Our colleague Benoît Rittaud, president of the Association des Climato-réalistes and senior lecturer in mathematics at the University of Paris 13, has a book out: “Ils s’imaginaient sauver le monde: Chroniques Sceptiques de la COP21.” (Books Editions 2016). I recommend it strongly to anyone who reads French, not just for the clarity of its exposition of the sceptical viewpoint and its ironic comments on the imbecilities of the COP21 conference, but for its frequent illuminating asides, the originality of which stems perhaps from the fact that Benoît is thinking outside the Anglo-Saxon box, drawing on a quite different cultural tradition. I intend to translate a chapter or two, but in the meantime I’ll try and give you an idea of what I mean.
Benoît starts with a reflection on the natural reaction of the normal scientist, (citing Kuhn) which is to trust experts in fields outside his own, and on his first response to his own doubts. He says:
From the point of view of the normal scientist, it’s easy to understand that when you see the epistemological warning light flashing, indicating a problem within institutional science, this is going to provoke a certain mental disturbance. The two main blogs confronting each other at the moment of my conversion were RealClimate, manned by a team of climate scientists, representing the voice of official science as it were, and Climate Audit, run on a shoestring by the Canadian Steve McIntyre, who had no particular scientific status. And yet his site was far more precise, detailed, and factual. Climate Audit displayed scientific rigour; RealClimate offered personal attacks. In this case, it was the amateur who was following the path of true science.
He gives a long account of his inner conflict which would be most unusual in an English-speaking author, I think, but which harks back to Socrates’ dictum “know thyself”, and to Descartes’ use of introspection to free philosophy from its scholastic bounds.
The main bulk of the book consists of a beginner’s guide to scepticism, with references to Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts (and Josh!), as well as to two distinguished French scientists who have dared to express their scepticism – Vincent Courtillot and Claude Allègre – interspersed with a caustic day-by-day running commentary on the unfolding COP21 circus. There are quotes which English-speaking readers won’t be aware of, like President Hollande in Manila attributing earthquakes to global warming, or ex-Minister of the Environment Corinne Lepage calling for a register of climate sceptics to be made for some later unspecified use.
He has an interesting theory about the 1.5°C/2°C “controversy” (if that’s the right word for a discussion which had all the intellectual interest of a discussion of the relative merits of “hocus pocus” and “abracadabra”). Borrowing from his previous book, “La Peur Exponentielle” which recounts the history of our fear of the idea of exponential growth from Babylonian times through Malthus to the present, he says:
The symbolic fear of the exponential can be divided into three phases: an initial one during which the growth is too slow to be noticed; an intermediary phase where the growth becomes perceptible and worrying; and finally the catastrophic phase, when all is lost because the exponential growth is out of control. The tipping point is the precise moment when we pass from the second to the final phase. Whatever its form, the fear of the exponential always places us at the precise moment in time between the second and third phases. With the same eternal message: It’s not too late, but we must move fast. […]
This new notion of a double tipping point, which we know was was only introduced for purely diplomatic reasons, seems to me to be a major strategic errror on the part of the authors of the treaty. The 2°C had become an icon clearly identified by its unique character, combining fear of the climate and the iconic symbol of exponential growth, which is so powerful in contemporary thought. Having two tipping points is equivalent to not having any at all, replacing the terrifying idea of a “climatic explosion” by a worry more diffuse, more gradual, and therefore much less effective. From now on, if we only need to be “a bit afraid” between +1.5°C and +2°C, what’s to stop us saying that we only need to be “a bit more afraid” beyond that?
Everywhere there are parallels with the British, American, Canadian or Australian experience, and interesting details which can only help to complete the picture. There’s an account of the sacking of the TV weatherman Philippe Verdier which we covered here, and of the “Wanted” posters placed outside the hotels of sceptical scientists attending an alternative event by the rent-a-mob activist group AVAAZ. The extracts from the COP21 agreement with their multiple square brackets are treated with suitable derision, and the ecstatic acclaim with which the final document was greeted is comapared to the Tex Avery cartoon character running over a cliff and continuing to advance, unaware that he’s walking on thin air.
But it’s not all science. There’s a chapter on Pope Francis’s encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. The Pope cites his sources, as any scientist would, and Benoît checks them, just as you or I would when reading an article in Nature or at the Conversation. Who best understands the meaning of Leviticus, St Paul or the Psalmist? The Pope, or an obscure lecturer in the History of Mathematics? Read the book and judge.
Benoît frequently steps back from the essentially farcical tale he’s telling and tries to make sense of it all from a long-term socio-historical or political point of view, much as we try to do here. Some of his ideas are interesting variations on what we read and write on English-speaking blogs; the suggestion that climate catastrophism might be a kind of psychological aftershock of the fear of nuclear holocaust which was largely dissipated (quite unjustifiably, in my opinion) by the fall of the Soviet Union; or the religious analogy, harking back, not to a vengeful Judeo-Christian god, but to Zeus and his thunderbolt.
And he ends this serious (and sometimes angry) book rather surprisingly with a reference to a cartoon in le Monde which showed a row of serious-looking experts and a clown with the caption: “A climate sceptic has slipped into the Academy of Sciences. Can you spot him?” Benoît’s comment is typically profound and ends on a note that is positively Nietzschean:
This cartoon accompanies an article criticising the unorthodox position on the climate held by some members of the Academy of Sciences, including Vincent Courtillot. It was therefore an attack on a specific person, inevitably recalling certain similar cartoons attacking Zola at the time of the Dreyfus affair.
Leaving aside for a moment the insulting nature of the drawing, it has to be noted that it contains an interesting point, though it’s highly unlikely that the artist was aware of it: – the choice of the clown to represent the climate sceptic, a surprising choice given all the alternative derogatory characters available. Why not an idiot in a dunce’s cap? Or a madman dressed as Napoleon, or a narcissist admiring himself in the mirror? These alternatives would have been equally insulting, and more relevant. [..] Identifying the climate sceptic as a clown, joyful and smiling, invites a comparison with the carbocentrists with their stern looks and grey suits, reflecting their dull, serious outlook.
Severity suits them, for climate alarmism has chosen to base itself on Fear – that’s to say on an emotion – which is why Reason, whether scientific, economic, or political, is generally useless as a weapon in the debate. To challenge an emotion, we need another emotion, And in this case it’s the clown who gives us the answer. The only practical way of answering fear is with laughter, the joyous, eternal cheer of those who refuse to give in.
Some of my favourite commenters here suggest that ridicule is the best medicine against the alarmist disease, and we often try and supply it. And so do Benoît and his fellow climato-réalistes. We can learn from them.