Monday, November 09, 2009

Blind faith or sound science?

The case of Tim Nicholson, who successfully sued his employer Grainger plc for unfair dismissal on the grounds that he believed too deeply in environmentalism akin to a religious belief, has generated more in column inches than it arguably deserves. But, never one to eschew a bandwagon, here's my take on faith vs science on climate change.

To start with, most if not all of the commentary is oversimplistic in order to make a good headline. To get a sensible understanding of this situation, we've got to split the 'green position' into three.

First of all, take the science of, say, climate change. I once heard a Met Office climatologist tell an audience "I often get asked at parties whether I believe in climate change. I respond that you might as well ask me whether I believe in mountains. It [climate change] is simply a physical fact." Estimating the likely impacts of man-made climate change is where the real scientific debate takes place and that is a matter of observation, modelling, debate, peer-review and all the other objective processes of scientific endeavour. Faith does not, and should not, get a look in.

Secondly, there is the deeper value-driven belief system when it comes to the environment. Everyone (OK, almost everyone) is an environmentalist. Who isn't amazed by the splendours of nature - the Grand Canyon, wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti or an eagle in flight? This taps into a deeper part of our soul - our attachment to our natural habitat. This is subjective and will manifest itself in different ways for different people. This is the closest environmentalism comes to faith.

Thirdly, there is political outlook. There is no doubt that the physical phenomenon of climate change is convenient for those with an anti-capitalist, anarchist mindset - just look at any major protest. Despite claims to the contrary, you rarely see many men in Pringle sweaters or women with blue rinses at a Climate Camp. That's not to knock those protesters, but they would have to admit themselves they tend to come from a particular mindset. People's politics change, so this can't be faith either.

Many of the commentators on the Nicholson case, deliberately or otherwise, have mixed up these issues. We get told that if we don't get in step with "the climate change orthodoxy" we get howled down (who by? go to any online debate on climate change and see who is doing the howling). Let's get it straight. Man-made climate change is a scientific fact. The enthusiasm or tone of argument of those who promote action on climate change does not undermine that fact or make it an article of faith.

I would like now to throw the "faith" issue back at the climate change denial brigade. I went to a very academic and quite religious school in Northern Ireland. On the subject of evolution we got a very schizophrenic education. We'd go to Biology and get the science in an objective and rigourous manner, then to Religious Education, where a man in a dog collar would try and disprove that science using what I now recognise as some very dodgy scientific arguments and some stuff he simply made up. Reading the ramblings of a climate change denier like Christopher Booker of the Telegraph (who also happens to be a creationist) reminds me of my old RE teacher. They start with an assumption they are right (faith), ignore the core evidence (blind faith) and pick out (or make up) a few 'facts' which they say bring down more than a century of climate science (self delusion). Straw men are set up to be knocked down, experts are derided and laymen are quoted as soothsayers. Despite this, they get the book deals and the newspaper columns - just like many other huxtsers in other lines of human endeavour.

So, whether greens are coming from a scientific or a political angle, it cannot be argued that climate change is "eco-fundamentalism". The only fundamentalism in the green debate is from the denial brigade. Fact.

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