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The climate witch trials

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The climate witch trials

Questioning the climate-change narrative is now the ultimate form of heresy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech Long-reads Politics Science & Tech UK USA World

This is an extract from Brendan O’Neill’s new book, A Heretic’s Manifesto. You can buy it on Amazon now.

In 1590, in Scotland, an elderly woman named Agnes Sampson was arrested. She was from East Lothian. Earlier in her life she had been a midwife and a healer, but lately she had been living in poverty. She was tried, found guilty and taken to Edinburgh Castle where, on 28 January 1591, she was strangled to death by rope and then burnt at the stake. Her offence? Climate change.

Sampson was charged with stirring up ‘contrary winds’, among other things. Her persecution stemmed from the troubles of King James VI whose attempts to bring his new wife, Anne of Denmark, to Scotland were continually thwarted by hellish weather. ‘Unusual’ winds capsized ships of the royal fleets. Twice did Anne’s ship have to dock in Norway due to the ‘fierce storms’. James, inspired by reports from Denmark of witches being burnt for their supposed part in the frustration of Anne’s journey, became convinced of a witches’ plot in Scotland, too. He pushed the idea of ‘weather magic’, where witches use their demonic power to cause ‘unusual’ storms, hails and fogs to descend on Earth.

The end result was the North Berwick Witch Trials, one of the deadliest episodes of witch-hunting in the history of Great Britain. Taking place a hundred years before the better-known witch-hunts of Salem in Massachusetts, the hysteria in North Berwick involved 150 accusations, copious amounts of torture to extract confessions and 25 deaths. Mrs Sampson’s was just one of those deaths. She and many others had been accused not only of the usual witchy things – mysterious healings, issuing curses and so on – but of something else, too. That they had changed the climate. That they had whipped up destructive weather. That they had deployed their malevolence to the end of ‘conjur[ing]’ terrible storms ‘in cahoots with the devil’. For in the words of Danish admiral Peter Munch, who had been tasked with transporting Anne to Scotland, what his ships had encountered was no normal climatic event – no, ‘there must be more in [this] matter than the common perversity of winds and weather’.

The women of North Berwick can be seen as among the earliest victims of climate-change hysteria, of that urge to pin the blame for anomalous weather on wicked human beings. And they weren’t alone. In Europe between the 1500s and 1700s, climate change was often the charge made against witches. In his 1584 book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot, an English MP and author, outlined the common view of witches as climate changers. Many believe witches can ‘raise haile, tempests, and hurtfull weather’, he said, as well as being able to ‘inhibit the sunne, and staie both daye and night, changing the one into the other’. Scot was a witch-sceptic. He called for calm during witch-hunts. His view was that weather was a natural, or heavenly, phenomenon, not the plaything of allegedly evil people. ‘[It] is neither a witch, nor a devil, but glorious God that maketh the thunder’, he wrote. ‘God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlwinds’ as well, he continued. But his plea for reason fell on deaf ears. Too many people were far more enamoured of the view, soon to be promoted by James VI, no less, that a witch could ‘rayse stormes and tempestes in the aire’ (1).

Witch-hunts in mid-millennial Europe were inextricably linked with concerns over climate change. This was the era of the Little Ice Age, the period that roughly spanned from 1300 to 1850 during which the Northern Hemisphere experienced exceptionally cold winters. The impact of the Little Ice Age was devastating. The frigid weather violently disrupted harvests in Europe, especially the grain harvest. Following particularly cold periods in the 1500s, it took 180 years for grain harvests to return to their previous levels. The result, in the words of German historian Philipp Blom, was ‘a long-term, continent-wide agricultural crisis’ (2). And this led to a staggering spike in witch-hunts. Blom describes how in northern Europe in particular, ‘the accumulation of bad harvests and the constant fear of famine and illness’ led to the rise of ‘a particularly cruel collective hysteria: witch trials’. Thousands of women, and occasionally men, were burnt for their alleged role in stoking contrary weather, in causing climate change.

