Yesterday Boyd’s boss, environment secretary Owen Paterson, told the Conservative party conference not to worry about global warming. “I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries.” A few weeks ago on Any Questions, he managed to repeat 10 discredited claims about climate change in one short contribution.
His department repeatedly misrepresents science to appease industrial lobbyists. It claimed that its field trials of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees showed that “effects on bees do not occur under normal circumstances“. Hopelessly contaminated, the study was in fact worthless, which is why it was not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.
Similar distortions surround the department’s refusal to establish meaningful marine reserves, its attempt to cull buzzards on behalf of pheasant shoots, and its determination to allow farmers to start dredging streams again, turning them into featureless gutters.
There’s one consolation: Boyd, in his efforts to establish a tinpot dictatorship, has not yet achieved the control enjoyed by his counterparts in Canada. There, scientists with government grants working on any issue that could affect industrial interests – tar sands, climate change, mining, sewage, salmon farms, water trading – are forbidden to speak freely to the public. They are shadowed by government minders and, when they must present their findings, given scripts to memorise and recite. Dozens of turbulent research programmes and institutes have either been cut to the bone or closed altogether.
In Australia, the new government has chosen not to appoint a science minister. Tony Abbott, who once described man-made climate change as “absolute crap”, has already shut down the government’s climate commission and climate change authority. But at least Australians are fighting back: the climate commission has been reconvened as an NGO, funded by donations. In Britain we allowed the government to shut down the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Development Commission with scarcely a groan of protest.
David Cameron’s government claimed that the tiny savings it made were required to reduce the deficit. Yet somehow it manages to fund a lavish range of planet-wrecking programmes. The latest is the Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas, just launched by the Natural Environment Research Council. Its aim is “to support the oil and gas sector” by providing “focused training” in fracking, in exploiting tar deposits, and in searching for oil in polar regions. In other words, it is subsidising fossil fuel companies while promoting climate change. How many people believe this is a good use of public money?
To be reasonable, when a government is manipulating and misrepresenting scientific findings, is to dissent. To be reasonable, when it is helping to destroy human life and the natural world, is to dissent. As Julien Benda argued in La Trahison des Clercs, democracy and civilisation depend on intellectuals resisting conformity and power.
A world in which scientists speak only through minders and in which dissent is considered the antithesis of reason is a world shorn of meaningful democratic choices. You can judge a government by its treatment of inconvenient facts and the people who expose them. This one does not emerge well.