An odd couple of subjects to pair up, you might think, but I think there is a powerful hidden link, and it’s got nothing to do with the crazy conspiracy theories which right wing nuts have cooked up over climate change science.
Instead I’m talking about the steady decline over the last few decades of respect for authority in western democracies. Twenty years ago the Catholic church could get away with covering up its paedophile priests as few people were prepared to challenge the authority of either the church or local ‘pillars of the community’. Now we are far more prepared to question those in authority, even when the subject matter challenges a number of taboos.
Ironically, one of those most associated with the backlash against the idea that well-educated elites knew what was best for us, Richard Nixon, signed into force some landmark pieces of environmental regulation, including the US Clean Air Act of 1970. Now, however, Nixon’s intellectual heirs appear convinced of their God given right to pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as they like, especially if it’s going to make Texan oil men rich. “How dare scientists presume to tell us how to run our country / businesses!” seems to be their basic tenet.
This change in attitudes has brought about so many benefits, such as exposing the shameful behaviour of a tiny minority of Catholic priests, that we wouldn’t want to put the genie back in the bottle even if we could. It does have some significant downsides, though, extending from the relatively mundane – e.g. patients questioning doctors’ diagnoses – to popular distrust of the EU and the international politics of climate change.
The sad thing is just how far on the wrong side of history these climate change deniers are. If a stubborn friend or relative declares themselves quite well when the doctor has just diagnosed them as suffering the flu all sensible people try to talk them into a bit of bed rest. We instinctively recognise the expertise of the doctor, and yet similar expertise on behalf of scientists has been successfully questioned by an extremely powerful, but extremely selfish lobby. That they have been able to get away with it, I think, is partly down to the decline in respect for authority in the West. No longer are we prepared to just swallow the medicine that the doctor prescribes us.
We vaccinate our children against measles not because we know for sure that without the vaccination that they’ll die from the disease, but because we understand enough of the science to know that the vaccination massively reduces the risks. Now climate change deniers wish to stop the world taking out a similar insurance policy that will cover all of their and all of our children. The Catholic church has found itself on the wrong side of history several times over the course of its history. In twenty years or so the climate change deniers will be similarly vilified. They are just plain wrong.