Richard Tol: Radical Greens

  • Date: 28/01/15
  • Richard Tol

Climate warriors have long ago stopped being civil. But we seem to be entering a new level of radicalisation.

Things used to be simple. The Church taught how the world worked and how to behave. The positive and the normative were united. The Enlightenment put an end to that. We are supposed to follow evidence rather than dogma. In the early days, an intelligent person could comprehend all of science. Not any longer. Experts master a small subfield only.

We recently replaced our audio system with a Bluetooth one. When my daughter asked how it worked, the best I could offer was “it’s magic”. For most of us, it does not matter that we do not know how our smartphone works. We know what it is supposed to do. We know when it does not work. We know how to read online reviews. We rely on experts, but we know how to tell a reliable one from a charlatan.

Not so in environmental policy. Experts make predictions of the future that are hard to verify. Indeed, public policy advice is full of self-defeating prophesies. Bad things will happen if we don’t change our ways. We often act on such information, and thus deny ourselves the opportunity to check whether the prediction was accurate. We trust the expert, take her word as gospel.

The Church held sway over what is right and wrong for long after the Enlightenment, but it has been losing terrain. Others have stepped in to fill the moral vacuum. The environmental movement is one. There sure are environmental problems that should be solved, but some environmental organizations take it one step further. On offer are guidance how to live your life, a tribe to belong to, a feeling of superiority over outsiders, and even a looming Armageddon, lest we atone for our sins, in the shape of climate change.

Environmental scientists are cast in the role of priests, the trust in their narrow expertise extended to other areas of fact and value. Most scientists don’t like that. Some quite enjoy it. The concept of planetary boundaries seems to be designed to make environmental scientists the final arbiters in politics, much like the Pope was once in Europe and the Guardian Council is in Iran.

Religion brings with it unbelievers, apostates, and radicals. The debate on climate policy has long been polarized. Asking an utterly sensible question – which of the many options is the best course of action – is met with howls of derision from both sides. Some protest the idea of taking climate change at all serious. Others are convinced that the maximum action is not enough.

Polarization is not conducive to sound policy. In Europe, the alarmed have the upper hand, climate policy is hardly scrutinized, and special interest groups are gorging on subsidies and rents. Anyone who questions this is put on par with those who deny the Holocaust. The consensus police patrol the media to isolate, ridicule and smear anyone who dares to raise a question. The Royal Observatory and the London School of Economics employ people, Ken Rice and Bob Ward, whose day job it is, or so it seems, to attack others for their climate heresy.

Every movement has its nutters. Climate warriors have long ago stopped being civil. But we seem to be entering a new level of radicalisation.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by the Taliban in 2001. In 2014, Greenpeace activists damaged the Nazca Lines. Greenpeace has often broken the law, but their actions have always been directed against those who harm the environment. They appealed to a moral authority higher than the legal ones. Nazca, however, was wanton vandalism. And it was not a solo action. Twenty people trampled over ancient heritage. The Greenpeace media team happily beamed pictures across the world. And when it emerged that the world was not amused, Greenpeace response was closer to damage control and cover-up than remorse and cooperation with the Peru government.

In January 2015, a Greenpeace activist called for the beheading of a member of the House of Lords on the website of the Guardian. When challenged, he repeated the call, and again. People who questioned the wisdom of these remarks were attacked or banned. The Guardian actively moderates its comments, but even though Gary Evans’ calls to behead Matt Ridley caused a bit of a stir, it took the editors 32 hours to realize that death threats against political opponents is not really how we like to do things in Britain nowadays. As if on cue, Natalie Bennett, Green Party leader, called for the decriminalisation of belonging to a violent terror group. The Guardian simultaneously carried stories about the beheading of a Japanese hostage by Islamic State.

There are now elements in the environmental movement who are so worried about the state of the planet that they have lost all sense of proportion. This is alarming for those at the receiving end of their mindless wrath. It does not help to protect the environment either. Just like Boko Haram does not endear anyone to Muslims, green radicals taint all environmentalists. But whereas Islamic leaders immediately distance themselves from any new outrage, environmental leaders pretend nothing happened.

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