Stop that sunbeam

November 30, 2006

Everyone always complains about the weather, but not until this spectacularly silly age has anyone imagined they could do something about it.  We used to be against “global warming”; that the enemy surreptitiously became “climate change” should provide a clue about the sanity of the enterprise.

It is all too human to fear change, and to associate any disorder of nature with evil perpetrated by men.  What seems immutable to our brief lifespans should be immutable to eternity, we feel, and so we constantly hear ourselves saying, like Faust, “Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!”

We mourn the passing of bacterial species, and blame ourselves, even though the canyon walls are layered with the petrified bones of extinct giants much older than the first human being.  Creatures evolve and die out:  we will too, when our day comes.  The strange thing is that we know it, and still we cry, “Oh tarry yet.”

We moralize the weather — which, henceforth, will tarry in an eternal status quo, and never change.  We know this to be unreasonable:  the earth’s climate has changed drastically enough that hippos and thick glacier icepacks could at different times be found in Britain.  And still, we want the moment to tarry, and the climate never to change:  and woe to him who rejects or contradicts this powerful desire.

Bjorn Lomborg is one of my intellectual heroes.  He calls himself “the skeptical environmentalist,” but he is really a latter-day Galileo — if not in the magnitude of his discoveries, then in the intensity of feeling he has aroused in the temples of science.  Objectively considered, Lomborg is a pretty bland character.  He accepts global warming, and even the human blame part.  But as this interview makes clear, he doesn’t see a major problem with climate change, particularly when compared with other, more immediate and more lethal troubles.

Global warming is an important issue and one which we should address. But there is no sense of proportion either in environmental terms, or indeed in terms of the other issues facing the world.

If you just take the environmental problem first, it’s very clear that what causes by far the majority of deaths is lack clean drinking water and lack of sanitation. Millions of people are dying each year from this. Also taking the new WHO estimates of what really kills people, these are the huge issues.

The second biggest problem is indoor air pollution, which probably kills somewhere between 1 and 3 million people each year, basically because people are too poor to use good fuels and end up using dung or cardboard or whatever they can find. Only a very distant third comes climate change, which the WHO puts at 150,000 to die right now.

For his inconvenient truths, Lomborg has been likened to Hitler by a high priest of the UN climate bureaucracy, inspired public warnings from a cardinal of the Royal Academy about “fringe individuals” who “cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change,” and was duly punished with an 11-page refutation from the Scientific American titled, sadly, “Science Defends Itself Against ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist.'”

Other attacks from the orthodox were even less restrained.  That they have tended to backfire removes none of the strangeness and ferocity from the attempts.

Lomborg may well be wrong.  It may be that, on the facts, his opponents will turn out to be correct.  Critical discussion is the lifeblood of science, and original hypotheses will always startle old facts into new life.  But to accuse a book writer of genocide, to hold sacred a consensus among fallible persons, to impersonate science in order to bully an individual scientist — these are too-human responses to a violation of the temple — these represent an excommunication by zealots rather than a debate between scientists.

The dogma is that we have sinned.  The dream is that the fair moment must tarry.  The means is the economic hairshirt, the cultural mortification of the flesh.  So we make Erin Brockovich into a movie heroine, and Bjorn Lomborg into a kind of Danish devil.