Clive Hamilton: Nature v technology: climate ‘belief’ is politics, not science

I very rarely republish articles from other writers verbatim here, but this piece from Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University in Australia makes some very good points about the true roots of the climate-change controversy. I’m not  on board with everything Hamilton advocates here, but I think he makes a useful point about the climate-change controversy — it’s really about political ideology, not about science. He also draws an interesting parallel with the controversy over Einstein’s general theory of relativity when it first came out. So I thought it would be useful to republish the entire article — with permission. This piece comes via The Conversation.

Nature v technology: climate ‘belief’ is politics, not science

By Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton

It is hard to imagine a scientific breakthrough more abstract and less politically contentious than Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yet in Weimar Germany in the 1920s it attracted fierce controversy, with conservatives and ultra-nationalists reading it as a vindication of their opponents – liberals, socialists, pacifists and Jews. They could not separate Einstein’s political views – he was an internationalist and pacifist – from his scientific breakthroughs, and his extraordinary fame made him a prime target in a period of political turmoil.

There was a turning point in 1920. A year earlier a British scientific expedition had used observations of an eclipse to provide empirical confirmation of Einstein’s prediction that light could be bent by the gravitational pull of the Sun. Little known to the general public beforehand, Einstein was instantly elevated to the status of the genius who outshone Galileo and Newton. But conservative newspapers provided an outlet for anti-relativity activists and scientists with an axe to grind, stoking nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment among those predisposed to it.

In a similar way today, conservative news outlets promote the views of climate deniers and publish stories designed to discredit climate scientists, all with a view to defending an established order seen to be threatened by evidence of a warming globe. As in the Wiemar Republic, the effect has been to fuel suspicion of liberals and “elites” by inviting the public to view science through political lenses.

At the height of the storm in 1920, a bemused Einstein wrote to a friend:

This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.

The controversy was not confined to Germany. In France a citizen’s attitude to the new theory could be guessed from the stance he or she took on the Dreyfus affair, the scandal surrounding the Jewish army officer falsely convicted of spying in 1894, whose fate divided French society. Anti-Dreyfusards were inclined to reject relativity on political grounds.

In Britain, suspicions were less politically grounded but relativity’s subversion of Newton was a sensitive issue, leading Einstein to write an encomium for the great English scientist prior to a lecture tour.

Like Einstein’s opponents, who denied relativity because of its perceived association with progressive politics, conservative climate deniers follow the maxim that “my enemy’s friend is my enemy”. Scientists whose research strengthens the claims of environmentalism must be opposed.

Conservative climate deniers often link their repudiation of climate science to fears that cultural values are under attack from “liberals” and progressives. In Weimar Germany the threat to the cultural order apparently posed by relativity saw Einstein accused of “scientific dadaism”, after the anarchistic cultural and artistic movement then at its peak. The epithet is revealing because it reflected anxiety that Einstein’s theory would overthrow the established Newtonian understanding of the world, a destabilisation of the physical world that mirrored the subversion of the social order then underway.

Relativity’s apparent repudiation of absolutes was interpreted by some as yet another sign of moral and intellectual decay. There could not have been a worse time for Einstein’s theory to have received such emphatic empirical validation than in the chaotic years after the First World War.

Although not to be overstated, the turmoil of Weimar Germany has some similarities with the political ferment that characterises the United States today – deep-rooted resentments, the sense of a nation in decline, the fragility of liberal forces, and the rise of an angry populist right. Environmental policy and science have become battlegrounds in a deep ideological divide that emerged as a backlash against the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Marrying science to politics was a calculated strategy of conservative activists in the 1990s, opening up a gulf between Republican and Democratic voters over their attitudes to climate science. Both anti-relativists and climate deniers justifiably feared that science would enhance the standing of their opponents. They responded by tarnishing science with politics.

Einstein’s work was often accused of being un-German, and National Socialist ideology would soon be drawing a distinction between Jewish and Aryan mathematics. Although anti-Semitism plays no part in climate denial, “Jewish mathematics” served the same political function that the charge of “left-wing science” does in the climate debate today.

In the United States, the notion of left-wing science dates to the rise in the 1960s of what has been called “environmental-social impact” science which, at least implicitly, questioned the unalloyed benefits of “technological-production” science. Thus in 1975 Jacob Needleman could write:

Once the hope of mankind, modern science has now become the object of such mistrust and disappointment that it will probably never again speak with its old authority.

The apparent paradox of denialist think tanks supporting geoengineering solutions to the global warming problem that does not exist can be understood as a reassertion of technological-production science over environmental impact science. Thus the Exxon-funded Heartland Institute – the leading denialist organisation that has hosted a series of conferences at which climate science is denounced as a hoax and a communist conspiracy – has enthusiastically endorsed geoengineering as the answer to the problem that does not exist.

