by Don Aitkin
This essay was prompted by the recent thread ‘Understanding(?) the Conflict’. On this website, and elsewhere over the last few years, I have seen a great variety of explanations of how AGW orthodoxy got to the position of authority that it now enjoys in the Western world. I do not have a complete answer — at least, not a simple one — but I think that the question I have used as the title for this essay is an important one, and what follows is an attempt to respond to it.
Any plausible answer must inspect at least the last fifty or sixty years of our various societies. I do not think that the answer is something relatively immediate or short-term. It is not simply, for example, the failure of the Soviet system having driven those of a left persuasion into environmentalism, though there are bound to be examples that people could provide. Nor is it simply some kind of conspiracy, though there have been events that have a conspiratorial look to them. Nor is there simply some kind of drive for world governance on the part of a few highly-placed people, though posters like to name a few. Nor is it simply an example of corruption of some kind.
In my opinion what has occurred is a slow and essentially unplanned process over two generations that involves a substantial increase in the wealth of our societies, technological changes that have helped us communicate on a global level in an unprecedented way, a strong rise in the educational levels of the population, the rapid rise in the importance of science and research generally, a decline in the importance of organised religion (though not in the USA), an associated decline in the belief that materialism will suffice, the growth of an environmental movement that has some of the characteristics of a belief system, and the rise of lobbying organizations and especially of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that purport to speak for, or act for, what they claim to be unrepresented groups of people or poorly understood issues. All of these factors are connected. What follows is a short think-piece, not a properly referenced paper. I have written about these issues elsewhere and will be happy to provide copies if anyone is interested (email@example.com). I would be most grateful if critics would point out glaring errors or omissions. By doing so I may be able to produce a longer and well-supported paper that can be — yes! – peer-reviewed.
Let us start with the ingredients, and then move to their combination and cooking.
Wealth and Its Distribution
Where I have to use numbers I will use those for my own country, because that is easiest at the moment. If you think that Finland, say, is different in some way please let me know if you think that the difference is important, and why it is important. Australia is simply one of a number of Western countries that have undergone the processes I will be talking about. Very generally, Australia is three times larger in population and three times wealthier per head of population than it was in 1950. Export income is now largely based on mining, agriculture and higher education. The workforce is overwhelmingly employed in what used to be called ‘service’ industries and retail. The population is now concentrated in large urban areas, and the wealth has been quite widely shared. A society that had a large working class and a small middle class now has a large middle class and a small working class. Trade-union membership has greatly declined. There is much more disposable income about in 2011 than there was in 1951. One of many accompaniments of the increased wealth of the society has been a shift from a view that the interests of all are most important, to the view that one’s own needs, wishes and capacity to act are most important — a shift from ‘we’ to ‘me’.
Advances in Communication
The great increase in wealth helped to produce, and was also in time a consequence of, extraordinary technological advances that have enabled us to communicate both locally and at a global level more cheaply, more quickly and more effectively than has ever been the case in human history. The Boeing 707 and its successors, television, the computer, the mobile phone, the digital camera and the Internet have all played important parts. Dr Curry’s website is one consequence, just as the IPCC is another.
The Rise in Education
A rapidly growing economy, increasing wealth, the demand for skilled labour and the values expressed in the Atlantic Charter during the Second World War all encouraged and allowed the retention of children, including girls, at school past the minimum leaving age, and brought increasing proportions of women into the workforce. The great majority of Australian children today will attend school until the age of 18, and about 60 per cent will go on to post-secondary education of one kind or another. When I began as an undergraduate in 1954, less than 2 per cent of my age-group went on to post-secondary education. An educated population is relatively self-confident about its capacity to understand what is going on and to form opinions about issues and policy options. Moreover, there now exists an extraordinarily large literature about almost everything. Human knowledge, at least as measured by academic journals and their contents, has increased perhaps a hundred-fold since 1950.
The Growth of Research as an Industry/Profession
Increasing wealth and the rapid expansion of universities allowed the emergence of the research activity, and on a large scale. The oldest continuing research-funding organization of which I am aware is the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, or German Research Foundation), which was founded in 1920. The Western world’s equivalents either have followed the DFG model or that of the US National Science Foundation, set up in 1950 by President Truman. Australia and the UK both established their own such bodies in 1964. The growth of the research profession since then has been striking. In Australia more than 120,000 people (based on person-years of effort) are now involved in R&D activities, and they include 55,000 people in universities. Gross expenditure on R&D now exceeds $21 billion. We are talking about research (and the Australian Bureau of Statistics so refers to it), as an ‘industry’, and also as a profession. In all Western countries governments supply a great deal of research funding, and this is especially the case in the field of climate science, which is virtually a government monopoly. Governments need supporting organizations that can discriminate between good/bad, useful/not useful research, and the learned academies have been co-opted into being supporters of government science programs, just as (in Australia, at least) well-established charities have been co-opted as supporting agencies in social welfare programs.
The Decline of Organized Religion
The growth in wealth and education, and the movement of women into the workforce, seem to have accompanied, and perhaps helped to cause, a decline in the reach and importance of organised religion. The notable exception here is the USA, and I will have to deal with this exception in any further development of this essay. Here I simply notice it. Our societies are more secular, more open to evidence, more inclined to argue about everything, than was the case in 1951. In Australia at least the proportion of people who now go to church regularly seems to be much less than ten per cent. This shift has accompanied, and may have helped to cause, a greater permissiveness in all matters sexual, the nature of marriage and divorce, and so on.
