I have been watching the whole ClimateGate fiasco with a sense of bewilderment. This time last year, there seemed to be broad consensus amongst intelligent people that anthropogenic global warming was real. At least as real as other great scientific theories like evolution and plate tectonics. As Real Climate put it yesterday: The system we study is ruled by the well-known laws of physics, there is plenty of hard data and peer-reviewed studies, and the science is relatively mature. The greenhouse effect was discovered in 1824 by Fourier, the heat trapping properties of CO2 and other gases were first measured by Tyndall in 1859, the climate sensitivity to CO2 was first computed in 1896 by Arrhenius, and by the 1950s the scientific foundations were pretty much understood.
I don't know about you, but I kind of trust "broad scientific consensus." Because of it, I have a warm home this morning, I am well fed and have been all my life, I have light and my computer works, and you can read this message. If science tells me that plate tectonics causes earthquakes and that we have (as yet) no control over this phenomenon, I am inclined to believe. And if science tells me that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has an effect on the surface temperature of the Earth, I am also inclined to believe. Unlike plate tectonics, atmospheric CO2 is something we have control over (in theory at least) and that is also something that it is hard to argue with.
But in the past few months, we have seen an extraordinary anti-scientific backlash against the mainstream consensus. I don't know how well organised it is, but it's been very effective, and now the right-wing press has taken up the baton (sensing some sort of popular revolt) and is now daily peppering the climate scientists with a few well-aimed blows to the midriff. Sunday's piece in the Mail, re-writing a BBC interview with Professor Phil "CimateGate" Jones is a case in point. In the original interview, Jones seems to be a little too candid for his own good and admits to problems tracking all the data sets, and problems in understanding the Medieval Warm Period. The Mail reporter, Jonathan Petre (presumably acting under orders?) comes on like a barrister at a show trial, using these comments to paint a very different picture. But if you read the article closely, it's almost all innuendo.
• Data for vital 'hockey stick graph' has gone missing. So what? It doesn't make the hockey stick wrong.
• Warming periods have happened before - but NOT due to man-made changes. So what? It doesn't mean that man-made changes won't affect the climate in future, does it?
Petre of course isn't trying to win an argument, because there isn't really an argument. No one is putting forward a plausible counter theory (the few sun spottists dishonourably excepted). All he is hoping to do is to lodge a few sceptical bon-mots into the heads of the blokes at the bar in Rose & Crown, link it to a fear of government intervention and rising taxes, and cause a general revulsion to a theory that spells bad news for us all. And it's working a treat. More people than ever are sceptical about global warming, and what the right-wing press have managed to do is to link it all up as a left-wing conspiracy. If Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF and the BBC all say it's real, then it must be a lie!
Whilst the sceptics are very astute at "uncovering" discrepancies and conspiracies, what they haven't managed to do is to challenge the basic theory. If we keep pumping vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, we are going to cause some mighty ruptures up ahead. That's it. It's that simple. Arguing that "climate change is a natural phenomenon, its been happening for millions of years" rather misses the point. It's us and in particular our civilisation that is unnatural, and it's been based on a relatively brief interlude of mild climatic conditions, and if we upset this particular applecart, it's not the Planet we need to be worrying about, but ourselves and our comfortable lifestyles. There's nothing left or right wing about this.
What is going on now is all very sad. It's turning into a witch-hunt. Normally obscure figures like Jones, and the guys that write RealClimate, are under attack in ways they can never have anticipated, and all because they are telling us things we would rather not know.
And if the Daily Mail is bad (it is), then the Express is worse. And even the Telegraph and the Times have succumbed to the new mood. And if you read the comments (hundreds of them) that always follow on from these articles, you realise that they are indeed responding to a popular mood, a growing sentiment that all these scientists are just scam artists, and the government is going along because it just wants to keep raising taxes. These people sound so angry, just like a lynch mob.
Here's a not atypical response from Derek J of Chester-le-Street (in Mail on Sunday)
Well it looks like US FLAT EARTHERS WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG
BUT will the Greenie's admit it will they Hell
all that extra Money will all payed out to line the pockets of Al Gore, etc, etc, etc.
its not a case of we put our Heads in the Sand
BUT MORE A CASE OF YOU LOT PUT YOUR HEADS IN THE CLOUDS and couldn't or more to the POINT WOULD LISTERN To Anyone other than your Messiah's who have all turned out to be FALSE
I've been hesitant to use that awful word denialist, but I have known one or two alcoholics and the similarities are striking. The anger, the indignation, the persecution, the justification. "There's nothing wrong with me mate, it's you who are a total fuck-up, leave me alone." It's usually followed by a punch and the sound of breaking glass.