Brian Cox — of wide-eyed BBC science spectaculars fame — is lauded as one of science’s leading advocates, and a ‘science communicator‘.

But for a man who is so keen to extol the virtues of the scientific method, and its unequalled ability to make sense of the world and how to make it a better place, he seems awfully confused:

Granted, it was just a tweet. But it was a tweet that provoked a volume of conversation, in which Cox defended his position.

More about that shortly. But what strikes me immediately about Cox’s words is that although he emphasises science, he is quick to abandon it as the lingua franca of debates of consequence. Better to simply take the piss out of people you disagree with than engage with them on the ground you hold sacred. So much for science, then. And so much for the scientist who seems to have won awards for his expertise in ‘public engagement’ in science. This should prompt some discussion about what is meant by ‘science’, what is meant by ‘engagement’ and what is meant by ‘public’. “Taking the piss” is not science. And telling people what they must think (for fear of having the piss taken out of them by the pop-star-turned-TV-physicist) is not ‘public engagement’ with science. Moreover, the ‘public’ imagined by ‘communicators’ seems to be a mindless body that must be instructed, not individuals who are capable of forming an understanding for themselves until they are anointed.

Cox, as is the wont of most people in his position, who use their elevated status to pronounce on climate change, misapprehends climate scepticism — mostly because he’s more interested in “taking the piss” out of it, than in actually understanding the terms of the debate. He is informed not by the debate itself, but by the polarised view of the debate, which precedes it. The politics of the climate debate precede the science. Thus, on Cox’s view, there is only ‘the science’ and its deniers. All nuance is given up.

This is a surprise, because, as is discussed in a recent post here, Cox had an opportunity to see how the establishment’s own preoccupation with climate change threatened to dominate the research agenda, and his own field of high energy physics. Here he is, arguing with the then UK Chief Scientific Advisor, David King, who argued that the LHC was nothing more than an expensive device for navel-gazing.

It is odd that this exchange did not produce more reflection from Cox on the nature of the climate debate. Here he was, facing a bureaucrat, not even a green lobbyist or environmental activist, telling him that the machine he was so proud of was a waste of money, which would have been better spent on climate change research. “This is part of a journey that we’ve been on for about a hundred years to understand what are the building bocks of matter and the forces that stick them together”, said Cox, after being asked if there was nothing more useful that the money could have been spent on. This answer should have been enough, but Cox went on to spell out what that meant. “The transistor, the silicon chip.. It’s given us the ability to cure cancer, to potentially kill brain tumours. There an endless list… I would argue in fact the modern world has been invented as a result of this quest, and this is the next step”. King disagreed. “This money was spent on curiosity-driven research which may conceivably have some impacts on our well-being in the future. I suspect it wont”, said the Chief Miserablist, “I think we’ve probably driven this type of research far enough that it’s now more navel-searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind”.

Scientific research priorities invariably reflect political priorities. In the days of the Cold War, that meant big stunts that demonstrate superpowers’ economic might and military prowess. For better or worse, this meant exploring the infinitesimal and the near-infinite. In today’s political climate, ambitions have been called back from the stars. Science, and the technological progress it has driven, seems to have unleashed risks, even if it has helped to win a geopolitical battle. Hence David King now frames climate change as our ‘moon landing’ — a fitting demonstration of how scientific ambition has been brought back down to Earth with a bump.

What goes up must come down, after all. Cox has since joined the same ranks. Made famous by the BBC, he now speaks more for the establishment than for science.

Asked by Gerry Morrow, ‘why don’t you get some real evidence the future will be catastrophic[?]’, Cox replied,

‘Have you empirical validation for these predictions?’, asked Rupert Darwall.

This is interesting. Cox claims that the necessity of making ‘policy decisions’ makes it imperative to take at face value probabilistic statements, which are not empirically-verified. Better the informed than the uninformed guesswork. But what is this ‘uninformed guess work’ we are asked to compare with ‘informed guesswork’. Moreover, what is the ‘informed guesswork’ informed by? Cox unwittingly reveals that the imperative is political, not scientific, and that his reasoning is circular. Why ‘must’ policy decisions be made? If the answer is that ‘informed guesswork’ suggests that policy decisions are imperative, Cox should admit it, rather than “taking the piss” out of sceptics, who might have something to say about the nature of that guessing. It is not as if Cox can say that there is something in particular, which science has positively identified and which is as tangible, say as the mechanism of evolution, which sceptics have ‘denied’.

There is a difference between being sceptical of something, and sceticism of guesswork. As I have argued before, this produces amongst the hand-wringing tendency to lose grip on what they claim is at the centre of their own argument: the scientific consensus. If the consensus is only so much guesswork — albeit ‘informed’ guesswork — but it is treated as concrete, the scientific consensus becomes a consensus without an object, and ditto, on the same view, scepticism becomes scepticism without an object. The debate amounts to two sides disagreeing about something that the side which claims something exists cannot even identify.

What is it that Cox believes sceptics are sceptical of? As Rupert Darwall makes clear, it is not the warming effect of CO2…

The real object of scepticism, then, might be no more than the over-extension of the climate narrative, which may have rather more read into it than was given to it from science.

This, naturally returns us to the IPCC. Cox was asked what he counted as evidence…

It’s not a particularly well-formulated question, I would argue, since most scepticism isn’t scepticism of “AGW”. But it is a question asked of a celebrated ‘science communicator’, nonetheless… The answer is of course, the IPCC’s synthesis report SPM…

… Which provokes the same response…

To which the award-winning science communicator replies with,

I have read AR5 SR SPM properly. And I still find it problematic. Take for example, this line from page 8.

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence).

But this is a meaningless statement by itself. It refers to no science. It’s just a headline. To find out what it actually refers to, we need to interrogate the full version of the Synthesis Seport [PDF -10MB], not the Summary for Policymakers, and even that is merely a pointer to the relevant sections of the rest of the AR5 reports.

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, human morbidity and mortality and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors. {WGII SPM A-1, 3.2, 4.2-3, 8.1, 9.3, 10.7, 11.3, 11.7, 13.2, 14.1, 18.6, 22.2.3, 22.3,, 24.4.1, 25.6-8, 26.6-7, 30.5,Table 18-3, Table 23-1, Figure 26-2, Box 4-3, Box 4-4, Box 25-5, Box 25-6, Box 25-8, Box CC-CR}

So how significant is the vulnerability revealed by ‘impacts from recent climate-related extremes’? How many ecosystems and how many ‘human systems’ are vulnerable and exposed to what degree of ‘climate variability’? So many weasel words litter this statement, I find it hard to take seriously at all, let alone as a summary of scientific evidence. But let’s press on, nonetheless.

The first reference is to WGII SPM A-1. But this is another SPM, not the actual review of the ‘science’. The first paragraph of A1, for instance reads,

In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Evidence of climate-change impacts is strongest and most comprehensive for natural systems. Some impacts on human systems have also been attributed5 to climate change, with a major or minor contribution of climate change distinguishable from other influences. See Figure SPM.2. Attribution of observed impacts in the WGII AR5 generally links responses of natural and human systems to observed climate change, regardless of its cause. 6

More problematically, WGII is concerned with “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability”, not the “physical science basis” of climate change. WGI in fact finds,

… there has been a likely increasing trend in the frequency of heatwaves since the middle of the 20th century in Europe and Australia and across much of Asia where there are sufficient data. However, confidence on a global scale is medium owing to lack of studies over Africa and South America but also in part owing to differences in trends depending on how heatwaves are defined (Perkins et al., 2012). Using monthly means as a proxy for heatwaves Coumou et al. (2013) and Hansen et al. (2012) indicate that record-breaking temperatures in recent decades substantially exceed what would be expected by chance but caution is required when making inferences between these studies and those that deal with multi-day events and/or use more complex definitions for heatwave events

So what the Synthesis report referred to as ‘high confidence’ in ‘impacts’ of ‘heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires’ seems to be owed to only a ‘likely increasing trend’ of heatwaves, as far as the science is concerned. And on rainfall..

Given the diverse climates across the globe, it has been difficult to provide a universally valid definition of ‘extreme precipitation’.

And floods…

In summary, there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.

On droughts…

the current assessment concludes that there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century, owing to lack of direct observations, geographical inconsistencies in the trends, and dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice. Based on updated studies, AR4 conclusions regarding global increasing trends in drought since the 1970s were probably overstated.

On cyclones…

this assessment does not revise the SREX conclusion of low confidence that any reported long-term (centennial) increases in tropical cyclone activity are robust, after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.

On extratropical storms…

In summary, confidence in large scale changes in the intensity of extreme extratropical cyclones since 1900 is low. There is also low confidence for a clear trend in storminess proxies over the last century due to inconsistencies between studies or lack of long-term data in some parts of the world (particularly in the SH).

I could not see any statement on the frequency of wildfires. What is interesting, though, is how different the Synthesis Report, its SPM and WGII appear to be from WGI with respect to these phenomena, almost to the point of outright contradiction. Similarly, on the impacts of these events, on which the SPM claims ‘high confidence’, the same report claims,

Direct and insured losses from weather-related disasters have increased substantially in recent decades, both globally and regionally. Increasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of long-term increases in economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters (high confidence). {WGII 10.7.3, SREX SPM B,}

But of course losses from weather have increased, because the wealth that is destroyed by weather — aka development — has increased. As the IPCC chapter admits,

Growth-induced changes in past losses are removed by normalizing to current levels of destructible wealth. So far, only one study analyzes normalized global weather-related insured losses(Barthel and Neumayer, 2012), but the period is too short (1990–2008) to support a meaningful analysis of trends.

Moreover, the IPCC’s Special Report on Extremes (SREX) found that,

“There is medium evidence and high agreement that long-term trends in normalized losses have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic climate change”
“The statement about the absence of trends in impacts attributable to natural or anthropogenic climate change holds for tropical and extratropical storms and tornados”
“The absence of an attributable climate change signal in losses also holds for flood losses”

Also via Roger Pielke Jr,

“Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

So to Brian Cox, we can say that the IPCC is certainly not the final world on climate science, or its impacts. Nor is it an unchallengeable presentation of the evidence. It is, taken as a whole, internally inconsistent — it’s parts are in contradiction with many of its other parts on important matters. (Some other contradictions are discussed here).

Pointing out these inconsistencies is what will ultimately lead to an improved understanding of the natural world, and to understanding our relationship with it, including an understanding of the extent to which we depend on it. By preferring to respond to climate sceptics by ‘taking the piss’, Cox will deprive science of the very thing that makes it possible: competing perspectives, each attempting to account for some phenomena or other. Cox rules out any challenge to what appears to him as the ‘consensus’ a priori, not as a consequence of an understanding of the science, but as a consequence of who is making the argument… Politics, in other words, at the expense of science.

The only way Cox can sustain his claim to be the champion of science, then, is if we note the difference between science as a process and Science as an institution. For Cox, the two may be the same thing, but we can see for ourselves that the authority of the IPCC and its reports subsists more in its political function as representatives of the consensus than as a scientific analysis.

The point couldn’t be better demonstrated than by Cox himself. He points to the most problematic part of the IPCC’s output: the SPM of the Synthesis report. And he points to it as evidence. And yet it contradicts the rest of the Assessment Report. The IPCC can’t even communicate clear science to a science communicator. All he is left with is ‘taking the piss’.

This is a weird science indeed. And it is a weird science communicator and science advocate who wields the authority of scientific institutions, rather than champions the scientific method, and who allows political expediency to posit half-baked Bayesian waffle in the place of scientific knowledge. On Twitter.

Cox started well. But he is surely a victim of his own success. Not being all that remarkable (as far as the public is concerned) for his science, he was instead made famous by being a relatively pretty face in an era of dumbed down television, in which producers were nervous of otherwise ugly scientists (in)ability to generate ratings. Chosen then to speak for science — to make science cool — Cox was inevitably drawn closer to the establishment and its preoccupations. Perhaps some iron law dictates that as an individual without merit is elevated as a scientific hero, the bigger prick he will turn out to be.

Cox knows very little about climate science, hence he waves the authority of the IPCC AR5 SR SPM in no more a qualified way than the climate campers, who declared in 2007 that they were “Armed… only with peer-reviewed science”. They thought they were, but the pages they were holding aloft like a preacher holds a bible were not from a scientific paper, nor was it peer-reviewed. It was a report called ‘living within a carbon budget‘ from the Tyndall Centre, for the Coop Bank and Friends of the Earth.


Cox is not so different. But let’s not single him out. More important is understanding what produced Cox. After all, Cox merely reproduces the orthodox view, not even of climate science, but of critics of that view. He preaches the virtues of science, but it is a view of science that looks more like a search for authority than as a liberating form of knowledge — a quest that is shared by the proponents of climate politics. Challenges to that form of politics look to its advocates as denial of science, but it is they, who would so easily dismiss criticism on that basis, who are anti science as a process though not science as an institution. Science is increasingly more about shoring up ailing political institutions than about shedding light on material phenomena. If it weren’t so, it would be hard to explain Cox’s anger and frustration with climate sceptics.

If that sounds too much, consider this. Here is Cox explaining to a TV producer why time goes in one direction, and why the direction you move through time is constrained.

So clearly Cox is an able communicator. But this ability breaks down as Cox nears the climate debate. At this point he becomes sweary and impatient. Perhaps, then, Cox should stick to science, and maybe stick to physics. Outside of physics, he becomes inarticulate and aggressive. Isn’t that tendency in microcosm what we see in the broader climate debate? Science overreaches itself, and then its proponents and heroes are forced to fight what are essentially their own excesses — grand claims made before evidence, supported only by ‘probabilistic’ guesswork, and protected from criticism by the notion of a polarised debate — but which appear to them as ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’. It would be harder to be a sceptic of the IPCC if its AR’s were more consistent. And it would be harder to criticise the IPCC and UNFCCC if the process was not so transparently about turning a seemingly scientific idea into a vast political project.

One of the least-explored but most revealing things about the climate change debate (such as it is) is the intersection of climate science and psychology. I have yet to see anything from psychologists that sheds any light on the debate more than it merely exacerbates its problems. And I have yet to encounter a psychologist who seems able to take criticism, and who is not, let us say ‘attached’ to a particular outcome of that debate. In the Guardian yesterday, Oliver Burkeman writes,

At yesterday’s summit in Bavaria, the G7 leading industrial nations agreed to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century. It’s easy to be cynical about these things, but these official goals really matter. And one big reason is this: in the absence of intergovernmental action, we are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this problem as individuals.

My problem with the G7’s new goal is the same as it is with any supranational organisation’s pronouncement: where is your mandate? Briefly, it seems to me that climate change allows the construction of political institutions and the accretion of power above democratic oversight. To some, that looks like a conspiracy theory. But there’s nothing secret about it: it is all done in plain sight. There is no secret about the intention to build supranational organisations to tackle seemingly “global problems” that would be intractable under normal politics, by which I mean sovereign national democratic governments. And it is no secret that these organisations make more of the issue of climate change than either the man-in-the-street or the governments themselves make. A simple thought experiment suffices: would the UN or the EU, or for that matter, organisations like The World Economic Forum, World Bank and NGOs be any smaller, were climate change never to have presented itself? I think not. And yet this process of institution-building goes on, largely unchallenged, or even unquestioned. I find that odd.

Burkeman continues:

In fact, if a cabal of evil psychologists had gathered in a secret undersea base to concoct a crisis humanity would be hopelessly ill-equipped to address, they couldn’t have done better than climate change. We’ve evolved to respond more vigorously to threats that are immediate and easy to picture mentally, rather than those that are distant and abstract; we’re more sensitive to intentional threats from specific humans, rather than unintentional ones resulting from collective action; we’re terrible at making small sacrifices in the present to avoid vast ones in future; our attention is seized by phenomena that change daily, rather than those that ratchet up gradually over years.