For a long time, says Blom, historians wondered why witch persecutions were ‘especially cruel’ between the years 1588 and 1600 and again between 1620 and 1650. It’s because these were the times of the most extreme cold and most dreadful storms, and the evil cause of such climatic calamities had to be found and extinguished. ‘Religious tensions certainly played a role [in that period]’, he writes, ‘but the correlation among extreme weather events, ruined harvests and waves of witch trials asserts itself most forcefully’.

People fainting and causing disorder in a courtroom during the trial of suspected witch, 1692.
People fainting and causing disorder in a courtroom during the trial of suspected witch, 1692.

It is no coincidence that around 110,000 witch trials took place in Europe during those most climatically unstable of centuries, with around half of those trials ending in conviction and execution. As the cold, starving peoples of northern Europe knew from the Bible, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, especially a witch with such power that she can conjure storms in which ‘sea and sky became one’. Johann Weyer, the 16th-century Dutch physician who opposed witch-hunting, describes one woman being forced to admit essentially that she had brought about climate change: ‘[A] poor old woman was driven by torture to confess – as she was just about to be offered to Vulcan’s flames – that she had caused the incredible severity of the previous winter (1565), and the extreme cold, and the lasting ice.’ (3)

The cries of those tortured women should echo down the ages. Their persecution for the crime of causing contrary weather should give us pause for thought today. For as German historian Wolfgang Behringer convincingly argues, the weather-related witch hysteria of the early modern period shows how perilous it can be to moralise discussions about the climate. A section of European society during the Little Ice Age held witches ‘directly responsible for the high frequency of climatic anomalies’, he writes. And the ‘enormous tensions created in society as a result of the persecution of [those] witches demonstrate how dangerous it is to discuss climatic change under the aspects of morality’.

Alas, it seems likely that this plea not to moralise discussions about climate will fall on 21st-century ears that are as deaf to reason as were those that ignored Reginald Scot’s insistence that weather was a heavenly phenomenon, not the devilish handiwork of warped human beings. For today, in our supposedly enlightened era, the rush to blame sinning and selfish individuals for ‘contrary winds’, or ‘weather of mass destruction’, as we call it now, is as intense as it was in the Little Ice Age. Weather witch-finding is alive and well.

Sure, we don’t threaten to hurl climate changers into ‘Vulcan’s flames’. We do not ‘thrawn’ them with rope, inducing a ‘pain most grievous’, as was done to poor Mrs Sampson. We don’t even say the word witch anymore. No, we prefer to speak of ‘climate criminals’. ‘Thirteen climate criminals who should be in jail’, as the headline in a radical magazine put it a few years ago. The list included everyone from Donald Trump to Big Oil CEOs to broadcasters like Jeremy Clarkson. Clarkson’s crime was a speechcrime – to suggest climate change is a ‘fiction’. For that, he and the other ‘real climate offenders’ should be imprisoned, we were told.

The internet is finally turning on celebrity “climate criminals”’, chirped a headline in a fashion magazine in July 2022. That piece had a distinctly witch-hunting vibe, arguing that ‘it is right to be outraged’ about these people ‘who are most responsible for the climate crisis’. We must ‘stop the climate criminals who are causing the worst emissions’, says a writer for the Guardian. One left-wing outlet calls for the jailing of ‘climate criminals’ on the basis that they played a part in conjuring ‘floods… fires, heatwaves and other extreme weather events’. These are the new Agnes Sampsons. They’re the modern versions of that woman Johann Weyer described as having been compelled by fire to confess to having brought about unusual coldness. That is, they’re people accused of using their wickedness to ‘rayse stormes’. Only we call them ‘criminals’ rather than ‘witches’, and we say ‘climate change’ rather than ‘contrary winds’, because we are enlightened now.

