A Point of View: Climate change and craving a cause

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The novels of Umberto Eco suggest that if people want to believe something badly enough, they will only hear what they want to hear. This is particularly true in the current debate about global warming, writes Lisa Jardine.

(Spoiler alert: Key plot details revealed below)

Umberto Eco was in London recently to publicise his latest novel, The Prague Cemetery - a baroque, meandering work of murder and intrigue set in the late 19th Century. A persistent theme of this book, as of several of his earlier ones, is the credulity of those who crave a cause to believe in.

This is a theme that clearly has its equivalent today - which is probably why it continues to fascinate Eco.

Those who have lost faith in a higher order often search strenuously for an alternative belief system to help them make sense of the world. And the more widely held more "mainstream" theories are, the more determined such "non-believers" are likely to become in their search for an alternative.

Umberto Eco Umberto Eco's 1988 novel Foucault's Pendulum has been called the "thinking man's Da Vinci Code"

Many years ago, when I was a novice broadcaster, I interviewed Eco live for BBC Radio. Eco was in London to publicise a book of essays, and was in a contrary mood.

I was glad that in my recent broadcasting training I had been taught how to stop a guest from producing resonating bangs on the air waves by tapping their pen against the microphone stand in time with the points they were making.

You lean forward very slowly so as not to startle them and cause them to expostulate verbally, firmly close your own hand round the offending pen-holding one, and remove it silently to a place of safety. To my relief it worked.

Still, it was the last in a long day of interviews and Eco was barely paying attention to my questions. Until I heard him remark, à propos his love of music, that as a 12-year-old boy in Piedmont, northern Italy, he had started to learn the trumpet.

"So you were the little boy in Foucault's Pendulum, who didn't know how to play the Last Post," I exclaimed.

Eco stopped fiddling with the studio equipment and looked me straight in the eye. "Yes," he answered, "I was that small boy". From then on he responded energetically to my questions, and the interview is one I recall with pleasure to this day.

Trumpet lessons

Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's second novel, was first published in 1988. Together with two accomplices, the protagonist, Jacopo Belbo - perhaps more villain than hero - creates a complex, highly plausible set of documents purporting to come from the ancient secret association of the Order of the Templars in the Middle Ages.

A bugler plays the Last Post The Last Post was the protagonist's first "con"

In the book, this proves so convincing that it attracts a determined following of people who passionately believe in the continuity of the Templars, and their quest for the Holy Grail, down to the present day.

The situation gets badly out of hand, and Belbo and his fellow tricksters find themselves pursued by 20th Century Templars who are convinced of the truth of their fabricated documents. This leads ultimately to Belbo's ritual murder by them, in the belief that he is withholding the "revelation", the answer to fundamental questions of the Order.

It is a key incident from Belbo's childhood which convinces him that people can be drawn with ease into believing in a deception, as long as they have a big enough personal investment in the constructed narrative to badly want it to be true.

Here is how Belbo's story goes in Foucault's Pendulum: At the end of the war, in 1945, as Italian partisans were driving back the Fascists, a convoy of freedom fighters arrived in Belbo's village.

Two men killed in action were to be buried in the local cemetery, with full honours. Eager to play a part in the glory of victory, the 12-year-old Belbo volunteered to play the Last Post at the burial, even though he had barely begun to take trumpet lessons.

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When the moment came, he rose to his feet and played, slowly and with passion, the scale of C major - all he had as yet learned how to play.

He held the final note for as long as he could for particular effect. The onlookers heard the plangent tones of the Last Post. "Bravo, young fellow," the commander said to Belbo, who felt uplifted by the importance his deception had given him.

If such a simple subterfuge could earn him unstinting approval, Belbo reasoned later in his life, any duping of a credulous audience was possible.

Belbo's counterfeit Templar "Plan" brings together history and myth, fact and fiction, woven together using elaborate chains of association and allusion. It takes in the believers, and raises him to the status of master-interpreter.

'Secret society'

If you want to believe something badly enough, Eco's novels suggest, then by selective listening - by editing out the contrary evidence - you will hear what you want to hear. Nowhere is this more true currently than in the debate about global warming.

Last week, a last-minute global climate deal was struck at the Durban climate change conference. The conference ended with an agreement by all 194 countries to make a new global agreement covering every nation to come into effect by 2020.

