By Henry Porter
Feb 17, 2014
If climate change sceptics have a coherent explanation for the events we are witnessing, it's time they held an international conference and told us what they believe
Say I were to ask you to prove that the dinosaurs were wiped out when an asteroid collided with the Earth 66m years ago, in what is now snappily called the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.
If you were as weirdly obsessed by these catastrophes as I am, you would maybe start by citing the worldwide layer of sediment known as K-Pg boundary, which was first discovered near Gubbio, in Italy, and is thought to be the fallout from a massive explosion. You would mention the soot that is associated with this layer, the site of a huge impact in the Yucatán region of Mexico 66m years ago and, finally, you'd ask what else could have caused the dinosaurs to die out more or less overnight. A sceptic might respond that this is all supposition, evidence tenuously linked to fit a very recent theory: none of it constitutes proof and no one can ever know why the dinosaurs vanished to allow the rise of mammals and the eventual evolution of man.
So you would quote more evidence, such as the presence in the K-Pg layer of iridium, an element rare on Earth but not in asteroids, as well as the altered state of quartz, which can only be made under extremely high pressure, such as is caused by a huge impact of a 10km asteroid. You would mention the long darkness when only ferns grew and the fact that the seas were emptied of all but the most tenacious species.
Ah, but this is still all very hypothetical, the sceptic would say, at which point you might give up and tell him, yes, a spacecraft might have visited Earth and exterminated 75% of the world's species, but you're going with the best available evidence. The sceptic would walk away, satisfied that he had achieved a draw, not from the merit of his argument, but simply because he had not let you convince him.
This is where we are with the climate change deniers. The absolute proof of manmade global warming is unlikely to arrive until it is too late and so the deniers are scrupulously indulged with equal time in the argument, where, taking the part of Little Britain's wheelchair user Andy to our Lou, nothing is ever good enough for them.
They are always the sniping antagonists, rarely, if ever, standing up to say: we believe in the following facts and here is our research. It is a risk-free strategy – at least for the moment – that comes almost exclusively from the political right and is, as often as not, incentivised by simple capitalist gain. Hearing Lord Lawson argue with the impeccably reasonable climate scientist Sir Brian Hoskins on the BBC Today programme last week, I finally boiled over. It is surely now time for the deniers to make their case and hold an international conference, where they set out their scientific stall, which, while stating that the climate is fundamentally chaotic, provides positive, underlying evidence that man's activity has had no impact on sea and atmosphere temperatures, diminishing icecaps and glaciers, rising sea levels and so on.
Until such a conference is held and people such as Lawson, Lord Monckton, Christopher Booker, Samuel Brittan and Viscount Ridley – names that begin to give you some idea of the demographic – are required to provide the proof of their case, rather than feeding off that of their opponents, they should be treated with mild disdain. I don't say deniers should be banned from media outlets, as the website Reddit has attempted to do, but just that there should be agreement that they must now qualify, with argument and facts, for the balanced coverage they receive in such places as the BBC.
I believe so passionately in the Natural Causes Climate Change Conference (the NCCCC, perhaps) that the fee for this column is offered to start the ball rolling. And I will be the first to buy a ticket, because the deniers' case has about a tenth of the strength of the warmists' case and I want to see them flounder, as all the scientific guns are trained on them. Of course this will not happen – why would someone such as Lawson exchange the comfortable position of ringside critic for the roll of protagonist? But for him and the rest of the deniers, a failure to put up will soon mean they have to shut up, simply because no one is listening.
With each new freak weather event, they look more and more superfluous to the debate about how we survive the 21st century.
For the moment, however, they have a disproportionate influence because they've created the illusion that this is a finely balanced discussion where a person can reasonably support either side. They empower a certain amount of stupidity, laziness, selfishness and ignorance in the minds of many, and I hope some of the younger deniers, though few, live to acknowledge responsibility.
I mentioned that most deniers come from the right and it is true the uninterrupted business of capitalism, which often entails waste of resources and energy, is a priority, but there is something deeper that explains why there are so few deniers from the left and that is to do with conservative mind. In his 1956 essay "On Being Conservative", the philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that the man of conservative temperament is "not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas. What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence. He eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of his world".
This is so perceptive about the conservative instinct and I think it explains the reluctance among many sane people to come to grips with the enormous implications of manmade climate change: the radical actions we must take to avert further rises and how we should adapt our societies and economic systems to cope with extreme weather events associated with even the tiniest temperature rise, which are now agreed by both sides.
To suspend hostilities for a moment, it seems to me that both sides should start by considering the undeniable waste of energy in British cities, where office lights shine through the night and supermarkets pump out hot air at open entrances and cold air in their freezer sections. Energy saving and a huge insulation programme might prevent the construction of more wasteful wind turbines, some of which, in the extreme weather of last week, burst into flames or had to be shut down.
We have to come to some agreement soon or the deniers won't be the only dinosaurs.