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Page last updated at 17:35 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Climate change - a story too often told the same way

Endurance swimmer dives in at North Pole


Having one-sided discussions about climate change helps no-one, says Clive James in his weekly column.

About 40 years ago now, the world used to hear a lot from a futurologist called Herman Kahn. Of ample girth and unquenchable volubility, Herman Kahn, who died in 1983, was always making confident pronouncements about what would happen in the future.

So and so, he would say, would happen 10, 20, 25 years years from now. It wouldn't happen tomorrow, so that you could check up on it straightaway, but it would happen 10, 20, 25 years from now.

Clive James
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Some of us realised that he had invented a new unit of time, and we gave it a name. In tribute to Fermi, who could measure electrons, we called his new unit of time the Hermie. The merit of the Hermie, as a unit of measurement, was that, while being vague, it sounded impressive.

The prediction itself might or might not have been right. Herman Kahn predicted that within one Hermie everyone in the West would fly his own helicopter and have access to free-fall sex. That didn't happen within one Hermie, but it still might happen in the next Hermie.

All we can be sure of is that Herman Kahn's language exemplified an impressive way of talking about the future, a way of sounding impressive that sounded less impressive only when you realised that sounding impressive was its main motive. Big things would happen. It was big talk. And it paid the penalty of all big talk. As you got used to it, you got tired of it.

Language of alarm

Over the last 10 years we have heard a lot about how civilisation would be in trouble if it didn't soon do something drastic about global warming. But this impressive message tended to sound less impressive as time went on. It wasn't just that the globe uncooperatively declined to get warmer during the last 10 years.

Herman Kahn
Herman Kahn was always predicting the distant future

It was that the language of alarm wore out its welcome as it became ever more assertive about what had not yet happened.

The brief, unarguably still hot period, when the world had somehow refused to grow any hotter was soon explained, although it seemed strange that it had not been predicted.

The world, when it resumed warming again would heat up by so many degrees, or so many more degrees than that, and within 10, 20, 25 years - within a single Hermie - there would be the corpses of fried polar bears floating past your penthouse window.

According to the media, scientists were agreed, the science was settled, science said, that all this would happen. The media promoted this settled science, and the politicians went along with the media. The whole deal had the UN seal of approval.

A bunch of e-mails got hacked, or perhaps leaked. Some of the phrases that supposedly reveal skulduggery reveal a lot less when you put them in the context of what, we are told, was only locker-room enthusiasm

The coming catastrophe that had to be averted wasn't exactly like knowing when the asteroid would arrive so you could send Bruce Willis, but unless we did something, irreversible damage, if not certain doom, was only a Hermie or two away.

Today, after recent events at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, that supposedly settled science is still the story, but the story is in question. Suddenly there are voices to pronounce that the reputation of science will lie in ruins for the next 50 years.

For two Hermies at least, nobody will trust a single thing that a scientist says. Well, even to a non-scientist like myself, that last prediction sounds suspiciously like the others.

Layman's reading

My own view is that true science, the spirit of critical inquiry that unites all scientists, or is supposed to, is reasserting itself after being out-shouted by at least half a Hermie of uninterrupted public relations. But I hasten to admit that my view is not only not the view of a scientist, it is the view of somebody who can still remember the first day he was exposed to calculus and froze as if in a new Ice Age.

As I said in one of these columns earlier in the season - In praise of scepticism - before the events at the Climate Research Unit, my only position on the matter of man-made global warming was that from my own layman's background reading I thought the reported scientific unanimity that global warming is man-made, and likely to be catastrophic, was always a more active area of scientific debate than you would have guessed from the way the media told the story.

Just saying that much was enough to get me condemned by one of the broadsheet environmentalist gurus. He said I was an old man resistant to the facts because I didn't care what happened to the world after I was gone.

Man gazes out into smog in China
An issue couched in dramatic terms...

As I bounced my grand-daughter on my knee, rather hoping that in the course of the next Hermie she would not be obliged to star in a remake of Waterworld as the sea rose 30 feet above her house, I bit back a rude word.

But the guru still had a point when he said my scepticism about the settled science was a wilful defiance of established fact. Unfortunately the fact had been established largely by the media, who had been telling only one story. If you said the story might have two sides, that sounded like scepticism.

