, or it will not.
Given the accumulation of scientific evidence, the odds are pretty strongly in favour of the first outcome. Scientific conclusions supported by a diverse range of independent theory and evidence sometimes turn out to be wrong, but you wouldn’t want to bet on it. Even more rarely, non-scientists with an axe to grind turn out to be right where scientists are wrong, but you really wouldn’t want to bet on that.
This raises the question of why the right has been so keen to double down on this issue. Of course, there’s no organised process by which an anti-science viewpoint on climate change and other issues is agreed on as a central orthodoxy from which dissent is prohibited, but you only have to look at the output of the political right in the English speaking countries to see that this outcome has been realised.
There are many explanations, perhaps so many that the outcome was overdetermined – powerful economic interests such as ExxonMobil, the hubris associated with victories in economic policy and in the Cold War, tribal dislike of environmentalists which translated easily to scientists as a group, and the immunisation to unwelcome evidence associated with the construction of the rightwing intellectual apparatus of thinktanks, talk-radio, Fox News, blogs and so on.
The issue is not going to go away, regardless of the short-term success or failure of attempts to reach a global agreement to stabilise the climate. The more clearly the political right is identified with the anti-science side of this debate, the harder it will be to salvage any of its existing institutions.
In a two-party system, even total intellectual incoherence will not prevent a political party from winning office when its opponents fail. But I’m surprised at the extent to which supporters of free markets have been willing to tie their case to an obvious imposture.
fn1. The only partial exception of which I am aware is the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which takes an equivocal position
fn2. For reasons of political necessity, some rightwing politicians occasionally make statements endorsing mainstream science on global warming. But only a handful (John McCain being the most prominent) give more than a half-hearted assent, and many (Brendan Nelson is an archetypal example) give different positions depending on the audience and the way the political wind is blowing on the day.