There may not be witch trials in the 21st-century West, but there is certainly the dream of witch trials. Especially for those who have the temerity to use their tongues to deny the existence of manmade climate change. As one academic study asks: ‘Deceitful tongues: is climate-change denial a crime?’ This is Biblical language, literally. Right out of Psalms. ‘Thou lovest evil more than good; and lying rather than to speak righteousness. Thou lovest all devouring words, O thou deceitful tongue’, says Psalms 52:3-4. Now such stern religious condemnation is deployed against questioners of the climate-change thesis. The author of that piece on the ‘deceitful tongues’ of the modern age – William C Tucker, then an assistant regional counsel to the US Environmental Protection Agency, no less – said such tongues may indeed need to be silenced. For what they say is not only ‘morally repugnant’, but potentially criminal, too: ‘[We] cannot allow fraudulent or deceptive speech to paralyse the public debate on a subject no less important than the survival of the human species and the future of the Earth itself.’

In the past, witches, likely including those who were accused of raising ‘hurtfull weather’, were sometimes fitted with a ‘scold’s bridle’ – a metal contraption that enclosed the head and which contained a muzzle that fitted into the mouth with a spike that would compress the witch’s ‘vicious tongue’. Now, being more modern, we prefer to propose mere criminal sanctions against those who possess a ‘deceitful tongue’.

The tyranny of holding mass witch trials may no longer be possible in our more civilised era, but the fantasy of such tyranny still exists. ‘I wonder what sentences judges might hand down at future international criminal tribunals on those who will be partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths from starvation, famine and disease in decades ahead’, environmentalist author Mark Lynas once said. Who are the ‘those’ in that chilling sentence? Climate-change deniers, of course, who will ‘one day have to answer for their crimes’, according to Lynas.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times describes climate-change denial as ‘a form of treason – treason against the planet’. The Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University openly ponders whether climate-change denial should be criminalised. Yes, ‘free speech is one of the most treasured rights in Western democracy’, it says in its discussion of a Norwegian professor’s suggestion that climate-change denial is a crime, but sometimes we make ‘exceptions for points of view which [may be regarded] as particularly destructive and evil’. Evil. What a telling word. As clear a confirmation as one could ask for that the discussion of climate change has been hyper-moralised, turned from a practical matter of how to improve our environment into a crusade against the malevolent forces whose deceitful tongues and activities allegedly wreak havoc upon the weather.

Of course, it isn’t only powerful ‘climate criminals’ who are held responsible for contrary weather today – we all are. We are living through a collectivisation of the witch trial, where all human beings, by mere dint of existence, are said to be contributing to climatic instability. Every weather anomaly is now instantly laid at the feet of humanity.

‘With raging wildfires, floods and pandemics, it seems like End Times – and it’s our own damned fault’, said a writer for the Hill in July 2021. A Guardian account of the IPCC’s sixth and most recent assessment report said we now finally have the ‘verdict on [the] climate crimes of humanity’ – we are ‘guilty as hell’. Professor Tim Palmer of Oxford University draws a direct line between man’s allegedly sinful behaviour and various floods and fires across the globe. ‘If we do no halt our emissions soon, our future climate could well become some kind of hell on Earth’, he says. This view of humankind’s weather crimes helping to raise hell to the surface echoes the demonology of James VI, who believed witches were induced by ‘all the devils in hell’ to commit their storm-raising and other offences.

There is a powerful Old Testament overtone to much of the discussion about climate in the 21st century. Fires and floods are viewed as warnings to humankind about its unholy behaviour. Australia’s bushfires ‘are a warning to the world’, said a climate activist in the Guardian in January 2020. Fires in Europe in summer 2022 were described by some as an ‘apocalypse of heat’. ‘Hell is coming’, said a Guardian headline. This is ‘apocalypse now’, we were told, and it’s a result of our ‘living beyond our means’, which is ‘the greatest sin of all time’. Floods are likewise cited as reprimands from Mother Nature for our sins. Large rainfalls in the UK in 2007 were described by one green businessman as ‘the drumbeat of disaster that heralds global warming’. It feels as though ‘behind the gathering clouds the hand of God is busy, writing more bills [for humankind]’, he said. Mark Lynas has also described weather anomalies as god-like chastisements of industrious mankind. He said of floods that Poseidon is clearly ‘angered by arrogant affronts from mere mortals like us’: ‘We have woken him from a thousand-year slumber and this time his wrath will know no bounds.’ (4)