People in my position had to get used to being called sceptics, as if scepticism were a bad thing. We even had to get used to being called denialists, although clearly it was an unscrupulous word.

We were also called, are still called, flat-earthers by people like Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, but that kind of abuse is comparatively easy to take, because everybody knows that neither man would be capable of proving mathematically that the earth is not a cube.

Mainstream media

So what happened at the Climate Research Unit? Well, basically nothing new. A bunch of e-mails got hacked, or perhaps leaked. Some of the phrases that supposedly reveal skulduggery reveal a lot less when you put them in the context of what, we are told, was only locker-room enthusiasm.

In the correspondence columns of the scientific websites - where the level of discussion has consistently been miles above anything the mainstream media has provided for the last decade - there are already wise voices to warn that the sceptics should not make the same mistake as the believers by treating any slip they can find in the arguments of their opponents as evidence of the biggest fraud since Bernie Madoff made off with the money.

That would be Hermie talk, and self-defeating, because the more absolutist man-made global warming case has always looked sufficiently vulnerable just by the way it has been reluctant to listen to opposing voices no matter how well qualified.

Oil refinery
... and also deeply political for many

There has never been any point, and there is no point now, in calling the warmists a bunch of devious conspirators against the truth. All you ever had to do was notice how their more strident representatives didn't want to hear any other opinions, even when the opinions came from within their own ranks.

Far from there having been unanimity among scientists on the subject of catastrophic man-made global warming, there has scarcely been unanimity among climate scientists. It only takes one dissenting voice to punch a hole in the idea of unanimity, if that voice has a chance of being right.

There was a time when almost every scientist except Einstein thought that Newton had buttoned up the subject of celestial mechanics. And this time, on the subject of global warming, there was always, right from the beginning, a number of climate scientists who didn't endorse the alarmist picture.

You could say that the number was small, and a few of them were vengeful because they had been sidelined for not being sufficiently doom-laden in their claims. But a few of them were older men who just wouldn't go along with the prevailing emphasis.

Orthodox view

One of these few was Prof Lindzen of MIT. I never could convince myself that the professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology knew less about the earth's climate than I did, so I started to watch him. Hopeless on the media, Prof Lindzen is the sort of pundit with a four figure IQ who can somehow never figure out that you are supposed to talk into the microphone.

His fellow anti-alarmist Prof Fred Singer not only formed a thought too slowly for radio, he was too slow for smoke signals. But gradually, as I watched the side roads, it seemed to me that these few dissenting scientists with zero PR skills increased in number.

The number of scientists who endorsed the orthodox view increased also, but the number of those who didn't went up instead of down. I couldn't do the calculus, but I could count heads.

Ice melting
Many scientists say the case for man-made climate change is irrefutable

There were scores of eminent scientists who signed the 2007 open letter to the secretary general of the UN, and then later on there were hundreds quoted in the US senate minority reports.

It could be said that few of them had expertise in climate science, but that argument looked less decisive when you considered that climate science itself was exactly what they were bringing into question.

So science was not speaking with one voice on the matter. It only seemed to be, because the media, on the whole, was giving no other story. Then this Climate Research Unit thing happened, and it was the end of the monologue. The dialogue has begun again.

The scientists are arguing on the matter, which is the proper thing for science to do, because in science the science is never settled. Some say that the argument about how all this happened will go on for another two Hermies at least.

We can hear, from deep underground, the contented purr of Herman Kahn. It's all turning out exactly as he predicted.

Send us your comments using the form below.

I'm not sure what the conspiracy is here. Scaring us into recycling our waste? Manipulating us into paying for what? Cleaner energy sources? I appreciate your frustration that climate change isn't happening quite as rapidly or as catastrophically as perhaps you'd like, and I agree that the agenda gets hijacked for questionable ends but surely the basic premise - don't damage the environment - is pretty well inviolate? Just because we're just bored with the topic that doesn't mean it ceases to be important. I worry that your argument actually defends our natural complacency and assumption that everything will turn out ok in the end. Is that really scepticism?
Simon Murray, south London

