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When old men kill their children

By Philip Machanick - posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Robert Mugabe is still getting away with it.

The leadership of the old powers of Europe did it in the First World War.

The climate change denial movement wants it too. OK, let's be polite, and call them "inactivists": people who cling to the notion that any change is bad.


When conditions change so that the old logic no longer applies, leaders whose time is past are wont to cling to the old ways, no matter how inapplicable. One of the sorriest outcomes of this sort of stubbornness is the damage to those not responsible, the younger members of society who must live and sometimes die with the consequences.

In Zimbabwe, the economy has collapsed. Schools, once the best in Africa, have mostly stopped functioning. Health services and clean water are all but gone, resulting in an unprecedented cholera epidemic. Life expectancy has plunged to the mid 30s. In the midst of this, Robert Mugabe stands defiant, obstructing his own coalition government, the liberation leader who is killing his children.

George Monbiot in The Guardian has accused the old men of Europe of killing their children in World War I. He didn’t mean this in quite the sense that I do. The way I see it, the old men of Europe, faced with an unravelling political situation, resorted to the Old Way of calling in treaty obligations to settle matters in a war. What they failed to take into account was that the industrialisation of warfare meant death on an industrial scale. When the horror of their approach started to become clear, instead of pulling back, they poured more young soldiers into an increasingly efficient death machine.

In World War I, as in Zimbabwe, the old men in charge could not put their heads in the new space that had developed since they formed their world view. They insisted they were right despite clear and obvious evidence to the contrary.

How does this relate to climate change?

A surprisingly high fraction of scientists who’ve lined up against climate change are relatively elderly, people who are no longer actively researching. These are people who did their science in a world where environmentalists were bunny huggers, and the science in the environmental movement was often vague or ill-informed. They cannot conceptualise a world in which environmentalism is based on sound science, and the opposing position is junk. They therefore stick with positions that are easily debunked, take common cause with non-scientists whose views are obvious drivel and obstruct moves to mitigate climate change.


The climate change inactivist movement, like the old men of Europe in 1914 and Robert Mugabe, do not care about their children - at least not as much as they care about their pride. They will not admit they are wrong even when the ocean is lapping around their ears.

The sorry thing is that if previous examples of this kind are anything to go on, they may well succeed.


Finally, here's a picture (from NASA; if you’re prejudiced against NASA, the Belgian Solar Influences Data Analysis Centre, SIDC, has consistent data) showing where we are in the 11-year sunspot cycle, which is a good indicator for solar output.

What's important to note about this picture is that two record years for temperature, 1998 and 2005, were both close to minima. Currently we are in the deepest solar minimum in nearly 100 years. Despite the fact that we have been on a downward trend in sunspots since 2000, most years since then would have set temperature records as compared with years before 1998. Rather than see something close to a 100-year low during the last La Niña, worldwide temperatures have stayed near record highs. What this means is that the “it’s only the sun” crew have some explaining to do. And we can look forward to even more record years once we pass through the solar minimum in the near future.

This is just one more pointer to the fact that we have little option but to take on the old men - otherwise we too will be responsible for killing our society's children.

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First published on the author's blog, Opinionations, on December 4, 2009.

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About the Author

Philip Machanick is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rhodes University, South Africa, and has worked at the University of Queensland, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and Stanford University in the USA. He has published a book, No Tomorrow, a novel with a climate change theme, and campaigns for sustainable living and rights-based government. He holds a PhD in Computer Science, and has published more than 50 academic papers. He blogs at Opinionations.

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