Green on the outside, red on the inside? A watermelon tells you what’s wrong with the climate debate
Watermelon is a word that tells you what is wrong with the climate change debate.
For some libertarians, it is the insult that expresses what greenies and climate scientists are really up to. Behind all the acronyms and the jargon, they say, is a conspiracy to promote a nakedly political aim – anti-big business; anti-free market; pro-tax increases. In short, green on the outside but red on the inside.
The full conspiracy theory requires an impressive degree of paranoia, but one of the reasons the jibe is so persistent is that, if we’re honest, there is a grain of truth to it – at least among some in the green movement and on the left.
Many of the policy responses to the climate change problem – consume less, regulate businesses, curb big oil and coal, restrict car use – feel more comfortable to those on the left than the right of the political spectrum. And as a result, right-leaning politicians and thinkers are in danger of losing grip on the most important issue of our age. That has already happened in large measure in America. It would be disastrous if it happened in the UK too.
This is the backdrop to the parliamentary science and technology select committee’s inquiry into the communication of climate science, to which I gave evidence on Monday. The Met Office is being questioned on Wednesday. The MPs on the committee are trying to get to the bottom of why the public is still confused about climate science when the core science has been pretty clear for years. The thrust of many of their questions was “what could the media be doing better to communicate the science?”
Here’s my answer in a nutshell:
• Don’t confer scientific expertise on people who do not deserve it.
• Avoid false balance. In a field where 97% of peer-reviewed publications support the mainstream position we don’t serve the readers well by giving undue prominence to those on the fringes (think scientists who argue HIV does not cause Aids or that smoking has no link to cancer).
• And perhaps most importantly, make clear where scientific uncertainty lies and where it does not. While the precise impacts and timescale of climate change may be uncertain, the basic tenets are well-established science. The projections from climate scientists indicate that there is a significant risk of profound changes to climate if we continue to release greenhouse gases at the current rate.
But if it was just a question of putting across complex science to a lay readership whose attention must be grabbed from the numerous other shiny news stories on offer that would be, if not easy, at least no harder than your average science story. Science journalists’ stock in trade is making unfamiliar ideas intelligible, compelling, relevant and entertaining. And let’s face it, climate science may be complex, but the Higgs boson is harder to grasp than global warming.
The elephant in the room at the parliamentary inquiry though has been that, consciously or not, there are people on all sides of the climate debate who argue backwards from a cultural or political position. As a result, arguments about the science of climate change become a proxy for what is really a political argument. If you like the prescription, then you embrace the diagnosis. If you don’t, you undermine the diagnosis or attack the doctor.
Here’s an example of former chancellor Nigel Lawson doing just that:
“There is now a new religion – the AGW [anthropogenic global warming] religion, of which scientists are the new priesthood, preaching their dogma with precisely the same claim to authority as the medieval catholic church.”
It is perhaps understandable that some on the right have reacted strongly to what they perceive as a left-wing agenda masquerading as science. But it is also a catastrophic mistake.
Mark Henderson, in his book The Geek Manifesto, argues:
“The result has been to create a powerful constituency that delightedly seizes on any indication, however poorly founded, that the science of climate change might be less robust. If the problem can be discredited, then so can the solutions.”
The irony is that the radical green camp and the libertarian camp are not so far apart.
Environmentalist Mark Lynas (quoted in the Geek Manifesto), argues:
“The rightwing climate contrarians and the greens actually agree that climate change means we have to dismantle industrial civilisation. The greens want this, the right wing doesn’t. It leads them both to manipulate the science.”
The truth is that we don’t need to return to the Stone Age, but all this has made it much harder to have a sensible discussion about policies to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. We need a vigorous – and yes political – argument about nuclear power; carbon capture and storage; climate diplomacy; windfarms, air travel and much more. Not to mention how much it will all cost. But that has been twisted by those who prefer to park their tanks on the lawn of climate science.
The reality is that atmospheric physics does not care which party you vote for. So politicians of all stripes need to come up with a coherent response to the profound societal questions raised by climate change. Hiding behind bogus uncertainty about the science as an excuse for inaction is not an option.
So I repeat the plea I made to the select committee for centre right politicians, thinkers and cultural figures to reclaim the climate change issue and talk about it in language their supporters will understand and warm to. With admirable exceptions (here’s one interesting recent initiative) there is a big void here to fill.
Only then can some of the political poison be drawn from the debate and the watermelon jibe finally be laid to rest. That would be good for both left and right.
[“Cute Little Girl Eating Watermelon On The Grass In Summertime” on Shutterstock]