Former British Member of Parliament, Lembit Öpik, wrote his first article about climate change in 1980. Here, he sets out how he believes eco-policy ought to be evaluated and progressed – and warns those who refuse to engage in true debate that they risk writing themselves out of the policy making script.
My first professional political role was in 1985. That was 35 years ago, and five years after I wrote my first published article about climate change – specifically focussing on the prospect of a dramatic change in global temperatures.
Since then, I’ve seen some highly emotional and fractious disputes where inescapable facts eventually determined the winners and losers. A prime example was the question of the ‘dodgy dossier’ that was used as a justification by former UK Premier Tony Blair for the invasion of Iraq. This eventually cost the British Prime Minister his position: evidence finally proved the basis for war to be utterly flawed, and no political manoeuvring could disguise this. I believe climate change has all the same elements as an issue: predictions, emotions, actions and the inevitability that facts, over time, will determine who is right and who is wrong.
As with the Iraq War, powerful political interests skew the environmental debate, serving to up the stakes for all concerned. Strange claims are made about drivers being murderers, and violence has even been shown on news broadcasts, further muddying the waters regarding what the demonstrators are actually setting out to prove or achieve.
Nobody I know wants to die because of bad air or bad climate change. This is, surely, unarguable. What seems to be missing in this debate is a cool commitment to genuine dialogue – without which the entire issue is reduced to emotive ‘virtue signalling,’ bullying, moaning, provocation and, potentially, ‘mission paralysis.’ This paralysis happens when the actions of one or both sides in a dispute lose the confidence of the public in the subject itself, making political action in a democratic system hard or impossible. I think this is already happening with the issue of climate change.
Who do I ‘support’ in the climate debate? I’ve got strong – and well researched – views on the issue. I have taken a particular interest in the relationship between policy towards fossil fuel powered transport and climate claims. But my deepest concern is the apparent lack of mature engagement, and the absence of cool, reasoned arguments between the key protagonists in the conversation.
The lack of reliance on logic is illustrated by deliberately loaded phrases like ‘climate change denier.’ Leaving aside the intentional allusion to ‘Holocaust denial’ – an inference that adds absolutely noting to the scientific debate – the phrase itself is used by people who apparently don’t realise the climate has always changed. Then there is the strange paradox that those who support urgent action on what they call the ‘climate emergency’ also claim that the ‘science is settled.’ However, there is a marked resistance by these same people and groups – for example Client Earth – to actually provide a dossier of this ‘settled science.’ It’s as if they think there is no longer a need to provide evidence – and that their word must be taken as the truth.
I’m sorry to say the majority of offenders seem to come from the environmental activist side (though I have read at least one dreadfully unconvincing and poorly researched book opposing this faction). When I invite people who believe in a ‘climate emergency’ to explain in scientific terms what their evidence is and what, actually, is likely to happen over a given time period, the usual reply is an emotional one, or some comment about an ‘overwhelming consensus.’ I’ve even been criticised for asking for the proof, as if to seek facts about the predicted climate crisis is to commit some kind of heresy. Yet, in my experience, nobody who is confident of his or her evidence would refuse to supply it.
Whether or not you believe humans are wrecking the planet’s climate, it is not acceptable to rely on the ‘overwhelming consensus’ claim. Consensus has nothing to do with scientific proof. Consensus is opinion, not evidence.
And consensus can be notoriously wrong. Examples include the witch-hunts of yore, the use of radioactive substances as makeup and the belief that giving cigarettes to pregnant women was good for calming nerves. To use the sword of consensus skewers your own credibility by avoiding proper scientific discourse. And to avoid discourse is to betray a fundamental tenet of how we’re supposed to sort things out in a purported ‘Age of Reason.’
So, what SHOULD happen next? There’s a simple one-word answer to this: dialogue. That’s all that’s missing. Honest engagement by both sides, with the power of hypotheses backed up by evidence to enable all parties to test each other’s claims under the spotlight of constructive critique. This seems so obvious that it’s surprising one even has to explain it. Yet in the ‘climate emergency’ arena, this is exactly what’s missing.
Some, few, individuals and groups seek to set up such a dialogue. I’m 100% behind those initiatives. After all, if the science is indeed settled, the facts will show us what will happen and what we need to do about it. That goes for anyone on any side in any argument. Rather self-evidently, if you can’t actually prove what you say, it’s unlikely to be ‘settled’ at all.
I hope those who run this new website are successful in bringing people together to share and discuss competing worldviews about climate change and some related matters. It’s important we get this right, and that can only happen if we explain why we hold the views we do and listen to those who hold other views. Those who refuse to engage are necessarily creating doubts about the credibility of their own position, as it seems obvious this they are not confident they can, in fact, put their case convincingly. I want to know who’s right about climate factors, and I can only decide that when I hear both sides on the same stage. If one side doesn’t show up in a sports game, they’re usually deemed to have forfeited the match. Why should it be any different here? That’s why I hope people and groups will show up for the debate at this forum. Then we can all decide who makes the best case by gen