First published in The Times, 28 November 2015
Why is it that some scientific issues become so politically polarised? Hundreds of independent studies have established beyond any reasonable doubt that the genetic modification of crops is a safe technology, and yet the green left continues a decades-long denial of the science. On the other side of the political ledger, and especially relevant as world leaders assemble for next week’s Paris climate conference, much of the right continues to dig itself deeper into the hole of denying the very science of global warming.
In a rational world, scientific objectivity would be a universal guiding light, and evidence-based policymaking would be a common goal for all. The real world is rather different. Take the Scottish government’s recent decision to ban cultivation of GM crops on its territory — a populist diktat rightly met with outrage by virtually the entire scientific community. Or the fact that in the US presidential race rejection of climate science has become an article of faith — and I literally mean faith — for all Republican candidates.
There’s an important caveat here. I am not saying that modern science is inherently perfect. Scientific results can be faked and peer review can encourage group-think. Nor can science simplistically trump politics: we need the latter to decide between competing priorities or to frame the moral values that science can help us uphold. But science remains the only window into truth about objective reality, and the scientific Enlightenment surely remains the greatest gift bestowed by European culture on humanity.
That is why, in these polarised times, it is distressing to see science so relentlessly under attack from both ends of the political spectrum. On climate change the right seems largely to have ceded ownership of the issue to the left. The field is clear, therefore, for Naomi Klein’s insistence that the science of global warming requires the triumph of anti-capitalism. Leftist greens propose numerous anti-corporate and big-government approaches, and even on occasion hint darkly that the suspension of democracy may be required.
What does the right do in response? Rather than proposing credible ways to tackle climate change that meet its ideological preferences, it instead attempts to undermine the science. Witness the constant attacks on the Met Office by commentators in the right-wing press, the insistence that global temperature records showing 2015 is the hottest-ever year must somehow be incorrect, that computer climate models projecting future climate change must be dismissed out of hand, that every cold snap “proves” global warming wrong, and many other even sillier talking points. Expect a barrage of this sort of tedious cynicism next week.
Under the circumstances it is a credit to this government that it maintains support for the Climate Change Act, and that energy policy continues to push towards decarbonisation. Energy secretary Amber Rudd’s plan to phase out coal over the next decade is especially welcome. But Tories like her who accept the science must do more to reclaim the political mainstream on climate change from the green left.
Instead of merely downgrading the climate policy legacy of the coalition government, Cameron and Rudd need to establish some broad principles for what a Conservative approach to tackling climate change should look like. It could include a central role for the market and a strong belief in the role of technological innovation.
Paris, which along with London and Edinburgh was the cradle of the European Enlightenment, would be the perfect place to set out this vision.