Friday, 28 November 2014

Hot Air and Justice

(Neil's Note: This one comes from 2007, but it's very relevant right now.)

One night, I had a dream.

In my dream, I was on the jury in a court of law. The judge had a long wig and a smug expression, the prosecutor a smaller wig and an evil-looking grin. The defence counsel's seat was empty. And in the dock, gagged and unable to speak, was someone who looked more than a bit like me.

"This case", began the judge, "has been brought against Human Civilization and all its shareholders and employees. You, Mr Human" - waving a hand towards the dock - "and those you represent, stand accused of causing catastrophic warming of your planet, by polluting it with emissions of hot air, and in particular of a foul gas called carbon dioxide. The penalty for causing this warming is that you should all be forced to stop flying in aeroplanes, driving in cars, or doing anything else that causes that foul gas to be emitted.

"Mr Green", said the judge, signalling towards the prosecutor. "You have the floor".

"Thank you, Your Honour" said Mr Green in a smarmy, self-satisfied voice. "The facts of the case are clear; there is no denying them. Human civilization emits carbon dioxide, and over the last century has been emitting more and more. Global temperatures over the last century have gone up too. Many well qualified scientists say that the cause of the warming is very probably the hot air - I'm sorry, I mean carbon dioxide - emitted by human activities.

"Many people, some of them scientists, believe that, if human civilization doesn't stop emitting this gas, there will be abrupt, catastrophic warming in the next century. The effects of this warming, some scientists say, will include huge rises in the sea level, more and worse droughts and hurricanes, extinction of species, mass migrations and total economic disruption. And the consequences have been estimated to be so disastrous that we must take strong and severe action NOW! to stop all this happening".

The man in the dock struggled with his gag, but to no avail.

"I call Mrs Fear as my first witness", said Mr Green.

Mrs Fear was a large, buxom lady who was a voluble and rather incoherent witness. Her evidence, in a nutshell, was: This is the worst problem we've ever faced! Everybody agrees it's all the fault of those horrid, greedy capitalists, entrepreneurs and hard workers, with their business and industry and whadyoumacallit. Everybody knows they aren't interested in anything but making themselves rich. It's terrible. TERRIBLE! And why doesn't somebody DO something about it?

"I next call Professor Storm", said Mr Green.

The Professor was neat, bearded and pedantic. He showed us, at great speed, charts and graphs which, so he said, proved that the warming was real, that it was out of the ordinary, and that it was caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide. He told us that many scientists, funded by political governments, had spent the last fifteen years and more developing models of the Earth's climate. And that they all - well, mostly - agreed that catastrophic warming was inevitable if we didn't halt our carbon emissions now.

I scribbled a question, and had it handed to the judge. He pulled a wry face, but asked my question anyway. "These climate models which predict big warming in the future - how well do they explain the temperature measurements made in the past?"

"The data don't matter", answered the Professor. "We are basing recommendations on the models".

My second question caused the judge to look even sourer. "How do we know that more carbon dioxide causes higher temperatures, and not, perhaps, the other way round?"

"The models say so", replied the Professor.

At my third question, the judge looked sternly at me, and said, "You jurors aren't here to ask awkward questions. You're here to find the defendant guilty". And then, after a pause, "I'm sorry, I mean find whether the defendant is guilty".

The man in the dock squirmed and tried to speak. Seeing this, the judge said, "All right, I'll ask the question. Aren't there other factors, such as variability of the Sun, which affect global temperatures, and how do these compare in significance with human-emitted carbon dioxide?"

"Of course", said the Professor, "there are other factors. But they don't affect the consensus among the scientists who are being bribed to hype the issue - I'm sorry, being paid to report on the issue. They all think that human emissions of carbon dioxide are the cause of the problem".

The Professor continued, with maps and more charts, which seemed to show great increases in droughts and hurricanes in recent decades. I knew these data were dubious at best, but there didn't seem to be much point in challenging them.

The Professor told us about the horrors of rising sea levels - a rise of three hundred feet would wipe out almost the whole of eastern England. And finally, he told us about Nicholas Stern, who with a large team, all funded by the taxes we had paid, estimated the costs of the damage (supposedly, I said to myself) to be caused by this (unproven, I reminded myself) human-caused warming. The figure was staggeringly large - big enough to tempt the gullible into thinking that any other outcome would probably be preferable.

I scribbled a question on my last scrap of paper. "Why are Stern's figures for the damage several times higher than those of others who have tried to estimate the same things?" The usher gave me an angry look, but still took the question to the judge.

"You again!" said the judge to me in a voice of thunder. "I'll have you thrown out of court if you ask one more impertinent question". Then, to the Professor, "Please continue, Professor. Ignore this troublemaker".

Professor Storm had almost finished. He ended by saying, "Ten years ago, environmentalists said that we may get to the point where the only way of saving the world will be for industrial civilization to collapse. I believe we have now reached that point".

Next, Mr Green called Professor Perrill, an expert on risk. He told us about the precautionary principle, which the European Union had mandated to be used on all environmental issues. "This means that action must be taken", he said, "even if there is doubt over how real or how big the problem is. It also means that the burden of proof is shifted. It is for those alleged to be causing a problem to prove that their actions do not threaten any risk of harm. And absence of evidence of risk is not to be taken as evidence of absence of risk".

When Professor Perrill had finished, the judge asked Mr Green, "Is that your last witness?" "Yes, Your Honour" replied Mr Green.

"Right", said the judge. "Now it's back to you, Mr Green, for your summing-up".

The man in the dock rolled his eyeballs, and my neighbour - having finally twigged that something bad was going on - scribbled a message for the judge.

The judge read the message, and laughed. "Doesn't the defence get to present its case? Ha, ha, ha! You jurymen are behind the times. You ought to know that Mr Human, and all the other flat-earthers that dispute the reality or the seriousness of human-caused catastrophic global warming, aren't to be allowed access to the media any more. And they aren't to be allowed any other forum where they can persuade people, either. That includes this court."

Mr Green the prosecutor gave his summing-up, which was more of the above.

"Now", said the judge to us, "it is time for you to consider your verdict. You must use only the evidence, which has been presented to you in this court. And I will re-phrase what Professor Perrill said: Absence of evidence of guilt is not evidence of absence of guilt.

"You must find Mr Human and his civilization guilty of causing catastrophic global warming if he has not completely proved his innocence beyond all possible doubt.

"And you must reach your decision quickly. I give you two reasons for this. First, I'm going to find Mr Human and all his friends guilty anyway, so what you the jury think is entirely academic and you shouldn't waste time on it. And second, I've a plane to catch. In fact", looking at his watch, "my limo to the airport should be arriving any time now".

The judge smiled. "Would you like to know where I'm going? I'm off to an environmentalist conference in Bali. Having presided over the conviction of Mr Human and his civilization, it will be fun for me to watch the politicians plan the punishment. Knowing, of course, that the bans they will propose on activities like flying and driving won't apply to persons of quality like me".

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