Thursday, 17 January 2008


Getting Overheated is a long and interesting entry in Stephen Fry's blog.

Here is part of it:
So we’re down to this thought. One is free to make the entirely valid observation that one cannot know for certain whether the scientific doom-saying on the subject of the planet, its rising temperature and the dire climactic and other consequences is true. One is free to observe that in the past scientists have been wrong. One is free to observe inconsistencies, evasions, exaggerations and discrepancies in the supposed ‘one-voice’ clarion cry emanating from the scientific community, environmental journalists, the green movement, the carbon off-set industry and others. In other words one is free to do nothing.

Ye-es but … you see the one overwhelming fact about the great climate debate is what’s at stake. Not scientific reputation, not the fortunes and comforts of capitalists and their populations, not pride or reputation but our very civilization.
So let’s break it broadly down to three responses to such a cataclysmic prophecy of doom.

There is Response A. Type A believes the preponderance of established scientific evidence. Whether Type A believes it because they are equipped to do so, or whether they believe it because they are gullible, or whether they believe it because they are stupud, or whether they choose to/pretend to believe it because they are anti-progress, anti-capitalist, anti-global economy, communist, hippy or anarchist is neither here nor there. They believe or profess to believe that there is a pressing threat to the continuation of human life on this planet such as we have known it since the earliest civilizations began to build harbours and ports on the edges of the land. It’s a big deal.

Then there is Type B. Type Bs do not believe this. They think the evidence is wrong, misinterpreted, flawed, misrepresented, unconvincing, not to be acted upon. Type A will call Type Bs “deniers” which irritates them with that suggestion of holocaust denial, not to mention its accompaniment of that special whiff of sanctimonious self-righteous and political correctness that many Bs observe will always hang about your classic Type A. Type B believes the evidence is either manufactured, ignored or slanted. They believe that the whole eco industry and the thousands of academic departments which have sprung up have a vested interest in those alarm bells. They think it’s political correctness, a new orthodoxy, liberal, bossy and dishonest.
Finally there is Type C, the category into which Jim falls. Type C says: “I cannot possibly know. I hear this from one side and that from another. Both seem convinced, both seem to be marshalling impressive technical figures to their side. I cannot make a judgment.”

Obviously there are views that shade between the three categories but in essence you either believe, deny or sit on the fence.

The consequence of these responses runs something like this: A, the believer, will, or at least should, attempt to do something about the threat they believe in: I mean, look what’s at stake, how can they not? In his or her small way they should support green initiatives through the ballot box, attempt to leave less of a carbon footprint in their personal lives, make environmental restitution for jet travel and other apparently deleterious activities through carbon offset schemes and the like. All very baffling, bewildering, embarrassing, inadequate, shambling, liberal and possibly useless no doubt, but the planet’s in danger so surely, (wringing of hands) we should try? By planet, I mean planet-as-we-know-it, of course. It is obvious that the good old earth will carry on a-spinning whatever happens to its ozone layer and climate systems.

B meanwhile will carry on as if nothing is different, for as far as he is concerned, nothing is. Bs only wish they could survive long enough to see the smug self-righteous sorrowful smile wiped from A’s face when in a hundred years it is made plain that there never was any great threat to the climate, to the environment or the ecosystem and that at worst it was a conspiracy of anti-capitalists and at best a muddled, credulous screw up.

And C? The Jims of this world? Well they, of course, are functionally exactly the same as B. They do not know. Case isn’t proven, so why should they vote for massive changes to the way the world does business, massive alterations to the convenience and pleasures of our way of life, just on a 50/50 hunch?

Ah, but that’s the point. It’s what’s at stake that matters in a bet like this.
If B is wrong and there really is a threat of the kind A claims, then not doing anything about it will destroy human habitations, make extinct many species, and fundamentally alter our habitats around the planet.

But if A is wrong and actually there is no threat, then acting as if there was will have what consequences? It will have saved fuel bills all over the world, reduced noxious emissions which, even if one doesn’t believe in global warming, are unpleasant pollutants in anyone’s reckoning, and slowed down the day when we find that the fossil fuels have run out. Action would have given us more time to find alternatives. To be fair, it will also have slowed down world growth and inconvenienced all of us in our personal lives and if A Types do turn to have been wrong they may well owe the world an apology and it’ll be red faces (and a brake in the inexorable rise in world economic growth and fuel mineral use) all round.
But surely that’s a small price to pay for backing a losing horse when the stakes are the planet itself?

Doing nothing risks everything and gains comparatively little, doing something risks comparatively little and gains the whole world. Surely you’d have to be an idiot not to back the believers in this instance.

I’ll restate it once more just to be clear.

For the eco-believer it’s no-lose situation: we all survive if they’re right and we’ve acted on their belief, we survive if they’re wrong and we’ve acted on their belief. Whereas for the eco-denier we survive if they’re right and we’ve done nothing but we perish if they’re wrong and we’ve done nothing.

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