Friday, 11 July 2008

Is Global Warming a Left-Right Issue?

The classification of opinions as being "left-wing" or "right-wing" seems less fashionable these days than it once was but one area in which we regularly see people using these labels to denounce their opponents is the ever entertaining global warming debate. I want to examine one example of the attachment of the label "left-wing" to see whether it throws any light on the substance of the debate.

The example I will use is an accusation I see made quite regularly - that the IPCC, the UN, the EU and Al Gore are part of a socialist consipracy to overthrow international capitalism and subjugate the world to rule by totalitarian leftist diktat (to keep things manageable I will refer to the UN only in what follows).

It seems to me that such a view could be held before one has heard or read anything about the global warming debate or it could be formed as a result of the debate itself. If the view is held before one is exposed to the debate it could be either a concluded view or a presumption. If it is a concluded view then nothing in the debate itself can change it. On the other hand, if it is a presumption it could be rebutted by exposure to the debate.

That, of itself, tells us little of the effect of the presumption on the mind of the presumer. By definition presumptions can only be rebutted by evidence of sufficient weight to counter-act the weight of the presumption itself. When you are dealing with an individual applying a presumption it is necessary to know how he views that presumption. Can it be displaced by a moderate weight of evidence or do you need to utterly persuade him of the contrary before he will change his mind? One can often answer that question by examining the presumption itself. The nature of the presumption in this example is extreme - that there is a conspiracy to overthrow the established economic order - and it hard to see how anyone could form that view unless they were persuaded strongly by past events that the allegation is justified. Of itself that will tend to make a presumption to that effect a very strong presumption. In other words, someone who approaches the subject by applying that presumption will almost certainly require very powerful evidence that there is a reason other than the desire to overthrow the established order behind anything the UN does.

From this we can conclude that anything said against the anthropomorphic global warming theory by someone who entered the debate holding that view of the UN is likely to be influenced by his preconception. We bear that in mind when we assess how much weight we give to his opinions. It makes us less likely to accept what he says because we think "from his starting point, he would say that wouldn't he?"

In theory the position is different if someone only formed that extreme view of the UN after listening to the global warming debate. In that situation the criticism levelled at the UN is a conclusion from the debate not a preconception about it. We might be inclined give more weight to this person's criticism because we see him as someone who entered the debate with an open mind and was so swayed by what he heard that he drew an extreme conclusion about the motives behind one party to the debate. Nonetheless, the fact that he drew an extreme conclusion might make us treat him with caution because there is no difference in substance between drawing that conclusion from the UN's stance in the global warming debate and drawing it, prior to the global warming debate, from the UN's stance on any other issues. Our response is likely to be "that's a harsh conclusion, how can he justify it?"

I suggest that the mere fact that someone denounces the UN's stance on global warming as being part of a conspiracy is likely to cause most people to look with great circumspection at that person's analysis in the debate itself. If he entered the debate espousing that view we ask ourselves whether his preconception has skewed his conclusions and, therefore, examine his analysis more closely. If he entered the debate without that view but formed it during the debate we ask whether it is a fair and balanced conclusion to draw and, therefore, examine his analysis more closely. In either event we treat his analysis of every part of the debate - whether man is causing warming, what the consequences are, what can be done about it and what the consequences are of the cure - with a more critical eye than if we were examining the conclusions put forward by someone who did not seek to attribute a sinister motive to those with whom he disagrees.

The same approach can be applied to those who throw out other labels to seek to discredit their opponents - "liberal", "neo-con", "sheep", "fascist". Rational debate is about assessing facts and assessing the substance of arguments. Labels and insults both detract and distract from the debate and they cast doubt on the objectivity of the labeller. This does not mean that subjective matters are irrelevant, however, because only part of the global warming debate has an objective element, the science.

There has been such a concentration on the science that we seem, at times, to have ignored the rest of the debate and concluded that if the science supports the AGW theory we must do what Mr Gore tells us must be done. The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise. In order to reach that conclusion it is necessary to examine whether the steps Mr Gore tells us to take will alleviate the problem and, if so, whether those steps themselves are a price worth paying. That is a value judgment and is, therefore, a political issue. It is at this stage that global warming becomes a left-right issue, not before.

No comments: