Leading Article: Will scepticism endanger Greens?

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The Independent Online
AMEASURE of scepticism is healthy when scientists make sweeping claims about the likely effects of man's pollution of the environment and destruction of natural resources. After all, not long ago the world's oil reserves were thought to be much nearer exhaustion than they are now.

There are, however, growing signs of an ideological backlash. One was a recent attack in the Spectator in which Andrew Kenny mocked the belief that the ozone layer is being depleted by CFC and other gases, arguing that it is merely a seasonal phenomenon in the Antarctic. The global warming effect was the next target in a booklet from the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs.

One of its authors, Roger Bate, has now returned to the charge - as we report on page 3 today - in the journal Chemistry and Industry. He dismisses evidence of global warming as inconclusive, arguing that it would therefore be wrong to tax people to help to reduce it.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher told the Royal Society in 1988 that protection of the environment and the balance of nature was 'one of the great challenges of the late 20th century', there has been little difference between the three main political parties on environmental issues. With the demise of the Green Party, mainstream politicians were keen to show their concern - though it often required directives from the European Commission in Brussels to produce effective environmental legislation. The Government recently even committed itself to the concept of sustainable development and reduced its huge road-building programme.

So it would be a political development of note if Tory right-wingers were to pick up the mood of hostile scepticism found in some of their favourite publications. They would be ill-advised to do so. The conviction that mankind is taking excessive risks with the environment by polluting air, land and sea, cutting down forests and extinguishing thousands of species of flora and fauna has been widely and fervently embraced in the Western world.

With the help of overwhelming and immediate evidence, the environmentalists have won that argument: organisations such as Greenpeace and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have more members than any political party. Emotion may play as large a part as reason in this widespread concern but that makes it more, rather than less, valid. There is a sense that mankind must no longer play God with this planet, and that some adjustment of priorities is necessary. It would be rash for any serious politician to ignore this powerful feeling.