by Peter Smith
December 6, 2009
Climate change is a “conventional wisdom”
Let us not be mistaken into thinking that the tide has turned against the global warming consensus because of some errant emails and a couple of opinion polls; it has ebbed a little, that is all.
There is powerful vested interest, on a global scale, among an influential section of the scientific community; among most politicians and bureaucrats; among all those who will benefit from a cap and trade system; and among most of the media; to resist any data or arguments which might undermine the man-made global warming thesis. It is clear that a "conventional wisdom", albeit with a scientific bent, has formed of the kind described and made famous by J K Galbraith. In The Affluent Society (1958) he wrote:
we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding … vested interest in understanding is more preciously guarded than any other treasure. It is why men react, not infrequently with something akin to religious passion, to the defence of what they have so laboriously learned … acceptable ideas have great stability … I shall refer to these ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group. On a great many social issues … the consensus is exceedingly broad.
All conventional wisdoms tend to start with a truth (the world has warmed slightly in recent decades - assuming that not all of the data has been fudged) but then, to one extent or other, develop a paradigm around that truth that may or may not be right and/or benign. For example, McCarthyism in the early 1950s in the US was not a benign extension of a truth that Russian communism was a potential threat.
Suppose a conventional wisdom is substantially astray from the truth (the way the world really is) and its impact is adverse. Never mind how it started, the important question is when and under what circumstances will it go away.
Given the nature of this particular conventional wisdom can we rely on new objective scientific inquiry? Not according to Galbraith; the keepers of the wisdom brook no challenge:
accepted ideas become increasingly elaborate. They have a large literature, even a mystique. The defenders are able to say that the challengers of the conventional wisdom have not mastered their intricacies ... The conventional wisdom having been made more or less identical with sound scholarship is virtually impregnable. The sceptic [note the use of the word] is disqualified … were he a sound scholar he would remain with the conventional wisdom.
According to Galbraith the “enemy of conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events”:
the conventional wisdom accommodates itself not to the world that it is meant to interpret, but to the audience’s view of the world. Since the latter remains comfortable and familiar, while the world moves on, the conventional wisdom is always in danger of obsolescence. This is not immediately fatal. The fatal blow … comes when the conventional ideas fail signally to deal with some contingency to which obsolescence has made them palpably inapplicable.
If Galbraith was right, the outlook for undoing the global warming conventional wisdom is unpromising for two reasons. First, experience has not yet shown itself to be fatal – as Galbraith warned. Ten years during which temperatures have not risen (even fallen slightly) have failed to cool the ardour of academic global warmists. I listened to a conversation on the ABC program PM on the Friday evening when the Liberal Party in-fighting was underway. Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun was desperately trying to talk about the substantive point that the world was cooling – rather than the political drama - to absolutely no avail. Those wedded to the conventional wisdom are not listening and it is doubtful that another two or three years of cooling will have an impact. The keepers of the wisdom have already moved swiftly to build that in, as part of their paradigm.
The second reason is that this particular conventional wisdom is in process of engendering an elaborate and costly infrastructure that will fundamentally change the way the world works. It will be almost impossible to unmake. In itself this will also serve to buttress the conventional wisdom against experience.
If neither science nor the march of time is likely to undo the conventional wisdom; then what? In public opinion might lay the only promise. Opinion polls in Australia and, more importantly, in the US show some movement away from the conventional wisdom. At question is whether this movement will gather pace and conviction. This will depend principally on political leadership. Left without mainstream political leadership, public opinion is likely to revert to its former state, resuming a compliant posture under the umbrella of the conventional wisdom. What does that sorry state look like?
I have had numbers of conversations with ex-colleagues from the banking industry and with my neighbours. Without exception they have been true believers in man-made global warming. None had read or seen anything which challenged their view. None had been aware that the earth’s temperature had been broadly flat or declining since it peaked in 1998. I had lunch with an ex-colleague recently who I hadn’t seen for some years. He is now retired and helps run his son’s farm in Victoria. As evidence of global warming, he said that he understood that the current drought is as, or more, severe than the (then) record drought of the 1930s and 1940s. I replied that if such a severe drought occurred as far back as in the 1930s wasn’t this evidence that factors other than global warming might be at work, and also asked him whether he thought that the record drought of the 1930s and 1940s was bound to remain a record. While acknowledging the pertinence of my points, he remained unmoved, and the current drought clearly remains an important factor in his validation of global warming. He drew no distinction between global warming and man-made global warming and had formed no view on the effectiveness of the proposed counter measures. I have found this also to be the case in other conversations I have had.
As described by Galbraith:
the individual has the satisfaction of knowing that other more famous people share his conclusions … [he] knows that he is supported in his thoughts – that he has not been left behind and alone … articulation of the conventional wisdom is a religious rite … like reading aloud from the scriptures or going to church … a large part of our social comment – and nearly all that is well regarded – is devoted at any time to articulating the conventional wisdom.
The task of undoing this conventional wisdom will require political leadership of a resolute kind and on a bigger stage than Australia. The change in leadership of the Liberal Party and the defeat of the carbon reduction legislation might prove to be important but only as bit parts; the key is what happens in the US. Barack Obama offers no hope, of course, but the resurgence of conservatism within the Republican Party together with the cost of a cap and trade system, when set against the parlous and debt ridden state of US economy, offers a glimmer but only a glimmer. The only thing conservatives can do here is to keep hammering away on the weakness of the evidence supporting the kinds of measures and costs being contemplated, and the weakness of the case that they will do any good in any event.