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No greater joy in heaven than when a sinner repenteth… July 21, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Environmentalism, Greens, Libertarianism, Uncategorized.

Reading the latest issue of Scientific American I was drawn to the monthly column by Michael Shermer [here] where he describes ‘how the evidence for anthropogenic global warming has converged to cause this environmental skeptic to make a cognitive flip’…

Now there’s a change of heart.

Shermer is a colourful character and always writes compelling material [wiki bio]. He is a former right-libertarian and Ayn Rand follower (and author of an entertaining ‘from the inside’ critique of Objectivism [here]), and almost incredibly, was a born-again Christian during his high-school and early college years.

What’s interesting, perhaps even important, about Shermer changing his mind, is not so much the way the evidence has convincingly stacked up over the past fifteen or twenty years in favour of human exacerbated global warming, but that he, a skeptical rationalist has come so late to the party, and the reasons for his change of heart. Indeed it dovetails nicely with the points smiffy raises about relativism in Cultural Suicide – not always painless.
He notes that in 2001 he organised a debate with Bjorn Lomborg, of the Skeptical Environmentalist fame, and talking to environmentalist organisations was told none wished to participate. He went ahead with the debate and clearly remained within the Lomberg camp.

Yet what is most pertinent is the way in which stereotypical views of environmental activism prevented the data from trumping the politics, as it were, for Shermer for so long. He cites ‘activists who vandalise Hummer dealerships and destroy logging equipment’. And fair enough, I’ll always buy into a proper state led strategy to tackle environmental damage head-on over often futile gestural activism. But even so, there’s something disproportionate about citing such petty instances in the overall context of the problem of global warming.

In any case, by 2001 pretty much the entire scientific world was convinced of the data. And while it is good that a sceptic would remain sceptical of everything, there is a certain perversity to aligning with views which the best contemporaneous science had fairly comprehensively demolished. Even Lomborg, acknowledges that climate change exists to some degree, but posits that it’s only one of an array of problems and that there are better ways of spending our money, which is a clever way to intellectually evade the issue.

But, in fairness, prejudice is a thin wall to construct in the face of climatology and as Shermer notes, ‘nevertheless, data trump politics’. The intervention of the Evangelical Climate Initiative (backed by 86 leading US evangelicals) calling for carbon emission reductions, was one event that caught his attention. But it was the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in Monterey where he saw Al Gores ‘[deliver] the finest summation of the evidence for global warming I have ever heard’. The before and after photographs of shrinking glaciers also managed to help him on his damascene conversion.

Shermer isn’t hugely confident about the future. He notes that global temperatures are likely, even in the event of reduced emission, to rise by up to 9 degrees by 2100 – a scenario that could result in the demise of the Greenland ice sheet and the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. Now if that happens we’re in for a really rough ride and perhaps the Dáil Commission will be proven correct [here], because likely sea level rises would be up to 10 metres.

As he says, ‘Because of the complexity of the problem, environmental skepticism was once tenable. No longer, it is time to flip from skepticism to activism’.

For all his quirks, or perhaps because of them, Shermer is an interesting and thoughtful correspondant placed well within the scientific camp. His former scepticism may well be of use in pursuading those who can make policy of the necessity to do so. It will be interesting to see what he proposes by way of such activism.


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