In the decade or so that I’ve been writing and reporting on climate-related issues, real progress has always felt like a chimera that, once you tried to grasp it, seemed always to slip tantalisingly beyond reach.
This same ten-year time frame has seen publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports, both massive synthesis documents drawing together the many physical-science strands of climate change, with scientists working alongside policymakers and politicians to try to snatch the pearls of critical information from the ever-gathering tsunami of data.
Here in Ireland, the publication of the 2007 report in particular was accompanied by a flurry of earnest newspaper editorials and levels of ongoing coverage never before focused on an ‘environmental’ story. While interest had waned significantly by the time the Fifth Assessment Report was issued in 2013, this had more to do with media ‘climate fatigue’ and limited attention span with than anything truly sinister.
In the US in the same period, attitudes to climate change underwent a complete metamorphosis, quickly degenerating from a largely science-based dialogue to an intensely polarised ideological litmus test. Those describing themselves as Republican slid from mild climate scepticism to outright denial in the space of just a few years.
It is hard to now believe, but during the 2008 presidential election, a TV ad issued on behalf of Republican candidate John McCain praised him as the candidate who had stood up to George W Bush and “sounded the alarm on global warming”. Roll the clock forward nine years, and the same McCain stood with his fellow invertebrate Senate colleagues and cheered Trump’s moronic, spiteful withdrawal from the Paris Accord to the hilt.
In the US politics changes even faster than the climate, and with the Citizens United ruling pushed through the Republican-controlled US Supreme Court in 2010, there was no longer any limit to the dark money that could be poured by energy conglomerates into contaminating the political process by buying or bullying politicians into publicly adopting positions completely hostile to climate action, however mild.
Back in Ireland, however frustrating it has been in trying to get media space to push serious engagement on climate issues, or however anodyne the panellists George Hook, Matt Cooper or RTE’s Late Debate unearth to argue the 1-3% contrarian position, and however endlessly frustrating is it to witness blatant bias-in-balance, somehow at the end of it all, you can sense that, apart from it boosting ratings, nobody is taking this guff too seriously.
In 2017 so far, the people in Ireland who have garnered the most media time regarding climate change have been buffoons and blowhards like Danny Healy-Rae, Michael O’Leary and Michael Fitzmaurice, men who wear their wilful ignorance like boy scout merit badges. Yes, it’s deeply frustrating that the only sound our media respond to on climate change is the loud braying of jackasses. Still, it’s all a game and these attention-craving boyos don’t even pretend to make sense or to have a coherent philosophy; they are content just to make noise and lap up the media time.
Absent almost entirely from Ireland’s on-again-off-again coverage of climate and environmental issues have been the contrarian outliers supported by well-funded think tanks to spew out a steady stream of anti-facts that are such an ugly feature of the US political landscape.
The UK too has had a secretly-funded sceptic tank called the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) marinating mendacious pseudo-policies for the last several years, and getting excellent media traction into the bargain.
The GWPF even managed to get staffer, Dr Benny Peiser (background in sports and exercise science) onto an RTE PrimeTime ‘climate debate’, in 2014, a format the station has, time and again, proved so singularly inept at grasping.
While Ireland lacks the rabid right-wing media that incubate true climate extremism in the US, Britain and Australia, the emergence from the swamp of the execrable Trump regime has energised even the most forlorn of deniers in otherwise unpromising territories like Ireland.
And so it has come to pass. In early May, the inaugural meeting of the self-styled Irish Climate Science Forum (ICSF) took place in Dublin – behind closed doors and with mystery surrounding its funding and membership. Its first guest speaker set the tone for this new grouping. They chose septuagenarian Richard Lindzen, a once-famed MIT meteorologist and long-time contrarian, who has taken to the trail with gusto to peddle the standard denier play-book of cherry-picked data and outright misinformation about climate change (he remains equally ‘sceptical’ about the long-established links between tobacco and cancer).
Having chosen to represent the minority non-consensus view with its first speaker, clearly, if the ICSF want to be seen to have even a shred of intellectual integrity, its choice of second speaker would have to be someone from the mainstream scientific community.
There are dozens, even hundreds, of highly qualified, currently publishing experts they could have called upon to present the mainstream science, having already given the contrarian view a full evening. Instead, the ICSF, founded by retired UCD meteorologist and climate contrarian, Ray Bates, doubled down and went for another emeritus crank, this time William Happer, a once-famed physicist from Princeton.
In an especially deranged TV interview on CNBC in 2014, the interviewer challenged Happer about an earlier assertion of his where he equated climate scientists to Nazis. His response is worth recalling in full: “The demonisation of CO2 is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler…CO2 is a benefit to the world and so were the Jews”.
In the same interview, Happer directly compared the criticism his wacky views attract with the persecution of Galileo. “When Galileo had his tilt with the church, he got flak too”, said Happer. It is no coincidence that Lindzen also used the ‘Galileo clause’ in his Dublin talk in May. It is standard denier protocol to invoke persecution and conspiracy when criticised or even challenged, and preferably, to smear their critics as being religiously or ideologically motivated into the bargain.
When RTÉ’s Philip Boucher Hayes asked Bates to name any other actual climate scientists who were part of his ICSF, he replied as follows: “No, I’m not giving any names. I’ll tell you Philip, in this area, if you put your head above the parapet and expose yourself to the NGOs and the campaigners in this area, you’ll be harassed and threatened, and not everybody wants to put themselves in this position”.
It would have been far less edifying for Bates to have had to admit that not a single Irish scientist of repute – not one – was standing with him in his Quixotic crusade against climate reality. Rather than admitting his new ‘colleagues’ were people with zero affiliation to any credible scientific institutions or research centres, Bates instead played the Victim card.
There were a number of senior Met Éireann scientists, including Evelyn Cusack and Ray McGrath in attendance as invited guests at both the Happer and Lindzen talks. Met Éireann, for the record, is Ireland’s primary climate science facility. Its Head of Forecasting, Dr Gerald Fleming was also invited to both of these ICSF meetings, but attended neither. He told me of his deep concerns when reviewing Happer’s slide set, much of which, he said, “is not science”.
Fleming is equally unhappy about the secretive nature of the ICSF, which in his view flies completely in the face of the open, enquiring and questioning nature of genuine scientific debate.
I can only wonder if the staff who did attend are also aware of the unscientific nature of much of both Lindzen and Happer’s presentations. Also, were they truly aware of the low opinion Happer holds of practising scientists?
“There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult. It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant”, he told the Guardian newspaper in February. It is probably no surprise that the patently unhinged Happer is considered a favourite for the role of Science Advisor to the Trump regime, a position now most akin to England’s seventeenth-century Witchfinder General.
Happer certainly fits in well with the profile of the misfits and mischief-makers who have coalesced around the nascent ICSF, which is coming to resemble ever more closely a poor man’s version of the morally impoverished GWPF in London.
Climate denial, in common with xenophobia, bigotry and ‘fake news’, is enjoying an unexpected hour in the sun thanks to the reality-distortion field that has sprung up around the authoritarian Trump regime.
Lousy ideas, peddled by mostly elderly, mostly white, mostly once-respected retired academics are elbowing their way into the public square, ahead of rigorous peer-reviewed material from bona fide practising experts in the field. Leaving them unchallenged subverts democracy itself.
John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim