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The past six months has seen a series of unprecedented setbacks for the cause of catastrophic man-made climate change: the collapse of the Kyoto process; the release of incriminating Climategate emails; the discovery of the shoddy standards of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); the mounting evidence that a job-creating green industrial revolution is a fantasy; and the growing suspicion by the public that it has been sold a bill of goods.

The British Royal Society recently released a statement that “Any public perception that the science is somehow fully settled is wholly incorrect,” thus contradicting its own former president, and true believer, Lord May. And if the science isn’t settled, there can hardly ever have been “consensus” on the issue.

A forthcoming paper by Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, from which the Climategate emails emerged, admits that the actual group involved in the “consensus” that “human activities are having a significant influence on the climate” was in fact “only a few dozen,” rather than the thousands invoked by the IPCC.

Last week, economist Richard Tol, one of the IPCC’s own lead authors, suggested that the whole IPCC process should be suspended until the selection of authors has been fixed. This week, the IPCC’s head, Rajendra Pachauri, who has previously accused skeptics of flat Earthism and “voodoo science,” suddenly had a Damascene conversion as to the validity of dissent. “I am not deaf,” he wrote, “to those who do not agree with the scientific consensus on man-made climate change. Nor, indeed, to those who do not agree with the findings — or, in some cases, the existence — of the IPCC.”

But while such newfound humility (even though still embracing bogus “consensus”) is welcome, every country on Earth is still officially committed to catastrophic man-made warming as a reality that demands a draconian policy response. The erection of such a massive commitment on such shaky foundations begs for explanation, and must be put in both a larger political and psychological context.

Hubristic overestimation of human significance — in this case both for doing harm and correcting it by policy — may be the fundamental reason for broad acceptance of man-made climate change theory. The notion that man’s sinful and selfish ways will be punished goes back to the myth of the Flood. In many ways, belief in climate apocalypse reflects similar moralistic disapproval of “materialist” Western society, and the claim that its wealth has been bought at the expense of others, including now that of “future generations.”

This quasi-religious belief is particularly appealing to the political and bureaucratic classes, because it provides new justifications for intervention to correct the imperfections and ongoing inequities of perpetually demonized capitalism. In a classic example of psychological “projection,” however, alarmists claim that it is their opponents who are tainted by “greed” and “self-interest.”

One insufficiently addressed question is why scientists would allow themselves to be recruited to essentially political objectives. Another is why they seem so resolutely committed to increasingly shaky theories, and lash out at critics. Surveys have shown that natural scientists tend to be left-liberal in their leanings. Many perhaps believe that a world with more top-down economic control and greater transfers to poor nations is desirable whatever the realities of climate science, and that given the possibility (however remote) of man-made climate catastrophe, that it is appropriate to adopt the “precautionary principle.”

Such a mindset can be buttressed by the way science is done. In his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn noted that scientific groups adopted, and committed to, “paradigms,” which then became fundamentally unquestionable. That stance was hardened further when moral values, such as being “socially useful,” were involved.

The IPCC came with its moralistic paradigms pre-installed.

Kuhn noted that “professionalization” of any paradigm leads to “an immense restriction of the scientist’s vision and to a considerable resistance to paradigm change.” He even suggested that a scientist, as a captive to a paradigm, is “ like the typical character of Orwell’s 1984, the victim of a history rewritten by the powers that be.”

Kuhn also suggested why catastrophic man-made climate change theory — even if it is found to have been greatly exaggerated, or even falsified — will take a good deal of killing. “The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm,” he wrote, “is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.” The problem is that there is no other clear and simple climate theory to which to be “converted” at the moment.

Kuhn noted that the Earth-centred Ptolemaic system of astronomy, based on elaborately waltzing planets, “worked” for a long time, but eventually became a monster whose complications overwhelmed its usefulness. Then along came Copernicus. The resultant destruction of the Earth-centred universe led to enormous soul-searching, as did Darwin’s vaporizing of the assumption of biological “progress” towards divine ends.

For most modern liberals, including many scientists, the market sun still goes round the government Earth, and it’s a paradigm they are reluctant to change. Policy skeptics, by contrast, who are still trying to establish the revolutionary and counterintuitive insights of Adam Smith, point out that carbon rationing, green industrial strategy and aid transfers under the aegis of “clean development” are — whatever the science — economic junk.

Financial Post, 15 June 2010