Climate change: an elite affectation

Rupert Darwall’s history of the idea of global warming shows how the belief in an impending manmade apocalypse emanated from the top of wealthy Western societies.

Rob Lyons

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‘If all man can offer to the decades ahead is the same combination of scientific drive, economic cupidity and national arrogance, then we cannot rate very highly the chances of reaching the year 2000 with our planet still functioning and our humanity securely preserved.’ – Barbara Ward, Only One Earth, 1972.

Long before there was climate change, there was environmentalism. As Rupert Darwall explains in his new book, The Age of Global Warming: A History, environmentalism had for decades proposed that humans were a blight on the planet. ‘During the course of the twentieth century’, he writes, ‘mankind’s relationship with nature underwent a revolution. At the beginning of the last century, human intervention was regarded as beneficient and a sign of the progress of civilisation. By century’s end, such interventions were presumed harmful unless it could be demonstrated they were not.’

Darwall spends the opening chapters of his book explaining the history of these ideas, from Thomas Malthus onwards. The notion that there were insuperable natural limits has been ever-present over the past 200 years or so, though the popularity of such ideas has ebbed and flowed. The Malthusian idea that population growth would outstrip the ability to produce food was quickly shown to be nonsense. But other forms of limits were postulated instead. In 1865, for example, William Stanley Jevons – the ‘foremost economist of the day’, notes Darwall – declared in The Coal Question that the mineral that had powered the Industrial Revolution would start to run out and become very expensive.

Jevons dismissed – as many greens do today – the idea that science would come to the rescue. ‘A notion is very prevalent that, in the continuous progress of science, some substitute for coal will be found, some source of motive power, as much surpassing steam as steam surpasses animal labour’, wrote Jevons. As Darwall notes, Marx and Engels were among the harshest critics of both Malthus and Jevons. He quotes Engels’ optimistic response to Malthus from his 1844 essay, The Myth of Overpopulation: ‘What is impossible for science?’

In fact, Jevons had massively underestimated the importance of oil and overestimated the need for coal. Darwall offers Jevons as a case study in the failings of forecasts. If even the finest minds of the day can be so spectacularly wrong, why should we accept any long-term forecast? The trouble is such forecasts cannot be tested against empirical reality. For Darwall, following Karl Popper, true science must create testable propositions that could falsify it. It is only by surviving such critical attacks that scientific theories can gain our trust. Thus, the notion that we should act on forecasts – before the results of the experiment are in, as it were – is absurd.

Yet while environmentalist ideas floated around the elites for many years, they were never really mainstream. Capitalism’s success in raising living standards meant that economic growth and technical progress were seen as the way forward – crucially, by both left and right on the political spectrum.

Things really started to change in the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, with its narrative of chemicals causing cancer and pesticides destroying nature, was a big hit. It reflected a rejection of modern society, even better expressed in the work of a former Coal Board chief economist, Fritz Schumacher. His nonsensical ‘Buddhist economics’ in Small is Beautiful (1973) appealed to a certain strand of society that was weary of industrial society, despite its many benefits, and he developed a cult following. ‘Man is small and, therefore, small is beautiful’, wrote Schumacher – or as Darwall mocks him, the Sage of Surrey. This belittling of humanity, so soon after the moon landings, shows how the ongoing tension between enchantment and disenchantment with modern society is a recurring theme.

However, what really matters is the rise of environmentalism as an elite political project. Darwall argues the crest of the first modern wave of environmentalism came in 1972, which saw the publication of the Club of Rome’s doom-mongering computer projections of inevitable collapse, under the title The Limits to Growth, and the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.

Which brings us back to Barbara Ward – the most famous person you’ve never heard of, as Darwall calls her. A former assistant editor at The Economist who later taught economics at Harvard, Ward befriended high-profile economist JK Galbraith and became a confidante of US president Lyndon Johnson. Ward was a player in high places, both in the West and in the newly independent countries of the developing world. She was friends with a number of the new African leaders, including Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta and Kenneth Kaunda, and it was Ward’s involvement that persuaded Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi to speak in Stockholm.

