Denial Across the Pond

Is journalist Matt Ridley a climate denier? Here, we parse the views of England’s most prominent global warming skeptic.

This is the second installment in a series of brief profiles of climate change deniers outside of the United States. Part one, about Canada’s Timothy Ball, is here.

Englishman Matt Ridley isn’t your average climate change denier. He’s a very smart science journalist, as proven through a series of excellent books on topics other than climate change. Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, published in 1999, offers a particularly enjoyable and informative read. He understands the science controversies of the past and speaks with more subtlety than many of the hacks in the indirect employ of fossil-fuel interests. You’re not going to catch Ridley saying something easily falsifiable, like polar bears are fine.

Ridley is one of the most capable spokesmen for climate change denial 2.0. He acknowledges the undeniable fact that combustion of fossil fuels traps heat and warms the planet, but he contests the mainstream scientific view that the current emissions path will lead to catastrophic environmental changes as well as the conventional wisdom that the best approach is to limit carbon emissions immediately.

So in assessing Ridley, we face a threshold question: Is this truly climate change denial? Ridley argues that it is not. Climatologists themselves acknowledge that there’s a range of possible climate change outcomes and time frames. Ridley, and people like him, contend that their optimistic forecasts exist on this same spectrum—even if at an extreme end—and therefore we’re quibbling over scientific details.

With the highest respect for what Ridley has accomplished in a distinguished career, I believe his position amounts to climate change denial on stilts. Ridley’s view is akin to an alcoholic saying he’s not in denial about his problem because he fully acknowledges that he sometimes drinks a beer. Denying the severity of a problem is to deny the problem itself.

Ridley’s preferred tactic is to shade his characterization of the data in order to minimize the scale of the problem. Earlier this year, he wrote, “There has been less than half a degree of global warming in four decades—and it has slowed down, not speeded up.” This is not accurate. As John Cook’s excellent website Skeptical Science points out, the actual temperature increase over that period has been between 0.6 and 0.7 degrees Celsius. While that discrepancy seems small in absolute terms, it means Ridley has shaved at least 20 percent off of the scientific data. Moreover, his claim that global warming has slowed is based on a very selective sample. There was a slowing of the rate of warming in the 2000s, but these sorts of variations are to be expected in an overall warming trend. Crucially, the cause of that slowing is known—a proliferation of La Niña events. (You can—and should—read more of Cook’s data-driven critique of Ridley’s views here.)

Ridley pairs this selective use of data with a more general historical point, what he calls “rational optimism.” This is particularly misleading. In the video posted above, Ridley says, “Over the past 50 years, despite predictions of many, many gloomy doomy scenarios that were going to happen, none of them happened. In fact, human welfare improved dramatically, but so did most of the environmental measures recovered: The air got cleaner, the water got cleaner, forests expanded, wildlife recovered…”

It is very important that you recognize what Ridley has slyly omitted from this story. He is factually correct that many potential environmental disasters failed to materialize. But he leaves out the reason: We took action to prevent them. Ridley’s home country adopted the Clean Air Act in 1956 and has continually tinkered with pollution management. The United States enacted its own version of the law in 1963 and passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Endangered Species Act, adopted the following year, has had remarkable conservation effects. I understand Ridley’s position; I have also pointed out that humanity has almost never run out of a natural resource. But it’s not because earth’s resources are inexhaustible—it’s because when a resource seems to be scarce, smart people either find more of it or discover an alternative. This is a source of optimism about humanity’s ability to solve problems, not an excuse for inaction.

Even if he doesn’t intend it to, Ridley’s rational optimism makes a very powerful case that we can solve climate change if we take the problem seriously. See, I told you he’s a bright guy.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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