As the lockdowns begin to fray around the world, so the pre-lockdown controversies emerge blinking into the light, seemingly unchanged by their experience of hibernation. We’ve just had two resurrections of the climate change debate in London in the last week. And though the arguments heard in them are much the same as before, there are signs of a slight chill in the public’s response, hitherto quite favorable, to them.
The first was the blockade on Friday night/Saturday morning of the printing works that produce most of the Brits’ morning newspapers by Extinction Rebellion protesters. One hundred XR demonstrators, chaining themselves to vehicles, blocked roads to three printing sites from which the great majority of newspapers are transported to homes and newsagents across Britain. Printing then began at other sites, but most people in provincial Britain missed the papers that on a Saturday give them a vast panorama of information and entertainment on news, politics, the economy, real estate, sport, travel, movies, music, theatre, etc., etc.
Much noise was made by XR to the effect that the print works and two papers they print, the Times and the Sun, are owned by Rupert Murdoch who is a hated figure on the Left. But Murdoch’s rivals, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, and the Financial Times are also printed at his works. And the FT is editorially friendly to the XR’s claim that climate change now constitutes an emergency.
Until this happened, the public had seemed partly sympathetic, partly resigned, to the inevitability of such demonstrations. Very few people had been inconvenienced by earlier blockades, and the costs in delayed journeys or diverted routes to those who had was modest. Being deprived of a long Saturday read over coffee at the breakfast table, however, though hardly a tragedy, was nonetheless very irritating. And irritation is a favorite British emotion.
Then the XR spokesmen made matters worse for themselves by their justifications of the blockade which generally boiled down to claiming that the papers misled their readers on the urgency of dealing with climate change. Here is the choicest argument from activist Gully Bujak (27):
"The climate emergency is an existential threat to humanity. Instead of publishing this on the front page every day as it deserves, much of our media ignores the issue and some actively sow seeds of climate denial.”
It’s pretty clear that Mr. Bujak wouldn’t make a very good editor, running the same story on every front page every day, but he wouldn’t be a very good reporter either. Almost all the U.K. mainstream media, far from actively sowing seeds of climate denial, are united in their belief that climate change is a major challenge facing humanity and that we should be prepared to cut living standards in order to lower carbon emissions. That’s true not only of the leftish Financial Times but also of the hated (but widely read) Murdoch press. In fact copies of the tabloid Sun diverted or blocked by XR demonstrators were that day carrying an article by Britain’s most celebrated BBC environmentalist, David Attenborough, on how to combat climate change (because readers of the Sun think of little else.)
Occasional op-eds taking a climate-skeptic viewpoint appear in their pages because newspapers not edited by Gully Bujak have a professional bias in favor of debate and controversy. But the mainstream media are generally careful not to stray too far from officialdom’s climate-change orthodoxy.
XR protesters, however, stray very far from that orthodoxy in the opposite direction, demanding net-zero carbon emissions within five years and more or less eliminating both holiday air travel and meat from peoples’ diets, these changes to be supervised by unelected and unaccountable “citizens’ assemblies.”
Given the puritan authoritarianism of these aims, XR’s assertion of its right to halt the distribution of newspapers because they disagreed with the opinions they expressed on climate change rang a very loud warning bell. Commentators across the spectrum condemned the blockades as attacks on press freedom. Members of the public started to ask why the police had appeared to cooperate with the protesters so that the blockades could be enforced with minimum inconvenience to third parties. Aren’t newspaper readers and printing companies, not just third parties, entitled to go about their business without deliberate let or hindrance too? (Maybe, yes: 72 protesters were eventually arrested.)
Even government ministers, who have been somewhat timid of late, spoke out firmly in defense of “a free press, society and democracy” (Home Secretary Priti Patel) and against this particular attack on the free press (“completely unacceptable,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson.)
In short there was a rare bi-partisan consensus that Extinction Rebellion had laid an egg and that in future it should no longer be allowed to run around bullying people in order to impose a minority opinion that if implemented would have grim consequences in lower living standards for the rest of us. Except, as the Daily Mail’s combative centrist columnist, D.P. Hodges, pointed out mildly, until this weekend almost all the people now fulminating had given the impression of admiring the idealism of XR protesters even if they mildly deprecated their occasional excesses. Was that now changing?
I’ve seen too many false dawns of that kind to believe so without crossing my fingers and hoping to die. But a second event makes me ever-so-slightly more hopeful. In the middle of last week it was leaked in London that the Johnson government would be asking the former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to join the Board of Trade as a senior advisor in its forthcoming drive to sign post-Brexit free trade deals with a wide range of countries, including the U.S., Canada, Japan, and, er, Australia.