Ward believed that ‘the market alone cannot begin to accomplish the scale of readjustment that will be needed once the concept of unlimitedly growing wealth, mediated to all by a “trickle down” process, ceases to be a rational possibility for tomorrow’s world economy’. It was Ward – along with the Canadian conference organiser, Maurice Strong – who helped to forge a ‘political compact between First World environmentalism and Third World development aspirations’, as Darwall describes it. Further economic growth in the West would harm the environment, it was suggested, but growth in the developing world was good for the environment. This blatant piece of eco-diplomacy later became summed up in the concept of ‘sustainable development’. As Darwall argues, ‘sustainable development was the political fiction environmentalism needed to buy developing nations’ neutrality’. Such a fiction couldn’t survive the tensions created when the developing world started developing in earnest.

Nevertheless, having apparently united the world in concern for the environment, these early greens then saw the issue dropped off the global agenda. For Darwall, the moment that precipitated this change was the start of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973. Having failed to destroy Israel – in part, thanks to American support – the Arab oil-producing nations took their revenge by imposing huge hikes in the price of oil overnight. Suddenly, the notion of energy shortages seemed all too real. (In fact, US government energy policies created shortages where other countries merely had higher prices, argues Darwall.)

This inspired US president Jimmy Carter to decide that the energy crisis would be one of the major themes of his presidency. The trouble for Carter, as Darwall notes, was that ‘he saw limits where his fellow countrymen did not’. His energy plan was based on the false premise that energy supplies were running out. But world oil production actually jumped from 58.5million barrels per day in 1973 to 66million barrels per day by 1979. Even domestically, the US had plenty of supplies. ‘In April 1977’, writes Darwall, ‘shortly before Carter launched his energy plan, the Energy Research and Development Agency concluded that America’s natural gas reserves could be expected to exceed its total energy needs well into the twenty-first century’.

The depletionist idea that resources were running out kept being contradicted by ever-increasing supply. The Malthusian notion that there were too many people – most famously revived by Paul Ehrlich in the late 1960s – proved to be a wildly inaccurate scare story, too. For environmentalism to thrive, to get beyond endless international talking shops, it needed a killer issue that could not be so easily dismissed. That issue came along, at last, in the shape of global warming.

The idea that human activity might be changing the climate was not new. As early as the 1820s, explains Darwall, Jean-Baptiste Fourier had speculated about whether the atmosphere might enhance the temperature of the Earth. In 1859, the Irish scientist John Tyndall was able to declare that ‘the atmosphere admits of the entrance of the solar heat, but checks its exit; and the result is a tendency to accumulate heat at the surface of the planet’.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius argued that the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity must also have an effect, suggesting that a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations would increase temperatures by between five and six degrees Celsius. However, the import of this finding was understood in a rather different way by Arrhenius than by modern greens. According to Darwall: ‘Arrhenius thought that burning fossil fuels would accelerate a virtuous cycle in preventing a rapid return to the conditions of ice age, removing the need for a forced migration from temperate countries to Africa.’ This was a view shared by Guy Stewart Callendar, a British scientist who argued in 1938 that carbon dioxide was responsible for two thirds of the warming trend seen over the previous 180 years.

Roger Revelle, Al Gore’s favourite scientist, had noted in the late Fifties that humanity was conducting a ‘large-scale geophysical experiment’ that ‘may yield far-reaching insight into the processes determining weather and climate’. But this was still not seen as necessarily problematic.

Global warming crept on to the agenda – just – at the 1972 Stockholm conference. But it warranted only half a page in the final agreement. Governments should be ‘mindful’ of potential atmospheric effects and set up remote monitoring stations to keep an eye on any changes. Global warming was very far from being centre stage. The UN-commissioned Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, published in 1987, mentions the risk of global warming in numerous places but the alarm bells were still not ringing.

The turning point was evidence given by NASA scientist James Hansen in June 1988 to the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: ‘The greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now.’ Hansen made headlines, but it was the intervention of UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher that gave the issue high-profile political credibility. By then the longest serving G7 head of state, Thatcher gave a speech to the Royal Society in September 1988, warning: ‘We are told that a warming of one degree centigrade per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope.’ That might well have been so. But as Darwall notes, Thatcher was implying that global temperatures would be two degrees higher by 2010 – a much faster rate of warming than even the IPCC has ever suggested.

