Thursday, July 26, 2012

Climate Change and the Soothing Message of Luke-Warmism

by Dr Clive Hamilton, Vice Chancellor's Chair, Centre For Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University, The Conversation:

Luke-warm: Bjorn Lomborg. Flickr/McDermott
We are familiar with the tactics, arguments, and personnel of the denial industry.

Yet there is a perhaps more insidious and influential line of argument that is preventing the world from responding to the warnings of climate science.

“Luke-warmists” may be defined as those who appear to accept the body of climate science but interpret it in a way that is least threatening: emphasising uncertainties, playing down dangers, and advocating a slow and cautious response.

They are politically conservative and anxious about the threat to the social structure posed by the implications of climate science.

Their “pragmatic” approach is therefore alluring to political leaders looking for a justification for policy minimalism.

Among the notable US luke-warmists are Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. They have been accused of misrepresenting data on the energy savings of investment in energy efficiency and have criticized almost every proposed measure to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Their Institute has allied itself with anti-climate science organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute.

Another prominent luke-warmist is Roger Pielke Jr, a scientist who was bracketed by Foreign Policy journal with well-known deniers such as Richard Lindzen and Christopher Monckton in its guide to climate sceptics.

Daniel Sarewitz has a track record of attacking climate science, accusing it of mixing politics and values with factual analysis. In the UK, Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, has branched out with a peculiar and incoherent argument about science being based on values and ideology.

The effect of luke-warmers’ contributions has been to sow doubt in the public mind about the credibility of the scientific warnings and the need to respond, just as Exxon-funded think tanks have.

Perhaps the pre-eminent luke-warmist is the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, who gained notoriety because his claim to be an environmentalist who had seen the light made him a poster boy of the conservative media (that he was young, gay and Scandinavian only added to his value as a defector).

Nowadays, Lomborg does not reject the principal conclusions of climate science but works assiduously to water down their implications and to boost “sensible” and cautious economic solutions that would allow continued exploitation of fossil fuels. In short he favours adapting to any change in the climate rather than trying to prevent it.

Although more high-brow and nuanced than literal deniers, the lines of argument of luke-warmists are remarkably similar. In 2010 several leading luke-warmists - including Nordhaus, Schellenberger, Pielke, Sarewitz, Hulme, and Oxford University anthropologist Steve Rayner - came together at Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, UK, to write a paper advocating a “new direction for climate policy”.

The Hartwell paper claims to present a “radical” alternative to the failed UN process, although why the authors felt it necessary to describe a slow, cautious and conservative approach to climate policy as “radical” is a puzzle.

The paper begins by repeating allegations that the “Climategate” emails suggest that climate scientists cannot be trusted. The authors drew this conclusion before the string of official inquiries that vindicated the science and exonerated the scientists. Others, noting the emails had been selectively released just before the Copenhagen conference, smelt a rat and reserved judgement.

The Hartwell authors seem to have fallen for the Climategate spin because they wanted it to be true. They were also taken in by the campaign in the Murdoch press to undermine the IPCC by accepting uncritically alleged errors in its reports.

Errors in IPCC reports, they opined, are proof of the need to “restore trust in expert organizations” even though none of the claimed errors, manufactured by deniers in all but one case, dented the body of knowledge.

Following the deniers’ lead, the Hartwell authors emphasize the “inherent unknowability” and “systematic doubt” in the body of scientific knowledge. They express misgivings about the desirability of investments in renewable energy, referring to their “chilling history” and “serious financial and social consequences”, a theme pursued by the Breakthrough Institute and more recently taken up by Tea Party Republicans.

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