The Age of Global Warming

Book Review:

The Age of Global Warming

A History

Rupert Darwall
Quartet 2013 Hdbck 442pp

Rupert Darwell has written a compelling history of the politics of global warming, the environmental cause of our age and the issue which has compelled the most ambitious efforts ever seen co-ordinate policy efforts between nations of the whole world.

Global warming’s entrance into politics can be dated with precision- 1988; the year of the Toronto conference on climate change, Margaret Thatcher’s address to the Royal Society, NASA scientist James Hansen’s appearance at a congressional committee and the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Darwell begins his story with the origins of the environmental movement and how its key ideas emerged in the early part of the 20th century as a reaction against- or perhaps a product of- industrial society.

During the course of the twentieth century , mankind’s relationship with nature underwent a revolution. At the beginning of the last century, human intervention in nature was seen as beneficent and a sign of the progress of civilisation. By its end, such interventions were presumed harmful unless demonstrated they were not.

Darwell sees the rise of global warming to its position as the preeminent environmental cause as being rooted firmly in earlier concerns that pre-dated the modern Green movement: Malthussian predictions of population explosion and subsequent die-off, picked up in the 1960s by Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich; Jeavons’ concern about Peak Coal- written in 1865; Steiner’s mystical racism contained within his system of biodynamic agriculture, a pre-curser to the organic movement, which was popularised by the Nazis as an expression of the purity of Blood and Soil; the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, ushering in an era of chemophobia; then the quasi-scientific doomsday predictions of the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth, echoed by Barbara Ward- “the most influential environmentalist you have never heard of” in Only One Earth (which predicted collapse of society by 2000 without a complete change of direction), commissioned in the same year for the first major UN conference on the environment in 1972.

It was in Stockholm that the conference organiser Maurice Strong, together with Ward, formed a pact with developing nations to allow their industrialization- without which they would have boycotted the conference- under the “political fiction” of sustainable development– “a fiction that broke down when the increase in developing countries’ greenhouse emissions overtook those of the developed world.”

Without global warming sustainable development would not have shifted the world’s political axis. With global warming environmentalism found its killer app. In turn, global warming became embedded in a pre-existing ideology, built on the belief of imminent planetary catastrophe- which many scientists subscribed to- with a UN infrastructure to support it and a cadre of influential political personages to propagate it.

This concept of sustainable development- allowing developing nations to continue to pollute while attempting to forge agreements to reduce the emissions of the west- was “pushed onto the international agenda by the 1980 Brandt report and the 1987 Brundtland Report.”

Marx and Engels condemned Malthus and his population theory. In turn, their labour theory of value put no value on pristine nature. The timing of the demise of Marxism as a living ideology meant that global warming never had to contend with opposition from the Left of the political spectrum. It is hard to conceive of the pre-Gorbachov Soviet Union being a party to global environmental treaties on ideological grounds, let alone during a strategic race to bury the West.

Thus the stage was set for the entrance of Global Warming onto the world stage in 1988. Ecologism- “the philosophy to evaluate man’s impact on nature” – had come of age, but was defined in opposition to the claims of the poor to seek better lives for themselves. Instead, the Precautionary Principle which placed concerns of human’s impact on Nature over and above the concerns of the poor- was to define the ensuing debates on global warming.

It was in a specific context, with particular ideological pedigree then that Global Warming became a political issue. Far from being a neutral, rational response to scientific knowledge, Global Warming became the perfect foil for the green agenda shaped by Strong and Ward: a paternalistic and even misanthropic view of humanity as profligate, living beyond its means, and of a fragile and sensitive planetary environment which was threatened with catastrophic meltdown- unless humanity was brought to heal with some of the most far-reaching agreements between nations ever attempted.

The vehicle for this response was the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body which was to issue regular reports supposedly from the best peer-reviewed science; and regular climate conferences amongst world leaders aimed at forging binding agreements on emissions reductions.

From here Darwall’s book reads like an adventure story as he recounts for us the main events in the history of political Global Warming: the role of Thatcher as the first major world leader to embrace the issue and call for action; the Rio Earth Summit in 1992; the tortured rounds of talks leading eventually to the Kyoto Protocol;1998- the hottest year ever recorded for global average temperatures; Climategate; the Stern review; the UK Climate Change Bill in 2008, committing to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; Bali- the thirteenth meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); an, ultimately, Showdown in Copenhagen.

Throughout the engaging text Darwall weaves at least three major themes:

Firstly, he looks at the science of global warming aka climate change through the lens of Karl Popper. According to Popper, science has to be refutable and repeatable, and must be based on real-world data. Since we cannot collect data from the future, climate scientists have relied on contentious temperature proxies from the past- resulting in the infamous Hockey Stick which played such a prominent role in promoting the idea of unprecedented temperature rise at the turn of the millennium, used in both the Third Assessment Report for the IPCC and in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth- and also on climate models which can only be verified for accuracy through a rear-view mirror.