The association between “left-wing” opinion and climate science has now been made so strongly that politically conservative scientists who accept the evidence for climate change typically withdraw from public debate. So do those conservative politicians who remain faithful to science.

The motives of Einstein’s opponents were various but differences were overlooked in pursuit of the common foe. Today among the enemies of climate science we find grouped together activists in free market think tanks, politicians pandering to popular fears, conservative media outlets like the Sunday Times and Fox News, a handful of disgruntled scientists, right-wing philanthropists including the Scaifes and Kochs, and sundry opportunists such as Christopher Monckton and Bjorn Lomborg.

While Einstein’s theory posed no economic threat and industrialists were absent from the constellation of anti-relativity forces, the way in which climate denial was initially organised and promoted by fossil fuel interests is now well-documented. In the last several years, climate denial has developed into a political and cultural movement. Beneath the Astroturf grass grew.

This is an edited extract from Earthmasters by Clive Hamilton, published by Allen & Unwin.

Clive Hamilton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

ARB — 22 March 2013

Why It’s Good to Pay Attention to Climate Change Misinformers

I’ve heard a lot of people say that we shouldn’t listen to the “deniers” of man-made global warming, and that the media shouldn’t give them “equal time.” I’m going to step out of line and say I think it’s good to pay attention to the arguments of those who disagree with the consensus view on climate change.

My thinking on this issue has partly arisen while participating in a discussion in the “Green Group” on LinkedIn. (Not sure whether a non-member can view the group and its discussions.) I’m here repeating some of my comments from that discussion.

Science has it own motivation for improving its work, but I think the contrarians, the misinformers, and the misinformed provide added incentive to make the science better. They also add incentive for science communicators and journalists to do a better job communicating with the public about the science and its inferences.

Just a little example from my own work. I’ve heard many of the misinformed raise the objection, How can CO2 as a trace gas cause such a problem? And isn’t CO2 beneficial for plants? I remembered studying this in earth system science, but I didn’t really know how to make the case for it, and I couldn’t find any really accessible article to refer people to. So I did some investigation and wrote an article for it on my own column: “Carbon Dioxide — How Can One Little Molecule Be Such a Big Troublemaker?

The point is that the misinformation gave me an incentive to do a better job of communicating.

ARB — 25 Dec 2012

What the Climate Change Controversy Is Really About

I’ve discussed this question before over on ThomasNet Green & Clean — see my piece “The Climate Change Controversy — What’s It Really About?

However, I’m meditating on a somewhat different way to articulate it. I should say that I don’t think this controversy is essentially about science. I’m not persuaded by ill-informed or politically motivated assertions, but I don’t use terms like “hoax,” “anti-science,” “pseudo-science,” or “denialism” in connection with the argument.

My current thinking is the following:

The climate change controversy is about a high-stakes struggle between science in the service of eco-socialism and misinformation in the service of free-market fundamentalism.

I’m engaged in an ongoing development of my thinking on this topic and will no doubt circle back to it. But I just wanted to pin down that idea.

ARB — 2 Nov. 2012

The Climate Change Controversy – What’s It Really About?

Power plant in FinlandRecently I’ve been writing a series of columns on climate change over at ThomasNet Green & Clean. Although I do talk about the scientific arguments around human-caused global warming, I’m also interested in this issue as a social controversy, that is, what is it that drives people to one side or the other of the question? (Photo: Power plant, Finland. Credit:eutrophication&hypoxiaCC BY 2.0)

Here are links to each of the articles up to now:

Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?

All This Wrangling Over Climate Change – What’s Up With That?

The Climate Change Controversy – What’s It Really About?

So, Have They Figured Out That Global Warming Is Real?

ARB — 19 Dec. 2011

Three Types of Political Extremists

Here’s a possible classification of extremists:

1. True Believers — People whose extremism arises from a sincere belief in the extreme ideology being promoted.

2. Needle-Pushers — Cynical practicers of realpolitik who adopt the extreme position hoping to counteract extremists on the opposing side and “move the needle” toward their own position, getting partisans in power or policies enacted that are more desirable from their point of view.

3. Knee-Jerkers — Followers who are led to back an extremist position because that position’s arguments speak to their own prejudices or harmonizes with their cultural background.

AB — 2 December 2011

Programs for Recycling Food Scraps Gaining Traction

Recently at ThomasNet Green & Clean, I wrote about programs that are starting up around North America to recycle food scraps from homes, institutions, and businesses — see “Not Your Grandma’s Compost Pile – Increasing Efforts to Recycle Food Scraps.

