Global-warming deniers and climate change ideologues – Part One: Basic Questions

Baker ridicules the concept of “scientific consensus”. It is true that the scientific community does not operate in a vacuum and that it is very often subject to pressures of politics, religion, social rules, prejudices and also directly from the market. But this does not invalidate the concept of scientific consensus altogether.

"When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. [Global warming] is the greatest market failure the world has seen."
(Nicholas Stern, former Chief Economist of the World Bank)

"[...] opponents of inoculation, supporters of abstemiousness, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, nature-healers, free-community preachers whose communities have fallen to pieces, authors of new theories on the origin of the universe, unsuccessful or unfortunate inventors, victims of real or imaginary injustice who are termed ‘good-for-nothing pettifoggers' by all bureaucracy, honest fools and dishonest swindlers
- all throng to the working-class parties in all countries
[...]"
(Friedrich Engels, On the History of Early Christianity)

"Far from arguing for limiting consumption, we do indeed believe in a society of superabundance, but point out too that this can only be achieved by the pooling and planning of the world's resources. This task can only be completed by a socialist society."
(Phil Mitchinson on Marxist.com)

The contribution by Brian J. Baker, published as a "discussion document" on Marxist.com with the title Global Warming: A Socialist Perspective [1][2][3][4], has raised a good deal of controversy[5][6], and with good reason.

The four-part article by Baker attempts to demonstrate that anthropogenic climate change is a myth, that no global warming is occurring, and that socialists should approach this problem with the following attitude: it's "an obscure scientific curiosity [...] become the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today", "a further method of keeping the working class in its place", and in any case "Warming is something that should be welcomed instead of feared".

In a nutshell, global warming is a myth forged by a worldwide capitalist conspiracy in order to impose frugality on the working class; the Left should oppose any measure taken to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions because they just slow down progress and therefore the well-being of the proletariat, while the bosses enrich themselves. There is a contradiction here in Brian J. Baker's argumentation: how can they enrich themselves by consciously slowing down the economic development?

A debate is useful

Apart from Brian Baker and his unfortunate article, many other people on the Left do feel that there is something wrong in the way the TV and mass media are presenting this issue. The capitalists promote consumerism but then preach austerity. Their factories pollute our cities and destroy the health of millions of workers but then they abruptly turn "green". The politicians wage wars and endorse national and racial hatred but at the same time they want us to believe that all of a sudden they will unite and tackle this Herculean challenge. How can conscious workers and youth trust them? The answer of course is that they should not.

In the last decade, on Marxist.com[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16] and many other websites and journals in several languages[17][18][19][20][21] the International Marxist Tendency has consistently supported the position that anthropogenic climate change is probably a fact but at the same time we always rejected the various forms of bourgeois ("Capitalism will solve the problem") and petty-bourgeois ("Save the planet by stopping economic growth") ideologies that usually accompany this scientific idea.

With this article I intend to show that:

  • There is no scientific evidence so far in favour of global-warming denial. Baker's article is useful because it lists nearly all the arguments used by different subgroups within this unscientific trend and each of them can be more or less easily debunked. As long as they base their polemics on pseudo-science and generous funding by oil and coal corporations and right-wing lobbies, global-warming deniers should not be trusted by socialists.
  • Conspiracy theory and Marxism are incompatible. In any case, there is absolutely no conspiracy going on to silence the proponents of alternative views on climate change. Instead, they have received for years, and are still receiving, a disproportionate coverage from the media and disproportionate support from politicians (usually from the Right).
  • Marxism cannot embrace the theory that "we are all responsible for global warming" and therefore "we all must make sacrifices to save the planet". This is in fact a political ideology that is being superimposed on the facts in order to exploit the crisis caused by the ruling class... in the interests of the ruling class - with some good help from green petty-bourgeois radicalism.
  • Fossil-fuelled capitalism, not economic development as such, is a non-sustainable system and climate change is further proof of its shortcomings. A worldwide society based on superabundance can be brought into being, but not without abolishing the private property of the means of production.
  • It is rational to act to slow down climate change, but capitalism is not going to do that. Carbon emission trade is just a fraud, biofuels have appalling side effects, and fiscal measures miss the point.
  • Humankind must prepare to adapt to live on a planet that changes, and the best way to do that is to abolish the national borders and to plan the economy in a democratic and centralised way on an international scale.
  • It is time for the International Marxist Tendency, and for the international workers' movement as a whole, to start to develop a programme of transitional demands to defend the toilers of this planet in the face of the gigantic problems posed by climate change.

This will, hopefully, justify devoting so much space to countering Brian's effort to deal with the question. And it is a good opportunity to restate some important ideas.

Scientific consensus

Baker's article ridicules the argument about "scientific consensus". Is it important to know what the current scientific consensus about climate change is? Of course, truth is not "democratic": one billion people can be wrong and one individual can be right. Innumerable great scientists were initially mocked for their ideas, isolated and rather often victimised, only to be recognised as geniuses later, sometimes post mortem. This was the case with Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin and others; however, this was also notably not the case with Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein (the latter did not have immediate success, but the viability of his ideas was soon recognised, even though he was later to be persecuted for being a Jew and a Socialist and his ideas blindly rejected by Nazi Germany). However long it may have taken, in all of these cases the superiority of more correct positions was eventually established and scientific consensus was formed.

Ideas that are still unacceptable to official society, such as Marxism, are still marginalised in ways that have nothing to do with the scientific method whatsoever. Nevertheless, Marxists believe that Marxism will also eventually prevail over opposing theories and acquire consensus. It will later evolve into even more precise, detailed and broad theories of history and society, like Newtonian physics was replaced/integrated with relativity dynamics, the Darwin/Mendel evolutionary theory was added to by molecular genetics and ecology etc.

