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With us or against us: revisiting the facts

At one time, many people could be neatly pigeon-holed according to their beliefs. In the 1990s, the great majority of those categorising themselves as environmentalists could reliably be assumed to oppose the use of pesticides, air- and water-pollution from industrial processing, nuclear power and genetically modified crops, with (anthropogenic) climate change rapidly reaching the top of the list. But in the early 21st Century, things are often less clear-cut.

But in some circles, if you don’t subscribe to this basket of beliefs, you become persona non gratis in the green movement. Older readers will remember the naturalist David Bellamy as an almost ubiquitous presence on television, but he disappeared from UK screens in the early 2000s, largely for the sin of not agreeing with the orthodoxy on climate change (although a foray into politics for the anti-EU Referendum Party may not have helped). Certainly his views on climate change led to him being marginalised by the Wildlife Trust.

James Lovelock, a near-contemporary of Bellamy and well-known for putting forward the Gaia theory of life on Earth, was at this time convinced of the dangers of global warming. In January 2006, he said in an interview with the Independent "billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable" by the end of the 21st century.

Four years later, he argued that "Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while" (James Lovelock: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change). His only sin as far as other activists were concerned was that he backed nuclear energy as being necessary to reduce the projected rise in temperatures.

By September 2016, however, we can read this in the Guardian: What has changed dramatically, however, is his position on climate change. He now says: “Anyone who tries to predict more than five to 10 years is a bit of an idiot, because so many things can change unexpectedly.” But isn’t that exactly what he did last time we met? “I know,” he grins teasingly. “But I’ve grown up a bit since then” (James Lovelock: ‘Before the end of this century, robots will have taken over’).

Lovelock now believes that “CO2 is going up, but nowhere near as fast as they thought it would. The computer models just weren’t reliable. In fact,” he goes on breezily, “I’m not sure the whole thing isn’t crazy, this climate change. You’ve only got to look at Singapore. It’s two-and-a-half times higher than the worst-case scenario for climate change, and it’s one of the most desirable cities in the world to live in.”

This position has infuriated many environmentalists, although Lovelock is difficult to dismiss because of his important work in the area. Some think he is simply a contrarian, always going against the grain once the majority has come round to his previous point of view; others dismiss him as going senile, although he shows no sign of this, even in his late 90s. Whatever their view, mainstream greens are uncomfortable with someone so identified with their movement being dismissive of IPCC projections, pro-nuclear and (more recently) pro-fracking.

Another high-profile change of heart came from Mark Lynas, a committed environmentalist and one-time destroyer of GM crop field trials. On January 3, 2013, he spoke to the Oxford Farming Conference, starting with these words: "My lords, ladies and gentlemen. I want to start with some apologies, which I believe are most appropriate to this audience. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I'm also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely."

Lynas is still deeply committed to the mainstream views on climate change and indeed has been towards the more alarmist end of the spectrum. But for a change of mind on the issue of crop biotechnology he has come in for intense criticism from his former friends. An attack published on the GMWatch website (Why Mark Lynas changed his mind) starts by rubbishing his claim to have been a leading light in the anti-GM movement, describing him as "more like a johnny-come-lately carpetbagger."

It then goes on to criticise the evidence he quotes for his change of mind and suggests that this came about more for political than rational scientific reasons. His primary sin seems to have been losing faith in a left-wing version of environmentalism and selling out. As quoted in a Guardian article from 2011, "Is the green movement a leftwing, anti-capitalist movement? Mark Lynas believes it is, and that those who style themselves as greens should be marginalised and allowed to die off so that they can be replaced by a new breed of market-friendly environmentalists like him."

It is surely healthy that people should change their minds from time to time, not necessarily just because the facts change, as Keynes said, but also because they begin to take a different point of view on something they feel strongly about. This is the sign of an open mind, in contrast, for example, to middle-aged Marxists who are blind to the obvious failure of their ideology in practice.

As for politics, policies are usually successful when made on the middle ground. Activists play an important role in raising awareness and applying pressure, but all too often they remain rigid in the purity of their views or become even more extreme. Progress is most often made by combining the righteous anger of the activist with the pragmatism of practical politics.

A first step is to look beyond the more extreme arguments and try to look objectively at what opponents have to say. If we begin to understand the reasons for their stance we may learn something and alter our own position to some extent. We may even go for the full Damascene conversion, although this is relatively rare. In any case, useful progress can often be made through compromise.