Fire blazes through the Long Meadow Grove of giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Forest, California, September 2021.
Fire blazes through the Long Meadow Grove of giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Forest, California, September 2021.

This idea that weather has a punishing intent, that it is violent payback for the ‘affronts’ of mankind, also echoes the more hysterical moments of the Little Ice Age. As Philipp Blom documents, alongside singling out covens of witches as the harbingers of climatic mayhem, religious figures also presented contrary weather as an expression of divine ‘displeasure’. ‘Every earthquake, every volcanic eruption and every storm was interpreted as… a punishment for human wickedness’, writes Blom. A ‘direct causal link between bad behaviour and bad harvests’ was frequently made. Indeed, in the 1500s and 1600s, ‘weather sermons became a minor literary genre of their own’, he says. One particularly skilled practitioner of the ‘weather sermon’ was Johann Georg Sigwart, a German theologian. In 1599, in a weather sermon delivered in the city of Tübingen, Sigwart told the assembled that ‘the Almighty has exercised his merciful will here’. The only solution to the climatic crisis, he said, was for ‘every man [to] arrive at honest repentance’, which might ‘move our Heavenly Father to… make these punishments less severe’.

Weather sermons are back in fashion. Only they aren’t a ‘minor literary genre’ anymore – they’re the cash cow of publishing houses and film studios. Books with titles like Angry Weather: Heatwaves, Floods, Storms and the New Science of Climate Change, The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change and The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming confirm that ‘theological interpretations of climatic events’ – as Blom describes the Little Ice Age’s view of anomalous weather – are thriving once more.

And, again, the demand is made of us to ‘repent’ in order that we might make not God’s punishments, but nature’s punishments ‘less severe’. In September 2021, Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, issued a joint statement saying humankind now has ‘an opportunity to repent’ for our failure to ‘protect and preserve [nature]’. A year later, Francis returned to the theme. Mankind must ‘repent and modify our lifestyles’ if we are to preserve ‘our common home’, he said. It isn’t only religious leaders who use this Little Ice Age language. Secularist greens do, too. One green writer once congratulated former climate-change sceptics in the media for having ‘recanted’ and accepted the truth of ‘climate chaos’. Recant – there it is, the fierce religious pressure of the past rehabilitated for a modern audience. To recant is to say one no longer holds an opinion or belief, especially one that is heretical. And there is little more heretical today than to question the climate-change narrative.

Climate change, the idea that humankind is having a negative impact on the planet, and what’s more that there will be an extinction-level event if we do not radically change our behaviour, has become one of the most feverishly guarded orthodoxies of our age. You query it at your peril. It is one of the few beliefs for which an entire new grammar of censorship has been created to protect it from interrogation.

Describing, demonising and punishing ‘climate-change denial’ has become a veritable industry. There are books that search for the psychological origins of these apparently demonic thoughts. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, one is titled. The author of that book, George Marshall, suggests that the ‘in-group loyalties’ that ‘evolved’ in the ‘hunter-gatherer era’ may be an ‘obstacle when dealing with a universal shared threat’ like climate change. Slaves to the evolutionary process, we’re unable to see climatic dangers clearly.