Now the bandwagon was rolling. By 1992, US president George HW Bush thought the issue important enough to appear at the Rio Earth Summit, which created the framework for climate-change talks that produced the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and all the subsequent jamborees in Bali, Cancun, Copenhagen, Durban and the rest. Since then, Western politicians and royalty, the management of giant corporations like BP and the offspring of the rich and powerful, like Zac Goldsmith and Robert F Kennedy Jr, have declared the importance of tackling climate change again and again.

The most high-profile of those banging the drum on this issue has been Al Gore. The US vice president under Bill Clinton in the Nineties – and a hair’s breadth from the White House himself in 2000 – has long been an avowed environmentalist. His book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit was published in 1992. Darwall describes it as ‘one of the most extraordinary books by any democratic politician seeking high elective office, for it constitutes an attack on Western civilisation and a fundamental rejection of two of its greatest accomplishments – the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions’. Gore would, of course, go on to win both an Oscar – for his error-strewn lecture, An Inconvenient Truth – and the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with the IPCC, in 2007.

A comment made by Gore in an interview in June 1992 is indicative of the importance of climate change to these elites. ‘The task of saving the Earth’s environment is going to become the central organising principle in the post-Cold War world’, he said.

While environmentalism is certainly an obsession of many rich people, and a natural fit for many conservatives, one of the major factors that Darwall cites in the rise of environmentalism is the collapse of the left. But interestingly, this is not the usual argument about disillusioned ex-Communists turning from red to green, although such people have indeed often been the brains behind the development of these ideas. Rather, it was the collapse of a left-wing opposition to eco-notions about lowering growth that was crucial. Darwall notes the strong tradition on the left, from Marx onwards, in support of the need to increase the material wealth of society.

That tradition was still important in the 1960s and 1970s to the UK Labour Party’s ‘foremost intellectual’, Tony Crosland. Darwall quotes Crosland’s damning assessment from 1971 of environmentalism and the class bias behind it: ‘Its champions are often kindly and dedicated people. But they are affluent and fundamentally, though of course not consciously, they want to kick the ladder down behind them… We must make our own value judgement based on socialist objectives: and that objective must… be that growth is vital, and its benefits far outweigh its costs.’

For all the talk of using environmentalism – made urgent by global warming – as the Big Idea to drive the global agenda, the wheels were always likely to come off this particular bandwagon. The unholy compromise between developed and developing countries made back in 1972 was never going to last. Its last stand was the Kyoto Protocol, where developed nations agreed to make cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions while developing countries did not. As it goes, the US never ratified the deal. Indeed, when Clinton and Gore negotiated it, they already knew that Congress would never pass it. Moreover, the terms of the deal meant that the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc, along with Britain’s entirely coincidental ‘dash for gas’, would account for more than the cuts required. In fact, even in spite of these enormous free passes, the unambitious Kyoto targets were barely met. Talk is cheap; cutting emissions is not.

The follow-up to Kyoto, however, had to be a global deal where everybody – including the big new economies like China, India and Brazil – agreed to reduce their emissions, or at least accept limits on their rise. This was never going to wash. Things came to a head at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. Despite the presence of almost all the world’s major leaders, including US president Barack Obama, only the most basic and meaningless deal between the US and the BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – could be cobbled together, a deal which bypassed the rest of the conference entirely. Since then, the best that has been achieved at subsequent shindigs has been to keep the process going. There is no prospect of a replacement for Kyoto being in place before 2020.

All of this is just one aspect of Darwall’s book, the writing of which has occupied ‘half of my marriage’, he notes. He also engages with the uncertainties of climate science and the disastrous attempts by some scientists, scientific academies and the IPCC to cover up that uncertainty. He also offers blow-by-blow accounts of the big environmental conferences, reinforcing the point that there was never any prospect of the developing world giving up on growth. Reining in development in the name of the planet was always a rich man’s fancy. The Age of Global Warming should certainly become a touchstone for anyone interested in examining this issue seriously.

The elitist idea of environmentalism could only become dominant because of the exit of working-class politics from the Western political stage and the shrivelling of the political voice of the mass of Western populations. The failure of socialist and social-democratic parties meant there were no longer critics of environmentalism from the left. The declining membership of all political parties deprived the bulk of the population of an important means to hold politicians to account. To criticise the science and politics of global warming now meant you were a lackey of big business or some kind of ‘flat Earther’ who denied the importance of science. What remains is weariness of the modern world among those – from the middle classes upwards, and most particularly among the elites – who can afford such self-indulgence.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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