There’s no doubt that was a shrewd and sensible move. Britain badly needs to accelerate its trade diplomacy not only for the sake of future deals but in order to show to Brussels that London has enough good options so as not to need to appease the European Union in the current talks—now at make-or-break time. Abbott has the experience of trade negotiations and a knowledge of the players that would improve the chances of success. As Mark Higgie—a former Aussie ambassador to the EU—pointed out in the Australian Spectator www.spectator.com.au, Abbott as prime minister negotiated free trade deals with China, South Korea, and Japan which between them covered 50 percent of Australia’s trade.
Not everyone in Britain wants its extra-European trade diplomacy to prosper, however, because they hope to limit the country’s global reach and to keep Britain even outside the EU inside the EU’s sphere of influence. That makes them especially wary of the concept of CANZUK which promises to develop a closer trade, security, and migration relationship between four of the five countries in the “Five Eyes” intelligence cooperation agreement. There’s modest but growing support for this concept—which already exists in its subordinate but important parts like security cooperation—and Abbott is sympathetic to it. From some points of view, he’s an obstacle to a closer UK-EU relationship down the road.
That’s not a point of view, however, that can be openly argued with any chance of success. So Abbott was denounced as unsuitable to the Board of Trade role because he was a misogynist, opposed in the past to gay marriage, pro-life, and above all a “climate change denier.”
None of these charges is relevant to the post for which he was being considered. Most of them describe (or caricature) legitimate opinions held by very large groups of voters, most of whom lean to the Tories. And one at least—Abbott’s supposed “misogyny”—is simply false. But the charge of being a “climate change denier,” which was probably the most damaging of the charges, is worth at least unpacking since we have some evidence in relation to it.
The first thing to be said is that “climate change denier” is not a scientific term but a political one intended to silence or blacklist anyone so described. If it is to have any clear meaning, that must be someone who denies that the climate is changing or—to be a little more flexible—that it’s rising so rapidly as to pose a serious threat to humankind that can only be countered by emergency measures of mitigation not far short of those advocated by Extinction Rebellion. Fear of being called a “denier” explains the contradiction, noticed by Hodges above, that many politicians and public figures now denouncing Extinction Rebellion have been very mild in their criticisms of it until now. They don’t want to be accused of backing XR’s aims but refusing their means and thus being a “denier” in practice.
But this apparent contradiction is a false one and the fear it generates groundless. As the science writer and author (most recently) of “How Innovation Works," Matt Ridley, pointed out a few years ago in Quadrant magazine:
These scientists and their guardians of the flame repeatedly insist that there are only two ways of thinking about climate change—that it’s real, man-made and dangerous (the right way), or that it’s not happening (the wrong way). But this is a false dichotomy. There is a third possibility: that it’s real, partly man-made and not dangerous. This is the “lukewarmer” school, and I am happy to put myself in this category. Lukewarmers do not think dangerous climate change is impossible; but they think it is unlikely.
And the evidence is overwhelming that Tony Abbott belongs to this lukewarmer school because he delivered a lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation in 2017 on this very topic:
Physics suggests, all other things being equal, that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide would indeed warm the planet. Even so, the atmosphere is an almost infinitely complex mechanism that’s far from fully understood.
Palaeontology indicates that over millions of years there have been warmer periods and cooler periods that don’t correlate with carbon dioxide concentrations. The Jurassic warm period and the ice ages occurred without any human contribution at all. The medieval warm period, when crops were grown in Greenland, and the mini-ice age, when the Thames froze over, occurred well before industrial activities added to atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Prudence and respect for the planet would suggest taking care not lightly to increase carbon dioxide emissions; but the evidence suggests that other factors such as sun spot cycles and oscillations in the Earth’s orbit are at least as important for climate change as this trace gas – which, far from being pollution, is actually essential for life to exist.
Certainly, no big change has accompanied the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the past century from roughly 300 to roughly 400 parts per million or from 0.03 to 0.04 per cent.
Well, maybe someone in Downing Street was paying attention, because after a few days of ministers looking like frightened Bambis in the glare of klieg lights amid the thunder of media questioning, Boris Johnson appeared in public to state the obvious: that while he didn’t agree with everything that was said by the government’s many advisors on many topics, Tony Abbott was nonetheless a whiz on trade and that he was happy to have him on board. And as often happens when it’s clear that a prime minister really isn’t going to surrender to a media mob, the storm dispelled—and a much more convenient storm blew up over Extinction Rebellion’s candid attack on press freedom.
My optimism remains provisional, but one thing is clear and another thing is possible. Political and public opinion is growing more hostile to the claims of XR and other alarmists that their belief in climate catastrophe gives them a right to override democracy and free speech; and as more and more scientists, economists, and politicians who aren’t intellectually intimidated by fear and/or alarmism adopt a "lukewarmer" stance, the prospect increases of a more rational policy that treats climate change as a serious problem requiring a prudent mix of mitigation and adaptation in response rather than as an imminent catastrophe calling for sackcloth and ashes.
It won’t happen overnight, and there’ll never be a consensus on it. How could there be? As Matt Ridley wrote in that Quadrant article: You can’t have a scientific consensus about the future.