The emperor’s new clothes – Against the lies in the climate debate

The political and economic establishment is concerned. What climate researchers, environmental politicians and committed citizens have in the past not been able to achieve is now being accomplished by our children: the danger of global warming is being pushed into the foreground of common attention. Conservative politicians, business associations and right wing intellectuals display their well-known reaction patterns: Denial, accusing of scientists, insistence on the lack of alternatives in today’s global economy, stubborn proclamation of one’s own truth to the point of shameless lies. The chairman of the German FDP, Christian Linder, replies that the students should leave the climate debate to the professionals: „One cannot expect children and young people to already see all global connections, the technologically sensible and the economically feasible“. A climate professional reacted promptly. Stefan Rahmstorf, one of the world’s leading oceanographers and lead authors of the IPCC Assessment Report, writes: „The climate professionals are clearly on the side of the students! The students protest because despite niceproclamationsthe politicians miss the climate targets. Greta Thunberg understands more about the tight emissions budget and the tipping points of the climate than Mr. Lindner“. Hat is embarrassing for the politician Lindner, whose education (political science and constitutional law) in fact hardly suggests a differentiated view of the complex, non-linear dynamics within global climate development.

A particularly bold example of a reaction on the part of the political right has recently been displayed in an interview with Swiss right-wing populist and self-declared intellectual Roger Köppel of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) (in the Zürcher Tagesanzeiger of 16 March 2019). In Switzerland, people may already have become accustomed to Köppel’s provocations, but his argument follows the ever same pattern of climate deniers and must therefore be exposed again and again in its silliness. Köppel confidently explains his opposition to climate science with what he calls „undisputed facts“. Since 1860, the global temperature has increased by „just under 1°C“, he states. In fact, it is 1.1°C, although the increase has accelerated dramatically in recent decades. Köppel’s formulation suggests that 1°C is not that much. But for the global climate, 1°C warming is a lot. Climate researchers assume that further warming by more than 1°C will have dramatic effects on global ecosystems and thus on human life. Even the World Economic Forum warns: “Theresulting interplay between stresses on the economic andenvironmental systems will present unprecedented challengesto global and national resilience”.

Roger Köppel then claimed that half of the warming so far had occurred between 1910 and 1940. This is a first direct shameless lie: Between 1910 and the 1940s, the temperature increased by 0.35 °C, from the late 1970s to the present by a much stronger 0.6 °C. In between, there was a slight cooling of 0.1 °C. The latter is explained by the fact that the progressive combustion of fossil fuels not only emitted carbon dioxide but also aerosols, in particular sulphate aerosols, which reflect sunlight back into space and thus mask the greenhouse effect. In the meantime, however, these emissions have decreased in North America and Europe, so that the emission of greenhouse gases is now having a more pronounced effect. The phase of relatively stagnant surface temperatures between 1998 and 2013 was also cited for a long time by climate change deniers as evidence that there is no human-induced global warming. The new temperature records from 2014 onwards gave an end to the myth of the climate change pause. In fact, heat had been absorbed continuously, but it had temporarily been stored almost completely in the oceans, so that this heat was not reflected in measurable temperature increases on the mainland. Unfortunately, such complex and in their nature non-linear interactions of the many determinants of the global climate are rarely recognized by self-explanatory laypersons such as Köppel (who characterizes himself as an „interested layperson“). It is a fact that more than half of the global warming in the last one and a half centuries occurred in the last 30-40 years. This is also shown by the statistics of the change in the global mean temperature 1880-2015 above the mean value of the 20th century. Here the values until 1940 all below the mean, and all from 1940 onwards above it. The last decades in the northern hemisphere were undoubtedly the warmest time span within the last millennium. And all the data point to a dramatic acceleration of thatdevelopment. The trend towards global warming is clear, as well as its highly likely human induced origin. To deny it is a sign of tenuous ignorance.

The self-declared intellectual Köppel probably also knows this. Which makes his statements all the worse, because with it he clearly moves into the terrain of lies, namely lies in their worst form, lies as a deliberately used instrument of propaganda. And since he can hardly fight against the cumulative burden of scientific facts, Köppel now ignites the second stage of his nebulous argumentation tactics and thus finally leaves the stage of intellectual integrity: the denigration of the entire scientific industry. This also a well-known element of climate skeptics’ argumentation. The „climate apocalyptics are paid,“ he says. One wonders what the right-wing populist means. Should the researchers work for free and earn their living elsewhere through „real“ work?What Köppel means is that most research facilities are government fundedinstitutions. So what is supposed to sound like a claim of scandal upon colder inspection turns out to be a triviality. For 300 years, public funding for basic research has been a pillar of scientific and technological progress and thus of our social prosperity. Köppel wants the fox to guard the chickens: Do we really want science to be led by private companies driven by their self-interest? The decades of scandalous behavior of the tobacco and oil industry show us where this would lead to. Instead of a contribution on the part of a serious participant in a central social discussion, Köppel provides us with an embarrassing sham debate with outrageous justifications, which follows familiar and long exposed patterns: Thousands of scientists are mistaken, whether consciously or unconsciously Köppel must leave open, because surely he does not want to expose himself completely to ridicule.

But then comes a wonderful twist in Köppel’s logic whichis aimed at turning the tables on his opponents: he declareshimself a skeptic, and skepticism is the most important scientific virtue. Sowing doubts about the scientific integrity of climate researchers, creating uncertainty that is then politically exploited, and then presenting oneself as the bearer of true scientific virtue – that is the height of impertinence. It must be exposed as what it is: clumsy political populism.

Now the followers of Köppel may ask themselves: What is the difference between scientific truth and populist truth? Do we have to unreservedly believe the scientists, or is it not simply them against me, one statement versus the other, and can we not choose our own truth? The difference lies in the motivation of those involved. Scientists want to increase their knowledge in a world full of uncertainties – unreservedly, sincerely, rationally and methodically. For this they have some „holy“ characteristics at their disposal:

  • clear criteria for confirming or rejecting hypotheses,
  • the honest commitment to facts,
  • an uncompromising reflective attitude in an open and transparent discourse,
  • the confession that our knowledge is not absolute and ultimate,
  • humility in the face of complex contexts and the sometimes difficult to explain.

The fact that scientists repeatedly make mistakes is part of the scientific method itself. It is a feature, not a bug of the method!And within it there exists a powerful mechanism of correction. Anyone who has experienced the scientific world knows how hard the struggle for truths therein is, how scientists constantly challenge and question each other, how an existing consensus is repeatedly called into question. To claim that scientists as a whole publish interest-driven false results is either a reflection of pure ignorance or deliberate malice. Populists, on the other hand, are not interested in increasing knowledge, but in confirming their own faith. They presuppose clear, irrefutable truths; what does not correspond to „their truth“ is fought by means of lies, the misappropriation of facts, in the worst case with political power, not with those of scientific exchange.

Even if, despite all the studies so far, the scientific knowledge on climate change should prove to be wrong at some point, for which in the case of scientific results there is always a certain – albeit in this case very small – probability,until then risk ethics requires us to focus attention on the possibility of very harmful developments that global warming comes. Instead, Köppel says, „thanks to CO2, green spaces have been growing massively on earth for thirty years”. Here his embarrassing ignorance is ultimately coupled with unbearable arrogance producing a rather disgusting mixture.

This disgust the students are now pointing out with a keen sense that they are probably the ones who will suffer the most from the consequences of it. It is the young people who tell us that our inaction is irresponsible in the face of the developments of our climate. Mr. Köppel, like the vain emperor in the fairy tale, it is children having to tell you: You are not wearing any clothes.


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