Benny Peiser is a social anthropologist best known for his work on the portrayal of climate change. The founder of CCNet, a leading climate policy network, Peiser is co-editor of the journal Energy and Environment and director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Ahead of his appearance at this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn festival, we spoke to him about changing attitudes to climate change.
You have previously argued that scientists are overstating the significance of anthropogenic climate change. What, then, do you believe is the source of our panic over global warming?
I think it's a combination of factors. It's of course something comparatively new, and what very often occurs when people experience a new hazard, a new risk that they haven't encountered before, is that they are increasingly concerned because it's an unknown hazard. So that's the backdrop to the concern, and then of course we've had the climate science community ratcheting up the rhetoric, which was kicked up by the media because the media like a good scare.
In reality of course, if you just look at the observational evidence, there was no real signal or any evidence to suggest that we are facing an imminent disaster. The warming of the last 150 years has been very slow and very moderate – 0.8 degrees of warming over 150 years is very, very moderate. Very slow and very gradual, and there's no cause for alarm. The actual warming we have experienced is rather low, and the alarm is about speculations of what may happen in the future. There is a reliance on predictions of the future, based on computer modeling.
So I would argue there is a discrepancy between what has been observed in reality, and what has been claimed is going to happen in the future. I think the alarm is mainly based on the claims that the future will be so much worse than what we have observed over the last 100 or 150 years. And that, of course, is pure conjecture. Doomsday prophets have always managed to scare people by making very strong predictions of the future, and so the question then is how reliable are these predictions.
Is the damage done by over-preparing for potential environmental disaster comparable to the damage done by being under-prepared for it?
Given that we've had so many environmental scares over the last 40 or 50 years, it’s safe to say that the world would respond differently if we were actually experiencing a real climate crisis.
Of course! The reason why the international community isn't doing anything about it effectively is twofold: A, it's extremely expensive; and B, there's no political pressure to do anything about it because the public, by and large, is not concerned. So in a way the alarm isn't actually working.
That's an interesting thing, the panic and then the lack of action. It's a curious thing.
It's a combination, as I said. Some countries have actually tried to do something about it, but they are now feeling the pain and the cost of doing it on their own when it hasn't had any actual effect on CO2 emissions.
What kind of cost do you mean?
Well, countries like Germany and other European countries, and even Britain, building wind farms and solar panels in the name of saving the planet, or saving the climate. Of course it has absolutely no effect on either CO2 emissions, or global CO2 emissions, or the climate. But it is very costly, and people have to pay for it through their energy bills, so you have a public increasingly more worried about the cost of energy bills than climate change.
So there's a political cost and an economic cost. It's difficult to actually address the underlying issues, which are CO2 emissions, the result of the world using cheap fossil fuels. And to get away from that turns out to be almost impossible.
Another reason, apart from the economic and political hurdles and costs, is the fact that people are not concerned about climate change. They might be, if we had increasingly rising temperatures and heat wave after heat wave and disaster after disaster, and people might say: “Well we must prevent this from going on.” But by and large, survey after survey shows that climate change seems to be at the bottom of people's concerns. So there's a discrepancy between the panic generated by campaigners and some scientists and media, and the public response, which is: “I don't care, I'm not bothered.” So that discrepancy is quite manifest.
Is there a spiritual element to our relationship to the earth? And, if so, is this relevant to our response to these predictions about climate change?
I would call it a more religious kind of shift. During the enlightenment of the last 200 years or so, the enlightenment scientists and philosophers worked on the assumption that the world is a fairly stable and resilient system, that nature is cold but that we live in a world that is fairly stable. That was the main outlook of enlightenment philosophy and science. That also resonated with their view (their religious or irreligious view) that the world in a way was resilient, and humans were resilient to whatever nature was throwing at us, so to speak. That we could cope with that. And it’s worth saying that previous generations were much less prepared, technologically, economically than today's generation.
But what has changed is that many of today’s scientists and, by and large, the public think that nature is very fickle, very unstable, that anything could tip it into utter chaos. We're almost back to the view of nature where the ancient pagans looked like they thought they were at the whim of irrational gods punishing mankind at will. They didn't understand basic physics, the basic scientific dynamics of nature. That was the big breakthrough of the enlightenment, where we discovered we could understand exactly how nature works. And today we're back in the situation where people no longer trust nature, and they feel that anything we do, any intervention could flip nature into some kind of 'revenge of Gaia', that certainly there could be a tipping point that could tip our stable environment into a chaotic, disastrous downturn.
That is a view that makes many people very fearful of any new technological advance, because they think any new intervention of humans has the potential to be the final straw that kills nature.
Rather than it being something positive?
