What does Climategate prove — those e-mails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at a British university that show a will to manipulate data to confirm the case for warming? I don’t think it proves climate change is just a “global warming scare” (National Post). The Arctic ice is still melting, the polar bears are retreating inland, the Northwest Passage is opening wider. Nor does it simply establish that scientists are human (Paul Krugman), although I wouldn’t dispute the point. I think it shows that politics makes people crazy.

You can already see this on the level of mundane electoral politics, and I’m not even talking about the pros — I mean regular citizens. Many people follow their party or cause the way they follow their favourite team: Their spirits rise and sink with each game. They think about it (party or team) before falling asleep and first thing when they awake. Maybe this comes from a need to feel part of something larger than one’s circumscribed self. But it leads to weird behaviour. There’s a reason that “fan” derives from fanatic.

Now extend onto less average terrain and you get the “truthers,” who say 9/11 was a U.S. government plot masked by myths of hijacked planes; and the “birthers,” who insist that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. I use both since they are taken to represent the left and the right. I think it’s worth hearing their arguments but, when you do, you sense that nothing anyone says can shake them. This is symptomatic of non-medical craziness.

Those university climate scientists have been accused of betraying science for politics, but they’re also human, and human beings are political. They weren’t betraying science, they were pursuing politics, and politics can make you crazy. One sign of this is that people with a passionate political cause often think all those who disagree with them are crazy (or evil). Another: They believe their issue is uniquely critical to the future or to survival.

In the climate case, this seems to them obvious. Writer Bill McKibben says: “Climate change is not like any other issue we’ve [i.e. the human race] ever dealt with. … The adversary here is physics.” It may seem evident to you, too. But it’s not the only time the claim has been made.

The first environmentalist I ever met, Murray Bookchin, said in the 1960s that the ecological crisis was unique. In the 1930s, people felt that fascism presented a uniquely desperate threat. In 1915, during the First World War, Marxist Rosa Luxemburg said the choice for humanity was socialism or barbarism. That choice has been updated by socialists to “even starker,” in the face of global warming.

What often follows is refusal of any compromises or half measures. So James Hansen, “the world’s pre-eminent climate scientist” (The Guardian), prefers no deal in Copenhagen to a compromise since “this is analogous to the issue of slavery. … You can’t … reduce it to 50 per cent or 40 per cent.” Yet, slavery was reduced incrementally. One of the first small steps happened in Ontario in 1793, long before Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. That’s why I say politics often involves fantasy and delusion, along with moral passion.

I’m not in favour of avoiding politics, just craziness in the course of it. Why are people of all political stripes so prone to it? Because we all grow up under the same sky and are subject to being rained on by the same dementias. I don’t even mean to argue against radical or utopian politics; I just don’t see why radicalism and incrementalism can’t co-exist. True, you might feel cranky or unsatisfied with the results, so then you push for more.

As for survival, I’d still bet on it, but more due to the bloody-minded and primitive human instinct for it, which has kept the species around this long, than to any deliberate exercise of intelligence, scientific or political.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.