Guest Notes

Climate notes

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

The Great Global Warming Symposium

We can now look back over the past decade and agree that ‘climate change’ has replaced the ‘war on terror’ as the dominant public policy issue in the Western world. In boardrooms, newsrooms, classrooms and party rooms climate change is ubiquitous. It’s a question of science but how we respond is the duty of government – climate change is inescapably political.

Today’s orthodox view is we must restructure our economies and lifestyles to prevent an ecological catastrophe which is nigh. Sceptics claim human-produced carbon dioxide is not the atmospheric temperature control-switch.

The last time the Western world was so divided over science was in the mid-19th century when Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species. The vague concept that over time life forms might change had been debated in academic circles for a few decades.  When Darwin unveiled the mechanism of change – natural selection – the public was understandably gripped and deeply polarised.

Seven months after publication in late 1859 a historic debate was held at Oxford University. More than 1,000 packed the hall with hundreds turned away. Darwin himself was ill and an apology but several of the leading advocates for each side duked it out.  It’s remembered as the ‘1860 Oxford Evolution Debate’ or the ‘Huxley-Wilberforce Debate’ in honour of the lead protagonists.

Thomas Huxley was from a struggling family and left school at the age of ten. He was self-taught in biology, anthropology and anatomy but so excelled he became a confidante of Darwin. At the time of the debate, Huxley was only 35 and had spent his days on field trips or huddled in the laboratory. He was a poor public speaker unfamiliar with the formalities of debating, but Huxley brought conviction and his performance would earn him the moniker ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’.

Samuel Wilberforce was 55 and the third son of William, the revered liberator. Oxford was home turf for Wilberforce – decades earlier he had been a student debating champion and was now the Bishop of Oxford. Wilberforce was regarded by all (including future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli) as one of Britain’s finest orators.

The chair of the debate was anti-Darwin and not impartial. The atmosphere was highly charged with some listeners fainting. Wilberforce ridiculed Huxley by asking if he was descended from monkeys on his mother’s or father’s side? Huxley responded, ‘I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.’ Wilberforce’s principal argument against evolution was authority: the scientific establishment of the day said Darwin was wrong so he must be. Huxley spoke plainly but appealed to the curiosity of the audience, and won. That debate at Oxford is remembered as the tipping point in shifting scientific and public opinion in favour of evolution.

2020 is the 160th anniversary of that great debate – so what a fine excuse for Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History to again be the venue for a historic showdown of the contentious scientific question of our day – climate change.

It would be a gathering of the world’s finest scientific minds representing the orthodox and the sceptical position. Some claim one side has barely any reputable scientists – which if true is great because obviously that side of phoneys would wilt before the great minds opposite and fatally discredit their cause.

The ten-day event would ask each side to nominate five broad topics related to the hard science of climate change – temperature, CO2, the sun, geological record, polar ice caps, sea levels, frequency of extreme events, etc. The sides would then take turns in having an entire day set aside to debate one of their five chosen topics. A dozen of the world’s top scientific minds (half orthodox, half sceptic) on a particular day’s topic, would then give a 20-minute ‘Ted Talk’-like presentation and then face ten minutes of rebuttal from the opposing side. The public gallery could then participate in a Q&A at the end of each day.

Academics are fully capable of fiery exchanges so besides everything else this would be good television. Perhaps an Oxford graduate, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, could be convinced to chair the proceedings. Johnson is precisely the category of person the climate change orthodoxy needs to convince – a right-of-centre national leader who has been mostly centrist in the climate change debate.

Some insist there is no need for a debate as the science is settled. If the climate change orthodoxy is correct this claim undermines a righteous cause. If the science is so overwhelming, there is only upside in publicly and thoroughly restating it. Perhaps some fear debate because the science is so esoteric and the public so dense that the science will only confuse. The response to that can only be: ‘dear scientist, you do your best to explain and we’ll do our best to keep up. We can’t go along with an all-encompassing revolution based on faith.’

Let’s assume for a moment climate change science is truly settled within the scientific community – it is not amongst the public. Across the Western democracies one of the sharpest policy differences between dominant political parties is their climate change policy. Often it is the party most in favour of a forceful response to climate change that loses the election. If the public were convinced of an impending apocalypse, democracy would work and the people would elect governments who take whatever action necessary to preserve civilisation.

There is no more powerful way to shift public opinion than a great climate change showdown at Oxford. Surely advocates of the climate change orthodoxy would be tremendously relieved to be wrong… and surely sceptics would be tremendously alarmed to be proven wrong.

The 160th anniversary is 30 June 2020.

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