You may be bad at calculus but you're good at your job which is telling entertaining stories. I'm afraid, however, you're missing one thing here - motivation. What is the motivation of 'warmists' or 'alarmists'? Its to get people to consume less so we can reduce emissions. What is the motivation of 'skeptics'? Here it is portrayed as a dogged commitment to the truth. But more generally 'sceptics' are arguing against change, against a reduction in consumption. Such an argument can (and often is) be used by people with a vested (monetary) interested in keeping consumption levels high. These people don't appear in your story at all. The portrayal of climate change is about action in the world. How do you think we should act?
Sarah May, Portsmouth UK

Sarah rightly calls the sceptics' motivations into question the, however as in much of the climate change liturgy, only one side is questioned. The warmist camp is a huge industry unto itself. All those climate scientists need to justify their funding, politicians need to make political hay, and myriad companies ("green" and otherwise) have by now figured out ways to profit from the idea of climate change. All of those people have great economic motivation to continue to sound an alarm - even if it proves to be false.
Matt, London UK

The media has a very damaging role in all this. Trying to balance the overwhelming scientific consensus with some naysayers so as to appear impartial gives undue credence to the views of those who disagree, giving the false impression that there's more disagreement than there really is. The penalties of not sorting this thing out are vastly worse than sorting it out unnecessarily, so even if it was 50/50, we'd be insane not to act.
Dan Norcott, Loughborough

The duty of the media to report representative views is key to our understanding of all issues - I am very concerned at the alarmist style of reporting (this approach is, by definition, both opinionated and selective) but also because it fails to stimulate free thinking in the public consciousness and breeds a judgemental, dissatisfied & sceptical approach to taking responsibility. The proportion of the public who make zero effort to recycle is appallingly high. What will it take for the majority to join in?
Sue W, Hamphire, UK

Scientists always argue, it's what they do. The current debate on global warming isn't "is it happening?" but by how much and what effect it will have. For those people that dispute that man-made global warming is happening, which part of the global warming theory do you have a problem with?
David Routledge, Derby

Finally a sensible balanced approach to this issue! For too long government has used the media - specifically the BBC - to force on the public the terror of climate change and the refusal to voice any other opinion except the government line. The majority of the electorate know that climate change is merely an excuse to raise taxes. This is a dangerous situation as if the hype and hysteria had been balanced the real debate about new energy sources such as hydrogen, distributed power generation and increasingly necessary recycling plants might have been had. That no investment has been made in any of these areas reinforces the futility of Labour's repeated raving insistence that we're all doomed and they have to fleece us to pay for it.
Nick, Southampton

I have shown a bit of scepticism when threatened with global warming ever since reading Michael Crichton's State of Fear which questioned the validity of the theory on a number of points. This open-inded attitude is met with disdain by almost everyone I speak to about "climate change".
Liam, Cardiff, UK

You can expect younger people to be less sceptical. We're taught from a young age about acid rain & global warming so that by the time you leave school and college, it's an accepted fact that we're causing global warming.
Joe, London

Once again, Mr James misses the point about climate change. Most people are at least a little sceptical about climate change, but are at least sensible enough to air on the side of caution. We could wait until there is definitive proof one way or the other, but if the 'warmists' as you call them are correct, then it will be too late to do anything about it. I too am not a scientist, but pure logic tells me that we cannot possibly use 60% of the world's fossil fuels which have taken millions of years to form, in the space of 200 years, without it having some impact. And let's face it - what have we got to lose by striving to make clean forms of energy and reduce our carbon footprints? At best we save the planet for future generations. At worst we have clean air and renewable energy sources rather than wars over oil.
Lena, West Midlands

It's not up to the media to accept it or otherwise. The media's role is to report the facts, not opinion.
Steve B, Aberdeen

After doing research for an environmental qualification essay about 5 years ago I discovered a huge body of critically peer reviewed research that atmospheric CO2 levels track rises and falls in global temperature, they don't cause it. I have been a sceptic of the whole CO2 carbon reduction agenda ever since. However I do care about the environment but the message is all wrong, we should be screaming about the loss of biodiversity and habitat because humanity cannot survive that. I am confident that humanity will address its problems and come up with solutions, BUT these will not be some huge dramatic event but rather a slow, bit by bit process accumulation of solutions. Flat earther? Free thinker more like!
Steve Grant, Exeter

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