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State of confusion

10 May 2005
This week openDemocracy published an exchange between some environmental activists based in the UK on the challenge of campaigning on climate change. We hope that this will elicit some insightful responses.

One of the first posts in the forum provides insight of a kind, although it makes no useful contribution so far as rational and informed discussion goes. "epitaph" writes:

"Merely stating that there is scientific consensus is both dishonest and fallacious. There is no consensus at all (as the Orgegon petition demonstrates), even if there were this in no way establishes the truth of global warming, truth is not a established by democracy".

There are at least three common errors in these two sentences.

First, there is a scientific consensus that mankind is affecting the climate (see IPCC).

Second, the Oregon petition is not a scientific document. See the 17 April Hot Politics! post Senator Inhofe and truth.

Third, no sane person claims scientific consensus is established by a democratic process (51% say moon made of rock, 49% say moon made of green cheese, therefore moon made of rock). A scientific consensus is a thorough and independently tested assessment based on the basis of all evidence (let's actually test the moon rock).

Consciously or not, "epitaph" is repeating demonstrable falsehoods and jettisoning one of humanity's greatest capacities: the power to reason.

Why? Where levels of education are low, a well funded, oft-repeated lie has power. As a memo by the US tobacco company Brown and Williamson put it back in the 1960s:"Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

"epitaph's" second main point in his or her post is also interesting for what it reveals about basic incomprehension rather than the state of the world:

"The whole Kyoto debate is nothing more than a tool for softening the British public in order to introduce the re-introduction of nuclear energy".

Among many other confusions, this does not take account of the fact that many leading self-declared environmentalists (including one of the greatest earth systems scientists of all time, James Lovelock who thinks climate change is an imminent threat to civilisation) are calling urgently for the rapid introduction of more nuclear power.

So, "epitaph": null points.

Next week openDemocracy will publish an article by Prof David King, the chief scientific advisor to the British government. Like virtually all scientists, he accepts that human action is warming the planet. Like the overwhelming majority, he argues that the situation presents grave challenges that require urgent action.

On this second point - whether or not urgent action is required - there is, some argue, still legitimate ground for debate. Later in the week, openDemocracy will publish a response to David King from a gifted, rational and intelligent "climate sceptic".

The respondent's scepticism is, however, not based on ignorance or repudiation of physical laws. Rather he thinks that the rate of climate change resulting from human action is not likely to be dangerous and that there is a stronger case for urgent action on other matters besides climate change if the international community is serious about saving and improving millions of human lives.

Evidence-based argument of the kind I hope this will be is welcome on openDemocracy because it has some regard for truth and allows for rational engagement. Differing parties open themselves to the possibility of learning and changing.

openDemocracy works hard to be honest and...open. This includes revealing our own real names and those of our authors because we have nothing to hide. We request the same seriousness and goodwill from of all those who take part in the forums, including the use of your real name, unless commenting in your real name actually puts your job or well being at risk (a Chinese campaigner who we will publish shortly is in this position).

Which takes me back to the forum. Please, if you have something worthwhile to say, including an honest, evidence-based case as to why campaigning on climate change is the wrong priority, post in the forum. If not, then please consider these words from Mark Twain: "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."

Caspar Henderson

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