There are many benefits to free speech, but chief among them, I think, is the fact that it mostly allows us to know that people are being honest with us. Many readers may have seen the excellent and rightly acclaimed HBO drama “Chernobyl”, which largely depicts how the Soviet State reacted to the 1986 nuclear meltdown. That show depicts one consequence of restrictions on freedom of speech: When saying the wrong thing might have negative consequences for you personally, you tend to say the “right” thing for your audience even if you do not fully believe it. In the case of Chernobyl, both in real life and on the show, it led to an instinctive downplaying of the disaster which probably cost time, and therefore many lives.
Over time, a society in which only one view might be heard erodes trust that those views are honestly expressed, and leads to disaster on one scale or another. Put it another way: If saying that climate change isn’t an immediate disaster was made into a crime in the morning, how could you trust that anyone – particularly in science – was being honest when they aired their opinion that it is a disaster? There’d be a reasonable suspicion that perhaps rather than holding genuine views, they were just trying to stay out of jail when asked about the topic.
One might wonder whether Professor Nick Cowern, climate expert emeritus from Newcastle University, considered that angle before making this call. I doubt it:
In my opinion the publication of climate disinformation should be a criminal offence.
— Prof Nick Cowern (@NickCowern) August 12, 2023
We should, he said in a subsequent tweet, be on a “war footing” vis a vis climate change. Presumably then he wants to adopt the tactics of President Roosevelt in World War Two, and intern anybody over whose motivations there might be suspicion. In America, that was Japanese Americans (or in some cases, just anyone looking vaguely Asian). In the modern west, it’s apparently got to be anyone who looks out their window at a cold day and says “so much for climate change, eh?”
By itself, a tweet from one scientist calling for this stuff isn’t necessarily newsworthy on its own. The newsworthiness comes, one might argue, from the fact that his tweet and the problems with it also sum up the problems with the wider climate movement: Years and years of screeching at us has not worked to convince the public that the time has come for the kind of action that they demand. Which has led, increasingly, to the Green movement abandoning the democratic process slowly, but almost entirely. If democracy isn’t delivering what you want, and if free speech isn’t delivering what you want, then the more attractive conclusion apparently is not that what you want isn’t popular, but that democracy and free speech are actually the real problems which need to be surmounted. Greens are not the first to think this way, as a cursory glance at human history shows.
One example of what I’m talking about here, incidentally, is the term “net zero”. That phrase did not appear anywhere in the world until 2019, when it was adopted as the policy of the globe at the COP conference held that year. The Irish people are not alone in never really having been asked to vote on a net zero target: It has been adopted here after the Green Party won just 7% of the vote at the last election, and without any debate of any kind in the country about what it might mean for us in terms of industrial and economic harm. Now, even in the very early stages, the “Green agenda” is what’s posing some of the most sustained problems for the Irish Government, precisely because there’s no democratic consensus around it.
We’re entering a turbulent period here: Rightly or wrongly, greens have convinced themselves that we are in the endgame now, when it comes to climate. Either they win – in their minds – or the world burns. That conviction is making them less and less tolerant, and also, paradoxically, less and less persuasive. Go figure, for example, that even as the media – on the Government’s explicit instructions – blasts out endless panic about the climate, the support for the Greens at the polls is falling.
Faced with a population that will not save itself, it is likely that more and more greens will resort to either calling for significant restrictions on the democratic process, or bypassing it altogether – as this weekend’s bizarre incident where hundreds descended to uproot tree saplings in Leitrim showed:
‘Trees for climate, not for profit’. 🌲🌳🌲
Today @SaveLeitrim & climate activists from across Ireland pulled 100s of Sitka spruce saplings from Coillte peatland. Straw Boys were among 150 on the direct action targeting industrial conifer plantations & demanding policy change. pic.twitter.com/htJmOiTVUR
— Slí Eile (@sli_eile_) August 13, 2023
Ultimately, I think, they’ll fail, for mostly the same reasons that the communists failed. The more you overtly try to crush dissent, the more obvious it becomes that the dissenters might be saying something worthwhile. And the more it looks like your own argument – if it requires silencing those who disagree with you – might be very weak.