Yes, rather than being something that actually could, and actually has, improved our living standards and our environment. So that's why people are so afraid of any new technology
Is that because they now feel like climate change is a human-caused event, so it almost seems like we deserve it, or is it because we seem to know so much more about what's going on, and all the data intimidates us?
It is more because you don't trust nature any more. And you don't trust humans either, and that the best way of going through life is not to risk anything, just to keep the status quo, the stability, the order as it is. Because that will guarantee that there won't be any risk, no accident, no big change. People are extremely afraid of novelty, new technology, intervention, because they have this fickle view of nature, that it is inherently unstable and disastrous. And so they are afraid. That's why they're afraid of the CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, because they think this could at any point turn into a disaster.
Like a new god of chaos.
Yeah, it's like a new kind of chaos philosophy. Nature used to be something that people adored: the beauty of nature, the harmony of nature, the Newtonian worldview where the universe works like clockwork and we can predict exactly the movements of the planets and we know when the sun rises. We know everything, we can predict everything: even evolution, which had this kind of almost progressive idea of development and things getting better. But all of this has been turned upside down, and everything that is new and happening though mankind is threatening the stability of the natural order.
We kind of hate those ideas of nature having some sort of teleological direction, don't we?
Yes, well it doesn't, in the view of modern man. Nature is a truly random chance conglomerate of things that can easily tip into chaos. That changes our response to any large-scale human technology or intervention into nature. Of all the interventions climate change is the most global. The alarmists fear that it will cause disaster, will cause a climate catastrophe. And of course the vast majority of people don't think about it at all. You can't see it; it's not like pollution which you breathe in or drink or whatever. This is invisible to most people so they ignore it, and the very small minority of scientists who think that the world is more stable than the alarmists fear, they don't see any evidence that it is causing any significant change. If we were to see signals of significant change or significant deterioration then we would be much more concerned, but people don't see that.
And is that because the scientists who see nature as more stable take a wider view?
I think because of the new, changed view of our world as inherently unstable, the vast majority of scientists are more concerned still. Because it is a paradigm that is more deeply rooted now. We've heard in the last 40 or 50 years that man is destroying nature and the environment, against all evidence showing the opposite, the general thinking is that we are actually destroying the environment. That is the perception. When you actually look at issue after issue – whether it's forests or water or food or agriculture – in reality things are actually improving rather than deteriorating. Technology makes it much easier to produce food or clean water, air and so on.
If you think about Britain, just as an example. Compare Britain to what it looked like 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. The rivers are cleaner than ever before, the air is cleaner, the water's cleaner, living standards are going up. 100 years ago the average life expectancy was 40 years or something like that. Many kids would die early on. Things for families and individuals, and the environment, have actually improved. But the general perception is that it's going down the drain.
So, if not climate change, what do you think is the single biggest threat to the earth today?
There's no threat to the earth, there's no global threat. We could be hit by a large asteroid, which hits every million years or so. So the likelihood is very remote. Even that wouldn't destroy the earth, it might destroy the global economy though. So the biggest realistic threat to an open and liberal society is irrationality and fanaticism. That is the biggest risk we face in my view. That is a political issue that can be solved long-term. War often results as a direct consequence of these extreme ideologies and fanaticism. Although even the number of wars has gone down significantly over the last few generations, globally, maybe because we have more democracies than ever before. That is still in my view the biggest risk we face.
Do you think that there could be wars based on our fears about climate change?
No. that is highly unlikely. For a start, countries are actually getting better all the time. The scenarios we hear – water wars or something like that – the reality is that even countries that are enemies are dealing with water issues, because they have to, they rely on it. And also, because of desalination a lot of countries that are struggling with water issues are increasingly able to produce desalinated water. There's a boom in desalination plants around the world. I wouldn't be surprised that within 50 years or so there wouldn't be any problems with water at all. By means of technological solutions.
Aren’t there are objections to desalination plants on the grounds that the process is environmentally unfriendly?
Well they are environmentally unfriendly only to people who hate energy. They are energy intensive, so you need a lot of energy, but by and large they don't cause any environmental damage.
But don't get me wrong, there are a lot of energy issues around the world, in China for example. But they will solve their problem of air pollution the same way we did. We started with the industrial revolution with terrible air pollution. But we sorted it out. It also requires a certain economic development. What is the top priority for China? The top priority is getting their people out of poverty. Once that happens and they have a kind of middle class, urban lifestyle, they will say: “OK, now I’ve got a job, and I’ve got a flat and a telly and fridge, OK now I also want clean air. This is how things tend to develop. First food on the table and then clean air.
Benny Peiser is at this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn festival where he is debating the issue of Pagan Gods on Saturday 31st May, alongside naturalist Colin Tudge and Director of Greenpeace UK John Sauven. Alison Wolf is in the chair.
Image credit: Barry