All of these premises strike me as problematic, if not flat-out wrong. Are they a damning indictment of human’s faculties? Or are they a justification for psychologists seeking a slice of political action? All political ideas — ideas about how society ought to be organised, if it is to be organised at all — begin with a conception of humans, whether that be an explicit or implicit declaration. Burkeman’s claim is the one that we are familiar with: individuals are not competent to make decisions about their own future when faced with a problem such as climate change:

And should it dawn on us that our behaviours don’t match our beliefs – that we’re not doing our bit to save the planet, even though we think we should – we find it far easier to adjust the belief (downgrading the importance of climate change) than the behaviour (flying less, having fewer children).

This principle gives the title to Burkeman’s article: “We’re all climate change deniers at heart“. Accordingly, he proposes a system of mechanisms which produce “climate change denial”, which he takes from George Marshall and Daniel Kahneman

In one strikingly depressing scene in his recent book Don’t Even Think About It, climate change activist George Marshall interviews the Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the leading scholar of cognitive biases, and tries to nudge him into saying that understanding our brains’ limitations will, at the very least, make it easier to overcome them. “I’m not very optimistic about that,” Kahneman replies, despondently sipping tomato soup. “No amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living. So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope. I’m thoroughly pessimistic. I’m sorry.” The pessimism of experts provides yet another reason to pay attention to something else, anything else, instead of climate change: why choose to spend your days feeling relentlessly depressed?

Such is the climate psychologist’s burden…

Even once you grasp that people in general are terrible at responding to a threat such as climate change, though, there’s another hurdle: it remains much harder to accept how far you’re prone to such psychological pitfalls yourself. (This bias against perceiving your own bias has its own label: the bias blind spot.) It’s easy enough for any of us who aren’t climate-change deniers to engage in armchair psychoanalysis of them: they’re mired in denial and defence mechanisms, busily constructing online communities of like-minded people to help shield themselves from guilt, from accepting the need for personal sacrifices, or from contemplating their mortality. It’s much more difficult to accept that, in a subtler sense, you might be a climate change denier yourself. But the drive to eliminate cognitive dissonance – to rid yourself of the discomfort that comes from holding contradictory beliefs, or failing to act in accordance with your beliefs – is an awesomely powerful thing.


Personally I lean more towards Kahneman’s pessimism. Yet the same self-questioning stance surely demands that I acknowledge even pessimism has its selfish payoffs: if there’s nothing to be done, I might as well not bother trying to do anything. Despair can be a kind of denialism, too.

Of course, this blog is about building an online community of like-minded people, to help shield us from guilt, and from the need to accept my own personal sacrifice, and to defer my inevitable mortality… So I would say this… But what I think is interesting is just how terribly limited Burkeman’s injunction is. He seems to want his fellow climate concerned to reflect on themselves to the extent to which it would reveal that they are some kind of climate change deniers (though he believes that this is ultimately doomed to fail, along with the human race, in Thermageddon). But he doesn’t seem willing to reflect on the opposite: the extent to which he needs climate change to make his opening statement, praising the G7 for their statement on abolishing the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century… “these official goals really matter… we are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with this problem as individuals.”

Why aren’t we free to interrogate official thinking? Why is psychology limited to interrogating the individual mind, to establish its limits, and not official thinking? I am amazed that psychologists have not been more forthcoming in this respect, to criticise the climate psychologists, if not the alarmists. After all, it is not as if there is no precedent for asking questions about the authority of the psychological sciences, as this short film about David Rosenhan’s famous experiment shows:

The problem of being sane in insane places, then, is that you cannot speak about the use of psychiatric labels where they are not appropriate. Accordingly, we cannot speak about the problems of climate science, or climate policy, or environmentalism without betraying our psychological inclinations such as ‘cognitive dissonance’, to avoid facing sacrifice or mortality. And it’s not until we accept the authority of official pronouncements on our condition that we are to be released from the climate mental ward, into the limited freedom outside it, which has been designed according to the exact same specification and principles as the hospital.

But unpacking the problem reveals much more about the psychological sciences — to the extent that they are attached to the climate issue — than it reveals about the psychology of individual ‘deniers’. The psychologist is not a climate scientist. As such, he can only measure the sanity of his patient against his own understanding of climate science (or policy).

In other words, psychology has to borrow its authority from climate science. And it is not until it has borrowed this authority from climate science that it can identify problems lumped under the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, to give it not just political significance, but global political significance.

So why isn’t psychology — as a science — able to produce it’s own authority, per the Royal Society’s motto, nullius in verba, ‘on the word of no one’? If mathematical proof depended on axioms supplied by cellular biology, we would wonder about mathematics. But very few questions seem to be asked when psychologists pronounce on the limitations of individual’s psychology, based on their own understanding of climate science: the ‘facts’ it supplies to them, such that they can detect ‘cognitive dissonance’.

One answer is Rosenhan’s experiment. Of course, that experiment was about psychiatry, rather than psychology as such. But the experiment is pertinent. The ambition of understanding the human mind and its shortcomings is not matched by the results produced by this branch of psychology. Nobody needed science to tell us that to err is human, nor that answering questions of perspective are confounded by perspective itself.

Call me a psychology sceptic, then, before you call me a climate change sceptic. New sciences make big claims about how understanding the object of their studies will transform the world. But these big claims invariably seem to be invested in by politics than by those of us who labour in our misapprehensions of the world, and our cognitive dissonance. Be they sociologists, eugenicists, Malthusians, cyberticians, memeticians or technocrats, the positivists’ dream is our recurring nightmare. Sciences are invented and reinvented, to reorganise political priorities, away from our befuddled minds.

It would be harder to say all this if the promise made by the G7 was not to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels by 2100, but to instead focus attempts to make such a thing possible. This was the point discussed in the previous post — the UK’s self-appointed climate aristocrats who want $150 billion to make wind and solar power economically competitive with coal. Yet even with that impulse, there is a problem. They presuppose the feasibility of the objective, and rule out the alternatives, be they low carbon or not, such as nuclear fission and fusion, distorting the research agenda, and depriving other experimental pathways of budgets. They ‘pick winners’, in other words, while enriching those techniques whose advocates have made the biggest claims. It is as if all we need to do to work out what the price of one form of energy will be in the future is find the relationship between R&D expenditure and the price signal, and extrapolate it into the future… And voila!…

So what happens if we are allowed to interrogate the psychology of the climate artistocrats and climate shrinks? The big claims that were made by psychologists in the twentieth century caused it to fall out of favour, and to lose its authority — in contrast to big, sexy science like high energy physics, which still promises to discover the ‘god particle’, no less. Meanwhile, researchers were increasingly made to prove their relevance to society — ‘impact’ — rather than to investigate the material world merely as an end in itself. I believe that the result is an ugly, self-serving compact between scientific institutions and politics. The antipathy towards humans, and the low estimation of their faculties expressed by those who embrace this nexus of psychological and climate science is the even uglier chimera of this union. It seems that weak science can multiply itself, and to amplify its message by teaming up with another weak science in the service of a political agenda.

After I tweeted about Burkeman’s post yesterday, some wag tweeted back,

Yeah. Shame your grandchildren won’t get to vote on your stupidity – I know how they’d vote..

The implication is, of course, that it is my (non-existent) children’s (non-existent) children who will suffer the consequences of my stupidy — climate change. Yet I am confident that future generations should be able to vote, as much as they should be able judge my words for themselves, not to have some climate academic limit their vote, and to rule out their judgement as cognitive dissonance.

The point of climate change psychology — much more than climate science — is to protect the political establishment from such judgement in the present. It is a form of consensus enforcement, and debate policing.

It is through debate that the shortcomings of individuals can be overcome, and some kind of synthesis produced out of profound disagreements achieved. So we don’t need some psychological toolkit to examine our own psychologies. And we do not need climate psychologists to point these shortcomings out. This is the dynamic that makes science possible, after all. But climate change psychology aims to rule out inconvenient perspectives, to exclude them from debate, such that only officially-sanctioned opinion is allowed to have any consequence.

The interesting phenomena in the climate debate is not ‘cognitive dissonance’, but the emergence of academic disciplines like climate change psychology. Rather than people checking themselves for latent climate change denialism, it is these werido academics, their claims and their institutions which need to be interrogated. They take themselves as planet-savers at face value, of course, but why should we?

The climate debate has seen much history dragged into the present, to be served up again as hollow pastiches in environmentalists’ and climate activists’ shallow morality plays. Unable to make their own history, greens have to recycle moments from the past, to give their cause historical significance in the present. There have been green ‘New Deals‘. Martin Luther King’s words were altered to make a green message — a climate ‘fierce urgency of now‘. There have been comparisons of abolition with mitigation, allowing academic activists to claimt that climate sceptics were the latter day moral equivalent of slave traders. Some activists have gone further than mere figurative allusions, and dressed themselves up as ‘climate suffragettes‘. But my favourite has been the “climate change is our moon landing”, beloved of erstwhile UK chief Science Advisor, David King.

Kennedy’s famous moon landing speech outlined the ambition to put men on the moon within a decade. And so it is no surprise that a decade is the time frame chosen by the latest venture to bear King’s name…


King is one of six climate aristocrats — the others are all Peers — that have put together the ‘Global Apollo Programme’ (GAP), which wants the same proportion of GDP spent by each member country as the US spent on its own moon-shot.

The top table of Gap is as follows.

Sir David King, Former UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. Lord John Browne, Executive Chairman at L1 Energy. Former President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former CEO BP. Lord Richard Layard, Director of Wellbeing Programme, LSE Centre for Economic Performance. Emeritus Professor of Economics. Lord Gus O’Donnell, Chairman, Frontier Economics. Former UK Cabinet Secretary. Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Former President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge & Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics. Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, LSE, & Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Lord Adair Turner, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of New Economic Thinking & Former Chairman of the Financial Services Authority and the Committee on Climate Change.


This blog has never objected to increased emphasis and budgeting on energy R&D. Contrary to the comments made about energy by notable environmentalists, more energy is a good thing…

“It would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy.” — Amory Lovins

“Giving inexpensive and abundant energy to Americans today would be like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” — Paul Ehrlich.

Environmentalism, it is argued here, has always been, and is necessarily about locating political authority in a particular view of humans, society and its relationship with the natural environment. Abundance, or even just the promise of abundance, is anathema to that view. Even abundance in the abstract sense divorces us from nature. A theological comparison pertains here with The Fall. The limits of nature are there to discipline us, to constrain our vices, and to impose the order that our sins turn to chaos.

On the optimistic, humanist view, however, more energy is a good thing precisely because it frees us from such limits which invariably result in suffering. But abundance threatens the political order imagined by today’s secular ascetics. So it is a surprise to see the leading proponents of far-reaching climate malthusianism now openly calling for R&D.

The question that needs to be asked about any claim for R&D expenses, though, must be ‘what for?’. Energy R&D is not a good thing in-and-of-itself. Energy is a Good Thing for us. The new Global Apollo Programme seems to want energy to be for the climate.

The contradiction here is one that the GAP cannot understand. It sounds great, to find a source of energy which is as cheap as coal within a decade. But this would be no leap equivalent to landing on the moon, because it would not yield any benefit to us greater than burning coal. Moreover, the same R&D budget not restricted to the green sector might create the possibility of new sources of fossil fuels. It might accelerate the exploitation of methane hydrates, for instance. Or it could help in the development of techniques like underground coal gasification. Or fracking, of course. Restricting R&D to ‘green’ technology could conceivably carry the consequence of precluding such developments which would make fossil fuels more abundant and less expensive, thereby denying those who would benefit from it the advantages of any new technology. The best that GAP offers us is life a decade hence as good as today.

The report produce by GAP claims that

One thing would be enough to make it happen: if clean energy became less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas or oil. Once this happened, the coal, gas and oil would simply stay in the ground. Until then fossil-fuel-based energy should of course be charged for the damage it does, but ultimately energy should become able to compete directly on cost. How quickly could this happen?

The challenge is a technological one and it requires a major focus from scientists and engineers. The need is urgent. Greenhouse gases once emitted stay with us for well over a century. It would also be tragic if we now over-invested in polluting assets which rapidly became obsolete.

In the past, when our way of life has been threatened, governments have mounted major scientific programmes to overcome the challenges. In the Cold War the Apollo Programme placed a man on the moon. This programme engaged many of the best minds in America. Today we need a global Apollo programme to tackle climate change; but this time the effort needs to be international. We need a major international scientific and technological effort, funded by both public and private money. This should be one key ingredient among all the many other steps needed to tackle climate change which have been so well set out in the latest reports of the IPCC.

On GAP’s view, finding a technology to exploit renewable resources such that they become as cheap as coal is nothing more than just scientific investigation. But what if such a discovery were never possible? What if it turns out that it is, after all, harder to turn ambient energy into useful energy than it is to turn energy-dense substances into energy?

The key to this miraculous discovery lies in another chart produced by GAP.


I love these charts, because they mean absolutely nothing. What are the pillars supporting? And in what sense are storage, transmission and efficiency ‘foundations’ for the pillars? They would make more sense if they were labelled, ‘Sunday’, ‘Monday’, ‘Tuesday’ from the bottom, followed by ‘Wednesday’, ‘Thursday’, ‘Friday’ across. Says the GAP,

For three of these six areas (which are shaded in the diagram) there is already a high level of research effort. For example, in nuclear fission there is the G4 international programme to produce a much more efficient use of uranium whereby enrichment occurs on site; in nuclear fusion there is the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (ITER) programme. But in the three unshaded areas (renewables, storage and transmission) there is far too little research and the present proposal focusses on those areas.

But how true — or significant — is this?

Figures from the OECD and IEA seem to bear out the proportions. (I haven’t been able to locate the precise amounts of funding). (There seems to be some data missing from the series, and the reduction in funding may be a result of quality. Also, I am assuming that this is government expenditure, not including private funding of R&D).

But think about what is being produced here. The proof of concept of a new solar PV cell would fit in your hand. But a proof of concept for nuclear fusion or fission would likely require a great deal more hardware, real estate infrastructure and thus capital, just to get off the ground. For this reason, also, state funding of R&D might be filling a gap in nuclear, so to speak, which potential developers could close for themselves in the storage and solar sectors. GAP’s comparison might not be one of apples and apples.

Moreover, if there is an urgent need to address the problem, in what way is the $5 billion of global R&D budget for nuclear energy ‘enough’? It wouldn’t even be enough to build a nuclear power station. Given that Nicholas Stern — one of the leaders of GAP — imagines a world in which climate change costs integer percentages of global GDP, and argues for similar expenditure or opportunity cost on mitigation, it hardly seems like a sensible claim. Even more so, when we consider that energy storage will always add a cost to generation, and that generation of power from renewables might never compete with coal. Einstein’s equation, on the other hand, tells us what the material limits of yield from nuclear reactions are, and they are astronomical compared to even the most optimistic expectations of yield from renewable energy.

Again, this isn’t a throw-all-the-money-in-the-world-at-nuclear-R&D argument, mainly because I don’t believe the premises of GAP, that climate change is the urgent problem that Stern et al have claimed. But there is a better argument for investing in energy R&D for the good it will produce for people. And if climate change is an urgent problem, why spend such a paltry amount as $150bn a year on it? Why not spend as much on energy R&D as was spent on banking bailouts and quantitative easing throughout the Western world?

One answer returns us to the political utility of scarcity. In short, GAP is a manifesto for climate bureaucrats, and the promise to them is that they will be able to sustain their cake and eat it. It is only by making modest proposals, rather than by making promises of the deadly abundance, that the climate establishment can maintain its grip over the political agenda. The clue is in the programme:

(1) Target. The target will be that new-build base-load energy from renewable sources becomes cheaper than new-build coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide from 2025.

