The most troubling aspect of Oreskes and Conway’s book is not its scare-tactics, its sloppy depictions of climatic patterns, or its attack on scientific standards. What is truly frightening is its embrace of authoritarian politics, coupled with its denigration of liberty and democracy.
As with so many other hot-button debates, the climate change controversy leaves me repelled by the clamoring extremists on both sides. Global-warming denialists, as some are aptly called, regard the scientific establishment with such contempt that they abandon the realm of reason. In comment after comment posted on on-line articles and blogs, self-styled skeptics insist that carbon dioxide is such a scant component of the atmosphere that it could not possibly play any climatic role, while castigating mainstream climatologists as malevolent conspirators dedicated to destroying civilization. Yet on the equally aptly named alarmist side of the divide, reasonable concerns often yield to dismal fantasies of the type so elegantly described by Pascal Bruckner in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, upheld by exaggeration to the point of absurdity. More alarmingly, climate activism seems to be veering in an unabashedly authoritarian direction. In such a heated atmosphere, evenhanded positions are at the risk of being flooded out by a rising sea of mutual invective and misinformation.
This essay addresses only one side of this spectrum, that of the doomsayers who think we must forsake democracy and throttle our freedoms if we are to avoid a planetary catastrophe. Although it may seem paradoxical, my focus on the green extreme stems precisely from my conviction that anthropogenic climate change is a huge problem that demands determined action. Yet a sizable contingent of eco-radicals, I am convinced, consistently discredit this cause. By insisting that devastating climate change is only a few years away, they will probably undermine the movement’s public support, given the vastly more likely chance that warming will be gradual and punctuated. By engaging in mendacious reporting and misleading argumentation, they provide ample ammunition for their conspiracy-minded opponents. And by championing illiberal politics, they betray the public good that they ostensibly champion. It is a sad day indeed when an icon of liberalism such as Robert Kennedy Jr. can plausibly be deemed an “aspiring tyrant” for wanting to punish global-warming deniers.
A few off-hand comments by the flighty scion of an illustrious political family, however, are hardly enough to substantiate my admittedly harsh charges. But more damning examples of eco-authoritarianism are not difficult to find. For the present essay, I will limit my attention to one crucial text, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s 2014 The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. Idiosyncratic though this book may be, its significance is undeniable. Its authors are widely noted experts in the politics and intellectual history of the climate change controversy, have previously co-written a seminal work, Merchants of Doubt. They teach, respectively, at Harvard University and the Cal Tech, and the book in question was published by Columbia University Press, one of the world’s most esteemed academic presses. Such widely respected public figures as Elizabeth Kolbert and Timothy E. Wirth provide effusive endorsements on the back cover. Kolbert goes so far at to claim that the book should be “required reading for anyone who works—or hopes to—in Washington.” Wirth tells us that unless we heed Oreskes and Conway’s warnings, we will have no chance of avoiding their “dire predictions.” The noted science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson chimes in as well, telling us that the book’s prognostications are “all too plausible.” […]
As noted at the beginning of this essay, tens of millions of people have reached the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is a giant hoax perpetuated by corrupt scientific and journalistic establishments. In their previous book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway attribute such benighted views to the money and machinations of oil companies and other organizations with financial interests in the status quo. While I would not deny that such factors play a role, they do not provide a full account. Of particular significance are the writings of green extremists such as Oreskes and Conway themselves. By putting forth grotesque exaggerations, by engaging in misleading reportage, and by embracing authoritarian if not totalitarian politics, they discredit their own cause. The Collapse of Western Civilization, in short, reads as if it were part of a great conspiracy, one that that seemingly rests on an insincere approach to evidence and argumentation.
The Collapse of Western Civilization is, of course, merely one thin book, and as such it must be asked whether it can be regarded as representative of even the extremist fringe of the climate movement. But in the final analysis it is not the book itself that disturbs me so much as its reception by the broader green community. Judging from published reviews and on-line comments, it would appear that acclamation has been the most common response. Such acclaim, however, is deeply ironic. Environmentalists generally regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as politically liberal. But when self-styled liberals embrace a work that is not merely illiberal but ostentatiously anti-liberal, I must wonder whether the mainstream environmental movement has any future at all.