Menu Close

Climate change and the soothing message of luke-warmism

Relax and have a drink, old chap; the planet has managed to look after itself so far without any fuss. Flickr/cyclonebill

We are familiar with the tactics, arguments, and personnel of the denial industry. Yet there is a perhaps more insidious and influential line of argument that is preventing the world from responding to the warnings of climate science.

“Luke-warmists” may be defined as those who appear to accept the body of climate science but interpret it in a way that is least threatening: emphasising uncertainties, playing down dangers, and advocating a slow and cautious response.

They are politically conservative and anxious about the threat to the social structure posed by the implications of climate science. Their “pragmatic” approach is therefore alluring to political leaders looking for a justification for policy minimalism.

Among the notable US luke-warmists are Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. They have been accused of misrepresenting data on the energy savings of investment in energy efficiency and have criticized almost every proposed measure to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Their Institute has allied itself with anti-climate science organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute.

Another prominent luke-warmist is Roger Pielke Jr, a scientist who was bracketed by Foreign Policy journal with well-known deniers such as Richard Lindzen and Christopher Monckton in its guide to climate sceptics.

Daniel Sarewitz has a track record of attacking climate science, accusing it of mixing politics and values with factual analysis. In the UK, Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, has branched out with a peculiar and incoherent argument about science being based on values and ideology.

The effect of luke-warmers’ contributions has been to sow doubt in the public mind about the credibility of the scientific warnings and the need to respond, just as Exxon-funded think tanks have.

Perhaps the pre-eminent luke-warmist is the Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, who gained notoriety because his claim to be an environmentalist who had seen the light made him a poster boy of the conservative media. (That he was young, gay and Scandinavian only added to his value as a defector.) Nowadays Lomborg does not reject the principal conclusions of climate science but works assiduously to water down their implications and to boost “sensible” and cautious economic solutions that would allow continued exploitation of fossil fuels. In short he favours adapting to any change in the climate rather than trying to prevent it.

Hip and luke-warm: Bjorn Lomborg. Flickr/Mat McDermott

Although more high-brow and nuanced than literal deniers, the lines of argument of luke-warmists are remarkably similar. In 2010 several leading luke-warmists—including Nordhaus, Schellenberger, Pielke, Sarewitz, Hulme, and Oxford University anthropologist Steve Rayner—came together at Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, UK, to write a paper advocating a “new direction for climate policy”.

The Hartwell paper claims to present a “radical” alternative to the failed UN process, although why the authors felt it necessary to describe a slow, cautious and conservative approach to climate policy as “radical” is a puzzle.

The paper begins by repeating allegations that the “Climategate” emails suggest that climate scientists cannot be trusted. The authors drew this conclusion before the string of official inquiries that vindicated the science and exonerated the scientists. Others, noting the emails had been selectively released just before the Copenhagen conference, smelt a rat and reserved judgement.

The Hartwell authors seem to have fallen for the Climategate spin because they wanted it to be true. They were also taken in by the campaign in the Murdoch press to undermine the IPCC by accepting uncritically alleged errors in its reports. Errors in IPCC reports, they opined, are proof of the need to “restore trust in expert organizations” even though none of the claimed errors, manufactured by deniers in all but one case, dented the body of knowledge.

Following the deniers’ lead, the Hartwell authors emphasize the “inherent unknowability” and “systematic doubt” in the body of scientific knowledge. They express misgivings about the desirability of investments in renewable energy, referring to their “chilling history” and “serious financial and social consequences”, a theme pursued by the Breakthrough Institute and more recently taken up by Tea Party Republicans.

Hartwell House, a lovely setting for “a relaxed and amused frame of mind” about the global climate. Flickr/Mick Baker(rooster)

Climate tranquilizer

The purpose of the Hartwell report is to administer a bromide to the climate policy debate, a kind of sedative to slow the world down, dispensed at a time when those with most scientific expertise are saying the evidence calls for urgent action.

While climate research rings the alarm bells ever more loudly, the Hartwell authors argue the “best line of approach” to global warming would be to adopt the design principle for English country gardens developed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. They express their approach to climate policy this way:

After allowing the visitor a glimpse of his destination, the driveway would veer away to pass circuitously and delightfully through woodland vistas, through broad meadows with carefully staged aperçus of waterfalls and temples, across imposing bridges spanning dammed streams and lakes, before delivering the visitor in a relaxed and amused frame of mind, unexpectedly, right in front of the house.

What, one wonders, would a sweating Bangladeshi rice farmer facing a sea-level rise in the Ganges delta make of such complacency, penned by 12 white men sitting comfortably in an English country house? Perhaps it was the port that put them in “a relaxed and amused frame of mind”.

To be accurate, I should say “twelve white men plus one woman and one Japanese man”. The last is from the Japanese Iron and Steel Federation which, along with the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association, helped to finance the retreat. The only woman, Canadian economist Isabel Galiana, is a favourite of Bjorn Lomborg.

Instead of the “failed” policies of the past, the Hartwell authors argue for a series of policies aimed at social benefits other than reducing carbon emissions, because tackling the problem directly would “injure economic growth, which we think … is politically impossible with informed democratic consent”.

Here we get to the conservative heart of the luke-warmist position. For them the prevailing economic system is sacred, and any change must work around it. “Growth is sacrosanct” is another rendering of President George H.W. Bush’s celebrated declaration at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: “The American way of life is not negotiable.”

Invoking the conservatism of the voting public is no more than a projection of the Hartwell authors’ own predilections, for informed citizens have frequently consented to policies that “injure economic growth”. A moment’s thought reveals a legion of them, even if the changes were fiercely resisted by business interests and their intellectual apologists.

The 40-hour week, the abolition of child labour, vehicle pollution laws, trade barriers erected for ethical reasons, bans on uranium exports, investment restrictions on odious regimes, and caps on carbon emissions in Europe—all policies that reduced economic growth yet received informed democratic consent.

The more one reads the more the Hartwell political analysis appears to be conservative prejudice dressed up as historical fact. The paper purports to be a social analysis, yet nowhere in its discussion of the difficulty of implementing carbon abatement policies is the influence of the fossil fuel lobby mentioned. In Hartwell House power is invisible.

To exclude the most crucial force that has slowed action on climate change is quirky, until it dawns on us that the essential aim of the Hartwell paper is to defend the status quo from the destabilization due to a changing climate. Those who argue the case for a tranquil and circuitous response to global warming must somehow silence the clang of the tocsin being rung by the climate scientists, and that is what the Hartwell authors attempt with their “relax and smell the roses” approach.

When fossil-fuel funded think tanks set out in the 1990s to sow doubt about climate science their assumed audience was the great unwashed. They could not have hoped to deceive a room full of intellectuals such as those gathered at Hartwell House. No wonder the Hartwell paper has been greeted warmly on climate denier websites.

One last element of the Hartwell group’s defence of the prevailing order is accidentally revealing. They reject the framing of the climate debate around the notion of “human sinfulness”. Although advanced as a criticism of environmentalism, it actually reveals their own reluctance to concede that climate change is a moral problem embedded in the institutions and everyday behaviours of the established system.

To agree with environmental critics that our social and economic system—its power structure, its inherent goals, the forms of behaviour it endorses—could so damage the Earth that our future, and that of the system itself, is now in peril would require them to discard their essential faith in the benevolence of the status quo.

Comments welcome below.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,200 academics and researchers from 4,898 institutions.

Register now