“Sow doubt.” That tactic was how the spin doctors advised the fossil fuel industry to deal with accusations about global warming. After all, that line had kept the tobacco industry profitable for decades.

Clive Hamilton highlights that scam in his latest offering, Scorcher, the Dirty Politics of Climate Change. Hamilton’s subtitle demonstrates how successful the dirty-energy lobby has been. Where they sowed doubt, Hamilton has harvested confusion.

The phrase “climate change” is the prime instance of the want of precision in controversies about the future of our planet. Being against “climate change” makes as much sense as opposing the earth’s going around the sun. Both are facts of life, and have been so for millions of years. What is worth worrying about is whether human activities are increasing the Greenhouse Effect, and to what effect.

The folding of global warming into climate change violates a root of logic. Junior schoolchildren can understand that while all dogs are animals, not all animals are dogs. Why did Hamilton not maintain the distinction between warming in particular and change in general? It seems that fashion has displaced rigour. Four weeks ago, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Monica Richter told an industry forum “there is no doubting that climate change is the new black”.

All my “doubts” about “climate change” arise from a style of arguing that turns “sceptic” into a dirty word, akin to denier.

Descartes made hyperbolic doubt the basis for inquiry. Do not rely on authorities or on common sense. Authorities such as the Bible claim that the sun goes around the earth. That text is supported by our experience of looking eastwards every morning. Both are wrong.

The “climate change” acolytes do worse than rely on authorities. Doubt anything they claim, and they intone back: “The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree with … whatever”. The realities of nature are not decided by majority opinion. Moreover, the majority of experts have been wrongedy-wrongedy-wrong.

For instance, Stephen Jay Gould recounted that, around 1960, his professors told him to attend a lecture to laugh at a geologist visiting from Tasmania who proposed that continents drifted. Similarly, 15 years ago, papers showing that infections caused ulcers would not have won you a Nobel Prize.

The flip-side of appeals to authority has been a resort to ad hominem. Late in 2004, the environmentalist David Bellamy flew in to oppose wind farms and to doubt global warming. His critics dismissed their erstwhile hero as a “one-man wind farm himself”. The ACF’s Don Henry suggested that the visit “had more to do with theatre than with substance”.

Bellamy needed lessons in such masters of hyperbolic self-doubt as David Suzuki, Tim Flannery, Jared Diamond and Clive Hamilton.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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