Toby Young Toby Young

Why won’t Chris Packham have a real debate on climate?

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On Sunday, the BBC did something unusual. It invited Luke Johnson, a climate contrarian, to join a panel with Laura Kuenssberg to discuss net zero. As followers of this debate will know, the BBC’s editorial policy unit issued guidance to staff in 2018 saying: ‘As climate change is accepted as happening, you do not need a “denier” to balance the debate.’ Although it did allow for exceptions to this rule: ‘There are occasions where contrarians and sceptics should be included within climate change and sustainability debates.’ Presumably this was one such occasion.

I can’t help thinking Packham’s ‘devastating put-down’ would have been more effective if it had been true

The other two people on the panel – Chris Packham and Layla Moran – are members of the climate emergency camp, so there was no pretence of ‘balance’. At one point, the exchange between Johnson and Packham became heated and when the latter invoked the recent downpour in Dubai as well as extensive wildfires in the ‘global south’, as evidence of the effect of anthropogenic global warming, Johnson challenged him to come up with evidence that extreme weather was caused by carbon emissions.

‘It doesn’t come from Toby Young’s Daily Septic [sic], which is basically put together by a bunch of professionals with close affiliations to the fossil fuel industry,’ replied Packham. ‘It comes from something called science.’ This was hailed by Packham’s side as a slam-dunk rebuttal of Johnson’s argument. The Canary wrote up the exchange under the following headline: ‘Chris Packham just humiliated Kuenssberg’s preposterous climate-denying guest.’ The London Economic, which describes itself as ‘a digital newspaper with a metropolitan mindset’, summarised it as follows: ‘With science on his side, Chris Packham was able to deliver a devastating put-down when challenged on the evidence of climate change.’

I can’t help thinking Packham’s ‘devastating put-down’ would have been more effective if it had been true. The people who put together the Daily Sceptic, a news publishing site I’ve edited since 2020, have no connections to the fossil fuel industry. If Packham and his allies are so convinced of the rightness of their cause, why invent reasons to discredit their opponents? A clip from the show including this claim was posted on Twitter by BBC Politics and retweeted by Laura Kuenssberg, getting, at last count, 845,000 views. And to think the BBC launched a multi-million-pound department last year to ‘address the growing threat of disinformation’.

What about Packham’s claim that ‘something called science’ provides all the evidence we need that extreme weather events are caused by burning fossil fuels? There’s really no such thing as ‘the science’, as in a consensus viewpoint among scientists that’s so incontrovertible no serious debate is possible. All scientific theories are just hypotheses and, as such, subject to challenge. Indeed, if it were illegitimate to challenge these theories, progress in science wouldn’t be possible. To pretend that the science of what causes extreme weather is ‘settled’ when it’s the subject of ongoing dispute suggests that Packham and his pals aren’t capable of having a proper grown-up discussion.

Such underhand tactics aren’t confined to the climate debate. Virtually all defenders of fashionable orthodoxies sidestep the need to engage with their opponents by pretending that no serious person could possibly disagree with them. For instance, the historian William Dalrymple recently took a shot at Kemi Badenoch following a speech she made in which she said Britain’s wealth cannot be attributed to ‘white privilege and colonialism’. ‘Kemi Badenoch needs to learn some history and not let ideological wishful thinking overcome historical facts,’ he tweeted.

But as Dalrymple surely knows, there is a debate among economic historians as to the role of slavery and colonialism in Britain’s prosperity, and the issue cannot be settled by a simple appeal to ‘historical facts’. It’s a strange sleight of hand we see when amateurs like Johnson and Badenoch are ‘put down’ by ‘experts’, combining an appeal to the authority of academics – ‘Stay in your lane, dear’ – with a denial of the subtlety and nuance that is their stock-in-trade. Indeed, the professoriate’s ability to master this complexity is the main source of their intellectual authority. So, to invoke that authority and at the same time claim ‘the science’ or the ‘historical facts’ point to just one simple conclusion seems self-defeating.

Why not dispense with the condescending rhetoric and enter the intellectual fray? It’s almost as if they’re not confident they would prevail if forced to engage in an actual debate.