Saturday, December 12, 2009

Faith, Belief and Climate Change

I am not qualified (very few people are) to assess the extent of our knowledge about the effect of industry on global climate or the changes which might occur over the next hundred years. I'm not going to pretend that I have a position, a conviction or some deep insight which those who understand these things have missed, and as it's easier to ask questions than answer them, that, after a few initial onservations, is what I'm going to do.

Everyone wants to have an opinion on this matter, and, in the absence of any real possibility of analysing the facts, most people have a position in which they like to place themselves with regard to what they perceive as the orthodoxy. They don't actually know in any sense. The politicians are doing what politicians do, the journalists are doing what journalists do, some scientists are doing things they shouldn't, and people are talking a great deal of nonsense, which is their right and privilege. But there is no black and white here, in fact it is as far from being black and white as it is possible to imagine.

If you read a site like Real Climate, it becomes clear that much of what is known is only tentatively proven, and what it might mean is very hard to interpret. Scientists collect data, and in this case the data are especially difficult to gather, and extremely hard to construct any meaningful interpretation from. It is known that only a few thousand years ago much of Europe was too cold to be habitable, and that this occurs in cycles of very sudden onset. It is also known that over the last few million years the Earth's atmosphere has at times been unbreathable by creatures like us. It is perhaps the fear that it could happen again on a short time-scale, and that very little is known about how these changes come about, that is behind the dramatic claims made by some, and the exaggerated and dangerous solutions proposed by our leaders. The motivation of the usual bunch of thugs who have travelled to Copenhagen to smash things and threaten people in the streets is not a mystery, of course.

There are believers and unbelievers, and most of them adopt a position of belief or unbelief in the same way that they choose a religion, or a football team, or an opinion on the philandering of Tiger Woods. They is, they do so almost arbitrarily, depending on who has told them what and how it made them feel. They will then defend that position passionately regardless of any evidence. They won't be swayed by facts because they didn't know or understand the facts in the first place, so new facts will also be ignored.

We like certainty, and we like to feel part of things. Likewise we don't understand most things, so we choose anyway. It is similar to the case of evolution vs. creationism. The vast majority of people who say they believe in evolution do so because they think they should, because they accept the authority of those who say it is so, or they don't want to be associated with the fundamentalist times that creationism seems to attract. But they don't believe in evolution because they understand the information gathered and how the theory was developed from and tested. Their belief is as much a matter of faith as that of the creationists. Richard Dawkins may view with satisfaction the figures that say that a great majority in Britain believe in evolution, but it is because he is a better seller of snake-oil than others, not because people have seen that his snake-oil is of better quality.

A woman called Aminatu Haidar has been on hunger strike at Lanzarote airport for nearly a month, since she was deported from Western Sahara. She is an activist for the independence of the region, which is administered by Morocco, a situation not generally accepted by the population, who seem to favour independence. (It genuinely seems to be a large majority that desires this, not just the self-appointed spokesmen of the Frente Polisario).

Haidar claims that she simply wishes to go home, but several solutions have been offered, and rejected by her. She appears to be prepared to die, and for her to die in Spain would be a serious problem for the Spanish government. her real motivation seems to be to cause the governments of Morocco and Spain to reach an agreement favourable to the independence of Western Sahara, and she is keeping herself and her country in the news until she achieves something.

The government, on the other hand, cannot suddenly change the nature of its relations and agreements with Morocco, which have social, political and commercial importance far beyond the life of this one woman, but she is old, and pacific, and wants to go home, and has the overwhelming support of the Spanish press and public, so ministers are tying themselves in knots trying to give the impression of acting decisively, but without actually doing anything which commits them to confronting Morocco. It's fun to watch.

People have chosen an opinion on this, strongly held, on the presentation of Haidar by the press, and possibly on the superficial rights and wrongs of the case, rather than on the wider truth, and the consequences of following their inclination. It is no different, in essence, from the other cases.

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