A generation of young conservative politicians and journalists across the English-speaking world have put down a historic bet that could decimate their movement.
From the Senate chamber in Canberra, Australia, to the editorial offices of The Spectator in London, an entire class of right-wing leaders has hitched its wagon to an outlandish conspiracy theory without seemingly appreciating the profound implications their move will have not just for the planet, but also for the viability of their political project.
The conspiracy theory in question, which has been given unparalleled publicity ahead of the Copenhagen summit, goes like this: several thousand leading scientists, seeking to secure research funding, have corrupted global temperature data to stay in the pay of governments bent upon extorting higher taxes through the dissemination of scare stories about so-called global warming. Climate change is a hoax propagated by greedy academics and greens, better described as "the new reds".
Clearly this theory is undiluted lunacy, but its adoption by great swathes of the right is the most significant strategic blunder by a political movement in my lifetime. The great debates of the last century – be they over a woman's right to choose or whether the US should have fought on in Vietnam – have never, and likely will never, be entirely resolved. And even if they were, the public was never likely to exact a catastrophic and permanent political price from the losing side.
But with climate change things are very different, presenting a grave danger to the electoral success of right-wing politics this century. Because man-made climate change is not some abstract political theory but a scientific prediction that will be proven beyond doubt in the years ahead in the form of climate impacts.
The new decade will likely see record global temperatures, severe – possibly terminal – depletion of Arctic summer sea ice, huge loss of mass from glaciers, and wildfire epidemics. Taken collectively, these climate signals will be among the most important events in human history. In the decade following, any remaining climate deniers will surely lose their tenuous hold on the levers of influence because the public will witness first hand profound changes to our world. We'll want somebody to blame – we always do.
Just as George Bush was defined by Iraq and Margaret Thatcher by privatisation, the conservative movement outside of the Cameron clique is rapidly becoming defined by climate denial. For example, all the top 10 Tory bloggers in the UK are deniers. By the end of the next decade, this could be politically toxic.
For Tony Abbott, the new leader of the opposition Liberal party in Australia who assumed his role last week on a platform of climate scepticism – "absolute crap," he said of the science – the reckoning may come too late. But younger Australian politicians and journalists will, in years to come, be seeking the support of a public which will want to know why they wilfully misreported the consensus scientific view while we still stood a realistic chance of preventing climate breakdown. The same will be true of Sarah Palin and young Republican members of the US Congress who proclaim climate change to be a swindle designed to destroy the American way of life.
I find it extraordinary that the Conservatives Andrew Tyrie and Daniel Hannan, James Delingpole of The Daily Telegraph and Fraser Nelson of The Spectator have gambled their reputations on a conspiracy theory supported by the flimsiest of evidence.
Earlier this year they hitched their wagons to Ian Plimer, an Australian academic whose central thesis involves the assertion that volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans. It was Plimer's work that formed the core of the Daily Express front page last week, headlined "The Big Climate Change Fraud". This will appear in exhibitions in years to come alongside the Daily Mail headline of the Thirties – "Hurrah for the Blackshirts".
His volcano claim is an assertion that can be tested beyond doubt by the application of empirical data. And, of course, Plimer is wrong. Very wrong. In fact, humans emit 130 times more CO2 than volcanoes. Nasa's Gavin Schmidt, a world-leading climate scientist, dissected the Plimer hypothesis in excruciating detail and found it to be based, among other things, on a "basic logical fallacy".
The most common deniers' meme is centred on the claim that we have just experienced a decade of global cooling, a wilful misinterpretation of data. In fact, the eight warmest years in recorded history are, according to the Hadley Centre, 1998, 2005, 2003, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007. In other words, this is the hottest decade in the 150-year global temperature record.
The deniers have also claimed that the extent of the Arctic sea ice increased dramatically in winter 2008. Yes, it did. It increases in size every winter – because it's winter. But the long-term trend is one of alarming decline, such that scientists at the US Naval Postgraduate School now fear summer sea ice may disappear in the next decade, a century earlier than had been expected.
Armed with nothing more substantial than their cod science, the deniers have been emboldened these past weeks by the Climate Research Unit email hacking. But the welter of misinformation written about the CRU leak reminds me of the CNBC financial analyst Jim Cramer. On 11 March 2008 Cramer stared into the camera and shouted – yes, shouted – "No! No! No! Bear Stearns is fine. Do not take your money out. Bear Stearns is not in trouble." Days later Bear Stearns went into liquidation in the first great financial failure of the crash. Cramer's credibility was shredded beyond repair. But the right is now populated by the Cramers of climate change. They're shouting, too – that the climate is not in trouble. But they're wrong, and their credibility will not long survive.
One of the defining moments of last year's financial meltdown was Alan Greenspan's questioning before a US House committee. The committee chairman pressed him, "You found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right – it was not working?" Greenspan answered, "Absolutely, precisely. You know, that's precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well."
The collapse of the banking system, we know, will be nothing compared with the collapse of the climate system. And being hauled before committees will be the least of the deniers' worries as an entire generation of conservatives are forced to answer for their role in the great climate crash.
Joss Garman is a Greenpeace activist and co-founder of Plane Stupid