Monday, September 27, 2021
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The global swarming of groupthink

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ANTHROPOGENIC Global Warming (AGW): that A-word has a really sciencey zing, doesn’t it? It sounds like the kind of jargon-terminology used in many fields to exclude the laity from the discourse, and we seem to be in a time when quibbles and nuance are systematically discouraged. It is a shame, because if only one side is permitted to speak in any argument, we risk serious error. Enter groupthink.

The late Christopher Booker’s Groupthink was published last year (edited after his death by his distinguished collaborator Dr Richard North.) This book builds on a 1972 study by Yale professor Irving Janis, using insights about group psychology to explain how the US had stumbled into one foreign and military policy disaster after another.

Groupthink has three stages: first, to become wedded to some analysis whose foundations are inadequate; secondly, to bolster one’s confidence in this shaky premise by getting others to agree and provide moral support; thirdly, to round on dissenting voices, insult them, discredit them, get them to shut up. Booker added another phase: the turning point when the collective fantasy runs face-first into unwelcome reality.

Chapter Seven deals with ‘global warming’ and discusses the pieces that don’t fit the picture on that jigsaw’s box (I wish Booker had lived to write another chapter on Covid-19!) As with other examples, enthusiasm or fear must be ramped up and heretics silenced.

Unfortunately, social media such as Facebook and Twitter have become important vectors in this process. They have a bias towards brevity so that extended argument is cast aside in favour of bald assertions, slogans, insults and very tendentious cartoons (you will recall an explosion of all these in the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote.) Site moderators interfere by sometimes dubious ‘fact-checking’ or may censor dissenters or even ban them altogether. At a higher level, the law can become involved: think of the climatologist Michael Mann, who has pursued pundit and wit Mark Steyn for years in the courts, alleging defamation because of the latter’s mockery of the former’s ‘hockey stick’ global temperature forecast.

As an aside re Covid, it has got to the stage where the medical expert Dr Malcolm Kendrick has recently decided to withdraw from the debate because ‘I am not sure I can find the truth. I do not know if it can be found any more. Today I am unsure what represents a fact, and what has simply been made up.’

The theory of AGW says that Earth’s climate is getting warmer; that the most important factor is the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, acting as a ‘greenhouse gas’ to trap more solar energy; and that it’s mostly the fault of us humans. Even the European Community admits that there is more than one greenhouse gas, but still doubles down on the claim that CO2 from human activities is the main culprit and so ‘the international community has recognised the need to keep warming well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.’

Most countries have signed up to the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, but with varying degrees of a sense of urgency: for example, China plans to continue increasing its CO2 emissions up to 2030 and become ‘carbon neutral’ at last – by 2060! To be fair, China is only 44th out of 209 nations in its per capita emissions,  but its population is huge and its total output of CO2 (2016 figures ) is by far the greatest, equalling that of the next four nations combined.

The issue has become mixed up with other political and economic dealings; the whole business of ‘carbon trading’ has been something of a fudge designed to go easy on developing economies while throttling Western countries – read this from 2010 if you would like to know more. 

There are other, competing moral panics – for example, the guilt trip over plastics use has led to calls for switching to paper and cardboard (and a plastic tax from next year – doing us good always seems to involve a tax); yet does it help the world to fell even more carbon-sequestering trees for packaging (cutting down the Amazon for Amazon?), or for ‘biomass wood pellets’ for power stations?

Global warming, even if we could stop it right now, is hardly the only thing that matters. For example, are wild species being driven to extinction simply by heat? Is not rather because we are destroying their habitats and access to the food they need? Can we ‘save the world’ (defined how?) by focusing on a single atmospheric gas? Step forward someone, anyone, with the capacity for more nuanced analysis, please!

One such is former Chancellor Lord Lawson, who launched his think-tank The Global Warming Policy Foundation a dozen years ago. This was set up to represent a range of views on AGW claims but also to try to achieve some balance between competing aims and needs. A key principle is that ‘we regard observational evidence and understanding the present as more important and more reliable than computer modelling or predicting the distant future’; the hockey stick has been stowed away, for now.

Their latest report, by Professor Ole Humlum, says that ‘based on observational data from 2020 it finds little evidence to support the idea of a “climate emergency”.’ There is little that impassioned believers hate more than a revisionist, and if you look him up on Wikipedia he and his group are termed ‘climate change denialist’;  the connotations of that last word stink of the Holocaust-deniers.

Look in Google News for more collective rubbishing of GWPF’s scepticism: Bright Green loathes Andrew Montford on GB News for his ‘scare tactics’ in outlining the cost of installing domestic heat pumps; the Ecologist hates Steve Baker for his ‘lies, damn lies and climate denial’ , as does the Guardian for his ‘attacks’; Wales Online urges us to ‘be sceptical about whether Boris Johnson really cares about climate change’ and cites the IPCC’s ‘massive assessment of how utterly our planet is screwed’. 

It’s all there, isn’t it? The personalisation of issues, the intemperate language, the desperate desire to silence opposition. Even to listen to the heretic puts one in danger of sin, as with Saint Stephen’s address to the Sanhedrin: ‘Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord.’ 

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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