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Cameron, Thatcher, Lawson & The Watermelon Theory Of Climate Politics

British PM, David Cameron has written to his Australian Counterpart, Julia Gilllard, to congratulate her on her climate change policy — the Carbon Tax. The Sydney Morning Herald says,

“Your announcement sends a strong and clear signal that Australia is determined to make its contribution to addressing this challenge,” he said. “It will add momentum to those, in both the developed and developing world, who are serious about dealing with this urgent threat.”

Mr Cameron’s letter, dated July 22, is the second high-profile endorsement for Labor’s carbon tax plans in less than a week, after former British Labour prime minister Tony Blair, in Australia for a series of corporate speaking events, said reducing carbon-fuel dependence was an “intelligent” move being adopted around the world, during a joint press conference with Ms Gillard.

It ought to be funny that one PM who failed to win sufficient seats to win the election without forming a coalition is congratulating another in the same position, for her indifference to public opinion. David Vote-Blue-Go-Green Cameron, like his predecessors Brown and Blair have presided over a growing chasm that exists between the public and the political establishment. As I pointed out in the previous post, the UK’s energy and climate policies have resulted in rising prices, millions of UK households living in ‘fuel poverty’, and the possibility that energy intensive industries will leave these shores at the expense of many thousands of jobs, yet the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change’s priorities are with the mitigation of climate change. Climate change policies epitomise the indifference of politicians to the public’s concerns. Criticism of their policies is waved away as so much ‘denial’ of ‘the science’.

Nigel Lawson has stepped into the debate with some interesting comments in reply to Cameron’s letter. Says The Australian

While Baroness Thatcher was at the forefront of Britain’s moves to set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Lord Lawson said her motivation was to challenge the coalmining union and at the same raise support for nuclear power as a clean energy replacement for coal.

If there’s anybody still reading this blog who holds with the ‘watermelon thesis’ of environmentalism (why do it to yourself, why?), I’m sure the irony will be lost on them. Says Lawson…

“I was as close to Margaret Thatcher as anybody at the time. The fact is initially she felt this issue needed to be looked into, but she was agnostic as to whether it was a serious problem or not.

“She was instrumental in having the IPCC set up, but it has changed greatly from what she intended as a fact finding organisation to become a lobby group.”

“She did have reason for highlighting the possibility of global warming because the biggest threat to the UK energy security at the time was the stranglehold the Marxist National Union of Mine Workers had on the coal industry.

“She felt Britain should not be so dependent on coal. She was in favour of building up nuclear energy to break the dependence on coal and the main opposition to nuclear came from the environment movement. Mrs Thatcher thought she could trap them with the carbon emissions argument.”

The ‘watermelon theory’ holds that environmentalism is the reincarnation of Marxism. Yet here we have a former senior UK politician — the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher — claiming that the UK political establishment absorbed environmentalism in order to win a political battle against Marxism and/or organised labour.

This blog has long argued that the climate is a proxy issue for vacuous politics. And here we hear it first hand: the UK political establishment’s emphasis on climate change has its origins in attempts to do politics by other means; and it was not Marxists who were smuggling their agendas into the public sphere under cover of ‘science’, but their opponents. I don’t say it to divide the debate, or to blame one putative ‘side’ for the ascendency of environmentalism. I say it to show that the climate debate never has and doesn’t now divide on left-right lines, and to point out that whathas driven it — its dynamic — is vacuity.

The truth of the matter is, that by the time Thatcher went Green, the Left in the UK was in complete ruins. In fact, the unions and the Labour Party were already at their historical weakest by the time she arrived at number 10. She is remembered as a strong and combative leader, but public confidence in her, too, was often the lowest for any previous prime minister. Thatcher appeared popular, however, because of the fact that UK general elections are lost, not won: the Labour Party and the unions were simply less popular even than she. She might have been able to continue her political project unhindered, were it not for the reality that having defeated the left, her political project was left without its own purpose. The fight with the Left had given her project identity, but it was negatively-defined. Thatcher’s greening, then, owes less to a struggle with the reds — they had already gone — and more to do with the fact that blue had faded too. Like each Prime Minister since, she failed to connect with those below, and so reached for the skies for help.

Mr. President, the Royal Society’s Fellows and other scientists, through hypothesis, experiment and deduction have solved many of the world’s problems.

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century. This was brought home to me at the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver last year when the President of the Maldive Islands reminded us that the highest part of the Maldives is only six feet above sea level. The population is 177,000. It is noteworthy that the five warmest years in a century of records have all been in the 1980s—though we may not have seen much evidence in Britain!

[…]

In studying the system of the earth and its atmosphere we have no laboratory in which to carry out controlled experiments. We have to rely on observations of natural systems. We need to identify particular areas of research which will help to establish cause and effect. We need to consider in more detail the likely effects of change within precise timescales. And to consider the wider implications for policy—for energy production, for fuel efficiency, for reforestation. This is no small task, for the annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide alone is of the order of three billion tonnes. And half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution remains in the atmosphere. We have an extensive research programme at our meteorological office and we provide one of the world’s four centres for the study of climatic change. We must ensure that what we do is founded on good science to establish cause and effect.

[…]

The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development.

Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nutured and safeguarded.

Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century and one in which I am sure your advice will be repeatedly sought.

Reading Thatcher’s 1988 speech to the Royal Society with the benefit of 23 years hindsight, it seems littered with eco-clichés. And for an ‘agnostic’, as Lawson now describes her, she seems committed to the tenets of ecologism: the precautionary principle and ‘sustainable development’. It was just a year earlier that Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister, had completed her report for the UN World Commission on Environment and Development,Our Common Future, in which sustainable development is defined, and proposed as the organising principle of domestic and international policies.

