There is a certain mindset in politics which distrusts expertise. That mindset is presently revealing itself in Australia, where last week a small group of conservative MPs held the then Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, hostage over climate policy.
Turnbull’s centre-right Liberal party had pledged to reduce emissions from Australia’s energy companies more than a quarter (from 2005 levels) by 2030, a key part of its efforts to meet its international obligations.
But several of his own MPs, led by his predecessor Tony Abbott, forced him into a climbdown by threatening to vote against the legislation.
Internal Liberal party politics are one thing. But the symbolism of the gesture is telling. Australia is a country where environmental damage is obvious.
Yet for large parts of the political class, and the people who vote for them, climate change is seen as a scam perpetrated by liberal, anti-business scientists.
One in five Australians, a poll last year showed, believe that climate change is a “hoax.” Another poll in 2015 declared that Australia was the most climate-sceptical nation on Earth.
Abbott himself has said that the “settled science” of climate change is “absolute crap” and that efforts to reduce its impact are like “killing goats to appease the volcano gods.” Another politician, the anti-immigration populist Malcolm Roberts, has clashed with scientist Brian Cox, claiming that Nasa data was “manipulated” to make climate change appear worse than it was.
For the record, climate change is not a hoax. There is some debate over how extreme the warming will be, but the warming so far has been within predicted levels. Nasa has not been falsifying data. This is conspiratorial, anti-scientific nonsense.
But anti-scientific nonsense is extremely appealing at the populist fringes of politics. In the US, President Donald Trump has also called climate change a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese, and has been filling the Environmental Protection Agency with climate skeptics, including former chief Scott Pruitt, now resigned amid multiple ethics scandals.
British politics has its own share of climate sceptics led by the right. And the left is not innocent — Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, once signed a parliamentary motion supporting the pseudoscientific alternative medicine homeopathy. The Green Party is anti-nuclear and anti-genetically modified organisms.
What all these positions have in common is a distrust of what “the experts” are saying — the relevant scientists who are almost uniformly convinced that climate change is real, human-made and dangerous; that vaccines are safe and highly effective; that homeopathy is ineffective, and that nuclear power and GMOs are important tools for powering and feeding the world.
Populism offers simple, intuitive alternatives to complex, messy reality. For example, immigrants or the EU are behind all your problems; get rid of them and it’ll all be OK. That makes populism almost directly opposed to science.
Scientific truths are complex. Understanding how an invisible, harmless gas can trap heat in the atmosphere because of its molecular shape is not easy.
Science deals in uncertainty, and in often counter-intuitive fact. “Climate change is not dangerous; it’s a liberal hoax” is a more reassuring message than “climate change is real and going to make things much worse.” It’s also easier to understand. The only drawback is that it’s false. The public may have had enough of experts, but as the winter bushfires in Australia show, that doesn’t mean the experts are wrong. —CNN