Democracy, Sir Winston Churchill is said to have remarked, is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
The American statesman Benjamin Franklin is often wrongly credited with the saying, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for lunch.”
And one of its drawbacks is that it encourages us to believe that our opinions matter. This is a fallacy in which we are encouraged by politicians, who need to flatter us into voting for them. They are listening to us, they say. They understand our point of view. They feel our pain.
So come election time we are expected to vote for the party with the best economic policies, when most of us would fail high school math. We are suddenly experts in healthcare policy, based on our experience of having a wart frozen; in criminal justice, because we once had a parking ticket.
There’s a little exaggeration here, but not much. Democracy places great power, at least in aggregate, in the hands of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Our corresponding responsibility is to shut up and listen to people who do.
But this is virtually heresy. People who’d hesitate to argue with a mechanic over the best way to fix an engine or a surgeon over how to replace a hip have no hesitation in dismissing the equally grounded conclusions of climate change scientists out of hand.
And on what grounds? Here’s American right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh, on why climate change is a myth: “I’ve instinctively known this from the get-go, from 20 years ago! The whole thing is made up, and the reason I know it is because liberals are behind it!”
Or how about a home-grown example? The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer wrote recently: “Although I risk immediately being branded mentally defective for saying so, I am not convinced by the notion of manmade global warming. My lack of conviction, I would be the first to admit, is based on nothing resembling great scientific understanding.”
No, indeed: it turns out that his rejection of human-induced global warming is based mainly on the view that because odd anarchist-types believe in it, it must be wrong. His tagline at The Telegraph, by the way, is “The voice of reason.”
That our opinions deserve respect, independently of any grounds we might have for holding them, is a silly myth. The fact is that because the editor of this newspaper, for instance, is not a scientist, has not processed the relevant data and lacks the innate mental capacity to critique the results anyway, he is not qualified to hold an opinion on whether humans contribute to climate change or not. For anyone in this position with the slightest regard for the truth, the only reasonable position is to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus.
Of course, we aren’t just talking about the facts and figures. There are other considerations.
Climate change is real, humans contribute to it, and we can reduce or reverse it if we pay the price. But there are still genuine negotiations that need to take place.
There are questions of justice: development brings nations out of poverty, which kills millions, and shouldn’t be stopped.
There are questions of achievability: without popular support, governments urging tough measures on climate change will be voted out, and populist ones voted in. (That’s democracy for you.)
There’s sustainability: it will take lots and lots of well-spent money to tackle this, and beggaring the paymasters by crippling their economies won’t help those who need it most. The very human doubts, fears, suspicions and self-interest, which have all been on display as this issue has increasingly been discussed, all have a part to play.
But the laws of physics take no account of public opinion. Climate change is the great challenge for our generation – and for our children’s.
As Benjamin Franklin really did say: “Geese are but Geese tho’ we may think ’em Swans; and Truth will be Truth tho’ it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful.”