- Friday, 18th December 2009




Global Warming as Groupthink

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's process institutionalizes groupthink on a global scale.

  • Article for Wall Street Journal – 18 December 2009



It is easy to mock the thousands of activists, officials and ministers flying to Copenhagen in their jets, driving around in an immense fleet of limousines, and collectively emitting more carbon dioxide than a small African country-all to force the rest of us to reduce our carbon footprints. But it is one thing to accuse them of hypocrisy in not living out their beliefs. Casting doubt on their belief that global warming poses an imminent threat to life on this planet is another.

To question so much scientific expertise and governmental authority seems arrogant or foolhardy-even in the city where Hans Christian Anderson wrote about the little boy who blurted out that the Emperor had no clothes.

Can so many experts be wrong? Well, it is worth remembering that the experts were supposedly united about the apocalyptic dangers of the Y2K millennium bug. Half the world was persuaded to spend an estimated $600 billion to save us from disasters that embarrassingly failed to materialize in the countries and companies that omitted to take any pre-emptive action. Then intelligence agencies around the world were allegedly so convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that we went to war, only to find-zilch. In both cases there was a solid foundation of truth on which enthusiastic professionals and governments constructed an exaggerated scare story that the media lapped up. I was skeptical enough to delve into both those scares and rapidly found the experts were not as unanimous as supposed. But the dissenters were persuaded to keep quiet, bar a handful who were ruthlessly stereotyped as mavericks or worse.

In each case the driving force was "groupthink." Irving Janis defined this as "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." The symptoms include:

"Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group; Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as evil, biased, etc.; Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group; Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus; Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement." Campaigners against climate change show remarkably similar symptoms.

There is a solid basis of truth for their claims. Having studied physics at Cambridge I do not for a moment doubt the existence of the greenhouse effect. Without the warm blanket provided by greenhouse gases-mainly water vapor and carbon dioxide-the earth would be a frozen uninhabitable rock. If the amount of CO2 is doubled, the direct effect-other things being equal-would be to raise the Earth's temperature by about one degree Centigrade. Since warmer air holds more water vapor, that could double the impact-or reduce it if the resultant clouds reflect more sunshine.

But to move from the modest but scientifically well-founded range of 0.5 to 2.0 degrees Centigrade to catastrophic impacts on human life requires successively more uncertain layers of conjecture. Higher temperature projections are obtained by constructing elaborate computer models that build in complex feedbacks that amplify warming and assume nothing could dampen these effects-both tendentious and unproven assumptions. Then, even more unwarranted assumptions must be adopted about the impact of higher temperatures on sea levels, hurricane frequency, disease propagation, and so on (glossing over the fact that it would take centuries for higher temperatures to melt the ice caps sufficiently to raise sea levels substantially).

Finally, heroic assumptions are necessary about low discount rates to maximize the present value of future benefits from cutting carbon, and that decarbonizing industry will be cheap. Meanwhile, the supposed damages from climate change must be aggregated over centuries to prove that we need to remove CO2 immediately rather than adapt to change. Far too little attention is given to measures to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries adapt, rather than spending huge sums to prevent what may not occur.

The tendency of those committed to the theory of catastrophic man-made global warming to unquestioningly adopt the assumptions, at every stage, that maximize the expectation of calamity should alert us that groupthink is driving the movement.

The recently leaked email exchanges between scientists at the Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia and their colleagues in the U.S., who are among the illuminati of the global warming movement, show vivid evidence of groupthink at work. These scientists have become so committed to a cause that they think it natural to perform "tricks" to "hide the decline," as one email says. Another is so upset by "The fact… that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't" that he suggests "the data are surely wrong." It is reminiscent of the German philosopher Hegel who, on being told by his disciples that the facts refuted his scientific theories, replied: "So much the worse for the facts." It is clear that while governments think they are pursuing evidence-based policies, these institutes have been serving up "policy-based evidence."

The whole U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change process could not be better designed to institutionalize groupthink on a global scale. It puts enthusiasts at the helm. It seeks to establish a single view on the science, modeling, and economics. Dissent is banished. Loyalty is demanded. Silence is deemed consent. Moral fervor is reinforced by massive cash research budgets.

Even the British parliament has become caught up in groupthink. Dissent (and there are silent skeptics in both Labour and Conservative ranks) is suppressed by equating skepticism with Holocaust denial. Moral zeal replaces reasoned debate. Scrutiny of costs and benefits of alternative policy options is suspended. Desirable policies such as nuclear power to reduce dependency on hydrocarbons are sidelined in favor of a whimsical dependency on wind and sunshine.

When the Climate Change Bill passed through parliament last year, I read the cost benefit assessment ministers are obliged to produce for any bill. Amazingly, it put the potential costs (of reducing carbon emissions by 60%) at £205 billion ($331 billion)-yet the maximum benefits (of reduced climate change damage) were estimated at only £110 billion. This is the first time any government had asked parliament to support a bill that its own figures say will do more harm than good. Yet just five of us voted against it. At least I had the satisfaction of pointing out that while the House was voting for a bill based on the assumption the world is getting warmer, it was snowing in London in October for the first time in 74 years. I was told, "extreme cold is a symptom of man made global warming."

The absurdity did not end there. Because the target for reducing emissions was amended upwards to 80%, I asked for a new cost-benefit assessment. Ministers eventually slipped one out-long after the bill had become an Act. It showed that the cost of meeting this more onerous target had doubled to £400 billion. Yet, miraculously, the government estimate of the likely benefits had risen tenfold. They had apparently previously mislaid nearly £1 trillion of benefits. It would be hard to find clearer evidence of the flaky nature of figures governments employ to justify their commitment to climate-change policies.

More carried away by groupthink than his colleagues, Gordon Brown has strutted his stuff in Copenhagen-the prime minister of a near-bankrupt country offering to bankroll a global deal. When he returns we will find that although the benefits are flaky, the costs are real.

Mr. Lilley is a Conservative member of the U.K. Parliament.



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