Psychiatrists analyse the ‘powerful psychological component’ to people’s ‘blindness to scientific reality’. Apparently, ‘millions of people share the phenomenon of climate denial’ and something must be done about it. A report in the Guardian in 2014 said ‘neuroscientists and psychologists’ were finally ‘beginning to understand just why people behave so irrationally [on climate change]’. It’s because ‘our brains are wired to respond to short-term problems, not long-term risk’. And so our brains must be fixed. Priests of old who were concerned about the influence of heresy sought to save men’s souls – today’s eco-priests, horrified by the heresy of climate denialism, endeavour to mend our minds. Not through rational discussion, though – we’ve already established that human beings behave ‘irrationally’ on climate change – but rather through the manipulation of language and thought. As a report from British think-tank the IPPR put it, ‘the task of climate-change agencies is not to persuade by rational argument but in effect to develop and nurture a new “common sense”’.

Once again, we encounter the Orwellian instincts of the new elites, where they seek to change language as a means of reshaping thought. As one British professor has said of the climate discussion, ‘many more words and phrases will be invented to adapt our languages to the increasingly chaotic changes in weather and climate’. Such top-down word invention is already taking place, and at great pace. The Oxford English Dictionary has welcomed the increased ‘urgency’ of the words and phrases that are used to talk about the climate. ‘The very real sense of urgency that is now upon us is reflected in our language’, says an OED spokesperson. Even the dictionary is now deployed to the end of reshaping minds on how to think about climate change.

In fact, the phrase ‘climate change’ is on the way out now. The OED notes that between 2018 and 2020 the use of ‘climate crisis’ increased almost 20-fold in public discussion, while the use of ‘climate emergency’ increased 76-fold. The Media and Climate Change Observatory at the University of Colorado at Boulder has noted the US media’s adoption of ‘more intense terms’ to describe climatic events. ‘Linguistic experts’ cheer the media’s embrace of the language of catastrophe because it helps to ‘convey to the public an increasingly urgent [climate] threat’. Scientists, the UN and even protesters have played a role in pressuring the media to adopt more apocalyptic lingo: in 2019, Extinction Rebellion protesters camped outside the offices of the New York Times to demand that it use the phrase ‘climate emergency’ rather than ‘climate change’. Speak the truth on Armageddon! ‘Word choices by the press in this field matter’, say linguistic experts, ‘because they are influential on public opinion’.

Shaping public opinion through the manipulation of language is a key and terrifying theme of our times. In this case, the aim seems to be to force us all into the apocalyptic mindset, to coerce us into the realm of doom by making us think less about ‘climate change’ and more about climate chaos, climate disaster, even climate apocalypse – a term the New Yorker has used. Dissent becomes all but impossible when such fanatical language is made dominant. How can one call for calm in relation to something like ‘climate chaos’? How can one say ‘humanity can fix this’ in relation to something like ‘climate apocalypse’? An apocalypse is the complete and final destruction of the world. There’s no discussing that. There’s no ‘other view’ on that. In manipulating public discourse to make it better reflect their own ominous and millenarian sense of dread about the climate, the elites narrow what can be thought on this issue, and what alternative solutions might be proposed. The language dictates the thought, the thought in this case being that we’re in the midst of the End of Days ‘and it’s our own damned fault’.

Extinction Rebellion protesters outside the entrance to the COP26 site in Glasgow, United Kingdom, November 2021.
Extinction Rebellion protesters outside the entrance to the COP26 site in Glasgow, United Kingdom, November 2021.

The chilling crusade to manipulate both our psychology and our language in relation to climate change, both our minds and our speech, confirms that the elites believe there is no need for any kind of debate here. This is a ‘settled’ issue, they say. ‘Case closed’, as one newspaper headline said about the science on climate change. Joel Kotkin describes this as ‘“the debate is over” syndrome’. On everything from climate change to gay marriage, we’re constantly told issues are ‘settled’, says Kotkin. No questions, no discussion, no need for ‘rational argument’, in the words of the IPPR. We’re done. It’s over. Shut up. As Kotkin says of ‘“the debate is over” syndrome’ in relation to climate change, the effect is that an issue of ‘great import’ is ‘buried by the seemingly unscientific notion that everyone needs to follow orthodoxy on an issue that – like the nature of God in the Middle Ages – is considered “settled”’. Where the frightened people of the Little Ice Age were expected to obey God’s diktats as expressed in the weather sermons of their local priest, now we’re expected to obediently nod along to the settled scientific opinion of the weather sermonisers of our era.