If we take Lawson’s argument seriously, the watermelon theory is yet more roundly defeated. By 1988, the UK Left is in ruins, and the Soviet Union is yet to fall, but it is now that the process of establishing supranational political institutions to deal with climate really begins — the creation of the IPCC, for instance. In short, it was a domestic crisis which causes the climate to become the #1 international issue. Moreover, science had been recruited into Thatcher’s war against the non-existent Marxists: she had given the Royal Society a purpose. It now had ‘relevance’ –the poisonous category that now dominates research in almost all disciplines — to public policy.

That the Royal Society was recruited into a political project comes as no surprise to many of us. Though it is a point which is lost on them and the many scientists wheeled out to comment on climate matters. As I have argued here previously, the current President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, is as oblivious to the political nature of his function, and the influence that environmental ideology has over him.

Nurse might argue that this reorganisation of political life around environmental issues comes with the blessing of scientific authority, and that it is science which identified the need to adjust our lifestyles and economy. But the greening of domestic and international politics preceded any science. The concept of ‘sustainability’ was an established part of the international agenda long before the IPCC produced an ‘unequivocal’ consensus on climate; the IPCC was established to create a consensus for political ends. Nurse, nearly recognising science’s role in the legitimisation of such political ecology, worries about loss of trust. If scientists are not ‘open about everything they do’, he says, ‘then the conversation will be dominated by people driven by politics and ideology’. But it is already ‘driven by politics and ideology’; it’s simply that Nurse does not recognise environmentalism as political or ideological, and he does not notice himself reproducing environmental politics and ideology. The loss of trust he now observes is not the consequence of politics and ideology, but the all too visible attempt to hide it behind science and highly emotive images of catastrophe. If the presidents of science academies want their trust back, they will first have to admit to the politicisation of their function in an atmosphere of distrust. Nullius in verba, indeed.

Nurse, like his predecessors, had entered the climate debate with guns blazing, though not blazing quite as ferociously. There is now a peculiar story, that reflected the politicisation of the Royal Society’s function, and its causes, in an unpleasant symmetry. As I argued on Spiked, the incautious remarks made by the RS’s presidents had done more to undermine science in the public mind than anything any climate change ‘denier’ had ever said:

The science academy had attached itself to a side in the climate war. It was now not only identifying the basis on which the climate-related political institutions would be built – defining the defining issue – it was identifying the enemy of that process and engaging them in battle. But rather than cementing the foundations of these political institutions, the Royal Society had undermined them. The aggressive position it had assumed had shown that science is a corruptible institution. The claim was that the ‘deniers’ had particular motivations, and so produced bad science. But the Society’s position rested on the assumption that climate scientists were unimpeachably honest.

By the time the Society published Climate Change Controversies: A Simple Guide in 2007, it had polarised the climate debate into camps divided by simple, cartoonish categories: ‘scientists’ and ‘deniers’. One side was dispassionate, objective, and not motivated in the slightest by financial interests or political ideas; the other consisted of nothing less than scientific prostitutes peddling lies. But most of all, the Royal Society had created an expectation that science could produce unambiguous and instructive moral and political statements.

The events since winter 2009 have demonstrated that these standards and expectations were unrealistic. Science did not consist of pure, virtuous individuals, who were impartially and dispassionately informing the debate with unimpeachable evidence. Science could not provide a basis for the construction of new, climate-change-solving political institutions. Claims had been made on behalf of the scientific consensus which simply didn’t stand up to closer inspection.

The new report issued by the Royal Society at the end of last month is more circumspect than its predecessors. Gone are the claims made about ‘myths’ and financial interests contaminating scientific objectivity. It now presents ‘the science’ within three categories of certainty: ‘aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement’; ‘aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion’; and ‘aspects that are not well understood’. This restatement will say little to anybody with an existing knowledge of the issues it relates to, and so the document looks now more like a rearguard action designed to define permissible areas of debate and discussion.

In a similar move, the BBC published its new guidelines, which promise that its coverage of climate issues will be more ‘inclusive’, and ‘ensure the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected’. The hitherto unchallengeable IPCC – the body that produces the ‘scientific consensus’ – has announced in the wake of criticism that the teams constructing its next report will take ‘guidance’ on the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed literature, the way it handles uncertainty, and its error-checking.

In autumn last year, it looked as though public institutions such as the BBC and the Royal Society might be at last moderating their positions. Then came Paul Nurse’s silly Horizon film, in which he claimed there had been an ‘attack on science’. The BBC and the Royal Society have merely regrouped, only having offered to relax their zeal on the belief that they had been damaged by ‘sceptics’, rather than by their own actions embarrassing them. One reason for this inability to self-reflect just may be the fact that without overweening crises — i.e. climate change — public institutions and roles are not easily justified. The BBC guidelines offered hope that a more nuanced public debate might be possible. But if it did so, it would bring it into conflict with the entire establishment… Chief amongst them, the coalition government’s fragile claims to certainty regarding the most expensive policies ever conceived: a commitment to nearly 20 years of expensive renewable energy policies. But not just that. There isn’t a public institution in the UK which hasn’t been organised on the basis that ‘climate change is the biggest threat facing mankind’. Entire university departments have reinvented themselves as ‘relevant’. The relationship between individuals and local government has been reorganised around the climate issue. And nominatively democratic nation states now defer to supranational institutions and panels of scientific experts, rather than to democratic processes, to determine their direction.

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