Editor’s Note: Tom Chivers is a science writer who has worked at BuzzFeed and the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
There is a certain mindset in politics, present the world over and across the political spectrum, which distrusts expertise. That mindset is presently revealing itself in Australia, where this week a small group of conservative-minded members of parliament held the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, hostage over climate policy.
Turnbull’s center-right Liberal party had pledged to reduce emissions from Australia’s energy companies more than a quarter (from 2005 levels) by 2030, a key part of its efforts to meet its international obligations.
But several of his own MPs, led by his predecessor as prime minister and long-term rival Tony Abbott, forced him into a climbdown by threatening to vote against the legislation. Turnbull’s government barely has a majority in the House of Representatives, and losing such a key vote could have led to a leadership challenge. Cowed, he dropped the pledge, and on Tuesday narrowly survived the revolt.
Internal Liberal party politics are one thing. But the symbolism of the gesture is telling. Australia is a country where environmental damage is obvious, in the form of the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic caused by use of CFCs decades ago, the steady bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef from warming, carbon-dioxide-acidified seas, and the ever more prevalent bushfires.
Yet for large parts of the political class here, and the people who vote for them, climate change is seen as a scam perpetrated by liberal, anti-business scientists.
Abbott himself has said that the “settled science” of climate change is “absolute crap” and that efforts to reduce its impact are like “killing goats to appease the volcano gods.” Another politician, the anti-immigration populist Malcolm Roberts, has clashed with scientist Brian Cox, claiming that NASA data was “manipulated” to make climate change appear worse than it was, to Cox’s astonishment.
For the record, climate change is not a hoax. There is some debate over how extreme the warming will be, but the warming so far has been within predicted levels. NASA has not been falsifying data. This is conspiratorial, anti-scientific nonsense.
But anti-scientific nonsense is extremely appealing at the populist fringes of politics. In the US, President Donald Trump has also called climate change a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese, and has been filling the Environmental Protection Agency with climate skeptics, including former chief Scott Pruitt, now resigned amid multiple ethics scandals.
Trump is also anti-vaccine, associating with Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced, fraudulent British doctor behind the discredited research linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism, and weirdly claiming that multi-vaccine injections are bad because “tiny children are not horses.”
British politics has its own share of climate skeptics and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists, especially on the UKIP-led hard right. And the left is not innocent – the left-wing populist leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, once signed a parliamentary motion supporting the pseudoscientific alternative medicine homeopathy, tweeting that it “works for some people.” The Green Party is resolutely anti-nuclear and anti-genetically modified organisms.
What all these positions have in common is a distrust of what “the experts” are saying – the relevant scientists who are almost uniformly convinced that climate change is real, human-made and dangerous; that vaccines are safe and highly effective; that homeopathy is ineffective, and that nuclear power and GMOs are important tools for powering and feeding the world.
Populism offers simple, intuitive alternatives to complex, messy reality. For example, immigrants or the EU are behind all your problems; get rid of them and it’ll all be OK. That makes populism almost directly opposed to science.
Scientific truths are complex. Understanding how an invisible, harmless gas can trap heat in the atmosphere because of its molecular shape is not easy. The claim that if a child gets ill shortly after being vaccinated, that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused the illness, is counter-intuitive, as is – conversely – saying that just because someone gets better after taking homeopathy, that doesn’t mean the homeopathy made them better.
Science deals in uncertainty, and in often counter-intuitive fact.
“Climate change is not dangerous; it’s a liberal hoax” is a more reassuring message than “climate change is real and going to make things much worse.” It’s also easier to understand. The only drawback is that it’s false.
The public may have had enough of experts, but as the winter bushfires in Australia show, that doesn’t mean the experts are wrong.