The Eco-Hyperreality of Climate Science

Throughout the west, a war is being fought to establish a monopoly on truth. In the USA, a new Disinformation Governance Board is being rightly mocked as a ‘Ministry of Truth’ and legislators in the EU, UK and Canada are considering new laws to limit the expression of unauthorized opinions, to prevent the spread of ‘misinformation’. Much of the political establishment’s concern is driven by claims that the free exchange of ideas is making the jobs of experts and governments more difficult. But clues about the true nature of this war and the political establishment’s deepening metaphysical anxiety can be found in the wreckage of the climate debate. It shows just how divorced from reality politics has become. The political establishment is right to worry.  

Nothing provokes as much confusion among the academics, scientists, civil servants, politicians, journalists, and activists who style themselves as ‘champions’ of the climate agenda as those who disagree with them. In their attempts to understand why some people are not convinced by the injunction ‘follow the science’ and are even less impressed by ‘I want you to panic’, they have constructed elaborate hypotheses. Many of these hypotheses are simply ‘respectable’ conspiracy theories, including the idea that techniques developed by the tobacco lobby have been repurposed by oil companies ‘well-funded denial-machines’. Psychologists and behaviorists have entered the fray, claiming to have identified the neural circuits and evolutionary traits underpinning ‘denial’ that are exploited by bad actors seeking to profit from the planet’s destruction. Some claim to have traced the disobedient tendency back to troll farms that have engineered and sowed ‘anti-science’ memes that now propagate autonomously. But what none of these experts have thought to do is begin a conversation with their doubters.

This intransigence is important to understanding how the climate debate (such as it is) lost touch with reality.

The problem, simply put, is that there exists no evidence at all of a ‘climate crisis’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has, since the 1980s, sought evidence that global warming is occurring, can be detected in climate change, and can be attributed to greenhouse gas emissions. And though it does seem to have found it, what has been harder to find is evidence of the world becoming a worse place for it. Since the end of the Cold War, every social metric relating to the global population’s health and material and social circumstances has shown unprecedented improvement. That is a devastating observation for a political movement that claims an equivalence between society’s sensitivity to climate and climate sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s worse than having no evidence since the evidence contradicts this assertion. Even the storms that were promised, which would tear civilization from its foundations, have not materialized. Despite constant reporting in the media framing them as ‘caused’ by climate change, floods, wildfire, droughts and even heatwaves are not destroying society. It turns out that extreme weather claims just a tiny fraction of the much larger number of victims that it claimed a century ago – in the order of one per cent – despite a global population that has quadrupled. The failure to link on the ground human wellness metrics with climate change is consistent with the failure of every gloomy green prognostication for half a century or more, and so the persistence of environmental alarmism calls for a deeper explanation.

The failure of green prognostications has caused scientists to retreat from reality. Whereas there exists no evidence of a worsening outlook (in terms of human welfare nor the natural environment) in statistics at the global level and on historical timescales, they claim that mankind’s ‘fingerprint’ can nonetheless be found on individual extreme weather events. Using a new technique called ‘attribution’, seemingly respectable scientists claim that the contribution made by man made global warming to an extreme weather event can be calculated.

This method of attribution requires that two simulations of the world are run – one a simulation of the world without anthropogenic CO2 emissions, and one in which CO2 emissions are what they are today. Then, the outputs of these simulations are compared with each other, to see how often an extreme weather event such as a hurricane is produced in each. If a hurricane of a certain magnitude occurs twice as often in the simulation with higher levels of CO2 than in the one with lower levels, then, claim the scientists, we can say that anthropogenic climate change has made a real world hurricane of that same magnitude twice as likely.

That is not science. It produces no knowledge about the material world. And worse than failing to provide useful knowledge, it misleads policymaking.

Consider for example the countless claims used to urge climate policy, which are invariably produced from attribution studies, that ‘risks’ caused by climate change are increasing. It is true that if we compare circumstances in two simulated worlds, the frequency of things like the incidence of communicable disease and deaths from extreme weather increase with global warming. But these are not real. In the real world, we can see a radical decline in seemingly climate-related risks. ‘Risk’ is no longer a concept that pertains to the real world – a measure of frequency of a thing’s incidence. Instead ‘risk’ has become a measure of the real world’s distance from an imagined and idealized world – an ideological fantasy.