Of course the scientific community does not operate in a vacuum but is very often subject to pressures coming from the sphere of ideology (politics, religion, social rules, prejudices) and directly from the market. But this does not invalidate the concept of scientific consensus altogether.

The concept of scientific consensus is not only useful in practice; it is also progressive from a theoretical point of view. It recognises that science is a collective effort to approach objective reality and therefore its conclusions have to be drawn collectively. To reach this result in an effective way, scientific debate must be free, fair and respectful of other people's opinions - which is usually not the case under capitalism!

"Free" means no ostracising against bona fide "contrarians". "Fair" means equal initial opportunities to access funding. "Respectful" means that prestige and hierarchy should not play a role in determining the outcome of a dispute.

When a relatively stable, genuine consensus has been obtained, then it is absolutely correct to use its results as a temporary and partial truth. This does not mean to deny that everything humans can say is just theory, but there are theories supported by more evidence and theories supported by less evidence - or by no evidence at all. The general public (and especially the youth) should be taught that everything they learn can some day be proven wrong, but this cannot imply that, for example, Darwinism and Creationism should be taught on the same level in schools. Not even Wikipedia works like that!

It is not by chance that people proposing reactionary claptrap such as biological racism, Holocaust denial, astrology, pro-Fascist historical revisionism, usually refuse the concept of scientific consensus and its natural consequence - the process of formation of generally accepted points of view based on scientific evidence.

In a way, the arguments against the very concept of scientific consensus could as well be applied against socialism and planned economy (and also democracy in general!). A planned economy is basically an economy where a sort of scientific consensus from below is attained on every key decision. A workers' democracy is based on the scientific method applied to social engineering, with the involvement of the masses at every level with the purpose of reaching a general consensus.

Science in turn should work more like a workers' democracy, where everyone has the possibility of developing and expressing a position and convincing the majority on the base of a serious discussion, rather than what we have with the capitalist "free market", where each individual pursues his own interests trying to crush the others without any co-ordination, fair play and common base. The latter form of competition eventually leads to the formation of monopolies, virtually abolishing any form of pluralism.

When scientific consensus becomes a monopoly that silences all opposing views, it is correct to denounce it, but that fortunately is not always the case. As a matter of fact, most scientists (not only big names, there are scores of researchers and ordinary teachers that live on a worker's wage) are serious people and do their best to follow scrupulously the principles of the scientific method. We, as scientific socialists, consider them potential allies in the fight to establish rationality in economic production as well as in theoretical knowledge.

Current consensus on climate change

Deniers very often make a straw man of the mainstream position on climate change, representing it as a caricature of the actual position endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body set up by the United Nations whose conclusions are supported by the overwhelming majority of the world's scientific bodies.

The last IPCC assessment (AR4) predicts the following:

  • The average global temperature in the 2090-2099 decade is likely to be higher than the average global temperature in the 1980-1999 interval. How much higher depends on which of six realistic scenarios will come true. In the best scenario, there is a 66% likelihood that the temperature rise will be between 1.1 and 2.9°C. In the worst scenario, the range is between 2.4 and 6.4°C.
  • The temperature range corresponding to the best scenario also corresponds to an expected rise in sea level by 18 to 38 cm. For the worst scenario it is 26 to 59 cm. This does not include the effects of "rapid dynamical changes in ice flow".
  • There is a more than 90% chance that there will be more frequent warm spells, heat waves and heavy rainfall and a more than 66% chance that there will be an increase in droughts, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides.

As anybody can see, the predictions are very cautious about precise figures. This destroys any foundation for all of Baker's sarcasm about how the IPCC is trying to fabricate exact prophecies out of models heavily prone to approximation and unpredictability. But the point is: should we abandon any research on this very serious issue because in the end there are still a few chances that nothing much will happen? Does the data set any alarm bells ringing in our minds?

This is not alarmism but rational planning of risk management, something that unfortunately capitalism does not do very often! Socialists have no reason to oppose the introduction of some long-sightedness into a world dominated by short-term egoistic speculation.

The 2007 assessment also states that:

  • In the last few decades, average global temperature and sea levels have displayed an upward trend while the snow cover in the Boreal Hemisphere has shown a decreasing trend as illustrated by the following graph:

Figure 1

  • The IPCC is 90% confident that the global average temperature has grown since 1950, mostly because of the greenhouse-gas emission caused by human society. Greenhouse gases are not just carbon dioxide, but also methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, etc. However, other factors have given a positive or negative contribution to the temperature trend, as shown by the following graph:

Figure 2

Clearly, nothing is being hidden here. Negative effects are taken into account, as "model uncertainty" of course. The level of confidence of the scientific community in their knowledge of the mechanisms regulating the behaviour of each contribution is honestly declared in the column furthest to the right (LOSU). Incidentally, we can note that there is no anthropogenic dogma: a natural factor like solar irradiance is declared by the IPCC to be the most important factor after greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Nevertheless, its role is dwarfed by the one played by pollution.[22][23]

The IPCC position enjoys overwhelming support from all significant scientific bodies of the world. The only exception until 2007 was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists; the reason is quite clear from a Marxist point of view: this organisation suffers from very heavy pressure from the US oil lobby. Apparently, this pressure was exercised especially on the top bureaucrats of the Association that later abandoned their ambiguous position because of an opposite pressure from the "rank and file". The AAPG is now supportive of the IPCC findings. [24]


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