(2) Scale. Any government joining the Programme consortium will pledge to spend an annual average of 0.02% of GDP as public expenditure on the Programme from 2016 to 2025. The money will be spent according to the country’s own discretion. We hope all major countries will join. This is an enhanced, expanded and internationally co-ordinated version of many national programmes.

(3) Roadmap Committee. The Programme will generate year by year a clear roadmap of the scientific breakthroughs required at each stage to maintain the pace of cost reduction, along the lines of Moore’s Law. Such an arrangement has worked extremely well in the semi-conductor field, where since the 1990s the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) has identified the scientific bottlenecks to further cost reduction and has spelt out the advances needed at the pre-competitive stages of RD&D. That Roadmap has been constructed through a consortium of major players in the industry in many countries, guided by a committee of 2-4 representatives of each main region. The RD&D needed has then been financed by governments and the private sector.

Look at how quickly we skate through such petty little detail as how, in the space of just five years, this project will make solar power cheaper than coal in sunny countries, and how simple it will be for countries to join. But then look at how much detail there is about the committee, as it effortlessly reproduced Moore’s Law in an entirely different technology sector, as though laws such as Moore’s simply by designing the right institutional configuration.

Would we be surprised to find the names King, Browne, Layard, O’Donnell, Rees, Stern, Turner on this committee? They seem to be the names on almost every other climate boondoggle going?

The tone of the GAP’s report seems incredulous that the world has not already handed over all its cash to these six knights and peers of the realm.

We are talking about the greatest material challenge facing humankind. Yet the share of global publicly-funded RD&D going on renewable energy worldwide is under 2% (see Table 1).18 19 Remarkably the share of all energy research in total publicly-funded R&D expenditure has fallen from 11% in the early 1980s to 4% today. This is a shocking failure by those who allocate the money for R&D.


But hold on a minute, my Lords… Who, free from the excesses of party politics and democratic contest, has been in a position to advise governments on the best strategies to dealing with climate change? Your noble selves, that’s who. In fact you were appointed in precisely this capacity. But as yet, it has taken you decades to organise an effort to orient publicly-funded research.

There is no doubt that David King has argued for different research priorities. Here he is in 2008, arguing with Brian Cox, who later became as disappointing as King, for his misapprehension of the climate debate (amongst other things, including his religious conception of ‘science’).

As reported here at the time, King was jealous of the budget’s available to high-energy physics, its international profile and its superstar status. Particle physics is sexy, whereas people who bang on about climate change invariably express themselves in a nasal whine, and in contrast to the optimism of their counterparts in physics, are preoccupied with the negative implications of their science. King, for example, saw the search for the Higgs-Boson as so much ‘naval-gazing’, without useful application in a world at the brink of catastrophic change — a burden that he seemed to be shouldering all by himself, while others toyed with expensive hardware. Never mind the possibility that the work at Cern might produce insight useful for the development of nuclear energy.

King’s colleague at GAP, Martin Rees, takes a similar view of inappropriate scientific research priorities, as has been discussed here before. In Our Final Hour, Rees outlines his scare stories, amongst which are his estimate that the odds of the human race surviving this century are just 50%, and that by 2020 — five years into the GAP project — “bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event“. It was, after all, science which unleashed all that carbon. Science’s bureaucrats, then, are very good at making work for themselves.

Science has been very good, then, at telling us about what we must not do. But not so good at providing solutions to the problems its leading lights claim to have identified. As Climate Change Committee (CCC) member, Julia King, admitted, the CCC saw behaviour change as a key strategy in reducing emissions. Odd words, for a professor of engineering — unless it is behaviour she wants to engineer. And that seems to have been the emphasis of climate bureaucrats. As was pointed out in Rob Lyons’s interview with Bjorn Lomborg a few years ago, ‘Climate change: a practical problem, not a moral one‘. Said Lomborg,

If you do the standard Kyoto-style solution […] you do a couple of pence worth of good for every pound that you spend. But if you spent that same pound on energy R&D, you’d avoid £11 worth of climate damage – that’s 500 times more benefit. That’s why I’m suggesting we should be spending real money on tackling climate change, but we should be spending it smartly not stupidly.

But, of course, abundance creates a scarcity for the climate bureaucrat, who now scratches around for justification. It has taken so long for the climate change establishment to recognise the relatively strategies advocated by the likes of Lomborg, Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute because their ambition of creating a global political climate institution has been so long in its collapse. Political reality has caught up with environmentalism’s ambitions, and it is only now that the policy-down approach looks like it is about to collapse that the technology-up approach, seems to be gaining traction, and that the likes of Stern et al are pretending it was their idea all along.

It would not have been hard for the technology-up approach to have succeeded where the ambitious one-size-fits-all global policies have utterly failed. Financing R&D through microtaxes on energy consumption would have made some complain about the necessity of such a project, and the rights and wrongs of state intervention in innovation. But it would have been hard for those complaints to say that any real harm would come of it. Instead, climate sceptics can point to actual harm. There have been two decades of re-emphasis in the development agenda, which may have deprived millions of people access to energy, and increased energy costs in more developed economies, making life harder for millions of poorer families, and depriving many more of opportunity. We can compare the consequences of anti-technology (and in many instances, anti-human) policies to the emerging reality: that stories of climate catastrophe were simply overcooked, and intended to give momentum to a political project; that the implications of climate change are not as urgent as other problems faced by very many people; that development (not even ‘adaptation’) , including access to cheap energy, would be a better remedy to any likely perceivable consequences of climate change than radical mitigation; that hasty mitigation is itself harmful.

These things now being understood is a demonstration of the GAP project’s moral bankruptcy. We are supposed to take at face value the good faith of these six men. But in fact this latest move looks much more like six climate bureaucrats hedging their bets ahead of failure at Paris, and the shifting of the climate agenda.

If that sounds like I’ve over-egged the point, consider the concluding paragraphs from the Guardian’s coverage of GAP’s launch

Sir David Attenborough, who recently discussed climate change in a meeting with US president Barack Obama, said: “I have been involved in arguments about the despoilation of the natural world for many years. The exciting thing about the [Apollo] report is that it is a positive report – at last someone is saying there is a way we can do things.”

Prof John Schellnhuber, a climate scientist and former adviser to German chancellor Angela Merkel called the Apollo plan “truly ingenious” and said it “could well be a tipping point” in tackling climate change.

Is it conceivable that such learned figures such as Attenborough and Schellnhuber didn’t know of the existence of this form of idea — of spending around $15bn a year on energy R&D? Did they miss Lomborg’s book and film, “Cool It” — which contain much more detail than the GAP report? Or Pielke’s and the BTI’s volumes of work on the same theme? If it is true that they’d never considered the possibility before, it speaks to their bad faith nonetheless. They have no place commenting on climate change if they are new to this idea of solving the problem of climate change through technology. And so it is with the six knights and lords, who make no mention of Lomborg, either.

Tim Worstall puts it most succinctly:

These people are idiots, aren’t they?

Everyone and their grandmother knows that if you can design, invent or kludge together something that either:

Generates electricity cheaper than coal


Can store intermittently produced electricity cost effectively

…then you’re likely to become the world’s first dollar trillionaire. It’s, how to put this, uncertain, that any more incentive is needed.

Idiots, they surely must be. In fact, doesn’t this story of a King, and his defenders of the Realm in search of the Holy Grail sound awfully familiar?

The Global Aoollo Programme arrive at the COP meeting in Paris…

Two things have become clear to me over the years regarding the putative ‘ethics’ of the Guardian’s green campaigns, copy and hacks.

First, it is a general rule that ‘ethics’ are for thee, but not for me. Second, these ‘ethics’ are intended to elevate those who bear them.

The people who bang on the loudest about ‘ethics’ are usually the least observant of these ‘ethical’ principles. It is not uncommon to find the climate Great and Good — celebs like Leonardo di Caprio and Pharrell Williams — preaching climate change to the World from the comfort of a private jet or luxury yacht. ‘Ethics’ gives a platform, from where to judge.

For the Guardian, the two limitations of its ‘ethics’ mean that it can weave an article out of nothing but the alleged infraction of an “ethic”, while in fact being in the midst of something far worse.

In today’s Guardian, Terry Macalister — the paper’s energy editor — writes

Shell sought to influence direction of Science Museum climate programme
Oil giant raised concerns one part of the project, which it sponsored, could give NGOs opportunity to open up debate on its operations, internal emails show

The article is published as part of the newspaper’s Keep it in the Ground campaign against fossil fuel companies, encouraging big capital investors to move their interests out of brown energy — ‘divestment’. The allegation is that Shell, as long-time sponsors of the Science Museum in London may have used this funding relationship to change the messages delivered by the museum’s climate change exhibit.

I visited the museum a few years ago, and wrote it up for Spiked. Read it here. Most notable, I felt, was the reflection of the times across the Museum’s different galleries. All those artefacts of historical pioneering spirit — spacecraft, aircraft, instruments and machines — were now lost to bland interactive displays.

The contrast between the space race and today’s low aspirations epitomised by Atmosphere invites a further comparison of the prevailing ideologies of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and their propaganda. For all the world’s deep and dangerous problems that belied the optimism surrounding the Apollo programme, and of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s missions, they remain uplifting reminders of what is possible. The contemporary preoccupation with climate change, on the other hand, yields only joyless propaganda: an antithesis to the progress promised in the past.

Here’s some video I took of the same.

It was, as I described it, a tedious dollop of eco-propaganda. If there was any influence of fossil fuel companies’ dirty money on the exhibition, it certainly wasn’t obvious to me. The exhibition was, in spite of being sponsored by oil companies, as glib and alarmist as any propaganda issued by green NGOs.

Yet the Guardian claim…

Shell tried to influence the presentation of a climate change programme it was sponsoring at the Science Museum in London, internal documents seen by the Guardian show.

Epitomising this weird new puritanism, ex-academic and Guardian blogger, now at the failed 10:10 campaign, Alice Bell tweeted,

Exactly a year after my Spiked article on the exhibition, Bell seemed to agree…

So, exceedingly pretty as Atmosphere is, the highlight of my trip to the museum was gawping at the Apollo 10 capsule. A humble-looking object, it has actually been around the Moon. You can see scorch marks from when it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

I thought about its history, and the many times I’d stood there before. I remembered conversations I’d had with people about it. I remembered being moved to read more about the history of space travel, including the ways images from Apollo missions had inspired green activism in the 1970s, presenting Earth as a fragile, beautiful and, indeed, blue sphere in space.

Time spent quietly pondering the history of an object is an old-fashioned idea of a museum, but it still has power.

She’s wrong, though, of course. What inspired the ‘green activism’ of the 1970s was not as much pretty pictures of ‘Gaia’ as much as it was the oil shock, and the other economic and Cold War crises that developed as the postwar economic boom turned to bust. And it was not ‘green activists’ which were inspired as much as billionaires and their lackeys, who formed around the Club of Rome, and influenced the UN. Bell re-writes environmentalism’s history. Many, many many more young minds were inspired by the possibilities that the moon landing represented than were moved by the lonely image of the earth in Space. The green movement’s half-century campaign for austerity has sought to deny those possibilities to those minds.

I digress. The point here is that the Atmosphere exhibition at the science museum, clearly wasn’t some kind of fossil-fuel propaganda. Nobody taking the exhibition at face value could walk away from it as a climate change sceptic. Not even Alice Bell was complaining in 2011 that there was any hint of scepticism or denial in the exhibition. Her criticism was, like mine, that the fashion for interactive displays and the suchlike, as a way of attempting to engage minds with the ‘issues’ is probably not adequate.

The only way it would be possible to see Atmosphere as serving fossil fuel interests would be if one were to reflect on just how naff its exhibits and messages were, and what thinking and relationships may have been behind it.


Take this utterly clichéd House of Cards artwork, for instance. If we see it as an ironic gesture, then, yes, perhaps we can see that it could come to epitomise everything green: an art project that is entirely without artistic merit is commissioned by a public organisation with mixed private/public funding, as part of a broader, policy-relevant exhibition; an otherwise talentless ‘artist’ supported by a public organisation. Or perhaps the plan was simply to bore people away from the issue.

Where are the crappy paintings by climate sceptics at this Shell-sponsored exhibition? Where are the second-rate interactive media installations giving the sky-dragon version of climate change physics at this fossil-fuel industry funded show? And where are the glib ‘messages’ moderating — let alone ‘denying’ — the alarmist narratives served up at this Big Oil beano? If Shell or its PR firms intended to use Atmosphere to serve its own interests in the climate debate, it should be thoroughly ashamed of itself… Not for the shame of seeking to intervene in this way, but because it has done such a pisspoor job of it.

So what is behind the headlines? This picture of an oil company’s massive, illegitimate intrusion into the public debate on climate change, you will notice, is painted with run-of-the-mill Guardianista weasel words… “The Anglo-Dutch oil group raised concerns with the museum…”, “The company also wanted to know…”, “Emails show the close relationship between the Science Museum and Shell…”, “… a Shell staff member gives what they call a “heads up” on a Reuters story…”, “…a Shell employee [has] some concerns [that an] exhibition […] creates an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell’s operations.”

Is this the stuff of a conspiracy? Raising concerns? Are “close relationships” between major funders and beneficiaries unusual? Or is it just innuendo?

Perhaps one complaint — that “Shell’s own climate change adviser – former oil trader David Hone – made recommendations on what should be included” — might have been more interesting, had the exhibition not been, as discussed above, a virtual playground for climate alarmism. But there was no sign of scepticism of either climate science or policy on show.

Similarly, the Guardian suggests that the museum is compromised because its director criticised Greenpeace… (HOW DARE HE?!!).

the Science Museum’s former director Chris Rapley criticised Greenpeace’s successful campaign to make Lego drop its partnership with Shell.

But this, neither, passes the smell test. While this conspiracy between Shell, the Science Museum and Rapley was going on, he was penning his awful monologue, 2071, which I reviewed for Brietbart London back in November.

If you really want to know what this stage play formula is like, imagine a compulsory lecture on climate change at a low-tier university. On Saturday night. With Powerpoint. A city… no a world… of better offers exists outside. But you are trapped.

This is no exaggeration. Chris Rapley is keen to qualify his role as lecturer by professing his expertise in many things during the opening ten minutes (they felt like hours). One of those things is the cryosphere (the frozen parts of the planet), which is so-called because Rapley went there and bored entire mountains of ice to tears.

Rapley has since given up his snow mobile. Now he sits in a chair, from where, almost motionless, he freezes the brains of hundreds of people, each of whom seem to have volunteered themselves for this 70 minute ordeal of skull-crushingly dull ‘untertainment’ for up to £32 each. By the end of its ten-day run, some 3,600 individuals will have witnessed Rapley’s sedentary call to action.

Yet Naomi Klein Tweeted…

If Chris Rapley is part of some conspiracy to ‘silence the climate debate’, much less undermine climate science and subvert climate policy, he has me completely fooled. I am totally and utterly hoodwinked by his clever act. I have been to the climate change exhibition at the Museum he was director of. And I have been to see his stage play. And I have seen him speak at about half a dozen debates. I remain unimpressed by his argument and intellectual depth, but I am convinced he is a believer. He has bored me to tears, and I’m sure he has done it for his own self-interest, but I am sure he believes, nonetheless.

It is perhaps significant that the Guardian article does not reveal who obtained these emails. Because reading them reveals absolutely nothing underhand at all. See for yourself.

But another reason for the Guardian’s coyness is that the campaign which obtained the email exchange between the Science Museum and Shell wants to use the fact of sponsorship to embarrass the museum into dropping the sponsor. That campaign is BP or not BP, whose aim is to disrupt oil companies’ sponsorship of cultural events, as this video shows.

