In March 2011, Clive James’ insightful article “The Drumming of an Army” was widely quoted in the aftermath of the Queensland floods. It discussed Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “My Country” and how it fitted the national experience of Australia’s geography and climate better than the explanation of climate change.
Critic, author and broadcaster, Clive James was one of those people who seemed to be on radio and television at every turn, but is notably absent these days. Is his fall from prominence voluntary while he concentrates on his writing, or has he, another climate sceptic, suffered the same fate as Johnny Ball and David Bellamy?
From 2007-2009 his quirky intellectual commentary on diverse subjects aired weekly on Radio 4 “A Point of View” entertained us for six series – sixty programmes. The very first of these in February 2007 was “On Climate Change”.
“In my household, I’m the last man standing against the belief that global warming is caused by human beings.”
His words were unusual in the mainstream media in 2007, but are points that we hear repeated frequently in sceptical blogs and articles four years on.
“A world nearer to a bone-strewn cave is one to which some in the green movement would like us to return. I can say at this point that the eco-wiseacre [Tim Flannery] who has just been elected Australian of the Year foresees an ideal population for Australia of less than a third of the number of people it has now, but he doesn’t say whether he includes himself and his family among the total of those to be subtracted.” …
“Whether or not carbon emissions really do melt the polar bears and kill the baby seals in the rain forest, … we’ll do what Leonardo di Caprio does, because we’ll be seduced by language, not because we know very much about how carbon dioxide keeps in the planet’s heat.” …
“We shouldn’t expect the less fortunate nations to cut themselves off from industrial progress in the name of a green planet. “
This was 2007, and he got away with it. I presume the voice of scepticism was so quiet that it was barely noticed and was not a threat. The AGW movement, convinced of its powers of persuasion, did not worry about the odd lone voice. But by 2009 it was a different story and George Monbiot took him to task in October 2009, for the cryptically titled “The Golf Ball Potato Crisp*† (On scepticism as a duty)” when he again dared to use his broadcast slot on Radio 4 to voice his lack of belief.
[*the premise being that golf balls flying into a potato field could not be detected by an automated potato picking machine designed to reject stones and would therefore end up sliced in crisp† packets.
†Potato chip for non-UK readers]
This time beginning his essay with Montaigne, the ‘father’ of modern scepticism, he discussed ‘the golf ball potato crisp’ as an allegory for carbon-releasing technological progress and attitudes towards it. He then hit out at the language used against sceptics, including the ‘D word’.
“In Montaigne’s day you could get into terminal trouble for taking scepticism too far, … Since then, a sceptical attitude has been less likely to get you burned at the stake, but it’s notable how the issue of man-made global warming has lately been giving rise to a use of language hard to distinguish from heresy-hunting in the fine old style by which the cost of voicing a doubt was to fry in your own fat. Whether or not you believe that the earth might have been getting warmer lately, if you are sceptical about whether mankind is the cause of it, the scepticism can be enough to get you called a denialist.”
Monbiot’s criticism was of James saying that the number of scientists voicing a sceptical opinion was increasing; I guess he also didn’t like him pointing out the flimsiness of the consensus. You see it wouldn’t do to let the well-measured prose of someone who can write as well as James flow uncountered (/sarc).
“A conjecture can be dressed up as a dead certainty with enough rhetoric, and protected against dissent with enough threatening language, but finally it has to meet the only test of science, which is that any theory must fit the facts, and the facts can’t be altered to suit the theory.
The golf ball crisp might look like a crisp, and in a moment of delusion it might taste like a crisp, and you might even swallow it, rather proud of the strength it took to chew. But if there is a weird aftertaste, it might be time to ask yourself if you have not put too much value on your own opinion. The other way of saying “What do I know?” is “What do I know?” That shade of different meaning wasn’t there in Montaigne’s original language, but it is in ours.”
So when did you notice the weird aftertaste? For me it was Christmas 2006.