Or: A Skeptic’s Journey
We all have our favorite topics, and those of you who have read much of this blog undoubtedly know that one of mine is Climate Change, AKA Global Warming, AKA Global Weirding, AKA Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, AKA Climate Alarm. In this subject I have a minority viewpoint, but one that is, I think it fair to say, well-reasoned and well-supported by data.
I have followed this topic for about as long as anyone, ever since it first emerged as an item of academic interest in the mid-1980s. For years I was very much on board with the narrative of “More CO2 = warmer climate” because it seemed to make sense and, well, we probably ought to be weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels anyway. But my faith in this simple equivalence began to waver as the small but growing, rather vocal anti-carbon movement took on an increasingly strident tone, signaling the ascendance of passion over reason. The apocalyptic rhetoric seemed overblown and far out of sync with reality, at least as I understood it. It just didn’t add up, and so I began to have doubts.
But it’s not enough just to say “I’m not so sure about that,” and let it go. You have to be able to back it up. So I immersed myself in the subject, became familiar with the physics, brushed up on the history and geology, read and researched until it felt like I had a pretty good handle on the thing. Ultimately, the assertion that humans were dangerously overheating the planet simply fell apart under close examination. There was no there, there; it was all smoke and mirrors and hype. I assumed that this would soon become common knowledge, and that as a consequence interest in Global Warming would fade away.
So it was with a mixture of irritation, disbelief, and something akin to shock that I watched the exact opposite happen. In the span of only a couple of years Global Warming graduated from footnote, of interest only to nerds and weather enthusiasts, to MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE EVER! Eventually, absolutely everybody got in on the act. The Drumbeat of Doom, coming from every quarter, was endless and deafening. And as the planet-in-peril narrative hardened so did my opposition to it. Any lingering ambivalence I may have had gave way to uncompromising, flinty resistance, supported by reasoning and evidence of course, but seasoned, admittedly, with a bit of attitude.
The release in 2006 of former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth marked the full emergence of the Climate Alarm movement. A powerhouse of top-notch propaganda, An Inconvenient Truth deftly employed a one-two punch of emotional imagery and scary graphics to push the issue of Climate Change to center stage. It was the most-watched documentary of all time, and probably also the most influential. Millions of fence-straddlers found themselves converts to the Cause after a single viewing. The movie even managed, momentarily, to rattle this writer’s rather hardened cage.
In retrospect, it could hardly have been otherwise because the issue had something for everyone. If you had an axe to grind, Global Warming was your baby. It seemed the perfect symbol of fatal human folly. It made a most excellent vehicle for moralistic bloviation. All things bright and beautiful were threatened by it. Innocent, highly photogenic victims seemingly abounded. Oh those poor baby polar bears! It was made-to-order melodrama; Snidely Whiplash versus Polly Pureheart on a grand scale. The headlines practically wrote themselves: Big Oil Destroys Planet; Wealthy, Selfish First World to Blame. Happy Now? It was terrific political theater, and everyone got a chance to score easy virtue points.
In the early years there was a sincere, feel-good quality to the movement, a loose coalition of inveterate do-gooders and granola Greens, with a handful of celebrity scientists lending respectability. But somewhere along the line, a really nasty totalitarian faction took charge, and the movement became a crusade, with all the charm and subtlety of the Spanish Inquisition. The new regime neither minced words nor took prisoners. Carbon dioxide was “poison.” The opposition was “evil incarnate.” These are actual quotes. Dissent within the ranks was ruthlessly suppressed, and those not sufficiently militant were denounced. Climate skeptics were publicly equated with Holocaust Deniers. It was seriously suggested that they be jailed and tried as war criminals. It was very Stalinesque. Global Warming became the poster child for groupthink, a secular religion, and a political nightstick, with which the Enlightened very avidly bashed their inferiors at every opportunity. It wasn’t enough simply to have the upper hand; no other opinions were to be permitted.
All of which deterred me only a little because I knew what I knew. Although I never went out of my way to engage others on this issue, to be a skeptical sort is to be cursed with a certain amount of compulsive contrariness. So if you were so kind as to start a debate, I would gladly finish it.
It might have been inevitable that I became a climate skeptic, because by nature and habit I tend to question things, and to reject that which does not add up. This habit formed early in life. When I was about seven years old, for example, I decided after due consideration that my family’s very conventional religion (Presbyterianism) made no sense whatsoever. It didn’t add up, and I said so. To their credit, my family was quite accepting of this apostasy, probably because they weren’t all that into it either. Recognizing a lost cause when they saw one, I was soon excused from church-related activities. In much the same way, the evangelical fervor of climate activism, seemingly immune to all logic, seemed a red flag, and triggered my natural contrarianism.
Nobody likes a fanatic, though, and I always consciously strove to keep my devotion to the topic within reasonable bounds, so that it did not inadvertently cross that nebulous frontier separating “interest” from “obsession.” If this should ever happen, by the way, please let me know, immediately and in no uncertain terms.
Even at the best of times, to be a skeptic is to go against the grain. Our culture, and perhaps species, is conflicted about skepticism as a guiding philosophy. On the one hand, we respect the mavericks and rebels of the world, albeit with a few reservations. And we acknowledge the inherent good sense of “trust but verify.” On the other hand, those who persistently resist consensus, conventional wisdom, general accord–call it what you will–are frowned upon. They are seen as antisocial, recalcitrant, retrograde, or just plain irritating; they are outliers, cranks, weirdos wearing foil hats. Dude, what’s your problem? People habitually inclined toward skepticism often learn the hard way to keep it zipped, because to speak freely is to suffer consequences.
When you stake out a minority position on a hot-button issue like Climate Change it doesn’t matter how well-researched your argument, it doesn’t matter how civil your presentation, it doesn’t matter how reasonably you present your case, you will get flak, and lots of it. True believers will all but physically attack you on general principle. Actually, sometimes they will physically attack you, but we’ll set that aside for the moment. They rarely actually bother to really read or listen to your arguments, mind you. The moment they detect contrary, forbidden opinions, they instantly, reflexively slip into outrage mode. You’re killing the planet! How does it feel to be a tool of Big Oil?
That’s when they’re feeling charitable; sometimes they treat you to a barrage of abuse instead. Voice your opinions in the wrong group and you will be quite literally shouted down. Leave a skeptical comment on a high-profile site and watch the hate flow. Consider the following comment, by yours truly, and its rejoinder, left in response to a gloomy-doomy article on Truthdig.