A rare glimpse of climate debate within the finer margins of reason

It seems in the last decade especially narratives about climate have become increasingly saturated with a certain distinguishable hysteria, which, I would argue, is detrimental to rational discourse on what is undoubtedly an important issue of our time. It doesn’t help that popular media coverage on climate science is generally poor, if not altogether below an acceptable standard, constantly promoting humanity’s impending doom without appropriate levels of nuance and explicating lucidly the complexities of the modelling and the data. One wonders in what way such constant alarmism pathologises the developing worldview of younger generations. Greta Thunberg is perhaps an illuminating case study – growing up conditioned to believe that her generation faces Armageddon: who could possibly focus on school under such conditions? When we reduce the problem to Armageddon or systemic change, it is a fairly easy step to convince oneself that so much of the machinary of modern society ought to be abandoned. It makes sense that, within the confines of such climate catastrophising, Thunberg and others continue to drive the narrative: the climate catastrophe means all shall end, because the whole is rotten, unless the whole is transformed (or fanatically demolished). In some ways, it could maybe be said that she is a sympathetic figure in a strangely contemporary Greek tragedy. The story is one I can imagine Aeschylus writing, perhaps focusing on the theme of hubris and the blindfolded nature of intoxicated moral rightousness. Thinking about it: climate alarmism, on the one hand, and the climate denialists on the other, are much more like caricatures of some absurdist play, so perfectly defined in their rigidity such that whatever meaningful discourse that might be attained is ultimately reduced to irrational and illogical speech and thus to some ultimate ideological conclusion. I suppose it is like this on many topics, as it seems exceedingly rare to find balanced, rational discussion. Twitter serves as such a wonderful petri-dish of social study in this regard.

Let’s get something important out of the way: there is no actual debate about climate change. Anyone that still denies the existence of climate change is a relic from a time when both the data was scarce and the modelling weak (although we may still debate some models, as all models cherry pick, they have as a rule improved as the data has sharpened). Indeed, one could say that the scientific evidence is overwhelming. But what is not scientifically based, and what is certainly not helpful, is the human irrationality that – as it often does – saturates so much of the climate discussion. I’m sure that I am not the only one who finds it frustrating. Climate alarmism reminds me quite a bit of anti-GMO and anti-vaccine movements; the hysteria is so stirring and generates so much fear, governments are moved to enact policies (like bans, or unwarranted regulations) completely without evidence or any scientific basis. There are so many examples of this, it is actually disheartening. One example I regularly like to cite is the story of LYMErix, and why your dog can now be vaccinated for Lyme disease but you cannot. This is the stage on which the absurdist theatre of contemporary life finds itself.

Last year I wrote on the ongoing climate debate emphasising just this point: when discourse takes the position of unreason.

Another good example is the more recent Just Stop Oil! movement. As a schooling exercise, I once had to write a report on climate policy, with the main focus being economics and fossil fuel dependency. The conclusion I had reached, although possibly not within the intentioned design of the exercise (I still received good grades!), was somewhat counter-intuitive to the environmental moral: namely, because people are so dependent on fossil fuels – almost all of our everyday products and a significant part of modern qualities of life are derived from fossil fuels, from health care to basic daily comforts – it was morally reprehensible to suddenly demand that people abandon fossil fuels or to design policies that economically price out working class people from affording such products. Of course, this goes against the militant message as people continue to glue their hands to the M1 or splash paint on popular box stores, demanding that dependence on fossil fuels simply ends!

Another great example that highlights the irresponsible ideologies at the extreme ends of the climate debate takes us to consider current UK energy policy (I know it is similar in many other countries, such as Canada for instance). There was for a long time a deep and unfounded prejudice against nuclear energy propagated by alarmist movements ( again, the anti-GMO or anti-vax movements serve as a wonderful analogue), such that the hysteria became so overwhelming there was no longer political will in the UK to pursue new nuclear projects, allowing existing ones to essentially decay. Fast forward a couple decades to the present-day, and the UK’s ongoing energy crisis can be seen in many ways as a result of insurmountable stupidity. It is not hard to trace the sources of such alarmism over nuclear power that dominated for quite some time. Even now, traditional environmental movements still appear resistant to the science and to the evidence-based case for increased investment in nuclear power. This is what happens when these alarmist movements take control of the narrative, just as what happened in the case of LYMErix. To be honest, with the prejudice lasting as any good myth would, it is one reason I was so surprised to read that the latest Labour party manifesto put nuclear energy front and centre. (Perhaps this is a sign that they’ve finally matured into being a governing party!) But my larger point is that nuclear energy is indeed another perfect case study for why we need, as a point of normative emphasis, to promote rational, scientific, and evidenced-based discussion. Indeed, as we enter into the winter months and as people struggle to heat their homes due to high energy costs, with the government forced to draft proposals for rolling blackouts in the extreme case that there’s not enough energy to power the country – maybe as we ask ourselves about how we got here, we’ll grow up a little bit more as a society. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll start looking to the scientific tools at our disposal for healthier governance as further resistance to alarmist narratives that so easily taps into and energises collective social anxiety.

So, where’s the hope? For me, it partly resides in knowing that social spheres of logical and rational discourse still exist. It’s one reason why I share the recent episode of the Lex Fridman podcast with Andrew Revkin, long-time climate journalist at the New York Times, and Bjørn Lomborg, author of False Alarm and a well-established environmental sceptic. It’s a fantastic engagement, representing one of the few instances (that I’ve come across in the last year) of climate discussion that intentionally positions itself within the finer margins of reason, trying to be as objective as possible whilst preserving some notion of critical and systems thinking as the speakers encircle one of the most important issues of our time. In truth, climate change is a multidimensional problem, requiring that we synthesise complex debates on a range of issues from theoretical modelling in how best to view social discount rates in making economic decisions through to managing technological capabilities and evidence-based agricultural policies. These sorts of wide-ranging discussions, which can directly impact policies, should exist within the public sphere. Going by the comments, debates like the one linked seem to do a lot in fostering a reminder of the positive possibility for rational engagement. I think it’s fantastic.

If, to end the year, a reader of this blog decides it would be interesting to catch-up on the climate debate, I recommend giving the episode a listen.