Reflections on Rapid Response to Unjustified Climate Alarm

The Cato Institute’s Center for the Study of Science today kicks off its rapid response center that will identify and correct inappropriate and generally bizarre claims on behalf of climate alarm. I wish them luck in this worthy enterprise, but more will surely be needed to deal with this issue.

To be sure, there is an important role for such a center. It is not to convince the ‘believers.’ Nor do I think that there is any longer a significant body of sincere and intelligent individuals who are simply trying to assess the evidence. As far as I can tell, the issue has largely polarized that relatively small portion of the population that has chosen to care about the issue. The remainder quite reasonably have chosen to remain outside the polarization. Thus the purpose of a rapid response Center will be to reassure those who realize that this is a fishy issue, that there remain scientists who are still concerned with the integrity of science. There is also a crucial role in informing those who wish to avoid the conflict as to what is at stake. While these are important functions, there are other issues that I feel a think tank ought to consider. Moreover, there is a danger that rapid response to trivial claims lends unwarranted seriousness to these claims. 

Climate alarm belongs to a class of issues characterized by a claim for which there is no evidence, that nonetheless appeals strongly to one or more interests or prejudices. Once the issue is adopted, evidence becomes irrelevant. Instead, the believer sees what he believes. Anything can serve as a supporting omen. Three very different previous examples come to mind (though there are many more examples that could be cited): Malthus’ theory of overpopulation, social Darwinism and the Dreyfus Affair. Although each of these issues engendered opposition, only the Dreyfus Affair led to widespread societal polarization. More commonly, only the ‘believers’ are sufficiently driven to form a movement. We will briefly review these examples (though each has been subject to book length analyses), but the issue of climate alarm is somewhat special in that it appeals to a sizeable number of interests, and has strong claims on the scientific community. It also has the potential to cause exceptional harm to an unprecedented number of people. This has led to persistent opposition amidst widespread lack of interest. However, all these issues are characterized by profound immorality pretending to virtue. 

Malthus’ peculiar theory wherein the claimed linear growth of food loses out to the exponential growth of population has maintained continuous popularity in the faculty lounge for about two centuries. It is, therefore, worth noting that Malthus had no evidence that food supply would increase only linearly. Nor did he have evidence for exponential population growth. Malthus initially went so far as to estimate an e-folding time for population of 25 years, based on the population of North America, and ignoring the role of immigration. Although Malthus, himself, eventually acknowledged these problems, the enthusiasm for his anti-human conclusions remains strong. Neither the green revolution nor the diminution of famine amidst increasing population dissuades them. The fact that Chad is poor and the Netherlands is rich never strikes the believer as odd. Apparently, the growth of cities, the movement of workers from the farm to the city, and, for much of the developed world, immigration, all served to convince people of means that there were too many other people around, and Malthusian theory formed a framework for something they were (and are) eager to believe.

Social Darwinism and its corollary, eugenics, represents another case of a theory without support that was widely accepted with, at times, horrid consequences. Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” had immense influence. It presented a theory whereby natural selection and what were essentially mutations could account for biological evolution. While it offered valuable insights into the development of finch beaks, it was hardly meant to describe societal evolution. Nevertheless, the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ applied to society had obvious appeal to those who perceived themselves to be the fittest and who naturally regarded the application as scientifically justified. It was a small step to eugenics which was the counterpart of modern day environmentalism during the first third of the twentieth century, and was supported by all the ‘best’ people (including George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Sanger, Alexander Graham Bell, and Theodore Roosevelt) despite the fact that there actually was a mathematical theorem (the Hardy-Weinberg Theorem) that showed that the impact of eugenics on the gene pool would be negligible. Needless to add, mathematics is of no importance to the ‘best’ people. Malthusian population fears continue to the present, but eugenics was rendered unfashionable by the obvious implications presented by the Nazis.

While science is a common vehicle for such misuse, the Dreyfus Affair shows that other vehicles exist. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of passing secret French military information to the Germans. There was, in fact, no evidence to support this accusation. Nevertheless, there was again a strong desire on the part of many people in France to believe the accusation. To be sure, there was the endemic anti-Semitism in France. However, there was also the humiliation of France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian War, and the desire to blame such loss not on the army, but on the perfidy of a group that some considered to be ‘outside’. (The Nazis’ ‘stab in the back’ theory for the German loss in WW1 represents a similar instinct). Dreyfus was tried (several times) and sentenced to Devil’s Island. Prominent Frenchmen (Emile Zola in particular) , incensed by the obvious injustice campaigned for Dreyfus, and the issue literally split France in half (partly because the conflict between Catholics and Secularists also entered the Affair). Dreyfus was eventually exonerated after the identification of the actual spy became undeniable.

The current issue of global warming/climate change is extreme in terms of the number of special interests that opportunistically have strong interests in believing in the claims of catastrophe despite the lack of evidence. In no particular order, there are the leftist economists for whom global warming represents a market failure, there are the UN apparatchiks for whom global warming is the route to global governance, there are third world dictators who see guilt over global warming as providing a convenient claim on aid (ie, the transfer of wealth from the poor in rich countries to the wealthy in poor countries), there are the environmental activists who love any issue that has the capacity to frighten the gullible into making hefty contributions to their numerous NGOs, there are the crony capitalists who see the opportunity to cash in on the immense sums being made available for ‘sustainable’ energy, there are the government regulators for whom the control of a natural product of breathing is a dream come true, there are newly minted billionaires who find the issue of ‘saving the planet’ appropriately suitable to their grandiose pretensions, etc., etc. Strange as it may seem, even the fossil fuel industry is generally willing to go along. After all, they realize better than most, that there is no current replacement for fossil fuels. The closest possibilities, nuclear and hydro, are despised by the environmentalists. As long as fossil fuel companies have a level playing field, and can pass expenses to the consumers, they are satisfied. Given the nature of corporate overhead, the latter can even form a profit center. The situation within science itself is equally grim. Huge sums of government and private funding have become available to what was initially a small backwater field. Science becomes easy when emphasis is on malleable models supported by hugely uncertain data that can be readily found ‘consistent’ with the models supplemented by fervidly imagined catastrophic ‘implications.’ Indeed, uncertainty is often exaggerated for just this purpose. Opposition within the scientific community is immediately met with ad hominem attacks, loss of funding, and difficulty in publishing.

Of course, science is not the only victim of this situation. Affordable energy has been the primary vehicle for the greatest advance in human welfare in human history. This issue promises to deny this to the over 1 billion humans who still lack electricity. For billions more energy will be much less affordable leading to increased poverty. Poverty, itself, is a major factor in reduced life expectancy. It requires a peculiarly ugly obtuseness to ignore the fundamental immorality of this issue.

Although all these issues have strong political consequences, it is by no means clear that their origin is, itself, political. I would suggest that a more likely situation is that politics is always opportunistically seeking some cause that fits its needs. However, once an illusional issue becomes a passionate belief, it becomes impervious to argument. Given how dangerous some illusional positions are, it is an important problem to know how to avoid them. This is a problem that is truly worthy of Cato’s attention. Rapid response can only do so much; belief seems to inevitably trump objective reality when one is free to choose ones narrative.