Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Assumptions and the locust years

Andy Myles
Sometimes disagreements come because we don't understand or acknowledge the assumptions which are contained the arguments of the other side.  This post is occasioned by a conversation with a Green councillor and another conversation with Andy Myles who led a fringe meeting at the Scottish Conservative Conference last week.

What struck me was how strong convictions (Andy is the Parliamentary Officer for the Scottish Environmental Link) conceal assumptions about what underpins beliefs.

In both cases I was up for engaging with the assumptions on some of their core beliefs using evidence.  In the case of Andy's seminar, as soon as I mentioned an alternative critique to the Stern Report he dismissed the Peter Lilley and Richard Tol report out of hand as something he was not going to engage with because - well, there was no reason given  - other than the Stern Report was from an expert and anything else would go against 'the vast majority of scientists'.  I find this total absence of curiosity strange, especially as I find myself asking at least every week if I have understood the evidence on climate thus far correctly. 

Now, doubt is not necessarily a good  thing, but critical self examination is.

For my Green councillor colleague, almost certainly the most intelligent, measured and affable of the clutch of Greens on the council, I was taken aback by the our discussion.  In the context of his assumptions on climate the possible benefits of shale gas (reducing emissions) came into the discussion.  It was remarkable to hear him rehearse uncritically the same old arguments about water contamination, earthquakes, fossil fuels etc. so uncritically and, to my surprise, superficially.

And Caroline Lucas, the Green MP has some very big assumptions I would contend with.  I read her preface to the Green Party report, The New Home Front, in which she, with the usual apocalyptic, sky-about-to-fall-on-our-head language, made huge assumptions about changes under way in our climate and how we must control them.  The assumption, as always, is that human driven climate change is dangerous.  Although I consider there may well be a human influence on climate, the hard evidence that it is significant and dangerous is remarkably thin.  Certainly there are uncertainties.  Yet  Green assumptions are used as the basis of a huge swathe of public policy.   

In The New Home Front, Churchill's description of the 30s as 'the locust years' - where the chance to re-arm against an enemy was eaten up by wasted years - the Greens see the parallels in our inaction and failure to take measures to control the climate.  Yet the assumptions behind huge swathes of public policy are short of any scientific basis.

Rather, the huge swathes of public policy and resources, devoted to what is unquestionably turning out to be a a Canute like attempt to stop inevitable changes in climate, are the real locust years. To use another apt metaphor, we are tilting at windmills, like Don Quixote seeing imaginary threats in every shadow that appears before us. 

Yes, these are the locust years, not because we have failed to act but because we have over reacted on the basis of blind faith rather than sound scientific evidence. Thus has the environmental locust eaten our confidence in real evidence, public policy and the scientific endeavour.  And the plague of environmental locusts has also eaten up a good deal of our prosperity and well being.


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