California legislators are considering a bill that would make debate on climate change illegal. The Orwellian-sounding Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act enables the prosecution of businesses, think thanks and academics who have ‘deceived or misled the public on the risks of climate change’.
The bill, which declares there can be no legitimate disagreement on the existence or extent of human-induced climate change, aims to combat alleged climate change ‘fraud’. The proposed law has no statute of limitations, posing serious risk to anyone who seeks to partake, or has previously partaken, in debate about climate change science.
Ironically, of course, if a general truth in climate science law was passed the first causalities would likely be Tim Flannery and Al Gore. Flannery predicted Sydney would run out of water by 2007, and that arctic ice could melt away completely by 2013. These pronouncements have proven false. Meanwhile, Gore claimed in his 2006 box-office hit, An Inconvenient Truth, that we would face ‘a true planetary emergency’ within 10 years if immediate drastic action on climate change was not taken. Ten years later rumours of our impending obliteration have been greatly exaggerated.
Nevertheless, prosecuting Gore and Flannery, or for that matter climate change sceptics, amounts to a rejection of the scientific method and Enlightenment principles of tolerance and reason. The scientific method encompasses a systematic process of observation, measurement, and experiment, to formulate, test and modify hypothesises – allowing for the cumulative and incremental development of new knowledge, based on the premise that all theories are testable, and re-testable. If we stop this process of questioning, and assume a final truth on issues, there could be no further progress. Legislating a certain theory, making it illegal to question a proposition, has just this effect. It prevents necessary continued debate and challenge that allows for ideas to be continuously refined and improved. It encourages intellectual laziness amongst proponents of anthropological climate change by removing the necessity of responding to sceptics. It also assumes people are too dumb to hear competing perspectives on an issue and make up their own mind.
This is not to question the science of climate change, but it is to acknowledge that there are elements in any theory open for debate. Data analysts should be free, for example, to question homogenisation techniques by organisations such as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Scientists should continue to debate assumptions behind models about the extent and pace of climate change. Policy makers must also be able to debate the appropriate policy responses, as well as question high-in-the-sky targets made in non-binding international negotiations.
The ‘truth’ law puts anyone who seeks to partake in such debates at risk from arbitrary truth decisions made by judges. This would inevitably stymie necessary public discussion, as anyone with a contrarian view would naturally not take the risk of speaking out.
This law treats climate change not as a scientific idea, but rather an unquestionable quasi-religious article of faith, and punishes the heretics who express a different perspective. This represents a giant leap backwards, a dismissal of hundreds of years of human progress, to a time of monarchs and the church empowering inquisitors to prosecute all those who doubt accepted truths. In the 17th century Galileo, using the telescope he invented for astronomical observations, questioned the orthodoxy that the earth is the centre of the universe. For publicising this discovery, and questioning the biblical interpretation, the church’s judicial system, the Inquisition, labelled him ‘foolish’ and ‘heretical’, and banned dissemination of his writings. After he continued to discuss his theory he was prosecuted and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
The ban on Galileo’s work was ultimately lifted after his death, and by the 19th century the church dropped opposition to the notion the earth revolves around the sun. The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, the prioritisation of logic and debate above dogma and authority, had arrived.
It is no coincidence that the Age of Reason coincides with immense human progress. The period’s fundamental values, liberty, progress, and tolerance, have enabled human flourishing. Through tolerance of difference and freedom to pursue one’s own goals, we have achieved mammoth reductions in poverty, giant leaps in life expectancy, and decreases in violence. We have the ability to communicate and access information unimaginable in the past. Meanwhile democracy has spread, and individual rights are far better protected. The world is not perfect. We are, however, far better off today than in Galileo’s time across almost every imaginable measure and criteria.
Nevertheless, we must remember that these massive leaps forward have been achieved in a society where different ideas are tolerated, not punished and forbidden. We must seek to embrace those who have different perspectives to our own; allow them to speak and challenge their ideas intellectually. It is this culture of intellectual inquiry that enables continued progress.
Yet global trends are driving the other way: it is becoming increasingly acceptable to not just advocate against ideas, but against the capacity of people to express their viewpoint altogether. While the proposed Californian law (which thankfully will not be legislated in the current session) may itself be concerning, the overall picture is horrifying.
Authoritarian governments, along with terrorists and criminals, are increasingly using violence to repress ideas. Democracies have introduced a plethora of laws against offensive speech, stymieing the voicing of legitimate opinions. Meanwhile, the very places created to explore ideas – universities – are succumbing to speech codes that declare certain concepts too offensive, ‘safe spaces’ that encourage students to lock themselves away from different perspectives, and ‘trigger warnings’ that discourage exploring difficult topics.
This growing culture of censorship is antithetical to hundreds of years of human progress. It creates a world in which people become too scared to voice certain perspectives and challenge orthodoxies. This shutting down of ideas has the potential to seriously threaten continued human progress.
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