»  Taki's Magazine

September 1st, 2011

  Al Gore's Dream of Power

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I see Al Gore's been at the sauce again.

Former vice president Al Gore recently compared climate change doubters to racists.

Gore, speaking with former advertising executive and Climate Reality Project collaborator Alex Bogusky on a UStream interview this past week, said one day climate change doubters will be looked at like racists.

Like racists! What could be worse than that?

That was Big Al's second excursion in the month of August. At the former end of the month he took on global warming deniers at an Aspen Institute forum, in a manner quite startlingly vituperative. He actually cursed at the skeptics, employing the b***s*** word, the g**d**n word, and a word that rhymes with "trap."

(I have asterisked there in deference to the tender sensibilities of TakiMag readers, who I know to be a genteel, delicate crowd.)

Why all the emotion? Either the earth is getting warmer, or it isn't. If it is, that is either a good thing, or a bad thing, or a wash good-bad-wise. If the earth is warming and this is demonstrably a bad thing, either we can do something about it, or we can't.

That the earth is warming seems to me well-established. That this is a bad thing, I haven't seen demonstrated. Some currently fertile areas might become dust-bowls; but then, some currently uninhabitable areas, especially in the Arctic, will become cultivable. Perhaps it's a wash.

Al Gore is certain that global warming is a bad thing. A terrifically bad thing: "the very existence of our civilization is threatened." If he's right, we'd better do something. Since the earth is very big and its climate hard to manipulate, the thing we'd better do would be a very, very big thing — the kind of thing only governments, perhaps even only a single world government, could manage. We're talking about something like war socialism, perhaps on a world-wide scale.

That is what gets up the noses of conservatives: the suspicion that Al Gore and his fellow climate alarmists wish, on empirically dubious grounds, to impose war socialism and/or global government on us.

From what I know of Gore, I wouldn't be surprised if that were so. The man is such a tangle of personality quirks, though, it's hard to get a secure grip on his weirdness. There's that whole business with his father, for example, which must have psychoanalysts begging for Al's patronage. Gore, Sr. farmed tobacco, voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and was chairman of a coal-mining firm: Gore, Jr. rails against smoking, racism, and fossil-fuel emissions. Uh …

Whatever is the case with Al, though, there's more to the high emotions of global-warming skeptics than hostility to war socialism or world government, worthy as those hostilities are. Just look at the comment thread on any global-warming article on a general-interest public-affairs website. There's some kind of group territory-marking going on here: "If you don't believe this, you're not one of us! …"

Climatology isn't the only arena for this hot-blooded venting on scientific topics. There are three regions of the natural world in which results gathered and assessed systematically, according to scientific method, provoke strong emotional reactions from great masses of citizens. They are, in order by how long the reactions have been around:

Science tells us that:

There isn't any reasonable doubt about any of these things. All of those last three bullet points are buttressed by masses of evidence painstakingly assembled over long periods by trained researchers.

It won't do to say that some of the scientists working in these fields are dishonest. Of course they are: In any group containing thousands of people there will be cranks, shysters, gold-diggers, opportunists, self-promoters, and nutcases. Most scientists are none of those things, though; just as most doctors, accountants, lawyers, architects, and priests are none of those things.

We thrill to let our minds dwell on bad actors: but the great majority of human beings, in science or any other sphere, are not bad actors. Practically all people, practically all the time, are trying to do the right thing. Practically all conspiracy theories are false. (You will likely get right through life with the serenity of your mind undisturbed if you just dismiss without investigation every conspiracy theory that comes to your attention. I myself do so reflexively.)

Nor will it do to say that persons who believe those last bullet points are blindly submitting to authority. Certainly "settled science" is an authority. Most of it is built up from a mass of observations and experiments that no individual could hope to replicate; so the individual has at some point to surrender his judgment to faith — faith in scientific authority.

Science is a very particular kind of authority, though; a new kind in the world from the 17th century onwards. Scientific authority is not like the authority of a drill sergeant, or a headmaster, or a dictator. Nor even is it like a religious ("It says so in the Holy Book!") or doctrinal ("Aristotle said so!") authority. It is a consensus authority, arrived at by discussion, comparison of notes, argumentation, failed debunkings, endless checking and re-checking against observed phenomena, and the elimination of ideas that match the evidence less well. Science is a social activity, open to anyone who does the training and observes the rules.

Science is in fact conservative, in a Burkean sense. It is an authority of tradition, reluctant to discard established understandings, willing to do so only if indisputable new evidence renders them untenable. Science is "catholic," not "protestant." The individual human being who, searching his private conscience, without reference to some hitherto-unconsidered body of data, finds he can no longer accept the validity of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram, has made his exit from science (or at least from astronomy).

In the case of my second bullet point in any case, key authority centers in our society are deeply hostile to the findings as I have stated them. No politician, no New York Times editorialist nor even op-ed contributor, no senior religious figure, no academic in any of the Humanities, believes the thing I stated there. The authority here is purely scientific, established by researchers in narrow sub-fields of psychology, sociology, and biology, and maintained in the teeth of hostility from political and cultural authority centers.

So why the strong emotions? Well, keeping the same order of my three bullet points:

On the first two points I'm coolly unsympathetic, being irreligious and, from familial observations as well as science reading, inclined to genetic determinism. On the third, I'm more in tune with the emoters, having no desire to live under war socialism unless someone is obviously trying to steal my country.

There's a nontrivial issue lurking there in that third bullet point, though. It may be the case that global warming is a bad thing. It may even, just possibly — I seriously doubt it, but it may be — the case that it's as bad as Al Gore thinks it is.

And that aside, there are conceivable natural disasters that would surely be as colossally awful as global warming is in Gore's mind: an asteroid might be found to be on collision course with us, the Yellowstone Caldera might pop, another Carrington Event might bring down our infrastructure, plague might make a comeback.

We know that war socialism works for winning total wars. Been there, done that. Would it work on a global scale, against a global disaster, like the one of which Al Gore dreams? We should of course hope we never have to find out, but you can't help wondering.