The truth will not necessarily out

The debate about the reality of global warming is not going away

For years, climate-change activists such as myself have been fond of asserting that "the time for debate on global warming is over - and the time for action is now". But the debate hasn't ended, despite our attempts to suggest otherwise: it rages on. And its contin uation raises fundamental questions, not just about the effect that humankind might have on the atmosphere, but about the nature of science, reason and democracy itself.

Here in Britain, the ever-controversial Channel 4 weighed in on 8 March with a film by Martin Durkin, provocatively titled The Great Global Warming Swindle. In New York, just over a week later, National Public Radio organised an Oxford Union-style spat between the climate scientists Gavin Schmidt, Richard Somerville and Brenda Ekwurzel, and the climate sceptics Richard Lindzen (also a scientist), the novelist Michael Crichton and the retired geographer Philip Stott. The transcript makes depressing reading: according to the voting roster, the net result was that there were fewer people convinced about global warming at the end of the debate than there were at the beginning.

Liberals such as myself tend to assume that debates are always a good thing: that if enough facts can be marshalled in support of a particular case, then the truth will out. It is this assumption that drives us to write books and talk on the radio about important issues such as global warming. "If everyone knew what I know," is the underlying mental reasoning, "everyone would think like me." Wrong. Competing world-views will determine different stances on an issue, particularly where "facts" are disputed. Moreover, argu ments about science may simply be obscuring debates about something far more fundamental.

As Gavin Schmidt pointed out in the New York debate: "Creationists have argued that the eye is too complex to have evolved - not because they care about the evolution of eyes, but because they see the implications of evolution as somehow damaging to their world-view." And he concludes, rightly: "If you demonstrate the evolution of eyes, their world-view won't change. They'll just move on to something else."

In Channel 4's case, Durkin has amply de-monstrated his antipathy to environmentalism in previous programmes, and most of his interviewees have similar track records. Despite the graphs, none of this has much to do with greenhouse gases: what is happening is that a scientific debate has become politicised - or perhaps a political debate has become scientised.

So does this mean that objective truth - or at least its closest approximation - is impossible to discover via the scientific method? I would argue not, though such relativism is obviously appealing to the postmodernists who run Channel 4. Indeed, without core scientific principles - the possibility of falsification, the repeatability of experiments, the open sharing of data, and so on - we are left with little more than faith and assertion. Indeed, scientists such as Schmidt do strive to be values-free, objective and rational, and base their claim to credibility on this: "We are scientists, we talk about science, and we're not going to start getting into questions of personal morality and wider political agendas," he writes on the RealClimate blog.

But, for non-scientists such as myself, that claim would be more than a little disingenuous. While my latest book, Six Degrees, is a review of the science, and is in my opinion an honest assessment of the state of the expert literature, I cannot deny that my concern about global warming is rooted in a world-view that sees a planet overexploited by humans, and that this world-view long predates any knowledge I now have about climatology.

I should also admit that on occasion I have been quite happy to resort to the kind of tactics used by today's climate sceptics - when battling the introduction of genetically engineered crops a few years ago, for example, I constantly asserted that science had been distorted by financial interests. Today, when I hear the same arguments used to undermine the credibility of climate scientists, I explode with righteous fury. (In my defence, the two things aren't directly comparable: GM was the introduction of a new technology with inherent risks; while climate science seeks to identify the risks inherent in modifying the atmosphere's chemistry as a result of burning fossil fuels.)

But the last word should go to a Swiss correspondent on the RealClimate site, who pointed out why such science-about-values debates - such as that between climate scientists and sceptics, or worse, environmentalists and sceptics - are essentially pointless.

"In a field where uncertainties are everywhere around," writes Urs Neu, "it is much easier to confuse people than to convince them." So unfortunately my liberal assumption is probably wrong: the truth will not necessarily out, and debates are not always beneficial to those who seek it. In a democracy, appeals to public ignorance may be just as successful as appeals to public wisdom.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.