A recent, terrific episode of the always great American radio series ‘This American Life’ posits the need for a magazine called ‘Modern Jackass’, to which those who finds themselves talking with confidence about a subject of which they are almost entirely ignorant would be able to contribute. (You can download TAL from www.thislife.org – go on, pay something. The episode I’m talking about is entitled ‘A Little Knowledge’).
The trouble is that the modern world makes modern jackasses of us all. I’m pretty sure, for example, that global warming is happening, and that we are in serious trouble; but if one of those cranky people who deny it all sat me down and started shouting at me, I would have very little to come back at him with, if it got down to facts and figures. Climate-change sceptics, for example, believe that ice-cores indicate a pattern of temperature and CO2 increases every one hundred thousand years or so, but that C02 levels have always gone up after the temperature rise, not before. Is that right? I don’t know – how could I? How could any of us who are not climate scientists? Nor do I know whether it’s helpful, or indeed what it might prove, for that matter. Most scientists, as far as I can work out, seem to believe that it’s true but irrelevant. I am a father, an adult, a writer, so I should have a view, right? But I have an ‘O’-level in biology.
Here’s an example of the trouble we can find ourselves in. Christopher Booker, who writes for the Telegraph newspapers, is one of the leading climate-change sceptics. He’s not a scientist – he has written about politics and books, but only in the last few years has he turned his attention to what he sees as the great con being perpetrated on the world by alarmists. Booker’s book, ‘Scared To Death’, was rubbished by the Observer’s Robin McKie, the paper’s science editor, when it was published at the end of last year. McKie points out that a couple of the claims Booker makes about how we’re all being duped are substantiated by an interview that Cambridge astrophysicist Nigel Weiss gave to Canada’s Financial Post.
“Except that Weiss never said any such thing,” says McKie. “He never even gave an interview to the Post, which long ago posted a retraction and an apology, under legal threat from Weiss who was infuriated such claims had been falsely attributed to him. ‘I don’t believe solar radiation is the main cause of global warming and I never said so to the Post, as the authors of this book would have discovered if they had asked me,’ says Weiss.”
Then Booker gives an interview to a magazine called London Book Review.com, hitting back at McKie: “Ignoring most of the book completely, [he] concentrated on just one short passage in our 80-page chapter on global warming, accusing us of having invented two quotations from a distinguished astrophysicist Professor Nigel Weiss (‘Weiss never said any such thing’, [McKie] wrote, ‘it is hard to credit such sloppiness’). As Weiss himself conceded, in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph, we had quoted him correctly.”
If you can be bothered to look up Weiss’s letter to the Sunday Telegraph, then you’ll see that this concession isn’t quite the vindication that Booker claims and needs. Weiss wrote the following:
“In his column (December 16), Christopher Booker referred to quotations of mine that he used in his book ‘Scared to Death’. The actual quotations, from what I have said or written, may be accurate but they are taken out of context.
The Royal Astronomical Society press release, to which Mr Booker referred, said “although greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuel are almost certainly responsible for the rapid current rate of global warming, there have been many previous episodes of climatic change that cannot be explained by such human activity”, and then went on to quote me directly.
Those were my views then and those are my views now. I believe that solar variability, along with volcanic eruptions, was important in the past but is now dwarfed by warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”
I know who I believe, after following this particular trail. It’s clear from this that Nigel Weiss, through no fault or ambiguity of his own, has repeatedly been used to support ideas he clearly doesn’t believe. How much time, though, can we reasonably be expected to devote to the truth of his position? I would have believed Robin McKie’s review; I would have believed Booker’s feisty comeback, if I hadn’t been curious enough to look up the letter to which he refers. And this stuff matters. Booker writes regularly for a broadsheet newspaper. He is one of the people responsible for the idea that climate change is still debatable, a matter of opinion.
Last week, Channel 4’s documentary ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ – a programme which by all accounts took a similar line to Booker’s – was found by regulators to have breached rules on impartiality, and to have misrepresented the views of the government’s former chief scientist. But Ofcom, the media regulator who made the ruling, did not believe, “given the nature of the programme, that this led to the audience being materially misled”. That bland-looking phrase “given the nature of the programme” is curiously significant, however, because Ofcom’s argument went something like this: everyone knows that global warming is happening, and the link between man-made emissions and climate change was formed way before the programme was broadcast. In other words, “the nature of the programme” was – what? – harmless fun? The ravings of eccentrics? So nobody could possibly be persuaded by it. But of course that’s precisely the point that the film-makers and people like Christopher Booker are making: everyone knows that global warming is happening because we’re all the victims of a giant conspiracy. And in any case, there is no consensus on climate-change, as far as I can tell. Some people are terrified; some people think it will simply enable the growing of grapes in Manchester; some people think it’s a lot of alarmist liberal hogwash; some people simply don’t give a toss.
I have chosen – as I believe we all must – someone who can represent me, someone who will do the work for me and present it in a way that I both understand and trust. (This is what politicians are supposed to do, but in the Reagan/George W. Bush era, the meaning of representation changed, from “I trust that guy to speak for me”, to “Hey! That guy’s just like me!” This alarming development is responsible for a great deal of damage, I fear.) My representative is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose book ‘Field Notes From A Catastrophe’, based on three articles she wrote for the New Yorker, is calm, authoritative, brilliantly researched and devastating. In a recent article, Kolbert quotes NASA’s chief climate scientist, James Hansen:
“Twenty years ago, NASA’s chief climate scientist, James Hansen, testified on Capitol Hill about the dangers of global warming. Just a few days ago, Hansen returned to the Hill to testify again. “Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic,” he said. “Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding ninety-nine per cent. The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule.” Hansen went on to warn that there would be no practical way to prevent “disastrous” climate change unless the next President and Congress act quickly to curb emissions.”
Call me gullible, but I can find no reason to mistrust James Hansen; I don’t know why he would want to lie to us. And he sounds like a worried man.