Instead of seeking to meet Popper’s criterion of falsifiability, the activities of climate scientists conform to an earlier injunction pre-dating the Scientific Revolution: “Seek and ye shall find”. Climate scientists have followed this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount in their search for confirmatory evidence of global warming in shrinking ice caps, retreating glaciers and inferring past temperatures from tree rings.

Thus, climate scientists rely on the notion of a consensus of scientific opinion. Darwall does an excellent job of showing the relevance of Popper here: we simply do not know for sure the value for climate sensitivity or how much warming we will contribute to in the future. It is really all educated guesswork, but guesswork amongst peer groups of scientists in a highly politicized context and a highly specialized and narrow field.

Secondly, the influence of the earlier underpinnings of Dark Green environmental ideology as discussed in the first part of the book. The baton of Earth religion with its Judeo-Christian ideas of Man’s Fall from Grace and bespoiling of the Planet carried by Strong is most prominently picked up by Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance– “one of the most extraordinary books by any democratic politician seeking high elective office, for it constitutes an attack on Western civilisation and a fundamental rejection of two of its greatest accomplishments- the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions” :

{For Gore} Western civiliasation was the root cause of the environmental crisis. Nature was in crisis because Western man was sick. ‘Ecology and the Human Spirit’ is the somewhat Germanic sounding subtitle of Earth in the Balance, in which Gore set out these and other thoughts. At other times, Gore conceded that Western man might not be wholly to blame. Thinking about humans and the environment led him to pose the biggest environmental question of all. had God made a mistake when giving mankind dominion over the earth?.. Gore’s ecological philosophy brought together and American tradition of environmentalism, extending from Thoreau to Muir, with crankier elements imported from Europe, notably Schumacher….

This kind of religious underpinnings of environmentalism can be seen today alive and well in the sermons of prominent climate activist Bil McKibben, as Matthew Nisbet has shown (pdf).

Thirdly, the fundamental political stumbling block of the climate negotiations, namely the sheer impossibility of getting China and India to sign up to binding targets when they still see themselves as playing catch up with the West who caused most of the problem in the first place. Darwall shows, in the contrasting and changing views on global warming of BP in the UK and Exxon Mobil in the US, that has been the stance taken by the major developing countries that have stalled global agreements on emissions reductions, rather than a conspiracy of western fossil fuel interests.

“The view that public confusion about the science -sowed by malign fossil fuel interests- stalled global action is only plausible if the history of global warming is ignored” writes darwall in the final chapter, Reflections. “The most consistent finding of opinion surveys is not scepticism about the science, but that tackling climate change came way down the list of voters’ concerns. It was a convenient comunity myth to blame the West, when the true block on global action was the refusal of India and China. But then, what pull do climate scientists – or NGOs for that matter- have in New Delhi and Beijing?”

Darwall has made an important contribution to climate change literature, putting together in one place the history of global warming from ideological roots to the failure of the most recent attempts to forge a global agreement on CO2 under the supervision of a powerful supra-national organisation.

Most skeptics accept the basic science of greenhouse gases, but question the activist rhetoric that has lead to the cure being worse than the disease. Darwall shares these concerns, warning:

Never has the impact of scientists on how societies are governed been as great. During the Age of Global warming the West came closest to realising Francis Bacon’s ideal of a republic governed by a body of scientists that he made nearly five centuries ago.

More concerned with fundamentally changing the economic basis of modern urban civilisation than preserving the countryside and wildernesses, environmental NGOs ended up supporting the despoliation of rural areas and uplands with arrays of alien wind farms. It represented the negation of what their spiritual forebears stood for, transcendentalist such as Emerson and Thoreau and the trio of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt. The attitude of environmental NGOs to the environment became that of the American major in the Vietnam War: it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

Other examples of this are the use of low-density biofuels, including wood, to replace fossil fuels, a hopelessly regressive step that is motivated purely by the imperative of meeting emissions reduction targets.

Global warming from man-made CO2 is potentially a problem, but for a rational response to found, the narrative needs to be wrested from the grip of Malthussian and Earth Mother environmentalism and activist scientists who continue to predict impending doom based more on appeals to consensus and authority than real science.


3 thoughts on “The Age of Global Warming

  1. Thanks for this post Graham. That book looks like one I’d like to read. Having taken many deep green positions myself (I still hold many of them to be true and reasonable though none can be ‘totally correct’) I imagine I’d find I have many areas of agreement and disagreement with Rupert’s views.

  2. Thanks for that review as I’m about 1/4 the way thru it and this will save me having to write my own much smaller book review.

  3. Excellent review, and The Age of Global Warming is now on my (ever lengthening!) list of books to read.

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