This movement could have a significant impact on the waste stream, as I discovered from EPA data:

Government has begun to recognize that much of its waste stream is material that could be disposed of beneficially rather than simply being sequestered in a landfill emitting methane. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) … estimates that food scraps make up 14.1 percent of solid waste generated in the U.S., 34 million tons of food waste total. However, only 2.5 percent of that volume gets recovered.

AB — 28 August 2011

How the Internet Reinforces Confirmation Bias

Recently I wrote about confirmation bias in connection with the climate change controversy — see my article at ThomasNet, “All This Wrangling Over Climate Change – What’s Up With That?” The Skeptic’s Dictionary refers to confirmation bias as “a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.”

Today I ran across an interesting TED Talk (TED hosts and posts video talks on innovative topics) by political activist Eli Pariser who has some interesting things to say about how the algorithms used on web sites such as Facebook and Google tend to reinforce our current thinking and filter out new ideas — see his talk, “Beware Online ‘Filter Bubbles‘” — well worth watching, only nine minutes.

Pariser explains what he means by a filter bubble:

Your filter bubble is kind of your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online … the thing is, you don’t decide what gets in, and more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out.

If you and I both search for the same thing at the same time on Google, for example, we get different results. The danger of the filter bubble, says Pariser, is that

this moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.

He suggests that a personalization algorithm deciding what to show us needs to look not just at what it thinks is “relevant,” but at other factors too, such as those in this slide from his presentation:

This seems like a great insight. Anyway, I highly recommend this short video to get you thinking outside the box:

AB — 24 August 2011

Why Climate Change Is Controversial — or Is It?

My article at ThomasNet last week generated some controversy — see “All This Wrangling Over Climate Change – What’s Up With That?” Commenters on multiple ideological sides of the debate chimed in with comments — passionate but civil, for the most part.

Some readers were frustrated with me because I took a more or less neutral stance. Not that I have no opinions about climate change. It’s just that my purpose in this case is to try to shed some light on the controversy as a controversy. Here is a key excerpt:

Grappling on the global-warming battlefield are two parties in a high-stakes political conflict: On the extreme ends of the global warming controversy, believers accuse skeptics of pushing “free-market fundamentalism”; skeptics accuse believers of pushing “eco-socialism.”

According to one narrative, market fundamentalists and corporate interests are funding an intentionally-deceptive propaganda campaign against the concept of human-caused global warming to keep business free from regulatory interference…

According to the opposing narrative, communism has reformulated itself as a leftist environmental movement bent on establishing a world government and destroying free-market capitalism.

This is my second article in a series on climate change. The previous one examined research into public perceptions of the issue — see “Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?

AB — 9 August 2011

How to Talk About Climate Change

The aspect of the climate change controversy (and other issues in public discourse) that intrigues me most of all is the ability of people on opposite sides to talk past each other. I say it intrigues me, but it also saddens me in a sense, as I value dialogue, engagement, and listening.

Partisan rhetoric seems designed to paint the other side as extremist and wicked. The rhetor seems willing to present an argument in a one-sided, deceptive manner so as to influence public sentiment and achieve a political agenda.

In the wrangling over climate change, the parties throw around terms like “anti-science,” “hoax,” “deniers,” “pseudo-science,” junk science,” and “anti-business,” trigger words that demonize the other side.

So I enjoyed reading Will J. Grant and Rod Lamberts’ post today over at The Conversation, “Who’s afraid of big, bad coal? Al Gore’s ‘climate reality’ is a pointless fairytale.” Grant and Lamberts’ post is a commentary on Gore’s new Climate Reality Project. They acknowledge that Gore’s project is “the kind of campaign that will do a lot for those who want to do something about climate change,” but feel that it will do “little for anyone else.” Their question is, “Where is the mechanism here that will finally get the unconverted or the hostile to agree with the need to take action on climate change?”

What most interested me was their criticism of Gore’s promotional video, in which he accuses “Big Oil” and “Big Coal” of evil manipulations. This is ridiculous, Grant and Lamberts write:

Those who got into the coal and oil industries did so for the simple goal of making a profit by providing us with the energy we need for the modern economy. They didn’t do it to be evil. They don’t want to destroy the world. They are not the nefarious oligarchs that so many would have you believe.

Yes, we now know that the carbon pollution produced by the coal and oil industries is a big problem for society. We all need to wean ourselves off such carbon intensive energy.

But we’re not going to do it by misrepresenting people’s intentions and calling them names. We’re not going to do it by punishing people who acted in good faith.

We’re only going to convince people to change by lining up their profit motive with everyone’s need for a low-carbon economy.

Seems like the kind of open, refreshing approach that can lead to actual dialogue over critical issues.

AB — 19 July 2011