An interesting aside… The chap at 0:52 introduced as “Danny”, AKA Danny Chivers. Chivers appears to be the PKA Tim Lever, spokesman of the 2007 Climate Camp. Here he is, talking to Richard and Judy…

Clearly disrupting mass transport left Timmy and his pals more alienated from an unappreciative audience than they were anticipating. Better to target the luvvies, by disrupting instead subsidised and sponsored performances of Shakespeare. This demonstrates a considerable adjustment of the radical environmental movement’s ambitions over the last few years: from disrupting operations at one of the busiest transport hubs in the world… To heckling at a play, to an audience who likely already shares their values, and whose minds did not need changing.

If there is any constituency in the world that needs no encouragement to participate in a shallow Two Minute Hate ritual against oil companies, it is the luvvies — whose lifestyle choices are, broadly speaking, subsidised on the basis that they are Good Things. And it is this which most reflects the utter absurdity of the campaign. As the BP-or-not-BP campaign’s own video shows, nobody was fooled by BP’s sponsorship of the arts — its greenwashing. And so it is equally unlikely that anyone coming away from the Atmosphere exhibition would, even if they had noticed Shell’s sponsorship, have come away from it thinking about what a thoroughly decent Big Oil company it is.

BP-or-not-BP are concerned that people might not understand, you see, that companies which sponsor cultural things… Things like museums, operas, and plays… Do bad things, like producing energy for things like, erm, museums, operas and plays, as well the vehicles which take people to them, and things such as schools, hospitals and… Horror of horrors… factories where things are made. BP-or-not-BP want to rid the cultural sphere of companies like BP and Shell, not because they can point to any substantive interference intended to sway opinion in the climate debate, but because they believe that by purging the cultural sphere, the debate can be won. Think of it as Ethical Cleansing…

This brings us to why the Guardian omitted the FOI requesters… Their divestment campaign now in full swing, it would be a foolish time to admit to the world that there is something hypocritical about campaigning to ‘Keep it in the Ground‘ at the same time as being sponsored by the third largest coal mining interest in the world.

The very same Guardian writer has written articles under that very same campaign, saying that “Oil companies’ sponsorship of the arts ‘is cynical PR strategy’“. But just a couple of clicks away is the Guardian’s Anglo American partner zone section of its Sustainable Business pages, the most recent article on which was published just two days ago.

This is first-order, Class-A hypocrisy, of course. There is nothing that any Guardian journalist can say about Shell’s sponsorship of the Science Museum, or its climate exhibitions. There is no way the Guardian can continue to campaign to ‘keep it in the ground’. And there is no way it can criticise any organisation for being secretive about its arrangements, or for failing to respond to what it demands are ‘ethical’ imperatives.

So much for the Guardian’s climate ‘ethics’, then. That paper demonstrates that ‘ethics’ don’t apply to itself. Its own ethical cleansing campaign has, for years, consisted of endless stories about links between oil companies, policy-makers and public organisations, dominating the debate. But these were so many stories about next-door-neighbour’s-cousin’s-cat-who-one-knew-a-man… Take this graphic from the Guardian’s campaign. What’s missing?


The answer is the name and logo of the Guardian’s own sponsor, Anglo-American. They seem to have bought The Guardian’s silence. A bigger scandal, surely, than Shell sponsoring a climate-change exhibition.

Beyond the Graun failing to meet the standards it sets for others, though, is a sadder picture. The Science Museum’s former director, Chris Rapley, for instance, caught between a rock and a hard place. And Shell themselves, of course, trying to do the right thing in the era of corporate social responsibility.

A plague on all their houses. They invited it. Rapley chose to use the Science Museum as a vehicle for environmental politics. And Shell stumped up the ready money, for whatever ends. They wanted to champion climate change, but have been caught out and called out by the very movement they were seemingly hoping to capture. Shell, for instance, are sponsors of the Green Alliance (see their list of partners here), which coordinated the recent cross-party consensus on climate policy ahead of the recent UK general election. Where was the outrage, the direct action, and the Grauniad innuendo?

If Rapley, the scientist was worth an iota of his public profile, he would have been far more critical of the environmental movement, and he would have been critical of it long before it campaigned to get Lego to pull out of a deal with Shell. And Shell themselves, rather than lavishing money on green NGOs and lobbying outfits would have spent its money more wisely if it had spent a few quid on challenging the nonsense that its beneficiaries publish routinely… Including that daft exhibition at the Science Museum.

What are these kind of ‘ethics’, anyway? The Islamic State has ‘ethics’. The Taliban has ‘ethics’. They too seek to purge culture of infidels. And, as the Mirror journalist put it, they will brook no dissent. But behind these ‘ethics’ are naked self-serving ambitions to control society. That is what ‘ethics’ are in today’s world. They are not a form of knowledge, to which we all have access, to measure the rights and wrongs of actions, but are diktats, issued by self-appointed authorities for their own ends.

Over at the Making Science Public blog, Brigitte Nerlich wonders about the origins of the word ‘lukewarmer’…

As I am interested in the emergence and spread of various labels used in the climate change debate, such as for example ‘greenhouse sceptic’, I wanted to know more about the label ‘lukewarmer’ and while I can’t write its history in this post, I can show how it was used in the news. I put ‘lukewarmer’ and ‘climate’ as search terms into my preferred news data base, Lexis Nexis, on 3 May 2015 in All English Language News and got (only) 43 results. There were 8 duplicates. So, in the end I read 35 articles, published between 30 January 2010 and 22 April 2015. Compared to the use of other labels, such as denier and alarmist for example, these are small numbers. What follows are extracts from this small body of articles and I’ll leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.

Underneath Brigitte’s post is a long, unproductive exchange between various contributors and astronomer Ken Rice, pka And Then There’s Physics, who runs the blog of the same name. Rice bans alternative opinion from his own blog, but is a prolific commenter — so much so it’s hard to wonder how he gets any astronomy done — at popular blogs. Lucia made a heroic attempt to explain to Rice that there are more than two positions in the debate — read her précis here — but to little progress, such is the limit on dialogue imposed by the astronomer’s personality or capacity, it’s not clear which.

What is interesting about the phenomenon of ‘lukewarmism’ is its background. More respectable than climate scepticism and climate denial in turn, of course, but seemingly positioned just as far away from climate alarmism. But in this sense, anyone seeking to identify themselves as ‘lukewarm’ needs to take for granted the categories that others designate for themselves and each other, to triangulate their own coordinates.

But didn’t this space always exist? Was it only discovered recently? In the discussion at Making Science Public, various attempts are made to identify positions in the debate with respect to estimates of climate sensitivity. If this be the index corresponding to the fundamental axis of the debate, then, why not just give everyone on it a number? Deniers, 0-0.5; sceptics, 0.5-1.0; lukewarmers, 1.0 – 2.0, warmists 2.0-3.0, alarmists 3.0-99999999999.0.

Such an index would tell you nothing about why somebody believes that the climate’s sensitivity is what they believe it to be, much less why that number is significant. The numbers would obscure the argument, and in turn would prefigure the debate. This is, of course, the point of Consensus Enforcement that Ken Rice and his highly prolific associates engage in. Many a lukewarm blog — and even many ‘denial’ websites — has been all but colonised, lest the climate debate be contaminated by nuance. The consensus enforcers don’t even want there to be an index — admitting to an entire axis of perspectives would make the debate far more complicated than the simple matter of right-vs-wrong, good-vs-bad or science-vs-denial that they want it to be. The point of consensus enforcement is to sustain the polarised account of the debate.

Of course something approximate to the lukewarm position has always existed. And as the recent hand-wringing about Bjorn Lomborg’s appointment, and subsequent dis-appointment at the University of Western Australia shows, the debate has at least one more axis than even the enforcers admit to. In the Guardian, consensus enforcer, Graham Readfearn claimed of the affair, “The spark was the University of Western Australia’s decision to back out of a deal to host a research centre fronted by climate science contrarian Bjørn Lomborg and paid for with $4m of taxpayer cash.”

The designation of the category ‘climate contrarian’ to Lomborg is an interesting one, as Lomborg himself takes a fairly mainstream view of climate science, and stresses the need to decarbonise the energy sector. It is true that he says this is not the world’s greatest problem, but this is hardly ‘contrarian’, except in the world imagined by the consensus enforcers, where any policy short of radical mitigation is merely a lighter shade of ‘denial’. The case of Lomborg’s treatment at the hands of the consensus enforcers is the most perfect demonstration of their polarisation of the debate — the lumping together of lukewarmers, sceptics and deniers.

The same University was home to Stephan Lewandowsky, who has set up camp in the West of England — Bristol University — from where he has famously pronounced on the apparent correlation of conspiracy theories and climate change scepticism, which was fatally flawed and widely debunked, and led to a retraction. Lewandowsky has now teamed up with Naomi Oreskes, to produce a new theory of the climate debate, called ‘seepage‘,

… we argue that the appeal to uncertainty in public discourse, together with other contrarian talking points, has “seeped” back into the relevant scientific community. We suggest that in response to constant, and sometimes toxic, public challenges, scientists have over-emphasized scientific uncertainty, and have inadvertently allowed contrarian claims to affect how they themselves speak, and perhaps even think, about their own research. We show that even when scientists are rebutting contrarian talking points, they often do so within a framing and within a linguistic landscape created by denial, and often in a manner that reinforces the contrarian claim. This “seepage” has arguably contributed to a widespread tendency to understate the severity of the climate problem (e.g., Brysse et al., 2013 and Freudenburg and Muselli, 2010).

According to this theory, the global warming ‘hiatus’ is a myth, put about by climate sceptics, but which has been absorbed by climate scientists (as per ‘meme’), who reproduce it blindly, having been so beaten and harassed by the assembled forces of contrarianism and denial. But Richard Betts disagreed.

The authors suggest that climate scientists are allowing themselves to be influenced by “contrarian memes” and give too much attention to uncertainty in climate science. They express concern that this would invite inaction in addressing anthropogenic climate change. It’s an intriguing paper, not least because of what it reveals about the authors’ framing of the climate change discourse (they use a clear “us vs. them” framing), their assumptions about the aims and scope of climate science, and their awareness of past research. However, the authors seem unable to offer any real evidence to support their speculation, and I think their conclusions are incorrect.

Betts’s rejoinder was published as a guest post at… of all places… Ken Rice’s blog, where it was received by a mixture of responses, most resistant to the nuanced picture of the debate advanced by Betts. The post was republished at WUWT. I’m curious, though, why Richard Betts didn’t publish it on one of the websites of the organisations he is associated with, such as the Met Office. After all, Lewandowksy takes aim at climate scientists and their work directly. (For more comment, see also contributions from climate scientists including Betts in the comments under the article at )

And this point is worth more consideration. As I’ve argued before, “memes” — a theory which often comes up in the climate debate — are a double-edged sword. Lewandowsky is saying that climate scientists are vulnerable to ‘contrarian memes’ about ‘the pause’. But if this is so, wouldn’t climate scientists be equally vulnerable to ‘warmist memes’ and ‘alarmist memes’? After all, the warmist cause is so much better funded, and able to mobilise vastly more resources than any climate sceptics.

Once we start to see debates in terms of competing memes, we reduce all notions of truth to merely a dominant ‘meme’. Which is to say ‘truth’ might be nothing more than a meme — an arbitrary judgement which merely reflects dominant beliefs, not necessary truth. If that still sounds too theoretical, consider that it is precisely what Lewandowsky, Oreskes et al have done. They have said that the entire scientific community — individual scientists, scientific institutions, and the IPCC — were vulnerable to the ‘meme’, whereas only the historian of science and the psychologist were immune to its propagation through the very community that both Oreskes and Lewandowsky claim has produced a robust, unimpeachable consensus. Indeed, science itself — as a process — is no longer the best test of theories about the material world. And science — as an institution — is no longer an authority on any matter. All because us crafty deniers, by careful deployment of a simple word — “hiatus” — were able to undermine the consensus on climate change, and to hijack the entire global research enterprise.

Moreover, the implication of Lewandowsky and Oreskes is not only that by virtue of their vulnerability they are incompetent, climate scientists cannot even research ‘contrarian memes’, because to research the meme in question is QED to become vulnerable to it, and to reproduce it: ‘seepage’.

This returns us to the post at Making Science Public. Brigette opens by referring to a recent post by Tamsin Edwards, who is to the ‘contrarian meme’ what Typhoid Mary was to, erm, typhoid…

On 3 May Tamsin Edwards wrote an article for The Observer entitled “The lukewarmers don’t deny climate change. But they say the outlook’s fine” (see here for a discussion; I should point out that Tamsin didn’t choose the title for this article).

I find Edwards writing for the Guardian as odd as Betts writing for ATTP. Indeed, the comments beneath her article reflect the preference for shrill, alarmist copy, not nuances. Ditto, and moving more into the established Lukewarm camp, Roger Pielke Jr, recently had an article on the same website, ‘Why discrediting controversial academics such as Bjørn Lomborg damages science‘. The very first comment is from Ken Rice, who takes the moniker ‘fast fingers’ from Bob Ward…

What would probably help is if someone like Lomborg where to acknowledge the errors he makes when talking about something like climate science.

… Which is to say that debates would be so much easier if people I disagree with would just have the humility to admit that they are wrong.

But back to Tamsin Edwards, who wrote

But whether we are in denial, lukewarm or concerned about global warming, the question really boils down to how we view uncertainty. If you agree with mainstream scientists, what would you be willing to do to reduce the predicted risks of substantial warming? And if you’re a lukewarmer, confident the Earth is not very sensitive, what would be at risk if you were wrong?

It seems to me that ‘lukewarmers’, to the extent that they are represented by Pielke and to a lesser extent by Betts and Edwards, still have a cultural, or spiritual home in The Gaurdian — or even at ATTP. But it is an unhappy home.

This is shown, I believe by taking a closer look at Edward’s naive definition of the climate debate’s fundamental axis, that denial-lukwarmism-concern are reflected by one’s estimation of likely warming impact. As I wrote at Bishop Hill in the comments,

Here Tamsin should admit that this is ‘ideology’ or politics — the precautionary principle, reformulated — not straightforward risk analysis.

It follows that if you take a view of ‘nature’ which is fragile, exists in ‘balance’, and provides for human society, any interruption to the imagined Order of the world will be catastrophic — a contemporary, secular reading of the The Fall.

If on the other hand you take the view that human society is (or can be) more dependent on itself than dependent on natural processes, which don’t exist in quite such a perilous state as has been imagined, the perturbations caused by human society are of lesser consequence.

I can agree with a ‘mainstream scientist’ that his predictions (such as they are) are plausible without committing to the idea that substantial warming creates uniquely challenging risks. Conversely, the green view used to hold (i.e. Greens used to be frank about it) that tiny perturbations can precipitate huge changes in the natural environment. One can be wrong about low climate sensitivity, but still be able to face the societal and technical challenges this would imply, even if that meant, 500 years hence, abandoning London to the sea (or rescuing it through some form of engineering). After all, human life thrives across a vast range of environmental conditions.

There is the question of the sensitivity of climate to CO2, and there is the question of society’s sensitivity to climate. They should not be conflated. Conflating them is to presuppose the green view of nature in balance, and the perfect form of social organisation reflecting that balance.

If the notion of risk is still important, Tamsin’s question to the lukewarmer and mainstream scientist can be turned inside out. What are the risks of holding with the view that society is dependent on ‘balance’ with natural processes? And what are the risks of believing that human society is largely self-dependent. Added to these risk calculations are moral and political questions — is a society that models itself on ‘nature’ better than one that models itself on its own measure? I don’t believe Tamsin’s questions — nor any implications of climate science — make any sense until those questions have been answered. That’s not to say that even the radically human-centric view of the debate wouldn’t choose some form of mitigation, but it does suggest that mitigation at all costs, and in the political form of that the agenda currently takes would likely be off the cards, so to speak, and would be seen for the deeply regressive tendency that it is.

It seems to me that debates about the environment, and climate in particular rest on more than one axis. Of course, there is this index of sensitivity, which is important.

But then there is the question of the degree to which human society is dependent for any given stage of development, on natural processes, or ‘stability’. And this is arguably just as important.