Chris Huhne, the United Kingdom's climate change and energy secretary, said the Durban deal was "a significant step forward" because it set out a clear path to a new global and legally-binding treaty on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

View from a Twin Otter plane operated by the British Antarctic Survey flying over the  Wilkins Ice Shelf. The two camps on either side of the climate change debate are poles apart

Difficult as such negotiations have proved, at successive international conferences, the continued commitment of almost all the world's nations surely points to the fact that the danger to our planet of high-level carbon emissions is a real one, on which there is widespread scientific and political agreement supported now by considerable bodies of evidence.

But according to the apparently growing band of climate change sceptics, this is a pernicious illusion. Partisan science, they claim, has taken hold of politicians and the media, and their message is being transmitted so loudly that it cannot be gainsaid.

The more determinedly the scientific community stands behind its global warming predictions, the more strongly the sceptics counter that there is no longer any "balance" to the argument and that their supposedly equally convincing views are being silenced.

Former president of the Royal Society Robert May is regularly denounced for allegedly announcing in 2006 that the case for global warming was so conclusively well proven that the BBC should stop giving climate change sceptics so much airtime in the interests of "balance".

Instead the climate sceptics have created an intricate web of their own associations and allusions, to produce their version of an alternative story which runs contrary to that of mainstream science.

What Umberto Eco's stories tell us is how comforting such quests can be. Faced with an uncertain future and declining prosperity, without religion for reassurance, what could be more comforting than to join a select band searching for the Holy Grail?

Sir David Attenborough at Cape Royds Adélie penguin colony, Antarctica. Sir David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series took viewers on a tour of the Arctic and Antarctic

The lesson I draw from all this, in the context of the arguments for and against climate change and global warming, is addressed to the climate scientists. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that international scientific near consensus is not enough to allay the fears of those who feel left out of the whole debate.

Eco's illumination of the powerful way in which we can all hear clearly that part of the story that confirms our own convictions cuts both ways.

It is never a winning strategy to go on repeating dogmatically so-called "facts" that seem obvious to the already converted. To those who are fearful or simply unconvinced, this can sound like bullying. It can even be represented - and indeed has been by climate sceptics - as itself a conspiracy by a kind of "secret society", using selective, doctored evidence.

Graphs and pie charts have evidently failed to convince. Perhaps a more discursive approach which focuses on observable change backed up by scientific evidence may be more persuasive.

Maybe something more like a conversation is needed. That is surely why David Attenborough's recent plea that we recognise that global warming really is happening, at the close of his series of natural history programmes on the Arctic and Antarctic, had such authority:

"Polar animals are already reacting to the changes. The loss of sea ice in the north affects not just polar bears but the whole planet. When the ice vanishes, the dark sea-water that replaces it absorbs the sun's energy, so its temperature rises," he said.

"This is why the Arctic, a region the size of North America, is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. As a consequence, increasing amounts of meltwater are now flowing into the polar sea. The implications of that are hard to overstate."

Attenborough's audience have accompanied him on a personal voyage of discovery on his most recent visits to the polar regions. They have witnessed with him the changing patterns of life there, and shared his reactions to dramatic change that has taken place during his lifetime.

They may feel properly in a position to share his disturbing conclusions.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 677.

    Thanks Iain (580) for that link:

    "....Take a look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtevF4B4RtQ and then consider some of the points made for yourself...."

    Certainly raises many good questions

  • rate this

    Comment number 676.

    #675 cont...
    I know my post doesn't make much sense. But then to understand it you have to understand one of the most difficult questions ever answered, 'how does a mind work'?
    Maybe the big question, is 'God' real? No.
    But we could build God in the lab.
    Do we survive death? No.
    The core of the mind is a quantum state that could survive death - but only with a vast amount of very complex science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    Some raise questions of God. - Science can actually conceptualise and deal with god - I know because I've worked in Strong AI and actually had to do it. The only question was - upon publication who would lynch me first the atheists or the religious people?
    God is the equation that programs a neural network to build a brain, however it also works as a quantum field computer. How it works God-

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    Let us all acknowledge that this an evolving changing world. Let us also put our collective minds and creativity together as a human race to find a cleaner non carbon path to the acquisition and sharing of energy. We certainly have the capacity to do so - do we have the collective will?