Our leaders really do exploit terrible weather events to sermonise to the throng, to instruct us on what to think and how to behave. In October 2022, President Biden said Hurricane Ian in Florida had ‘finally ended [the] discussion about whether or not there’s climate change’. The heavens have spoken! The contrary wind has issued its decree! Climate change is real and no further debate will be tolerated.

Kotkin is right to describe the orthodoxy of climate change as ‘unscientific’. That’s because there should be no orthodoxies in science. Nothing should ever really be ‘settled’ in science. This is one of the most disturbing things about the climate-change / chaos / apocalypse discussion – its transformation of science from a humanistic and open-ended endeavour to gain greater understanding of the natural world into a religious-style truth that no one may quiz or blaspheme against. This represents more than ‘cancel culture’, more than another cynical effort by the elites to circumscribe what may be said on a particular issue. It represents an overturning of the virtues of the Scientific Revolution itself, and of that central freedom of Enlightenment: the freedom to question authority.

Consider how ‘The Science’ is talked about in relation to climate change. ‘Science has spoken’, said then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in November 2014, as if science were a secular version of the Word of God. Eco-protesters march behind banners demanding that we ‘Listen to the science’. ‘I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists’, said Greta Thunberg to the US Congress. Scientists have become gods, their word infallible, their instructions to be slavishly followed.

Even the Royal Society, that great institution of Enlightenment, founded in 1660 to expand mankind’s scientific knowledge of the world, now pushes the line that ‘the science is settled’. A few years ago, it wrote to ExxonMobil demanding that it cut off funding to organisations that deny the truth of climate change. Acknowledge ‘the evidence’, it said, in hectoring tones. Yet as a small group of climate scientists reminded the Royal Society in an open letter: ‘The beauty of science is that no issue is ever “settled”, that no question is beyond being more fully understood, that no conclusion is immune to further experimentation.’ ‘And yet for the first time in history’, they said, ‘the Royal Society is shamelessly using the media to say emphatically: “case closed” on all issues related to [a scientific matter]’.

The old Royal Society, the Enlightenment-era Royal Society, understood the unsettled nature of scientific inquiry. Indeed, its motto was Nullius in verba – on the word of no one. That motto was intended as ‘an expression of the determination of [Royal Society] fellows to withstand the domination of authority’. The Scientific Revolution tasked itself with questioning the authority of tradition, with breaking free of ancient orthodoxies in the name of natural discovery. Shakespeare distilled this expansive new imagination in the words of Hamlet to Horatio: ‘There are more things in heaven and Earth / than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Now, too often, science, or at least certain branches of it, plays the opposite role. It has become the new source of authority, drawn upon by isolated political elites to add the appearance of weight to their policies, so that they might be called ‘evidence-based’. The science of climate change in particular is treated, as Kotkin says, as an orthodoxy we’re compelled ‘to follow’. Science has spoken. Even the Royal Society now speaks less about approaching the world ‘on the word of no one’ and more about ‘verify[ing] all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment’ – a fittingly lifeless phrase for an era in which even science sometimes finds itself marshalled to the task of correcting thought, controlling behaviour and punishing heresy.

One of the most curious things about climate-change science is that it is one of the very few sciences that is fiercely protected from criticism and falsification. It has become fashionable in Anglo-American society to call scientific claims into question. Since the 1960s, the intellectual classes have been pondering the ‘social construction’ of scientific truth. The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter L Berger and Thomas Luckmann, was published way back in 1966. French philosopher Bruno Latour was fawned over on campuses across the West for his theories on ‘the social construction of scientific facts’. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler thinks even biological sex is a social construct. Meanwhile, the cry goes up to ‘decolonise the science curriculum’, to weave ‘Indigenous Witch-Finding knowledge’ – an equally valid way of knowing, apparently – into scientific discussion.