Then there is the question, related to the first and second, about the necessity of organising public life around the principles seemingly understood from environmental/climate science.

I don’t believe that the first axis is the only axis in this debate. As I describe above, one could take a high position with respect to climate sensitivity, but have a high estimation of human society and humans as individuals, to determine that the benefits of industrial society are worth bearings the cost-consequences for, on economic, moral, or political bases. Moreover, I have had many arguments with people of an alarmist bent in which it has become obvious that they are keener on a society organised around the authority of climate science than they are keen on understanding precisely what climate science has determined, which is to say that such a position is nakedly ‘ideological’, yet owes very little of its understanding to science. And on the other hand, I have argued with just as many putative ‘deniers’ who would seem to accept a great deal of state control of their lives, should it be discovered that indeed the climate is changing as dramatically as been claimed, such is the limitation of pure climate scepticism.

Over at TheLukewarmer’s Way, Thomas Fuller enumerates the things, per Lucia, that lukewarmers disagree with others about:

“Lukewarmer disagree with those who:
1) Believe CO2 has no net warming effect.
2) Believe the warming effect is so small that any observed rise in measured global temperature is 100% due to natural causes.
3) Believe the measured global temperature rise purely or mostly a result of “fiddling”.
4) Believe the world is more likely to cool over the next 100 years than warm.”

And for:

* lukewarmers believe ECS is on the lower end of the IPCC AR4 range […]
* … recognize the magnitude of the temperature change matters as does the rate of change.[…]
* … think it’s important for the estimates of ECS used in economic models that are used to guide policy to not be biased by things like using inapproriate priors […]
* … disagree with the rhetoric that suggests that we must all focus on the high end of ECS […]

This would seem to claim that lukewarmism is qualitatively different from scepticism and ‘warmism’, not merely a position taken after triangulating between having ones cake and eating it. But that appears to be the implication, unfortunately. And this is perhaps the limitation of honest brokerage, lukewarmism and the new manifesto offered by the ‘ecomodernists’.

As I pointed out here in an earlier discussion about words

I find it hard to fault Pielke, Nerlich or Curry’s thinking on most things. But I wonder what use there is in an endless taxonomy of agents in the climate debate, and ideas about configuring effective relationships between science and governance.

Would even an honest broker have ever been able to resist eugenics and neomalthusianism? Could being objective about the evidence, and helping politicians consider the evidence have stopped the ‘limits to growth’ thesis from developing its toxic hold over (and against) the development agenda? Could public engagement have stopped 20th Century scientific racism?

The following may sound shrill, and lean towards a reductio-ad-Hitlerum argument. But notice that, even though we all now know that the racial science of the early 20th Century was political, not even the Royal Society is so aware of the difference between science and ‘ideology’ that it recognises mid 20th Century malthusianism as a racist doctrine and Paul Ehrlich as a nasty racist. The Royal Society gives Ehrlich awards instead, salvages his failed prophecies, and re-animates them to increase their own leverage in political debates about the environment. The task in front of the honest broker is bigger than he realises: it’s him versus some serious institutional muscle.

Just a few years south of Rio Declaration’s fourth decade, I would argue, is a little bit late to start worrying about merely fixing the relationship between science and policy-making, such that only the best science gets through, untrammelled by alarmism — denial was never admitted to the debate anyway. If lukewarmism really is about merely fixing this relationship after locating some sensible middle ground, it is hopeless. It is not equal to the task of understanding why the environment in general and climate in particular have become encompassing frameworks for understanding the world and things within it such as poverty, war, inequality, and decline in the ‘general sense of wellbeing’, and as such is not equal to the task of understanding what impedes transparent dialogue between science and policymaking. It is not enough to merely say that we should use ‘good science'; the reason why policymakers have sought the moral authority of science needs to be understood, before we can say what is good science and what is not. And it is not enough to produce glossy manifestos, aiming to put policy-making and the natural science on the right track. Until the reasons why alarmist manifestos and the models that underpin them were able to thrive are understood, there can be no sensible manifesto.

In other words, if ‘lukewarmism’ tries to define itself as anything other than merely an attitude towards debate — for instance by attaching itself to an estimate of climate sensitivity — then it is as problematic as outright denial or rabid alarmism. I always thought this was what was meant by ‘lukewarm’, and that the middleground estimation of climate sensitivity was the consequence of not being invested either in ideas about scientific fraud or in particular political agendas. It seems that many lukewarmers are, after all, refugees from the green camp, displaced — or even expelled by the shrill rhetoric of so many Lewandowskys and Oreskes — by alarmism, but not really willing to ask why they are in exile.

Of course, many (but not all) lukewarmers do ask such questions. But perhaps ‘lukewarm’ doesn’t describe very much at all, except where a position exists in relation to another. There’s little point trying to define lukewarmism for all values of alarmism, or for all values of denial, since the debate is fluid, and moves on. New issues emerge, such as the pause, or ocean acidification, or climategate, or Himalayagate. Each creates new challenges for the putative camp in question to explain the development. Giving things names, more often than not, is an attempt to keep the debate frozen.

There is a quote somewhere, which I have lost: once you give something a name, you don’t have to argue with it. This is the tactic followed by Lewandowsky, Oreskes et al. By suggesting that there is a phenomenon of denial… And now lukewarmism in the form of reflection on the hiatus, it becomes an object of study, rather than an analysis or judgement in its own right. Lewandowsky and Orsekes no longer need to defer to climate science — nor even climate scientists — they simply need to say that science is vulnerable to some force which is greater than it. Deniers are vulnerable to ‘conspiracy ideation’, and climate scientists are vulnerable to deniers’ conspiracies to undermine certainty with doubt. No deniers, sceptics, lukewarmers or even climate scientists are allowed to have found the data on the hiatus interesting in its own right. Don’t take my word for it, ask Lewandowsky et al.


Roger Pielke Jr. tweets that he rejects the term ‘lukewarmer’, and adds: “Distinguishing political perspectives according to ECS is antithetical to robust policy & inclusive politics”.

I would again add that I think the term isn’t meaningful, so I don’t mean a lot by it. My apologies to Pielke, nonetheless. This is the problem with labels. By referring to him as a ‘lukewarmer’ I was not referring to his estimates of sensitivity, but as I point out later, an approach to debate, contra those who are hostile to it, which holds that it is essential.

Another day, another apocalyptic story in the Guardian

Coffee catastrophe beckons as climate change threatens arabica plant
Study warns that rising temperatures pose serious threat to global coffee market, potentially affecting livelihoods of small farmers and pushing up prices


Coffee, as we all now know, is grown by poor people. And, as we all know, climate change is worse for the poor. Never mind that environmentalists — who claim to care for the poor — hate coffee shops (unless they’re in Amsterdam), and hate global trade and hate the vehicles that global trade depends on, and hate even more the fuels that make advanced agriculture and global shipping possible…

Cultivation of the arabica coffee plant, staple of daily caffeine fixes and economic lifeline for millions of small farmers, is under threat from climate change as rising temperatures and new rainfall patterns limit the areas where it can be grown, researchers have warned.

This is surely a disaster.

With global temperatures forecast to increase by 2C-2.5C over the next few decades, a report predicts that some of the major coffee producing countries will suffer serious losses, reducing supplies and driving up prices.

2.5 degrees over the next few decades? Really? Over the course of my coffee-drinking career — i.e. my adult life — the globe has warmed by approximately no degrees centigrade. But let’s not worry about that right now. What exactly is the claim?

The joint study, published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) under the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), models the global suitability of arabica cultivation to see how production will be affected in 2050.

It predicts that Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Colombia – which between them produce 65% of the global market share of arabica – will find themselves experiencing severe losses unless steps are taken to change the genetics of the crops as well as the manner and areas in which it is grown.

Well, we can all agree that adaptation is a Good Thing, and is likely a good way of responding to climate change. But there’s adaptation and there’s adaptation. Most adaptation is a decision that can be taken at the level of the farm. The implication of the study, however, is that coffee growers will have to move ever upwards to cope with the changing climate, demanding the intervention of national and global carbon bureaucracies.

But is this true? What’s the evidence for it?

It doesn’t exist in the statistics relating to the production of coffee provided by the UN. Here is a chart showing coffee production in the countries named by the Guardian in the passage above, and for the world total.


World coffee production has doubled since 1980. Coffee production has tripled in Brazil since 1995, and output is less volatile. Vietnam has emerged as a coffee superpower in just two decades. Indonesia’s coffee production has shown slow, but steady and sure growth. This picture is hard to marry with the story that coffee production is getting harder. The only loser here is Columbia, whose output seemed to peak in the early 1990s. For this we turn to Wikipedia for the standard explanation

Regional climate change associated with global warming has caused Colombian coffee production to decline since 2006 from 12 million 132-pound bags, the standard measure, to 9 million bags in 2010. Average temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius between 1980 to 2010, with average precipitation increasing 25 percent in the last few years, disrupting the specific climatic requirements of the Coffea arabica bean.[13]

Well that’s one explanation for Colombia’s coffee production decline. But there are at least two others… Fair trade organisation, Equal Exchange offer this account:

The global coffee [price] crisis hit Colombia’s small producers hard. Twenty-three percent of producers were not meeting production costs in the nineteen nineties. The affect on producer families varied by region, but overall the crisis sent people further into poverty and debt. Malnutrition among small children in farm families went up significantly, while coffee production across the country fell 44% as farmers could no longer afford to harvest and process their crops. Many farmers were forced to migrate for work in urban areas leading to increased unemployment and more poverty.

The article is not without its own tendency to sustainabollocks. And this journal article offers a third perspective, but which it also attempts to link to climate change…

Coffee rust is a leaf disease caused by the fungus, Hemileia vastatrix. Coffee rust epidemics, with intensities higher than previously observed, have affected a number of countries including: Colombia, from 2008 to 2011; Central America and Mexico, in 2012–13; and Peru and Ecuador in 2013. There are many contributing factors to the onset of these epidemics e.g. the state of the economy, crop management decisions and the prevailing weather, and many resulting impacts e.g. on production, on farmers’ and labourers’ income and livelihood, and on food security. Production has been considerably reduced in Colombia (by 31 % on average during the epidemic years compared with 2007) and Central America (by 16 % in 2013 compared with 2011–12 and by 10 % in 2013–14 compared with 2012–13). These reductions have had direct impacts on the livelihoods of thousands of smallholders and harvesters. For these populations, particularly in Central America, coffee is often the only source of income used to buy food and supplies for the cultivation of basic grains. As a result, the coffee rust epidemic has had indirect impacts on food security. The main drivers of these epidemics are economic and meteorological. All the intense epidemics experienced during the last 37 years in Central America and Colombia were concurrent with low coffee profitability periods due to coffee price declines, as was the case in the 2012–13 Central American epidemic, or due to increases in input costs, as in the 2008–11 Colombian epidemics. Low profitability led to suboptimal coffee management, which resulted in increased plant vulnerability to pests and diseases. A common factor in the recent Colombian and Central American epidemics was a reduction in the diurnal thermal amplitude, with higher minimum/lower maximum temperatures (+0.1 °C/-0.5 °C on average during 2008–2011 compared to a low coffee rust incidence period, 1991–1994, in Chinchiná, Colombia; +0.9 °C/-1.2 °C on average in 2012 compared with prevailing climate, in 1224 farms from Guatemala). This likely decreased the latency period of the disease. These epidemics should be considered as a warning for the future, as they were enhanced by weather conditions consistent with climate change. Appropriate actions need to be taken in the near future to address this issue including: the development and establishment of resistant coffee cultivars; the creation of early warning systems; the design of crop management systems adapted to climate change and to pest and disease threats; and socio-economic solutions such as training and organisational strengthening.

But the link between climate change — whether it be natural or anthropogenic — and reduced coffee bean production is speculation. The research only suggests it as a ‘likely’ part-cause of an epidemic, given relatively modest changes in temperature extremes, which itself had a much more profound effect on production, which was again much more likely an economic consequence — low price and poverty. Let us not forget that greens are hostile to interventions which could have prevented the disease — pesticides — and campaign to abolish their use, and have persuaded Fair Trade organisations to make ‘sustainability’ a condition of trade. In other words, it is not implausible that the demands of ‘sustainability’ could have caused the very problem which its advocates now attribute to climate change.

A broader picture of climate change’s effect on coffee production can be gained by looking at each country’s yield.


Again, we can see that the story of environmental decline doesn’t fit with the statistics. We can see no signal corresponding to climate change in any country except Colombia, which we have an explanation for. Moreover, in the case of Vietnam, where we can see a dramatic shift in yield between the late 1990s and mid 2000s, which the environmentalist might be tempted to explain as the consequence of climate change. But he would be wrong. The producer price of coffee fell between 1997 and 2004, before rising again. As this graph of Colombian production statistics shows. (The data for producer prices in Vietnam do not exist over this time range).


Economics accounts for changes in production yield much better than climate. When the price is low, the yield is low.

The Guardian article continues, quoting one of the study’s authors…

“If you look at the countries that will lose out most, they’re countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, which have steep hills and volcanoes,” he said. “As you move up, there’s less and less area. But if you look at some South American or east African countries, you have plateaus and a lot of areas at higher altitudes, so they will lose much less.”

So do these countries show any sign of being vulnerable to climate change yet? Here are the production and yield stats for those countries.



We can see coffee production increase in Honduras and Nicaragua, and yield increase in Honduras, with wobbly increase for yield in Nicaragua. The case of El Salvador is very different. Coffee production fell, and has not recovered since 1979, and its yield has fallen since 1969. Is this the result of climate change?

No. In the cases of both Nicaragua and El Salvador, conflict much better explains changes in production statistics than climate change. In Nicaragua, civil war affects production through the 1980s, which was amplified by US sanctions, and the reduction in yield from the late 1990s through the mid 200s is explained by the lower prices that affected Vietnam. Civil war affected El Salvador through the 1980s, also, from which the El Salvadorian economy has not recovered .

The report‘s abstract reads as follows…

Regional studies have shown that climate change will affect climatic suitability for Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) within current regions of production. Increases in temperature and changes in precipitation patterns will decrease yield, reduce quality and increase pest and disease pressure. This is the first global study on the impact of climate change on suitability to grow Arabica coffee. We modeled the global distribution of Arabica coffee under changes in climatic suitability by 2050s as projected by 21 global circulation models. The results suggest decreased areas suitable for Arabica coffee in Mesoamerica at lower altitudes. In South America close to the equator higher elevations could benefit, but higher latitudes lose suitability. Coffee regions in Ethiopia and Kenya are projected to become more suitable but those in India and Vietnam to become less suitable. Globally, we predict decreases in climatic suitability at lower altitudes and high latitudes, which may shift production among the major regions that produce Arabica coffee.

This seems to me to reproduce the same old trick, of plugging in worst-case scenario projections into modelled assumptions of sensitivity of this-or-that to climate, to reveal, hey-presto, a sound prediction of what life will be like a few decades hence. Yet we can see that climate has had very little impact on agricultural production, if any negative impact at all. And we can see that economics plays a much bigger role in agricultural production than any environmental effect.

These kind of studies claim to want to protect the interests of producers. Yet their futures don’t seem to be at all dependent on the interventions of climate bureaucracies, if there is any lesson to be had from the past. The weather is simply the weather, whereas price volatility and conflict are the real enemies of farmers in poorer economies. Wealth allows for the proper management of crops, as well as adaptation to any kind of weather. The study does not appear to have attempted to isolate climate and its Nth-order effects from economic effects and conflict in its estimation of coffee-production’s sensitivity to climate. Why not?

This doesn’t exclude the possibility, of course, that dramatic shifts in climate could create problems for coffee producers. Of course it could. Yet even extreme weather, such as that which caused widespread damage in coffee-producing economies in the late 1990s as a result of El Nino don’t seem to have affected coffee production. In fact, the price of coffee fell following the 1997-8 El Nino, no doubt amplifying the consequences for recovery.