Much of this was anticipated by Jean Baudrillard, who in the early 1980s observed the predominance of fiction overwhelming reality. Hyperreality, explained Baudrillard, is a condition in which it becomes ever more difficult to “distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies”. Can we say that the naked fearmongering that dominates public discussion and precludes debate about climate change is based on anything other than “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality“?

I argue that we cannot.

This is not to contend that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas, or that a warmer atmosphere will not create some problems for some people in some circumstances. It is, however, to argue that institutional science has eschewed the scientific method and embraced a new function of servicing the political establishment’s ideological fantasies.

Superficially scientific attempts to model society’s interactions with the natural environment begin with green ideological precepts embedded in simulations as code. These presuppositions are soon forgotten as such, but modelers then claim to have discovered them as truths in the simulation’s output, which compel urgent action. This reification of the Gaia hypothesis through simulation takes inputs of nebulous, naïve ideals such as harmony, balance, and nature, and outputs them as unimpeachable scientific injunctions that will leave us hungry, cold and poor for fear of the Goddess’s revenge – a condition that will require ever more complex simulations to explain.

Anyone pointing out the garbage-in-garbage-out circular reasoning that allows ideology to fester within simulation, to be passed-off as science, and to drive science’s departure from reality can expect to be called a ‘denier’. Their credentials to challenge scientific authority will be demanded and their motivations questioned. But we can see for ourselves that every prognostication produced in favor of green politics for over half a century has failed tests in reality and that the evidence of anything like a ‘climate crisis’ is not produced by reality at all but entirely from simulations. And we can see for ourselves that radical policies based on such a flimsy premise will be harmful to our interests. So much for ‘science’… It has been forgotten that, not unlike a computer, it is only possible to understand what science “says” if you know what it has been told. Institutional science is not immune to ideology. It may be its most tragic victim.

And now we are able to see why so much anxiety exists about ‘misinformation’. It is only simulation that has sustained the green agenda at the center of almost all Western governments, supranational and intergovernmental bodies and the UN, since the middle of the last century. From the conveniently forgotten neo-malthusian doomsaying about overpopulation and resource depletion of the late 1960s, through to the ‘climate emergency’, a historical view of attempts to model society’s interactions with the natural world proves them to have zero scientific value, but immense political utility. Simulation seems to turn deprivation and bare life into virtue, but only if it is not challenged. And that is the condition – the price – of science’s admission to politics.

Whereas science and democratic politics ought to thrive on finding consensus through disagreement – challenges to established orthodoxies – a new compact between institutional science and power precludes the testing of ideas. The simulation at the center of the ecological perspective has spawned a constellation of research and lobbying organizations and political institutions in its own image, that admit no criticism through its doors, much less fallibility of the cause. Yet ‘sustainability’ always was nothing more than the aspiration of spreadsheet designers, entirely removed from ordinary life and reality, who believed that society and nature, just like spreadsheets, must ‘balance’.

Let’s call it ‘eco-hyperreality’. No doubt, some may want to disagree with this borrowed hypothesis, and  the history I’ve described, and the nature of the new relationship between science and politics and the role of simulation in global and national political agendas. But note that we may not conversely disagree with them or the computer aided fantasy. The risks enumerated by the simulation provide sufficient urgency for the exclusion of critics of simulation from science, academia, civil society, news media and politics. It allows politicians to advance their agendas without seeking a democratic mandate. And challenges to simulation have been identified as an ‘online harm’ by now self-appointed, but soon to be statutory ‘fact-checkers’, who close down social media accounts.

There can be no institutional monopoly on truth if truth is to have any meaning beyond ‘might is right’. Science and politics without debate can only produce agreements or consensuses by exclusion, ultimately disconnecting them from reality. Now that the seemingly unstoppable green agenda has collided with the self-inflicted energy supply crisis, inflation, and deindustrialisation, politicians’ preference for simulation over discussion is understandable. If only they had listened to their critics, they wouldn’t need the VR headsets.