The Waning Power of Materialism
In the first three decades after the Second World War the pent-up demands for material well-being occasioned by war and the preceding Depression made it seem that a decent and satisfying life could be had by simply fulfilling one’s demands, and increasing wealth, both public and private, made that seem plausible. At length it turned out not to be so. Maslow’s proposed higher-order needs — for self-esteem and the esteem of others, for developing our capacities and for the satisfaction of our spiritual needs — are not finally solvable with more money, because retail therapy is finally unsatisfying. Australia may be three times wealthier, but it is plainly not three times happier. Organised religion works for some, but not for most.
From the 1970s on, the view that human beings had some kind of ethical duty to care for their environment has taken steady hold in the rich countries. Some of it has been simple common sense, and is an extrapolation of making one’s immediate environment attractive. The rapid growth in the number and size of rubbish tips, and the concern that much of what was dumped could have been re-used (a reaction of anyone who had grown up during depression or war) caused a slow movement towards re-cycling, not because (the older view) materials were scarce but (the newer view) because they might in the future become scarce: what we dug out of the ground was in some since finite.
Green political movements developed in most Western countries, the earliest in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s, then in Germany. Their success, though minor at first, steadily increased until they had become a third political force in many countries, though rarely with majority or even plurality support. They were linked to, were often supported by, and sometimes even helped to form, lobbying groups of a local and/or global kind. The ‘Gaian’ strand has some of the characteristics of a religion, and the language that environmentalists often use has echoes of much older beliefs in wood and river spirits: the environment is seen an entity that observes and reacts to us: it needs respect, if not worship.
And the Non-Government Organization
While the 20th century saw a great increase in the size of governments, especially national governments, it also saw the rise of non-government organizations, of which there are now millions. Those operating at the international or global level are estimated to exceed 40,000, and all developed countries possess scads of them. They have been particularly notable in the environmental domain, partly because the environment knows no human boundaries, partly because the United Nations has welcomed them, and partly because national governments (and regional or local governments) find environmental concerns difficult to deal with satisfactorily.
How you combine these ingredient is up to you. My own recipe goes like this. The growth of the research industry, and the elevated status possessed by researchers and scientists, mean that narratives, ‘breakthroughs’ and scary stories that are about some aspect of science are now part of our daily news fare. But something else has happened: we are not as confident or as optimistic as we once were (for me, that time was the 1960s and early 1970s, when my own young career flourished, and everything seemed possible). Once the stories would have been about success. Now they are characteristically about doom, anxiety, and bad things to come. The glass is much more often half empty than it is half full.
It seems to me that environmentalism has moved in to take some of the spiritual role that organised Christianity once played, and it also offers a new political path for those who find things wrong, bad and unacceptable. Something is bad, and we must fix it! Democratically elected governments are sensitive to the fears and anxieties of the electorate, and a significant part of the electorate is worried about the ‘future of the planet’. So governments have asked the new priests, the scientists, to help. Since many countries seem to have these woes, the outcome has been a common one, helped by international organizations and the ease of global communication. No matter that climate affects us all locally, the outcome has been to find the villainy in our universal use of fossil fuels, leading to increases in temperature, leading to disaster scenarios. The villain is ourselves, and we require government action, more regulation and new taxes.
Not everyone believes all this, but it seems to fit the present mood. So much money has been funnelled to the climate priests that they have to support the orthodoxy, whatever the evidence, and in consequence the respect in which science and research were once held is slowly diminishing. Governments are reluctant to admit that they are ever wrong, so they rarely examine their own policies to see if they are actually doing any good. Budgetary problems may end government programs, but otherwise they tend to continue. The mainstream media do not possess independent science reporters, and of those known to me almost all support the orthodoxy. In any case, scary stories make news, and benign stories do not.
All the ingredients are in my recipe, but I put more weight than most cooks into the importance of the popular mood, which in my country’s case is much less confident than it once was. And that lack of confidence in our capacity to deal with our problems means that doomster stories have much more power to take hold than they once did. Kenneth Clark, in his magisterial survey of ‘Civilisation’, argued that civilisations look strong but are always potentially fragile. Their enemies are fear of the unknown and of the future, a loss of self-confidence in the society’s laws, philosophy and values, and a slow loss of vigour, energy and vitality — declines that lead in time to a loss of the prosperity that allowed the civilisation to grow. I think that he was spot on, though I ought to add that he felt that things were going bad — in the 1960s — when I thought things were most promising!
Human societies, like the climate itself, are never in equilibrium, and my present feeling is that the AGW scare is subsiding. But I think that Clark is right, and that we have — at least for the moment — passed the time of great confidence in the ‘West’ and in our capacity to solve the problems facing us. I remain personally optimistic about the human ability to adapt and solve technologically the problems that face us. I have a Turgot map of Paris in 1739 that shows a huge amount of urban land devoted to the storing of firewood. So great was the loss of forests for firewood that the head of the French Navy wrote to the King pleading that it stop, because there would soon be no timber for the Navy’s new ships. Within a generation the Western world had begun the move into the coal and iron age. I think we can and will cope with energy needs and apparent over-population, too. But nothing will happen overnight.
I would have to agree that I seem to be in a minority. But I plug along, reading, thinking and writing, inspecting new argument and evidence, prepared to be shown strong evidence that AGW is really real, but rather expecting that one day someone really important, not a little boy, will point out that the Emperor has no clothes, and that the science is perplexing, not settled. If we go into a prolonged cool period, as I posted recently, then the AGW scare will subside more rapidly. But I would expect to see some of the current scaremongers switch to the new scare, missing scarcely a beat.