To link agricultural production and climate change in this way — as seems to be the greens’ want — is to make instrumental use of the plight of producers in poorer economies. It does not aim to intervene in any way that would improve their condition. The purpose is to inflate an already engorged bureaucracy and add to its powers. A genuine discussion about how to improve the conditions of producers in poorer economies would be about how best to allow a situation in which fewer farmers produced more goods, leaving more people to produce the machines and chemicals those wealthier farmers would use in their work, the other services they would use in their lives, and the books, films and music they would use in their leisure time.

But bloated, ambitious green bureaucracies and their academic organs like the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, which produced this report don’t want such lifestyles for poorer producers.

No single research institution working alone can address the critically important issues of global climate change, agriculture and food security. The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) will address the increasing challenge of global warming and declining food security on agricultural practices, policies and measures through a strategic collaboration between CGIAR and Future Earth.

Food security is not an ‘increasing challenge’. It is a challenge which has reduced dramatically over just the timespan of anthropogenic global warming. More people have more access to better quality food than ever before. Only in the minds of bureaucrats and climate impact models is the world a worse place than it ever has been. The reasons for this are obvious.

The looming UK general election has so far been a contest of the lowest possible expectations. It is a difficult election to get excited about. But one group seems to feel especially hurt at being left out of the debate, with their favourite subject having taken a back seat to promises about lowering the cost of living, creating jobs and making tax-dodgers pay their fair share.

Over at Business Green — the on-line trade magazine for subsidy-junkies — we’re told that

Election campaign ‘failing to address’ green energy concerns

Said subsidy-junkies had polled themselves, and found them disillusioned with the substance of the election debates. The Renewable Energy Association (REA) asked its members if they ‘feel that the political parties are addressing the needs of the renewable energy {sic} during this election campaign’. 95% of 136 respondents said they did not. It seems that 1 in 20 turkeys voted for Christmas.

The Green Party was viewed as the party that would be ‘best for the renewable energy industry’ (29%) with the Liberal Democrats seen as the next best.

Members were less optimistic about the two parties most likely to form a government after the election. Nearly a fifth (18%) of respondents believed that the industry would be in the best hands under Labour, whereas the Conservatives received the support of 15%.

No doubt industries and the individuals within them have their favourites. But isn’t it odd for a particular industry to imagine itself and its favourite topics as deserving special status. There is much hand-wringing about large energy interests getting involved in politics — especially in the USA — but Business Green and the REA seem somewhat unashamed to admit that their own interests lie in particular election outcomes. When fossil fuel companies appear to expect special treatment from politics, green organisations and journalists are the very first to complain. And nobody can say that there hasn’t been emphasis on green energy — including the closure of many fossil fuel power plants, and much green legislation — in the UK over the last two parliamentary terms.

The green sector and green organisations have enjoyed much privilege. Yet Green Party and Climate Outreach & Information Network activist and part time academic psychologist, Adam Corner complained in the Guardian that

We need our leaders to speak out on climate change, not stay silent
The less that political, community and business leaders talk about climate change, the more scope there is for scepticism to emerge

There is plenty of stuff in the manifestos, Corner observed, but not in the debate.

So while there appears to be a robust political consensus around the importance of climate change, it is a silent consensus – which from the point of view of public engagement, may as well not be a consensus at all.

And out comes the cod psychology…

One important factor known to influence public opinion is whether elite groups (such as politicians and other public figures) give positive or negative cues on climate change. What our political leaders say about climate change matters – especially if they say nothing at all.

But perhaps one reason for this ‘silence’ is that political parties and their machines have decided that the public aren’t receptive to climate change, no matter what Corner’s research leads him to believe about ‘positive messaging’. After all, when people are more worried about jobs, the cost of living, the economy, health, and taxation, to bang on about climate change might look somewhat callous. Moreover, it risks giving a hostage to fortune, with UKIP being the only party willing to criticise the prevailing political consensus, and which has rapidly absorbed working and middle class voters alienated by the Labour and Conservative parties.

Even the Green Party has chosen to emphasise its social justice agenda rather than the environment. Its manifesto promises to ‘end austerity’ and create a million public service jobs paid for by a new ‘Robin Hood’ wealth tax and create a £10/hour minimum wage, protect the NHS from privatisation and increase spending on mental health, before it gets round to tackling climate change.

The climate simply hasn’t been the rousing chorus that environmentalists want it to be.

But another reason for the ‘silence’ is the fact of consensus politics creating a democratic deficit. To expose the political consensus to debate would be to challenge its very foundations, to test the public’s sympathy for it. This is simply too risky.

The cross party consensus on climate change was renewed for this election in a deal brokered by the Green Alliance.

Green Alliance was launched in 1979 with the aim ‘to ensure that the political priorities of the United Kingdom are determined within an ecological perspective’. Our name originally referred to the large group of eminent individuals from a wide range of professional spheres who were the founding members.

The Green Alliance is staffed, funded and partnered by all the usual suspects — a roll call of climate capitalists, green bureaucrats and activists NGOs — and surprisingly, by fossil fuel companies. Together, they worked to get the leaders of the three main political parties to pledge:

- To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2°C.
– To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act.
– To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.

So it doesn’t matter what the public thinks. The leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have already decided. So there is little point debating the detail. Yet Corner still wants debate:

As the election debates have shown, powerful leadership on climate change is not well served by quiet agreement. Nor is it a question of getting different leaders singing from the same song sheet. Some passionate disagreement – the antithesis of a silent consensus – would in many ways be preferable, and put climate change where it deserves to be: at the centre (not the periphery) of political debates.

Corner is himself reluctant to debate. Like many greens, he takes criticism of his ideas personally, rather than as abstract discussions of consequence. Much of his academic activism hides its politics behind the scientific consensus on climate change. One of the ideas he seems most resistant to discussing is the political nature of consensus — its political utility, and its corrosive effect on democracy. The cross-party consensus on climate has allowed its parties to establish political power and technocracies above the institutions of national democracy, and excused themselves from having to debate it. In the same way, the scientific consensus allows politicians to hide from debate and from criticism, to dismiss critics of political environmentalism as ‘deniers’, no matter the substance of their criticism. Adam Corner has got the consensus he has campaigned for.

Just two years ago, Corner complained that UKIP’s rise may undo the climate change consensus.

If political conservatives have so far not found environmental policies to their liking, then a priority for everyone who cares about climate change, whatever their political leaning, is to find a way of reconciling the values of the right with policy responses to climate change that are sustainable and just.

Otherwise – and the rise of UKIP suggests this may be closer than many assumed – the hard-won cross-party consensus on climate change in Britain, enshrined in the Climate Change Act, could be undone.

Forgetting environmentalism’s origins (in the UK at least) in the conservative camp led Corner to put the policy cart before the political horse. If so many conservatives aren’t natural environmentalists, and thus UKIP’s rise threatens the cross-party consensus, then we can see writ large an admission that the Conservative Party’s embrace of the climate issue alienates its core constituency. If, as Corner (And COIN) argues, green and conservative values can be reconciled, then the Conservative Party still remain divided from their base, having not yet persuaded them of the argument.

A more simpler explanation for what Corner observes, then, is that green values seem to thrive where parties suffer a disconnect from their constituencies, across the political spectrum. It may be the case (I have seen no evidence either way) that Labour and Liberal Democrat activists are more sympathetic to the climate cause than their counterparts in the Conservative Party, but this may reflect the expression of loyalty, obedience or discipline, rather than an reasoned ideological commitment. Moreover, none of these parties are enjoying historic levels of support after enumerating their new-found green principles, much less do they share them with the broader public. Corner’s desire to help the Conservative Party reconnect with natural conservatives with environmental issues aims to address a far more fundamental problem with British (And European) politics than it is able to grasp. It is as if the democratic deficit that afflicts all parties would be okay, or is not worthy of comment, just so long as some Tories think that climate change is an important issue. In this sense, then, environmentalists campaign for climate policy precisely in spite of the public’s interest, against it, to protect all three parties from their existential crisis — the yawning chasm between the political establishment and an indifferent public. Saving the planet from climate change is about saving the political establishment from the public.

BBC-journalist-turned-Greenpeace-activist, Damian Kahya notes the differences between US and UK politicians treatment of the climate issue, and promises to explain How we stopped talking about the climate this election — and why that’s a problem.

After using World Earth Day to warn about the impact the changing climate is already having on the US, [Obama] used his annual stand-up routine in front of White House journalists to rant against his “stupid, short-sighted, irresponsible” climate skeptic opponents who throw snowballs in the Senate to illustrate global warming isn’t happening.

As polarised and unpleasant that debate is — it’s hard not to wonder why it is so absent in the UK. After all, the UK is a flood prone island not that much less economically dependent on fossil fuels than the US.

Whilst Hillary Clinton and her opponents make climate central to their polarised campaigns, the issue appeared 3 times in Paxman’s battle for No.10 with Miliband and Cameron.

It is as if Greenpeace activists suddenly don’t like the consensus.

In fact the UK’s political discussion about climate has become ever more elite, as if the main principles are decided and it’s down to the geeks to sort out the details. But this is to miss the point of what climate means now.

It’s as if Greenpeace are complaining about the elite form of politics they have helped to create…


Here, a self-appointed Greenpeace activist sits in judgement of the Parliament below him.

And it is as if Greenpeace are now complaining about technocracy…

Climate politics in the UK remains dominated by “the science”. It is a debate about what the science was and what principles and targets we should adopt. It’s the sort of thing you can do a charity concert about — but it no longer engenders real conflict or emotion.

Gosh! It is as if Kahya had just read every blog post on this site. Yet there is no sense that Greenpeace were in any way responsible for the state of the debate… And yet a visit to the Climate Resistance archives yields this…

Back then, it was Dave on Greenpeace’s rooftops, unveiling his policies, which would end up paying the owners of domestic solar PV installations 5 times the market rate for electricity… to consume that electricity. Barking mad — but just the sort of thing Business Green, Corner and Greenpeace campaigned for. And when criticism came, they fell silent, or said the critics were ‘right wing’, ‘fossil-fuel funded’, or ‘deniers’. Kahya shows no signs of regret.

The debate, says the activist for the organisation that has done so much to shut down debate and to belittle criticism, should be about more than technical detail:

It’s about floods, storms or droughts and how to deal with them. About which coastlines, which industries and which companies will survive and which won’t; which technologies we develop and which economic models we use. The way our economy works is – after all – inherently tied up with the energy that drives it.

Most importantly it’s about the risks a changing climate poses to the poor and vulnerable and how to tackle that without undermining the economic livelihoods of those same people by driving up their bills or depriving them of power.

Kahya is wrong. What to do about floods, storms or droughts is a technical issue. But he is right that government picking winners is a political issue. But not one that can be justified on the basis of overweening crisis — the environmentalists preferred mode of argument. If Greenpeace wanted a debate that didn’t pretend that choosing winners and losers that didn’t descend to science, they have certainly fooled me. But that’s the point of asserting ‘the scientific consensus’ in political debates. To suggest that coastlines aren’t quite as perilous as green activists claim, that the government shouldn’t be picking winners, or that cheaper energy might be more helpful to poor people than mitigating climate change was to “deny science”, and to be victim of some horrific right wing ideology that would make Hitler’s crimes against humanity look like a summer picnic… Climate sceptics were inviting certain doom. And even lukewarmers were, on the green view, like some kind of Neville Chamberlain, clutching a piece of paper.

If this blog — now starting its NINTH year — has done nothing else, it has asked the likes of Greenpeace activists for debate about ‘the risks a changing climate poses to the poor and vulnerable and how to tackle that without undermining the economic livelihoods of those same people’. Yet Kahya complains about ‘silence’.

Politics, after all, is about power and choices. The UK’s silent consensus to talk about climate – at some later date – simply means those choices will be made without debate, as though huge changes to our infrastructure, buildings, equipment, behaviours and food system can be delivered by a few technocrats working under the radar. If forced to choose I’d rather someone showed up at Parliament and threw a snowball.

Environmentalists have their consensus and now they don’t like it. They turned up at Parliament, which agreed with them anyway, to stamp all over it, and to issue demands to it. Parliament did as it was told. And climate change became so unfashionable, so uncontroversial that nobody thought to challenge it. Anybody who dared to was harassed and smeared by politicians and NGO activists and on the pages of the Guardian. They were made the subject of bullshit psychology experiments. And now the Greenpeace Activist and the Green party activist say the same thing: wouldn’t it be better if the UK Parliament had a James Inhofe to chuck a few snowballs around.

There’s no pleasing environmentalists who forget the wisdom: be careful what you wish for.

Over at Bishop Hill, Andrew Montford wonders,

Is there a competition on to see who can be the most revolting climate change activist at the moment?

It’s a good question, and it arises out of an article posted on Business Green (an on-line news and campaigning site for green capitalists) by its editor, James Murray. More about that in a moment. First, the background.

Yesterday, Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, chastised his counterpart, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, as the BBC reports

The Labour leader said the UK had repeated the same mistakes “in post-conflict planning” for Libya as were made in Iraq and the current refugee situation should have been anticipated.

This has rightly caused many to point out that it is the oppositions’ job to hold the government to account, but Miliband had not done so. And moreover, Miliband had given his support to the interventions in question, including the plan he now claims was absent, in 2011:

It is only now that many hundreds of lives have been lost in the Mediterranean Sea as people flee the chaos unleashed in the region in no small part by such incautious intervention, that Miliband wants to make it an election issue.

This was, said James Murray, “disgracefully confected outrage over Ed Miliband’s foreign policy speech”, as though Ed Miliband’s speech wasn’t the self-same ‘confected outrage’ and worse, confected outrage from a man who actively supported the intervention and failed to ask questions of the Government in the following four years, in spite of weekly opportunities to put such questions to the Prime Minister directly. And even worse, this criticism came from the leader of a party whose own record of poor judgement has left hundreds of thousands dead across the world under the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

But for Murray, the main message was not the internal and external factors which have produced conflict across the Middle East and North Africa and the deaths of refugees… It was climate change.

But there are other macro-trends at play here that are driving thousands of people to risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean, of which climate change is undoubtedly one.

The “climate change causes war” argument is the nexus of the two main preoccupations of risk- and security-obsessed politics, also known as the ‘politics of fear’. The surprising outcome of the politics of fear is that it produces more of what its agents claim to eliminate. The Bush-Blair doctrine of eliminating the risk of terrorists seems instead to have unleashed a horrific and savage Islamic movement that has capitalised on the chaos and power vacuum left in their wake. A similar paradox emerges from the arguments of those who want to eliminate the risk of climate change. As has been explained here, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say that incautious attempts to mitigate climate change risk increasing society’s vulnerability to the climate.

This is a point that is very hard to explain to climate zealots — let’s call them climate hawks — who are reluctant to admit criticism to the debate. Murry sets out his case…

We know that states tend to fail when they cannot feed themselves. We know that climate change increases the risk of disruption to food supplies in a region. We know that numerous societies throughout history have collapsed due to their failure to adapt to environmental change. We know that in 2007 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the war in Darfur as the world’s first climate change conflict. We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices. We know recent research has suggested climate change played a role in sparking the Syrian War that in turn has played such a big role in fuelling both the rise of ISIS and the humanitarian crisis off Europe’s southern coast.

But do we know any of this? Is it the case that ‘states fail when they cannot feed themselves’, or is it the case that food production and distribution becomes harder as states fail? The economist Amayata Sen, having witnessed the Bengal Famine, noted that often food shortage was less the cause of famine than the prevalent social conditions which beset its distribution — famines had occurred at times when food had been more abundant than when famine had been averted. No famine had occurred in a democracy, he observed. Ditto, is it the case that ‘numerous societies throughout history have collapsed due to their failure to adapt to environmental change’, or have they failed to adapt to climate change because they were collapsing for other reasons?

