'I wouldn’t be here if you were a climate denier'.
This was William Skeaping, spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion (ER), talking to Toby Young on The Spectator podcast. That statement tells us much about the environmental pressure group’s tactics and strategy. It also reveals that, in the battle behind the climate war, Extinction Rebellion has already won.
‘Deny’ these ‘truths’ and we will simply refuse to talk to you. You will be nothing to us. That's the message from ER. Skeaping’s words were a neat framing of his movement’s preconditions for engaging in debate. The terms would seem to be these: agree that the future of life on the planet is in danger as a result of rising global temperatures; agree that this is caused by CO2 emissions; and agree that the solution to this is a de-carbonisation of the economy. And then we can talk.
Further evidence of this successful positioning of the argument could be found on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, where Emma Bartlett chaired a discussion between another ER representative Sarah Lunnon and IPCC report author Myles Allen. The issues at hand were the degree of urgency and the appropriate language to describe it – not the basic scientific facts. It was a bit like a Brexit debate where the choice is essentially between Remain – and Remain.
Such media encounters might lead the casual viewer to conclude that the problem with ER is their overheated rhetoric, some exaggerated warnings and the disruption they have caused on the streets of London and elsewhere. Yet there seems to be little indication or suggestion that their basic thesis may be in any way flawed.
Yet many would argue that it is. There is a large group of renowned scientists who dispute some of the fundamentals of the man-made climate change prospectus and what it might mean for the planet. Here is a selection: Ivar Giaever; Don Easterbrook; William Happer; David Legates; Judith Curry; Richard Lindzen; Patrick Moore; James Lovelock; Freeman Dyson; Piers Corbyn; Matt Ridley; Timothy Ball; Ian Plimer.
These people aren’t cranks or oil company shills. They are men of real substance and integrity. Some are giants in their respective fields. Their scientific credentials are easily established and undisputable; Giaever won the Nobel prize for physics in 1973. And they are not a small group of refuseniks; there are many, many more.
They represent a range of diverse but overlapping views. They include those that question the accuracy of the data used to make apocalyptic climate prophesies; those who believe that current warming is natural; those who believe it is partially man-made but that the effects are grossly exaggerated; and those that believe the rate of temperature rises is unusual but the result of solar, rather than human activity. Some simply think the evidence is not clear enough to make any definitive conclusions.
And all might be described by Skeaping and his friends as ‘deniers’, the heavily loaded quasi-religious term that ER use to describe anyone who harbours an iota of doubt about man-made global warming.
This calculating use of language is telling, and ominous. ‘Deniers’ were, until quite recently, referred to as sceptics. But that term is being slowly but successfully expunged from the language. Don't believe me? Try searching for ‘Climate change scepticism’ on Wikipedia and you are directed to the ‘climate change denial’ page instead.
It’s surely not alarmist to imagine ‘Climate change sceptic’ soon being eradicated entirely or designated as a modern equivalent of ‘Oldspeak’, the term George Orwell’s used in the novel 1984 for proscribed language. The purpose of banning language is to control thought; and as the word 'sceptic' acknowledges legitimate doubt and invites open rational debate (‘I’m sceptical, convince me’), it represents a clear danger to those seeking to set the parameters and control the flow of any discussion of the climate change question.
What's more, as a supplementary benefit, ‘denier’ is a much more forceful and evocative term. After all, what other kind of ‘deniers’ are there?
Extinction Rebellion may not have quite managed to close down London over the last week, but there are worrying signs that they are managing to close down open and rational debate of an important issue. As ER leader Roger Hallam put it in his HardTalk interview with Stephen Sackur, ‘Extinction Rebellion have changed the debate on climate change’. He's right. And in the long run, that could turn out to be a far greater victory.