Our Climate-Change Cathedral
The science of global warming is weak, but the idea is strong.


Andrew Stuttaford

A 19th-century Scottish journalist, songwriter, and poet is not an obvious guide to a 21st-century intellectual and political phenomenon, but when it comes to making sense of climate-change zealotry, there are worse choices than Charles Mackay (1812–89), the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), an acerbic, often drily amusing study of the frenzies — from witch mania to the tulip bubble — that regularly possess our supposedly sophisticated species.

“In reading the history of nations,” wrote Mackay, “we find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion and run after it.” One recurrent fantasy, he jeered, was that the last trumpet is ready to sound: “An epidemic terror of the end of the world has several times spread.”

This is not — exactly — to categorize alarm over the impact of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as just another of these prophecies of doom. The notion that a sharp, man-made increase in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could have a significant effect on the climate is infinitely more soundly based than, say, the dodgy math of a Mayan apocalypse, but that — by itself — is not enough to explain why global warming has so evidently turned out to be the right fear at the right time. To learn more about that, The Age of Global Warming: A History, an intriguing new book (released in the U.K. in March) by the British writer Rupert Darwall (full disclosure: an old friend), is a good place to turn, but read some Mackay first.

To Darwall, “the science [of global warming] is weak, but the idea is strong.” He duly discusses some of the scientific controversies that have arisen, but the underlying objection to today’s scientific consensus on AGW set out in his book is more fundamental. Like Karl Popper, perhaps the last century’s most able philosopher of science, Darwall believes that the essence of a properly scientific theory is that it is falsifiable: “It should be capable of being tested against nature and therefore [potentially] refuted by evidence. . . . The more a theory states that certain things cannot happen, the stronger the theory is.” Put another way: What would it take to persuade believers in AGW or, more important, those concerned by what it could lead to, that they are mistaken? The answer is — let’s be polite — unclear.

If it is not possible to construct a Popper-proof proof of a link between the rise in CO2 (and other greenhouse-gas) emissions and the (now, ahem, paused) increase in the planet’s temperature, then those who believe that there is such a connection are forced to rely on what is effectively a continuous poll of scientific opinion over what the data might mean. It is from this process that the much-cited consensus has emerged. That’s not as unreasonable as Darwall might think, but it is second-best science. And when, as Darwall rightly maintains, it has been tainted by the political importance of maintaining a consensus (and the consequent delegitimization of debate) it ends up as something even less than that.

But even those convinced of the reality of AGW — and the danger it could pose — should find Darwall’s book a fascinating, if uncomfortable, history of climate change as a political and intellectual phenomenon. Those who want to focus on detailed scientific debate would do better to look elsewhere, as would those itching for a rant. There are some clever, occasionally lethal, jibes, scattered throughout The Age of Global Warming, but Darwall’s work is no noisy polemic. It is calmly forensic — and deeply disturbing.  

Inevitably, Darwall is unable to resist mentioning earlier doomsayers that have got it spectacularly wrong. These include old Thomas Malthus, the Nixon era’s Club of Rome, and William Stanley Jevons (1835–82), a genuinely brilliant English economist whose best-selling The Coal Question (1865) warned that Britain was going to run out of the coal on which its economy depended. He predicted that by 1961 it would need to produce a colossal 2.2 billion metric tons a year. By the time that 1961 actually showed up, Britain’s annual coal consumption was running at less than 10 percent of that figure: Somehow the country continued to function.  To be sure, the failure of these particular forecasts does not prove that all predictions are nonsense, but they are a vivid demonstration of the need for intellectual humility and, more specifically, of the perils of extrapolation. We cannot know how human ingenuity, chance, or simply the passage of time will change what once seemed so certain. We can, of course, do our best to anticipate what is to come, but in the end, it is only a guess.

The British economist Nicholas Stern, author of the 2006 report that did so much to shackle his unfortunate country to a fundamentalist view of AGW — and what to do about it — took a rather more robust approach. He carried out a cost-benefit analysis of the problem of climate change (something that, outside the U.S., few had bothered to do), but his report’s sometimes controversial methodology had room (as Darwall records) for assumptions that ran up to 800 years in the future, a distance across time that might have made even Nostradamus hesitate. No matter; the U.K.’s establishment found Stern’s work compelling, useful, or both.

Others have been won over by a more atavistic dread. There’s no doubt that one element in the mosaic of AGW panic is a continuation of the ancient anxiety that something — food, say, or water or fuel — will run out, an anxiety created by millennia of human survival at the edge of subsistence, an anxiety that, even now, need not always be unjustified.

Another important ingredient finds its origins in thinking that developed in response to 19th-century industrialization. Romantics fretted that accelerating technological progress was taking man ever further from an imagined Arcadian idyll. Harder-headed sorts worried that the fruits of capitalism were a threat to existing social, financial, political, and religious hierarchies. To read Darwall’s deadpan account of the sometimes lunatic proto-environmentalism of the first half of the 20th century is to be reminded that today’s greenery has profoundly reactionary roots.

The old, Marx-pocked Left traditionally took a very different approach. As Darwall explains, its view of man’s relationship with nature was essentially promethean. The planet was there to be mastered by science and the proletariat. The radiant future would be secured not by the bucolic values of an Eden that never was, but by technological progress. It was only when the failure of the Communist experiment became too obvious to be ignored by its Western sympathizers that the opponents of capitalism looked for another banner around which to rally. Red shaded into green, a shift — boosted by the likes of Herbert Marcuse — that Darwall correctly sees as a key moment in the growth of environmentalism as a political force.

That the evolving environmental narrative fit in so well with currents found running through many spiritual traditions — an aspect of this saga on which Darwall could have focused more attention — also did not hurt. A tale of flawed, fallen, wasteful humanity needing to be led by an enlightened elite (step forward, Al Gore!) back to the austere path of righteousness, wisdom, sacrifice, and restraint has a clear religious resonance, as does the often apocalyptic language of environmentalist discourse and the furious reaction of some of the faithful to any dissent or, to use a more appropriate word, heresy.  

And then, of course, there is Charles Mackay’s inconvenient truth: The end of the world has long been good box office.

Mix these elements together and then throw in the warming trend seen in the last quarter of the 20th century and it becomes easier to understand why, once the moment came, AGW won so much acceptance so quickly. Borrowing from an observation made by the British philosopher and mathematician A. N. Whitehead (1861–1947), Darwall argues that an idea “works slowly before mankind suddenly finds it embodied in the world. It builds cathedrals before the workmen have moved a stone. So it [was] with global warming.” Environmentalists were already predisposed to believe the worst about what hydrocarbons could do.   

It was not only the intellectual infrastructure that was in place. Darwall shows how a small, curiously influential group of the unelected — including the annoying Canadian Maurice Strong (the “international man of mystery,” of an old National Review cover story) and Barbara Ward, a pushy, devoutly Roman Catholic, devoutly left-wing former foreign editor of The Economist — had been working to drive the environment up the international agenda since the 1960s. These were typically cleverer-than-thou command-and-control sorts, sometimes, tellingly, with a touch of the mystic about them (Fritz “Small Is Beautiful” Schumacher included astrology in his large collection of spiritual enthusiasms). They truly trembled for the environment (by the early 1970s, Ward was predicting that we’d be pretty lucky to make it to 2000), but they also saw environmentalism as a gateway through which technocratic controls could pour. Better still, the fact that environmental problems often seep across national borders could be used as an argument for supranational regulation, something that fit in nicely with their vision of a world increasingly run from Turtle Bay, by — pass the Dom Pérignon — people very much like themselves.