Should we take Kofi Annan’s word for it that Darfur was the world’s ‘first climate change conflict’? After all, it was Kofi Annan’s think tank, The Global Humanitarian Forum, which produced the 2008 report, The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, in which Anan claimed ‘Today, millions of people are already suffering because of climate change’. This suffering included 302,000 deaths per year from malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition attributed to climate change, claimed the report, out of 7,550,000 deaths from the same diseases. As has been pointed out on this blog ad nauseum, to emphasise the putative cause of 302,000 deaths — climate change — ignores the lower-order consequence of 25 times as many deaths: poverty. Annan’s callous moral calculus almost encourages us to believe that the 7 million — mostly infant — deaths are natural. Yet tackling poverty rather than climate change would have the effect of solving the problem of climate change, which now looks trivial.

Moreover, there is good research suggesting that conflict in Dafur had nothing to do with climate change.

In Climate not to blame for African civil wars, Halvard Buhaug argues,

Vocal actors within policy and practice contend that environmental variability and shocks, such as drought and prolonged heat waves, drive civil wars in Africa. Recently, a widely publicized scientific article appears to substantiate this claim. This paper investigates the empirical foundation for the claimed relationship in detail. Using a host of different model specifications and alternative measures of drought, heat, and civil war, the paper concludes that climate variability is a poor predictor of armed conflict. Instead, African civil wars can be explained by generic structural and contextual conditions: prevalent ethno-political exclusion, poor national economy, and the collapse of the Cold War system.

And do we know that ‘protests over soaring food prices’ were the spark that began the Arab Spring? The Gaurdian certainly thought so. But to the ‘leave it in the ground’ campaigners rarely stop to think about the effect on prices of abolishing fossil fuels, or subsidies for its consumers — the self-fulfilling prophecy. And we can moreover return to Sen, to point out that, even if there were apparent environmental causes for reduced harvest and thus higher prices (and so on to protests and conflict), the dominant issue was the tyrannies that failed to address the population’s needs, not the relative scarcity of food crops. Here is a graph showing wheat production in the region. (Data from UN FAOSTAT).


It is true that Syria suffered a drought in 2007-8, which can clearly be seen in the chart. And no doubt the internal displacement that is attributed to this drought changed conditions that would be significant later on. But is it enough to say that climate change was a factor in the conflict which developed several years later? It doesn’t seem to account for the political changes seen in Egypt. Nor in Tunisia.

But the green argument is more complex… There is a global dimension to food production — the market — as this research argued…

In 2011, winter drought in eastern China’s wheat-growing region had significant implications beyond the country’s borders. Potential crop failure due to drought led China to buy wheat on the international market and contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices; the resultant price spikes had a serious economic impact in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, where bread prices tripled. Egypt’s geography and population combine to create a dependency on imported wheat and a subsequent exposure to external commodity factors. Bread is the staple of the Egyptian diet, and for decades bread subsidies have been used to maintain social stability.

So let us bring China into the chart…


As we can see, there is no climate signal in the statistics for wheat production in China — unless we want to say that its increasing productivity is the consequence of climate change. This calls for closer inspection of the argument…

Potential crop failure due to drought led China to buy wheat on the international market and contributed to a doubling of global wheat prices”

Potential, not actual crop failure led to a policy decision, which pushed up prices. Here are those prices, from Index Mundi.


But there was no significant reduction in global wheat production that year, though it was slightly depressed from the previous year.


It is the environmentalists’ tendency, of course to see upward prices as a reflection of actual scarcity, the consequence of environmental degradation. But the figures rarely bear out this relationship. The rights and wrongs of the Chinese government’s anticipation of wheat shortage would no doubt produce debate between those of left and right persuasions about central planning and market failure. But meanwhile, the green steals a march on red and blue with vulgar economics. The climate debate descends to science.

Over at his blog, Thomas Fuller gives many reasons not to take at face value the claims that climate change contributed to the conflict in Syria. These include (in no order):

* Population growth
* Historic vulnerability to episodes of drought, including two years with zero precipitation 1870-71.
* Water diverted by Turkey
* No significant global trends in drought
* Deep discontent with the Syrian regime
* Previous droughts did not lead to conflict
* Other countries experiencing the drought did not descend to conflict
* The humanitarian crisis existed before the drought

And more. Read it.

The substance of what Murray says we “know” in fact turns out to be mere speculation. And highly contested speculation at that, with much criticism of the putative links between climate and conflict emerging from within the green camp itself. It is even contested by the IPCC

Climate variability or climate change are popularly reported to be significant causes of the mass killing in the Darfur region that began in 2003 […]All studies of this conflict agree that it is not possible to isolate any of these specific causes as being most influential […]. Most authors identify government practices as being far more influential drivers than climate variability noting also that similar changes in climate did not stimulate conflicts of the same magnitude in neighboring regions[…]

And it even warns that incautious attempts to mitigate climate change may themselves be the causes of conflict:

Chapter 12 (12.5.2) page 17.

Research is beginning to show that climate change mitigation and adaptation actions can increase the risk of armed conflict, as well as compound vulnerabilities in certain populations (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Adger and Barnett, 2009; Webersik, 2010; Fairhead et al., 2012; Marino and Ribot, 2012; Steinbruner et al., 2012). This is based on robust evidence that violent political struggles occur over the distribution of benefits from natural resources (Peluso and Watts, 2001). Hence, in circumstances where property rights and conflict management institutions are ineffective or illegitimate, efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change that change the distribution of access to resources have the potential to create and aggravate conflict.

“Violent conflict increases vulnerability to climate change (medium evidence, high agreement). Large-scale violent conflict harms assets that facilitate adaptation, including infrastructure, institutions, natural resources, social capital, and livelihood opportunities. [12.5, 19.2, 19.6]”

So climate change policy may increase the risk of conflict, and the conflict will increase people’s exposure to climate change.

The IPCC goes on…

Actions taken in response to climate change can aggravate existing significant inequalities or grievances over resources (Marino and Ribot, 2012), limit access to land and other resources required to maintain livelihoods, or otherwise undermine critical aspects of human security (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008, Fairhead et al., 2012). Maladaptation or greenhouse gas mitigation efforts at odds with local priorities and property rights may increase the risk of conflict in populations, particularly where institutions governing access to property are weak, or favour one group over another (Barnett and O’Neill, 2010; Butler and Gates, 2012, McEvoy and Wilder, 2012). Research on the rapid expansion of biofuels production includes studies connecting land grabbing, land dispossession, and social conflict (Molony and Smith, 2010; Borras et al., 2010; Dauverge and Neville, 2010; Vermeulen and Cotula, 2010). One study has identified possible links between increased biofuels production, food price spikes, and social instability such as riots (Johnstone and Mazo, 2011).

And on…

The provision of financial resources in payment for ecosystem services projects, such as are associated with Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), has the potential to stimulate conflict over resources and property rights (Melick, 2010). For example, efforts to ensure ‘REDD readiness’ in Tanzania (Beymer-Farris and Bassett, 2012; 2013; Burgess et al., 2013) and the Congo basin (Brown et al., 2011) have been contested, and placed communities in conflict with conservationists and governments. Eriksen and Lind (2009) similarly find that climate change adaptation interventions in Kenya have aggravated surrounding conflicts.


Climate change mitigation will increase demand for deployment of less carbon-intensive forms of energy, including hydropower some of which have historically resulted in social conflict and human insecurity (for example because of forced resettlement), and this is a basis for concern about increased violence and insecurity in the future (Conca, 2005; McDonald-Wilmsen et al., 2010; Sherbinin et al., 2011). Other research points to an increased use of nuclear power increasing the threat of nuclear proliferation or incidents of nuclear terrorism (Socolow and Glaser, 2009, Steinbruner et al., 2012). Climate policy responses also have the potential to reduce conflict in various ways, as explained further in Section 12.5.4.

And this adds more armour to the observation that environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recalling Sen’s maxim, the anti-democratic tendency of environmentalists — the view that democracy isn’t equal to the problem of climate change, and so institutions must be constructed above democratic control — would replicate the configuration of power that allowed tyrants and their indifference to their populations’ needs to reign.

Murray continues…

Most of all though, we know that even if climate change is not the primary factor behind the current tragedy this humanitarian disaster and the seemingly intractable geopolitical challenges, nationalist tendencies, and crushing grief it invokes is precisely the kind of disaster security analysts expect to see worsen in a world afflicted by escalating climate change.

Who are these security analysts? Are they the same analysts Ed Miliband consulted when he determined that UK intervention was ‘a feasible plan’, or perhaps the ones that devised the plan? Were they the same analysts that compiled and ‘sexed-up’ the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ that made the case for invading Iraq? Are these the same security analysts that didn’t anticipate the emergence of ISIS/ISIL? Are they the same analysts that presided over a decade and half of interventions across the world that have left thousands of young soldiers dead or seriously wounded, and killed hundreds of thousands of people that had nothing at all to do with terrorism, or fundamental interpretations of religion, and cost hundreds of $billions, if not $trillions?

I asked Murray to explain…

Which built on his earlier equivocation…

Murray’s logic appears to be that because the population of the ‘defence establishment’ aren’t your typical muesli-pushing Guardian readers, they have no obvious interest in climate change, and therefore can be counted as an authority. But this misconceive’s the sociology of the ‘climate establishment’ and the ascendency of environmentalism, as well as the development of risk-politics (discussed in depth in recent posts). The ascendency of the climate issue cannot be explained by the force of so many environmentalists asserting the issue over the political establishment. If it was thus, they were pushing at an open door. The climate issue was expedient to the political establishment and its agenda, much as the schedule of the War on Terror was established before dodgy dossiers were compiled. That’s not to say, of course, that climate change isn’t real and that there was no plot to bring down the World Trade Centre. But it is to say that politicians preoccupation with risk prefigures their response, and that the security agenda is in general prefigured by domestic politics more than by objective fact. Preoccupation with risk allows speculation to be passed of as fact in exactly the same way Murray’s concatenation of things we ‘know’ allowed him to claim that people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea is ‘what climate change looks like’.

That preoccupation with risk is expressed differently in arguments about climate and terror, but the logic is the same, and their nexus is interesting. Since the claims in currency are so contested, it would be prudent to understand the desire to naturalise complex things such as war than to take the claims at face value.

The desire to stuff complex social, political and economic phenomena into the terms of an encompassing ecological narrative overwhelms people who struggle to make sense of the world, and those who resist simpler or inconvenient explanations. And of course, those who would like to elevate themselves and the industries who finance operations like Business Green. The green story allows people selling renewable generators to appear to be saviours and planet-savers, not merely brokers of hardware. In the same way, presenting the War on Terror as a battle of civilisations — as latter day Churchills against their Islamic Hitler counterparts was a hollow morality play.

And this brings us back to Murray, who doesn’t understand how or why anyone could object to his article and its headline.

Murray claimed:

This is what climate crisis really means
The tragic deaths in the Mediterranean are precisely in line with the predictions of climate security analysts, without urgent action they could herald an era of mass migration and international tension

What Murray says is wrong in every respect. The deaths in the sea are not at all in line with security analysts’ predictions — else they would have counselled against the interventions. As IPCC AR5 report makes clear, ‘urgent action’ could well be a conflict risk factor in the same way that incautiously bombing other countries creates the risk of further conflict. The people struggling to reach Europe are escaping brutal regimes and conflict, not bad weather. And the ‘international tension’ already exists, was caused by regional conflict and external intervention.

The fact that people try to escape conflict and persecution needs no explanation. One only needs to see footage from any war to see precisely that refugees are one of the most predictable consequence of war. The cause for this that Murray chooses to emphasise is is weak, theoretical and highly contestable. Murray claims that ‘this is precisely the kind of extreme event climate security analysts from the Pentagon to the MoD to the world’s top insurance firms expect to see happen more often and with more intensity’. But this is owed to the increasing tendency to attempt to frame complex social and political phenomena in natural terms, not because of any developments in rational or scientific attempts to understand the world.

Never mind the abuses of fact and reason. Many find Murray’s words disgusting because his short-cut through the complexities of the world is so cheap. It makes instrumental use of other people’s suffering, to service a political agenda, and turns it into a marketing opportunity. It hides behind authorities like the ‘defence establishment’ and Kofi Annan, but flies in the face of empirical evidence and even the scientific consensus, to make claim that other people’s lives would be better — there would be no war — if only we’d buy solar panels from Business Green’s clients.


I have a very short piece over at the Institute of Ideas (IOI) website, outlining the reasons for repealing the Climate Change Act. It is very short, so I won’t give much away here:

It might be easy to imagine that scepticism towards claims that we face catastrophic climate change would be the main reason anybody could object to the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA). But that would be a mistake.

It’s part of a series the IOI is running over the election period on the theme, ‘If I could repeal one law…‘ all of which are (and will be) worth checking out.

I was given a fairly strict word limit. So there’s plenty left out.

There are many ways the CCA could be criticised. It has always been defended on that tired old notion that the debate about climate policy divides on the fact of climate change, between scientists who claim ‘climate change is real’ and deniers who claim the opposite. But most of the argument has been about the effectiveness and feasibility of reducing CO2 intensity in this way — most famously Roger Pielke Jr and Bjorn Lomborg who have emphasised technology-up rather than policy-down solutions — and the costs of these policies. But I was more concerned with what form of politics the CCA represents.

That is to say that, whatever the facts of climate change, dealing with it has other political implications. For example, here is a clip I ran into recently from the 2011 BBC film, ‘Meet the Climate Sceptics’, which was notable for being something of a set-up and hatchet job on Christopher Monckton.

The main political implication of climate change is, according to Mayer Hillman, that democracy is inadequate. The only defence of democracy considered by the film maker, Rupert Murray, is that offered by the cartoonishly “right-wing” media and pundits — Monckton, Delingpole, Fox News, Alex Jones. Murray presents these arguments with very little depth — sceptics just want ice in their drinks, and to be free to shoot their guns and ride their motorcycles, and everyone else can get stuffed. It’s as if Mayer Hillman had no political agenda of his own.

But Hillman’s own website explains,

Our continuing uneconomic growth makes us complicit in a process that is triggering an ecological catastrophe for our children and generations beyond them. They will justifiably sit in judgment{sic} on our failure to have prevented its devastating consequences knowing that we chose to look the other way.

But whatever the scientific facts of climate change, and whatever the depth of the putative ‘right-wing’ counter-argument, or wherever you stand between left and right, there is more to this than a picture of gun-toting bikers and innocent scientists.

Is Hillman’s frustration with democracy really owed to the imperatives that are the necessary consequence of climate science’s discoveries? Or does his frustration precede the scientific facts of the argument? It strikes me that climate catastrophism is used in the service of political arguments, because the exhaustion of those who attach themselves to a particular view of how society should be organised leaves them unable to articulate a compelling argument for such change, be it left or right. That’s not to say Hillman is aware of this, such that we can say he intends to benefit from misleading people. On the contrary, I am sure his genuine convictions about the climate make him feel very important indeed. But it is to say that the facts of the matter are not so clear that we can take them, or his interpretation of them, at face value.

Ditto, can we take at face value, the UK Parliament’s response to climate change in the form of the CCA?

The CCA is not just a policy, it has broader political implications. It says something about the relationship, as policy-makers understand it, between the public and the state, and the responsibilities of government, which go beyond simple legislation. This has always been the point.

