A question has come to me from a test paper in the A-level for 21st century ethics. Read the following statement and explain what is wrong with it: ‘It’s important that we take climate issues seriously. Whether or not individuals accept the current scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, it is sensible for everyone to use finite resources in a responsible way.’
The correct answer, it turns out, is that the statement allows for the possibility that failing to accept the scientific consensus on climate change is somehow a legitimate position for an individual to hold, when of course it is not. The person making the statement should have made it clear that everyone must accept scientific consensus on climate change as well as use resources wisely – not be allowed to opt out of one of these essential duties as human beings.
That, at any rate, appears to be the view of Barry Gardiner, the international trade secretary and Wera Hobhouse, who goes about with the title of the Liberal Democrats’ climate change spokeswoman. The statement above was in fact made by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox yesterday, and was immediately denounced by the opposition. Gardiner claimed that it displayed ‘confusion and ignorance on such a staggering scale’, adding: ‘The government needs to act with the urgency that the science demands, not provide weasel excuses for climate deniers. It is just not acceptable behaviour from a cabinet minister.’
Not to be outdone, Hobhouse pitched in by describing Fox, as well as his cabinet colleagues, as ‘apologists for climate change denial’, saying ‘in a week where protesters have filled the streets of London and activist Greta Thurnberg has visited parliament, it is outrageous that Liam Fox is now legitimising those who deny climate change. Climate change is happening. It is a scientific fact, not an opinion to be argued about. Comments like this show the Tories clearly cannot be trusted to take it seriously.’
Let’s leave aside some of the logic here – in Hobhouse’s mind would it be a mite more acceptable for Fox to have made his comments next week, when Greta Thurnberg has completed her rail odyssey to Sweden and is back boycotting her school? Were Fox’s remarks somehow more outrageous because they might be conceived as a personal slight on the poor girl? That would appear to be what she was saying. But let’s move on to a wider point. What is really staggering about Gardiner’s and Hobhouse’s remarks is what it reveals about the Left. There are many on the Left, it seems, who have essentially given up the business of argument and debate. Their sole tactic is now to try to delegitimise their opponents, to put their ideas beyond the pale, to close down any kind of debate before it even begins.
Fox, it is perfectly clear, was not engaging in a debate about climate change, nor expressing his own views on the subject. He was simply trying to persuade those who remain unconvinced by the science of climate change, of the wisdom of the government’s policies on cutting carbon emissions. Isn’t that a rather sensible approach for government ministers who have to sell their policies to the public as a whole? It is rather as if a health secretary introducing an indoors smoking ban had said: ‘even if you don’t accept that passive smoking is dangerous, you might at least recognise that subjecting other people to your smoke is pretty irritating’.
I don’t recall governments or oppositions feeling the need to silence those who refuse to accept the link between smoking and lung cancer, or that wearing a seatbelt reduces your chances of dying in a car accident. They were happy to put the information in the public domain and let the facts speak for themselves. Nor indeed, in spite of the deep offence it causes, has any UK government, or main political party, seen fit to try to outlaw Holocaust denial. They have refused to do this for good reason – it is not the job of the state to lay down an official version of history. And what would be the purpose anyway? The evidence speaks for itself. Trying to outlaw it would only encourage Holocaust-deniers by giving the impression there was something that needed to be hidden.
But climate change, for some reason, seems to be different. The Left has moved on from simply using the emotive language of Holocaust-denial and applying it to climate change scepticism. Rather, they now treat climate scepticism as a medieval-style heresy. To listen to Gardiner and Hobhouse is like listening to a 15th century pope lying to lay down what can and cannot be discussed by learned men. With pressure already being put on Facebook, Twitter and the like to remove material on climate change ‘denial’, it is becoming possible to imagine a time when it really does become illegal to question the ‘scientific consensus’ on climate.
Interestingly, the same does not apply to climate change exaggeration. Over the past couple of weeks we have had extraordinary claims made by members of Extinction Rebellion: that our children aren’t going to have enough food to eat in a few years’ time, that we are going to burn in our homes, that we are going to suffer a devastating drought later this year. I don’t recall the likes of Gardiner and Hobhouse jumping up and telling them to stick to the science, not their own hyperbolic interpretation of it. We have, in effect, a kind of ratchet. It is acceptable to dispute what the likes of the IPCC is saying, but only if you are arguing that the consequences will be much worse than it is predicting. What Liam Fox should have done in order to sell his government’s policy on carbon emissions was to have donned a sandwich board telling us we are all going to burn in Hell unless we accept them. Who knows, he might even have got a Nobel Peace Prize.