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    The article echos Eco to the point of screaming his influence.Multiple plots, themes and schemes seemingly unrelated focus on the reality of chaotic bungling human behaviour. Too much power has been with the church and too much power is with corrupt politicians and we look forward to the age on enlightenment when science leads us forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    This link shows many of the former IPCC authors/reviewers and their views on CAGW

    I wonder if Lisa and Sir David would like to highlight this in an article or programme? Then again, perhaps not or they'd be as welcome at the BBC as Dr Bellamy when he tried speaking the truth..

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    "Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that international scientific near consensus is not enough..."

    Strange! We've been told for years that the debate is over, the science is settled and that the consensus is overwhelming but now it's just a near consensus!

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    yeah, absoblimminlutely.

    Bothsidesbroadsidecasting, ca-tching

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    Durban wasn't the success the carbon tax alarmists were hoping for. This article shows that the conclusions drawn from the twisted facts and faulty models of the IPCC are no longer ringing true with the public. IPCC, Al Gore and the BBC have no credibility left and the admission here that their mantras aren't working signals a change in tactics for the the warmists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    Read Robert M. Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle-Maintenance"
    Here he is telling the well-inclined audience what went wrong, from the Greeks say, in a very exciting detective-story. The other half of the novel is about him and his sun on a trip and much ropy, tedious problems. If you like his conclusion now:

    swing away from all quantity accumulating and try some quality. Fantastic You Say?

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    All environmental problems require the same solution, social engineering. It's the only way to overcome resistance and the solution has been my work.

    There's a phenomenal wellspring of goodwill to be tapped provided there's no pain attached and it can change economic focus and corporate policy. Legislation or punitive regimes only cost and are ineffective at best. Market share motivates all

  • Comment number 666.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    My previous question, "Is global warming man-made or just cyclic?" The answer is unknown but leans heavily toward the former. Perhaps both are involved, or, more frighteningly, perhaps we are actually in a cooling cycle being overwhelmed by pollution. Perhaps there is a warming cycle due to start very soon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 664.

    With so many geniuses commenting, I'm reluctant to throw my two cents in. After all, some of you are obviously smarter then Pascal or even God. I'm not; but having worked in meteorology all my life I can tell you that it was obvious several decades ago the the world was warming. Is it warming because of man's contribution of carbon to the atmosphere, or because of a cyclical pattern?

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    Almost forgot mentioning that other approach, namely heating water up with sunbeams achieved via mirrors. - To Murmurmate, if we, humans that is, had our natural intuition like some milleniums back, evolving with modern society, no thought would be necessary for pondering about what might happening. I eg did this for more than twenty years, checking thoughts and action. A lot goes wrong, tellingya

  • rate this

    Comment number 662.

    Pascal's reasoning was terrible and foolish when applied to religion, he advocated acting as if we believed in God, that is very different to real believing and would be seen through by any God.

    Doing nothing is unlikely to be a winning bet IMO, but much could be lost. Caution involves doing a lot, ensuring impact of any future development is carefully thought through to the best of our ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    Africa could develop into the world's leading power-plants area, cue solar-panel. The technique is now ripe. What the USA has to say is so beyond any description, mind- and language-wise that it makes me cringe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    Glaciers start on land then can flow onto the sea and feed ice sheets or become icebergs, where does a glacier stop being a glacier? http://www.ouramazingplanet.com/163-glacier-once-stuck-to-sea-floor-breaks-loose.html

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    @CRITICUS "What can be won by doing nothing?"

    Well maybe not nothing, but the question is a lot more complex than Pascal's pathetic reasoning. We could allow Africa to industrialise which will pretty much be forbidden in these new rules, meaning that they never develop fully which has a whole host of problems. Plus the US won't do anything until China do so this entire argument is pointless

  • rate this

    Comment number 658.

    ney, this wouldn't be godly, being just pawns in their game. But Gods can go through the notion that they don't know what's going to happen, they have the abilities of pretending everything, observing us too if you will. We take our chances, go with the flow joyfully, meet new situation and experience some less cracking moments. For them maybe. Hey, whatabou' Mermage? clouds do listen, read, act!


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