Hillman’s contempt for democracy is contempt for people. It says they are too stupid to understand the risks they are exposed to, and expose themselves and future generations to, and are therefore incapable of participating in the decisions that affect them. It is not a coincidence that this is the dominant mood in politics. And it is the background to the construction of the CCA. Consider this Newsweek article on Tony Blair, for example:


Blair had sharpened his ideas about leadership and the failings of democracy in the years since he left power. Democracy, he now concluded, faced an “efficacy challenge”. “Slow, bureaucratic and weak,” it was too often “failing its citizens” and “failing to deliver”. The price was grave, and apparent. Without effective action by democratic governments to stem it, volatility and uncertainty were spreading. Public fear and disillusionment was stoking the return of the far Right in Europe and the United States. “Suddenly, to some, Putinism – the cult of the strong leader who goes in the direction he pleases, seemingly contemptuous of opposition – has its appeal,” wrote Blair. “If we truly believe in democracy, the time has come to improve it.” Every few years, democracy was about the people’s vote. But most of the time, it was about their elected representatives harnessing the machinery of government to effect change on their behalf. Attempts to be a cipher for popular opinion Blair dismissed as “governing by Twitter”. Leaders had to lead.

Democracy isn’t “effective”, complains Blair, and he was a man concerned with getting things done, in spite of what everybody else thought ought to be done. Or not done, as the case was.

But ‘getting things done’ for Blair never meant rolling back bureaucracy as much as creating more of it. This is true for the forms of security from risk Blair was preoccupied with as it is true of the desire to save the planet from climate change. That is not to make equivalents of Islamic terrorists and carbon dioxide. But it is to suggest that what drove the response to terrorism and climate change are the same impulses: preoccupation with risk precedes the facts of the existence of both terrorism and global warming.

Blair’s solution is to get more billionaires and their flunkies together with decision-makers in more rooms more often. These set-ups achieve results, as Newsweek notes:

Government began millennia ago with kings and emperors. In time, their power was diluted by religious leaders, courtiers, generals, aristocrats and merchants. The past few centuries have witnessed the steady displacement of all of these by politicians: conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries and, most recently, elected centrists. And now, it seems, power is shifting again.

The World Economic Forum is our foremost example of the rise of a self-selected global elite. It is only one of thousands of new private institutes focused on public service around the world. Many are led by individuals. Blair is one.

Others include the billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros and his Open Society, which bolsters democracy by working through non-governmental activists in 100 countries. Another is the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, founded by the Sudanese telecoms billionaire to work on African governance.

Then there is the $350-million Clinton Foundation, founded by a former President of the United States and a former Secretary of State, which works in health, education and applies a “business-oriented approach to fight climate change worldwide and to promote sustainable economic growth in Africa and Latin America”. Biggest of the new groups is the 15-year-old $41bn Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which takes the resources of the world’s richest man, and its second richest, Warren Buffett, and focuses them on health, mostly in poor parts of Asia and Africa.

And it goes on to ask…

If there are paradoxes in the Davos agenda – how did a non-governmental super-class manage to appropriate the subject of governance from government? how did the super-rich reserve inequality as a discussion for themselves? – what’s missing is a discussion on legitimacy. In a world increasingly run by the self-anointed, do we now make our CEOs and pop stars as accountable as our politicians – in case their good fortune one day convinces them to try to change the world? Should we choose our computers or movies according to the political beliefs of the bosses who make them? Can we trust a Gates, a Soros, a Blair?

To take the climate change issue at face value, then, is to ignore the pertinence of those questions. Blair’s troubled machinations about the shortcomings of democracy are like the poison that thinks of itself as the antidote to itself. What would he have been without terrorism? What would any Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change — Ed Miliband, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey — have been without climate change? Lightweight, self-serving political hacks.

Blair didn’t arrive in office on a wave of popular support for anything. He enjoyed a brief honeymoon period, because the other leading, but by then, deeply unpopular party had been in government for 18 years. Its political battles, formed in the dark days of the 1970s, won, the Tory party struggled to identify itself or its purpose, and it collapsed into its own internal chaos while the Labour party had rescued itself from its own malaise by cutting the party machine off from its traditional constituency, and reinvented its image. But the freshness lasted only a few years. Tony Blair was sceptical of democracy, not because of its inherent flaws, but because his ability to contribute to it was not equal to his desire for power. It is that simple. And that is the dynamic that forces so many politicians to hide behind ‘science’. Unable to achieve a convincing mandate from the public, political power searches for authority elsewhere. Power always has to justify itself, to itself, whether it be through ideas about Divine Right, or through invisible risks.

Politicians not standing for anything apart from slightly different forms of superficial niceness — Blair’s trademark was insincere modesty, forced emotion, estuarine twang and emphatic hand gestures — is the cause of the political malaise that Blair ponders. The rot that set in — the overreach of billionaires and their pet NGOs — is the disease that follows, not the remedy, to such political impotence and sterility. Blair epitomised the estrangement of government and ordinary life — professional, managerial politics — the evacuation of substance from politics. Billionaires and their entourages fill the vacuum.

Aside from the War on Terror, the rise of environmental politics as the most perfect expression of that form of politics. It aims to build political institutions above democratic control, comprised of expert panels, directed by non-governmental organisations, financed by faceless interests. Totally unaccountable to the public, and completely indifferent, if not entirely hostile to its interests, this compact is at the moment immune to criticism. Whether or not climate change is real, it protects politicians and the privileged against the public. Popular green wisdom has it that ‘global problems need global solutions’, but the fact is that global solutions need global problems. The real problem addressed by global solutions are domestic in origin: contemporary politicians’ inability to legitimise themselves and their agendas. The problems caused to political leaders’ by their distance from ordinary life appear to them as problems with the balance of gasses in the atmosphere.

In the weird world occupied by the Great and the Good, wars, poverty, famine, plague, pestilence and natural disasters can all be abolished. All we need to do is drive our cars less, recycle more, and put up some windmills, say these billionaires. Peace will break out, all over the globe. It is the politicians’ responsibility, then, not to respond to the wishes of the public, after public contests of ideas and values, but to act in spite of them — to tell people what they are entitled to. Whereas in earlier idealogical battles people fought for their interests as they understood them, today’s political leaders are more inclined to say that what people should expect is what is ‘sustainable’.

Never mind the physics of CO2 or its counter theories… Never mind the balance of positive and negative feedback mechanisms… Never mind estimates of “impacts”… Nor even the merits and demerits of wind turbines… The climate debate is at its core about the form of politics that established itself in the late 20th century. It is that movement which prefigures all cost-benefit analyses and debates about risk and the management of risk, be it risk from terrorism, climate change or drunken behaviour. After all, democracy has “failed” to stop people getting fat and drunk, too. Something “effective” must be done.

The cross-party consensus on climate change, renewed for the 2015 General Election, is not about about climate change. It re-cements the compact between the political establishment, businesses and private interests, and NGOs which brokered the deal. It promises to keep this relationship intact, and to protect it from the public and from democratic debate. No doubt all those organisations and their membership really believe in the fact of climate change. But if it didn’t exist, it would be some other issue which formed the putative object of an identical agreement.

The Climate Change Act, you will remember, came into being after coordination between NGOs and the government. The latter being unable to make the case to the public, Friends of the Earth were tasked with not only drafting much of the bill in both its 2005 and 2007 forms, but mobilising a charade of public support for it, involving the usual suspects in a ‘Web March’ — a virtual protest in which video clips of green activists and celebrities were uploaded to Youtube. There was no significant public demand for the legislation. There was no pressing crisis. There was no public debate about the need or terms of such a policy.

The Climate Change Act, then, is an instance of this compact between government, interests and organisations, reproduced as policy.

Just when you thought climate alarmism had passed its peak…

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

Says George Monbiot in today’s Guardian

War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Destroy the soil and we all starve

Monbiot’s tendency towards biblical levels of alarmism is on the record, of course. But this is new.

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

Our fate is being sealed, says the Graun’s miserablist-in-chief, by our mistreatment of mud — the stuff our crops depend on, and therefore we all depend on.

To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

Those wise men of nearly 4,000 years ago new something today’s seemingly chemical-happy farmers don’t…

The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

An orgy of soil destruction? Only 60 – 100 years of food left?

Those alarmist claims came to George via Reuters in the Scientific American, who reported on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) World Soil Day. Says’s the FAO,

Soils have been neglected for too long. We fail to connect soil with our food, water, climate, biodiversity and life. We must invert this tendency and take up some preserving and restoring actions. The World Soil Day campaign aims to connect people with soils and raise awareness on their critical importance in our lives.

But we should take such claims with a pinch of salt. Global bureaucracies, like disoriented Guardian hacks, need a scare story to elevate and legitimise themselves. FAO claims that a third of all agricultural soil in the world is ‘degraded’. But the website itself offers little guidance on what this measure actually means — if it means anything at all. Even searching Google for the terms “third of soil degraded” yields many results, but which refer only to FAO web pages and the headlines they have generated, and other organisations which seem equally keen to make this ambiguous metric the basis for new forms of governance.

The UK would serve as a good test of these claims. It is an advanced economy. It is relatively densely populated. It has strong regulatory frameworks, making it difficult to change the use of land and to use it in ways not approved by the state (or EU). The FAO’s own statistical database tells a different story to the one it tries to make…







In the case of each food crop, the yield per Ha has increased over the years. It is true that the area being farmed has diminished, but that is explained in fact by EU rules requiring set-aside for ecological reasons and to reduce the productivity of European farms, to avoid the vast surpluses that were created in the days of the EEC.

This increasing yield does not show us a picture of declining soil quality. Yet Monbiot assures us…

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.

Yet no such encroachment into nature has taken place in the UK. If anything, it is the green, protected areas of Britain’s landscapes which have grown into the land previously used by people.

But an even odder story emerges…

Shortly after I had tweeted the link to Monbiot’s article, Barry Woods got in touch to say he couldn’t work out what the basis for another of Monbiot’s claims was. Monbiot said,

Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.

This is small-is-beautiful mythology. The fanciful idea haunting Monbiot is that, if only we would all become smallholders, we would all live a more bountiful, wonderful world of endless leisure. Can it really be true that allotments are between 4 and 11 times as productive as industrial farming? It seems far fetched indeed. (For readers outside the UK, an allotment is a small area of land owned by local authorities, which is rented out in small parcels at very low cost to local residents.)

The link seemingly supporting George’s claim was to this article in the Journal of Applied Ecology, which claims that ‘Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture’. As we might expect, it is highly sceptical of ‘modern agriculture’, which the authors believe

… in seeking to maximize yields to meet growing global food demand, has caused loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) and compaction, impairing critical regulating and supporting ecosystem services upon which humans also depend.

And like Monbiot, they want us to be smallholders.

Own-growing makes an important contribution to food security in urban areas globally, but its effects on soil qualities that underpin ecosystem service provision are currently unknown.

Here is the passage which Monbiot borrows his claim from:

Comparison of Allotment and Agricultural Soils
The remarkable contrast in soil quality indicators (higher SOC, C : N, TN and lower BD) between allotments and arable fields reveals the effectiveness of management achieved by own-growers. Furthermore, it demonstrates the extent to which modern agricultural practices have degraded soil natural capital – which has profound implications for the loss of ecosystem service provision (Loveland & Webb 2003; Lal 2004), including reduced structural stability, water and nutrient holding capacity and impaired regulation of N mineralization and supply to plants (Quinton et al. 2010; Dungait et al. 2012). In terms of provisioning ecosystem services by own-growing in allotments, both the historical records of production during the world wars and more recent UK trials conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society and ‘Which?’ Magazine showed fruit and vegetable yields of 31–40 t ha−1 year−1 (Tomkins 2006), 4–11 times the productivity of the major agricultural crops in the Leicestershire region (DEFRA 2013). Importantly, depletion of SOC in conventional agricultural fields is now thought to be an important factor constraining productivity as many arable soils have suboptimal concentrations (Lal 2010).

This is like Chinese Whispers — a tendency of claims made by environmentalists is that the truth or significance of research is obscured by successive citations through the literature. Sure enough, rather than leading to any research which discovers that “allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers”, two studies produced figures which vary by between 4 and 11 times, allegedly. This is not a safe assumption — it does not compare like with like. It’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It is like comparing apples with paint.

The two, very different studies are the Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report, Agriculture in the English Regions 2012, 2nd Estimate and Tomkins, M. The Edible Urban Landscape: an assessment method for retro-fitting urban agriculture into an inner London test site. The latter is the author’s MSc Thesis completed at the University of East London, London, UK.

It is not clear how these two figures are achieved, prior to their comparison. The Defra report makes no mention of agricultural productivity in Leicestershire. Tomkins does, however, does offer us figures on page 44:

We can start to work out the yields of the allotment system by referring to experiments conducted in the 1970s by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) (Personal communication, appendix 2), and Which?Magazine (February 1975, Handyman special insert, p. 21).

According to a document entitled ‘Your garden plot – what is its value to you?’ (see appendix 2)

“During 1975 the Royal Horticultural Society maintained a 30 feet by 100 feet vegetable plot at Harlow Carr, with the aim of showing how vegetables for a family of 4 could be provided. The 3 year crop rotation was adopted and most of the work on the plot was carried out by the garden apprentice. Approximately 180 hours work went into the feature.”

But there are two important caveats here. Tomkins admits:

The first sowings were made on 9th March in the cold frame with the total volume of produce recorded until 22 November of the same year. The report states that at the end of the trial, there were “still plenty of winter crops, leeks, onions cabbage, kale, parsnips, broccoli and brussel sprouts…on the plot.”

The total of the produce is 876.1kg for 259 days of the growing season. This would be equal to 31.28 tonnes per hectare. The report, while stating the amount of labour required, does not give an indication of whether fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides were used in the experiment, although the NSALG “believe it was used in a similar manner to normal allotment gardening”.

First caveat… 180 hours of labour is equivalent to 22 days of work — nearly 10 per cent of a working year. And that much to allegedly feed a family.

Second caveat… The use of fertilizer and pesticide is not ruled out. My own (second-hand, anecdotal) understanding of allotment husbandry in the postwar period is that that generation of self-sufficiency enthusiasts adored chemicals.

We might also note that the Defra report covers the year 2012, whereas the Which?/RHS study is nearly forty years old. (Which? is a UK consumer affairs magazine, and the Royal Horticultural Society is an organisation for people with green fingers – hardly scientific research institutions).

Furthermore, although it would be impressive to see an allotment produce 876kg of food, even at 31.28 tonnes per hectare, given the average yields for UK production in the FAO database are 20 tonnes for vegetables, 13 tonnes for fruit, 40 tonnes for roots & tubers, the allotment holder seems not to compete with his industrial farming counterpart on productivity or cost. If farmers were only able to produce sufficient crops for 22 families per worker, they would likely go out of business. The small selection of crops produced in the RHS/Which? study would require 728,000 famers — before we’ve even thought about cereal, bread, dairy and meat production, whereas there are just half a million farm workers in the UK.

Monbiot loves to emphasise the importance of citing ones sources, and of making sure that such sources are trustworthy. But he does very little to investigate much beyond the superficial figures that such sources seem to produce. He takes for granted that what the FAO claim is the case. And he didn’t look too deeply into the claim in the J. of Applied Ecology, which mashed together non-existent figures from Defra, and a 1975 consumer magazine’s experiment with fertilizer retold through an inexpert, and highly political masters thesis.

The object lesson for Monbiot, then, is to understand the scientific claims he reproduces, not just parrot them before jumping to claims such as this:

This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.

One cannot take FAO campaigning at face value. Nor can we say that the Journal of Applied Ecology or Masters students at the University of East London (currently ranked 122nd out of 123 UK universities) have unburdened themselves of political motivations. As much as ecologists like to claim that their studies are science, ecology is also a normative science and a political movement. Students and researchers, too, have political motivations. It is not as easy to separate politics from science as Monbiot seems to imagine.

But a little research — an hour’s worth of investigation — puts statistical claims into perspective. The world is not running out of soil, and living out of allotments will not save us from non-doom. Unfortunately for Monbiot, though, looking more deeply at the organisations and science he trusts, and which he takes at face value, would deprive him of the alarming headlines that are his stock-in-trade.

1 2 3 54

Post archive

  • 2015
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2007
  • 2006
  • 2002