Thursday, July 13, 2006

Not Taming the Sea

My article in The Sunday Times about the new government policy not necessarily to fight the sea with costly defences, but instead to let it reclaim its own land (see Selected Articles,) produced the usual angry responses from eco-sceptics who deny global warming, deny that it is our fault and insist that we need do nothing to protect the human species from its impact. The anger is puzzling. Science overwhelmingly shows that it is happening, the only debate is how serious the consequences will be. This should be a friendly debate. But I suspect there is a Marxist hangover in some of this eco-sceptic thought. Certain people simply cannot accept the possibility that some material problems are beyond our technical competence and grow angry at the very suggestion that this might be the case. The idea strikes at the heart of their faith. I am with my friend the great James Lovelock on this - "We can't save the planet. We never could." Our technical incompetence is absolute.


  1. Thanks for your article. I have held the view for some time that withdrawal and compromise, rather than rigid defence, should be our policy, but until reading your article I have not seen it expressed in any of the media. There was also an encouraging note in your article when you said that the Government is (for once) looking ahead and asking coastal authorities to make long-term plans; I hope they adopt the withdrawal policy, rather than turn round and ask central government for money to build expensive and unsustainable defences.
    As far as Wallasea Island goes it seems that we have a sensible directive from the EU.
    There are good reasons for reducing carbon emissions and we should do all we can, but I fear we will not arrest climate change, far better to adapt and look for opportunities, than put our faith in stopping it.

  2. Well, God knows I'm no Marxist, but surely a degree of scepticism is called for here, if only on the basis of the vastness of the subject and the minute scale and very short history of our knowledge of it. That something along the lines of global warming is taking place at present seems a reasonable conclusion - but beyond that the alarm bells start ringing for me. Isn't the idea that somehow we caused it all just another example of our human hubris? And don't the feeling of (comfortable) guilt and the urge to atone chime in all too obviously with powerful religious impulses otherwise thwarted in our secular age? The idea of 'spilt religion' I think explains an awful lot of this, as of so much else. If we're powerless to save the planet - as, of course, we are, in the last analysis - aren't we also powerless to do all that much damage to it? It would be more than interesting to see how these matters look 100 years hence - I have a strong suspicion that the whole caboodle might end up filed under 'What were they thinking of?'
    H. Serieux

  3. It's always interesting to note in this context that many scientists in the 1970s were predicting the imminent onset of the next ice age, based upon a persistent cooling trend since the early 1940s. See the graph here:

    It's also noticeable that almost all scientific communities exist in a state of consensus these days. There are strong sociological and psychological reasons for this.

    The switch from a belief in global cooling to a belief in global warming has a parallel in cosmology. Recall that up until the late 1990s, the community of cosmologists agreed that the expansion of the universe was decelerating; now there is a consensus that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

    It's always easy to selectively find evidence which supports a pre-conceived opinion. These days we have another source of bias: the computer simulation. It's always been well-noted that computer programs are 'garbage-in, garbage-out' devices, but it should also be noted that this extends further than simply the data input into the simulation. The modelling assumptions incorporated into the logic of a simulation reflect the pre-conceived beliefs of the simulators. Moreover, there tend to be adjustable parameters in the design of most simulations, and when a simulation produces results inconsistent with the pre-conceived opinions of the simulators, these parameters are tinkered with until suitable output is produced. The parameter values are then rationalised in a post-hoc manner.

    Note also that many scientists hold left-wing, and anti-capitalist beliefs. Anti-capitalism itself is unpopular in society at large, but environmentalism offers a back-door to anti-capitalism. Listen carefully to environmentalists, and you will hear that they are arguing against the need for economic growth. Essentially, these people wish to constrain capitalist economic growth, and see environmentalism as a popular way of doing this.

  4. All true, Gordon, but merely to show why they might be wrong is not to demonstrate that they are. I agree in general though that there is a suspicious streak of puritanism in environmentalism, a dislike of excess.

  5. Extremely worried that burning fossil fuels IS causing global warming, but puzzled by statements such as 'warmest year for 400 years'. Skirting over the fact that 400 year old data is somewhat suspect, it is obvious that we have lived through epochs as warm as this before now. I used to live in a small (then) village in Somerset, Winscombe, named after the vineyards that grew there, probably in roman times. Other than than Christians, what were they burning to heat up the atmosphere ?