Date created: 15/5/07 Last modified:15/5/07 Maintained by: John Quiggin John Quiggin
29 March 2007
Imagine that, with a few heroic exceptions, the global scientific community, was engaged in a gigantic conspiracy to dupe the public into accepting fraudulent theories. It sounds like the plot of a thriller, and it is. Michael Crichton’s State of Fear centres on a group of evil scientists who manipulate evidence and stage catastrophes to promote the idea of global warming.
The idea of a gigantic global fraud sounds outlandish. Yet precisely this claim has been made in a recent documentary broadcast in the UK, entitled The Great Global Warming Swindle. The film’s claims of scientific fraud have been endorsed by The Australian and by commentators including Andrew Bolt and Michael Duffy. And, unappealing as the idea of a global conspiracy to commit fraud might be, it is the most plausible position on which to base continuing scepticism about human responsibility for global warming.
The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is unequivocal, stating that the probability that observed warming is caused by natural processes is less than 5 per cent. Most of the world’s major scientific organisations have supported the consensus position represented by the IPCC. (The only notable exception is the American Association of Petroleum Geologists). Unless these bodies are deliberately distorting the evidence, as Swindle claims, the likelihood that they have all just got their sums wrong seems small.
The most commonly alleged motive for the alleged fraud is the desire for research funding. But, given that there are plenty of real problems to be worried about, inventing an imaginary one seems a rather strange way of lobbying for funds. Moreover, the pot of research dollars is pretty much fixed in size. More money for global climate research means less for everybody else. Scientists have been vociferous in denouncing the allocation of scarce research dollars to bogus ideas like cold fusion. Finally, the biggest single source of research funding in the world is the US government, which is openly hostile to the whole idea of human-caused climate change.
An alternative theory, popular among US rightwingers, is that the plot is designed to introduce some form of socialist world government. Former UN bureaucrat Maurice Strong and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn figure strongly in claims of this kind. It’s not clear though, how the creation of a huge global market in emissions rights helps to undermine capitalism.
Swindle offers a third, more intriguing, hypothesis, which reflects the politics behind the film. Its producer, Martin Durkin, is linked to a secretive group of British activists who have moved from the ultraleftism of the (now disbanded) Revolutionary Communist Party to the technocratic libertarianism of the online magazine Spiked, without abandoning their old vendettas. Durkin claims that the originator of the fraud was Margaret Thatcher, who used the threat of global warming to promote nuclear power. On this fanciful account, John Howard, an admirer of Thatcher and of nuclear power, might be charged as a co-conspirator.
If motives are unclear, there’s an even trickier question about method. The IPCC was established in 1988 and its early reports were very cautious about the existence of a warming trend, let alone human causation. But the twelve years since 1995 have included eleven of the twelve warmest since recording began around 1850. If the whole thing was a swindle organised in 1988, how could those planning it have foreseen that Nature would co-operate, supplying such a record-breaking string of hot years?
In Crichton’s novel, the plotters are themselves organising major catastrophes such as tsunamis and hurricanes, to convince the public that the danger of global warming is real. I’ll leave it to the conspiracy theorists to say whether scientists have been secretly playing with weather control, or whether the weather bureaus of the world are in on the plot.
What has possessed a supposedly serious newspaper like The Australian, and a respected commentator like Duffy, to embrace such bizarre ideas? The answer, it seems, is that the global warming debate is viewed through the prism of the long-running Culture Wars, where the important thing is to be on the right side, not to get the facts straight.
But science is not like cultural criticism, where debate can go on for ever. There is a fact of the matter in scientific questions, and truth will out. In this case, the facts are clear to all who choose to look at them squarely. Those who prefer conspiracy theories to scientific evidence on global warming will find it difficult to recover the credibility they have thrown away.
John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.
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