Everywhere science is picked apart, dismantled, relativised, often in a way that undermines the entire project of scientific inquiry and its important search for knowledge. But climate-change science is never socially deconstructed. It is sacralised, made utterly unimpeachable, put beyond the grubby questioning of both the layman and the expert. Despite the fact that it is clearly more socially constructed than most other sciences. Despite the fact that it clearly embodies the moral and political obsessions of the new elites. In particular, their lost faith in modernity and their urge to ‘shrink the human footprint’ – that is, rein in the era of industry. Every science is fashionably decried as the mere embodiment of man’s social priorities, except the one that most clearly is that.

This is because, when it comes to climate change, we’re not really talking about science. We’re talking about scientism. We’re talking about the use of science to fortify political agendas. We’re talking about the way the technocratic elites now marshal expertise in their fearful moral favour. And we’re talking about the treatment of science, this science at least, as a god for a godless age, whose decrees must be blindly obeyed. We are facing ‘catastrophe’ and ‘only science can save us’, as the Guardian once put it. That isn’t science – it’s religion. Hence why it is heresy, tantamount to blasphemy, to think or utter any thought that might wound, even slightly, this mystical and misanthropic worldview that calls itself science.

An essential task of the heretic is to bristle at orthodoxy, to be suspicious of consensus. As John Stuart Mill reminds us in On Liberty, in times of tyranny ‘the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.’

Let us be eccentric on climate change, then. Let us refuse to bend the knee to the custom and rituals and self-flagellation of this religion that self-identifies as a science. And let us say the most unsayable thing of all – that modernity has not in fact destroyed the planet but rather has rendered it a more knowable and liveable place. Knowledge has expanded, freedom has become a reality, life expectancy has increased, poverty levels have fallen and the threat posed by calamitous weather has been better contained as a result of our industrial exploitation of nature’s bounty to the end of creating a more prosperous world (5). Our footprint on the planet is a wonderful, civilising thing, not a stain to be erased. It might be blasphemy to say that now, but as George Bernard Shaw knew: ‘All great truths begin as blasphemies.’

Back to the Little Ice Age. It wasn’t all witch-hunts. It wasn’t all weather sermons. It wasn’t all terror in the face of climatic uncertainty. No, modern science and freedom were born then, too. Those long, icy centuries contributed to the fall of feudalism and to the ‘emerging era of markets, exploration and intellectual freedom which constituted the beginning of the Enlightenment’. Even music became more beautiful. Philipp Blom says it isn’t a coincidence that the most admired violins in history, including those of Stradivarius, were created in the middle of the Little Ice Age. It’s partly because trees take longer to mature in severely cold weather, leading to denser wood with ‘better sound qualities and more intense resonance’.

How typical of our downbeat times that we mimic the bad of the Little Ice Age – its witch-hunts, its dread of weather – while turning our backs on what was good about that most tumultuous of human eras: the rise of freedom of thought and the unleashing of scepticism towards orthodoxy, including the orthodoxy of the witch-hunt. Even in their dark and cold world, they felt their way towards freedom and truth. In our world of comparative comfort and plenty, we’re feeling our way back to superstition and fear.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer.

The above is an extract from Brendan O’Neill’s new book, A Heretic’s Manifesto. You can buy it on Amazon now.

(1) See Daemonologie, King James VI of Scotland / King James I of England (1597)

(2) Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, by Philipp Blom, Pan Macmillan (2020).

(3) European Magic and Witchcraft, by Martha Rampton, University of Toronto Press (2018)

(4) Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas, Fourth Estate (2007)

(5) See False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, by Bjorn Lomborg, Basic Books (2021)

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Long-reads Politics Science & Tech UK USA World

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