Global Warming: the Chilling Effect on Free Speech

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Whoever thought that serious commentators would want it made illegal to have a row about the weather? One Australian columnist has proposed outlawing ‘climate change denial’. ‘David Irving is under arrest in Austria for Holocaust denial’, she wrote. ‘Perhaps there is a case for making climate change denial an offence. It is a crime against humanity, after all.’ (1) Others have suggested that climate change deniers should be put on trial in the future, Nuremberg-style, and made to account for their attempts to cover up the ‘global warming…Holocaust’ (2).

The message is clear: climate change deniers are scum. Their words are so wicked and dangerous that they must be silenced, or criminalised, or forced beyond the pale alongside those other crackpots who claim there was no Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. Perhaps climate change deniers should even be killed off, hanged like those evil men who were tried Nuremberg-style the first time around.

Whatever the truth about our warming planet, it is clear there is a tidal wave of intolerance in the debate about climate change which is eroding free speech and melting rational debate. There has been no decree from on high or piece of legislation outlawing climate change denial, and indeed there is no need to criminalise it, as the Australian columnist suggests. Because in recent months it has been turned into a taboo, chased out of polite society by a wink and a nod, letters of complaint, newspaper articles continually comparing climate change denial to Holocaust denial. An attitude of ‘You can’t say that!’ now surrounds debates about climate change, which in many ways is more powerful and pernicious than an outright ban. I am not a scientist or an expert on climate change, but I know what I don’t like - and this demonisation of certain words and ideas is an affront to freedom of speech and open, rational debate.

The loaded term itself – ‘climate change denier’ – is used to mark out certain people as immoral, untrustworthy. According to Richard D North, author most recently of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence: ‘It is deeply pejorative to call someone a “climate change denier”…it is a phrase designedly reminiscent of the idea of Holocaust denial – the label applied to those misguided or wicked people who believe, or claim to believe, the Nazis did not annihilate the Jews, and others, in very great numbers.’ (3) People of various views and hues tend to get lumped together under the umbrella put-down ‘climate change denier’ – from those who argue the planet is getting hotter but we will be able to deal with it, to those who claim the planet is unlikely to get much hotter at all (4). On Google there are now over 80,000 search returns, and counting, for the phrase climate change denial.

Others take the tactic of openly labelling climate change deniers as cranks, possibly even people who might need their heads checked. In a speech last month, in which he said people ‘should be scared’ about global warming, UK environment secretary David Miliband said ‘those who deny [climate change] are the flat-earthers of the twenty-first century’ (5). Taking a similar tack, former US vice president-turned-green-warrior Al Gore recently declared: ‘Fifteen per cent of the population believe the moon landing was actually staged in a movie lot in Arizona and somewhat fewer still believe the Earth is flat. I think they all get together with the global warming deniers on a Saturday night and party.’ (6)

It is not only environmentalist activists and green-leaning writers who are seeking to silence climate change deniers/sceptics/critics/whatever you prefer. Last month the Royal Society – Britain’s premier scientific academy founded in 1660, whose members have included some of the greatest scientists – wrote a letter to ExxonMobil demanding that the oil giant cut off its funding to groups that have ‘misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the...
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