Thursday, 3 December 2009

Cameron's Climategate

Max Planck famously said that scientific theories prevail not because their opponents are converted, but because they eventually die. A similar thought seems to have occurred to Tim Yeo, chairman of the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, hitting back at climate-change sceptic Tories (who include, with varying degrees of conviction, the heavy-hitters David Davis, John Redwood and Peter Lilley). According to the Independent, he believes that those who are "reluctant to accept the evidence... will gradually diminish in the population." He also prophesied that "the dying gasps of the deniers will be put to bed" and that in five years time no-one will argue against man-made global warming.

The last couple weeks, however, have demonstrated, if nothing else, that the "deniers" have more than a few dying gasps in them. I haven't so far written about "Climategate", partly because I haven't had the energy or time to plough through all the leaked emails and partly because it has been covered so well elsewhere. (Bishop Hill being the undisputed champion here, though this guest post on DK is perhaps the best place to start.) But, mainly, I'm not qualified to comment about the science, not being a climate researcher and not having a close acquaintance with the academic backbiting and sharp practice that the emails have undoubtedly exposed, even if they have no deeper significance. It's not just about science, though. It's not even mainly about science.

The revelations do not alter the fact that the majority of research in this area tends to support the hypothesis ("AGW") that human activity is responsible for a large percentage of the global warming that has been observed. Nor do they alter the fact that most scientists in the field expect global warming to continue. It's doubtful that they will have much impact at Copenhagen, which will be in any case a political fudge. The damage to the image of science, however, has been considerable. UEA's Climatic Research Unit, in particular, now looks more like a campaigning organisation than a source of objective data. What has been revealed lends support to one of the major claims of the AGW sceptics, that the consensus view has become an intolerant orthodoxy, sustained by a huge apparatus of funding, political commitment and other vested interests, determined to prevent challenges to its authority.

Of course, science is a human activity and cannot exist in a vacuum. When a consensus develops around a particular theory, whatever we may like to believe about the neutrality of the scientific method, it can be powerfully self-reinforcing. As Thomas Kuhn showed, the vast majority of research takes place within a prevailing paradigm, which shapes the questions that are asked and the answers that are expected. Inconvenient data will often be cast aside or downplayed because it doesn't fit; and that is not necessarily a bad thing, if everything else does fit. Science deals in probabilities far more often than certainties. So the behaviour revealed in the leaked emails, however dubious, does not of itself destroy the case for man-made global warming. It may not even weaken it. What it does demonstrate, however, is that contradictory evidence does exist. Those who (for pure or impure motives) do not accept the consensus may be heretics or dissidents but they are not "deniers".

That's the science. But this isn't really a story about science so much as a story about politics. Science can describe the world; the point, though, as Marx said, is to change it. Even the consensus view of AGW can only offer scenarios that might come to pass in the fullness (or perhaps even the nearness) of time. General trends can be predicted, but only the climate change that has already occurred is certain. The debate between the orthodox and the heterodox can only be settled in retrospect. Fifty years hence all may have become clear. If the most alarming predictions come true, it will by then be too late. But then if the most alarming predictions are true, it is probably already too late. The most effective strategy may well be to adapt rather than emark upon the Canute-like strategies favoured by most politicians signed up to the consensus.

Politicians and scientists have different agendas, and it is always dangerous to pretend that there can be any simple read-through from scientific findings to political solutions. Uppermost in any politician's mind will be the need to win elections (which is not, of course, to say that they do not also desire to "save the planet"). This means, among other things, tacking to the centre-ground and not deviating too far from what is generally perceived as sensible. (I'm talking, obviously, about mainstream politicians rather than mavericks of right or left.) Adopting environmental policies based on the delusion that it is possible to restrain climate change - policies which will only appear to work, curiously enough, if the consensus is wrong and there isn't any significant global warming after all - carries great future risks. It will almost certainly retard economic progress, for one thing, and the environmental taxes will sooner or later prove extremely unpopular, if they are onerous enough to "do any good".

But in the short term, the political advantage lies in being seen as environmentally virtuous. Copenhagen will provide a grandstanding opportunity on an almost unprecedented scale. To be able to return, paper in hand, having saved the world from ecological catastrophe, is a consummation devoutly wished by leaders of every kind. It will be Gordon Brown's last major opportunity to appear significant on the world stage, one that he will be determined not to squander. Any deal that is reached may eventually unravel, of course, but deal there will certainly be.


This brings me back, by a somewhat circuitous route, to the Conservatives. The Climategate emails have been seized upon by that very considerable section of the Tory party that has always been suspicious of environmentalism as a left-wing plot. Scepticism about the science of global warming is informed by scepticism about the means being proposed to tackle it: regulations, targets, interventions, the shadow of global governance, top-down control. Free-marketeers naturally hate the artificial mechanisms that are beloved of meddling politicians. Many are equally suspicious of piety and cant, which environmentalism is drenched in. It seems, moreover (despite the tough action that is promised) a soft and fluffy cause, rather effete - beloved, indeed, of the effete green-wellied Old Etonians who are now back in charge.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of environmentalism to David Cameron's leadership. It's not just about saving the planet - it's far more important than that, it's about changing the image of the party. Going Green has been a vital plank in Cameron's strategy of putting distance between himself and the Tory past (which is ironic, given that Mrs Thatcher herself went a little bit green towards the end of her time in office). A raft of green initiatives will form the centrepiece of next year's Conservative manifesto. Being environmentally aware, embracing the AGW consensus and promising a load of green policies sends signals about being Centrist and Progressive. And the signals matter more than the policies and certainly more than the truth of the science behind climate change.

This is why Climategate poses a dangerous and unexpected challenge to the Cameron project. Dissenters - from the new Toryism as much as from the climate consensus - have leapt upon the evidence of suberterfuge at the CRU because it offers the possibility of undermining the political consensus, not because it destroys the science. And, of course, it seems to confirm their long-held suspicions that the whole climate change industry is a politically-motivated fix. It's a godsend. But a consensus - especially a political consensus - does not crumble so easily. The presence on the Tory backbenches of an emboldened group of AGW sceptics raises the horrible spectre of division and the equally horrible spectre of the loss of hard-won centre ground. Already, Ed Miliband (whose very job title embodies the consensus view) is proclaiming that "the true face of the Tory party is on show."

So it's little wonder Tim Yeo (and, no doubt, his boss) is hoping that the sceptics will do the decent thing and quietly die.