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…

fruit

cereal

veg

roots

pulses

grain

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.

Mark Lynas writes in the Guardian in the wake of the paper’s new climate campaign,

We must reclaim the climate change debate from the political extremes
Alarmists and deniers need to climb out of their parallel trenches, engage with the developing world and work together to end the crisis

The problem, says Lynas, is the emphasis given by the Guardian’s campaign to passages from Naomi Klein’s book.

The Guardian’s climate campaign is, in principle, very welcome. But it risks reinforcing this polarisation by leading with two extensive extracts from Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Climate vs Capitalism. Lefties will lap it up; others will see it as evidence that science has been appropriated as cover for an ideological project.

Klein’s book has been discussed previously on these pages. Briefly, though Klein professes to no technological understanding, she was moved by ‘complex systems researcher named Brad Werner’, who had given a presentation at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. According to Werner, his research aimed to answer the question “Is Earth F*cked?” by modelling society’s interactions with the biosphere, and the potential of various interventions. According to his model, the only hope for the world is for radical groups who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture” to come together in “protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups” to save the planet. Maths itself had spoken — anti-capitalist direct action could restore equilibrium to the world.

Says Lynas,

For Klein, whose career has always focused on fighting capitalism, climate change merely means we must renew that fight. It doesn’t seem to strike her as odd or fortuitous that this new “crisis”, which she admits she’s only lately discovered, should “change everything” for everyone else but merely reinforce her own decades-old ideological position. Her analysis of the problem is the same as for all the rest of today’s challenges – that it is the fault of multinational corporations, “market fundamentalism” and the “elites”, who in her view control the media and democratic politics.

Lynas is half right. Of course Klein reformulates her political project in the terms of the climate crisis — as many green anticapitalists have before her. As I have argued previously, whereas left movements in the past took authority for their project from weight of numbers of the people they promised to liberate from capitalism, the green left takes its authority from ‘science’. Whatever your sympathies with any left political idea or their possibilities, the difference between much traditional argument from the left and Klein’s call-to-action is the difference between a promise of a better world and a threat. Klein offers today’s radicals mere survival, not freedom. The revolutionary only guarantees liberation from catastrophe, not capitalism as such.

But Klein’s is not the only reformulation of political ideas under the green shadow of climate change. For example, ex-BBC journalist, Richard Black recently set up the dubiously-titled Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). (The ECIU is discussed here). The ECIU’s funding comes from the European Climate Foundation (ECF), the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and the Tellus Mater Foundation. The ECF’s funding comes largely from the living and dead super-wealthy and special interest via Climate Works (some more detail here). And Grantham — a super wealthy investment fund manager — funds a number of campaigns, and pronounced back in 2009 that “Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world”. And Tellus Mater’s mission statement is:

… to catalyze a shift to sustainable capitalism: to change the operating rules for capitalism so that finance can better fulfill{sic} it’s{sic} role in directing the flows of Financial Capital to production systems that preserve and enhance Natural Capital.

(Isn’t it amazing that such an outfit cannot afford a proof reader.)

So if ‘science has been appropriated [by the left] as cover for an ideological project’, according to Lynas, he should look more closely at the well-funded outfits like ECIU, Carbon Brief and others, which seem to be established to further ‘capitalist’ ideological objectives. He might see that the reformulation of ‘ideology’ is ubiquitous. But the climate debate, I argue, is all about ideological blind spots.

It’s worth remembering Lynas’s own struggles against ideology and how it has changed over the years. In 2004 he wrote,

I think inter-human squabbles about wealth distribution are now taking place within the context of a major destruction of the ecosystems which all of us depend on: rich, poor, black, white, homo sapiens or any other species. Therefore my argument is that the left-right political divide should no longer be the defining key priority. The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere. This doesn’t mean giving up the fight on behalf of the poor, but it does mean that one’s position on the environment is going to be the crucial political divide of the next century. And many left-wingers are very anti-environment. Some socialists retain the old technocratic mindset where they think everything can be engineered and humans are all-powerful. Many more leftish people are also too polite to mention over-population, which along with climate is probably the key environmental issue. I think that we should give just as much thought to other species of life, who will presumably continue to suffer even if human society eventually gets more egalitarian.

Just a decade ago, Lynas wanted to get the left, much of which was on his view, ‘anti-environment’, to relegate ‘the struggle for equity’ behind climate change, over-population and other species. Now he sees the climate issue dividing on left-right lines.

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

Reacting against this rather miserabilist and dystopian worldview, the political right has increasingly adopted an outright denialist position – attacking the science in a covert war against the political ideology it has been co-opted to serve. The reason half of Americans doubt the science on climate change isn’t because they are stupid or misled by the fossil fuels lobby, but because the global warming issue has now become as much as part of America’s culture wars as abortion or creationism.

But as we have seen. If the categories of left and right divide according to anti- and pro- capitalism, how to explain Grantham (and so many other green capitalists)? It frankly doesn’t work. The best we could say instead, is that some capitalists, largely dependent on the sectors in which they operate, have bought into the green agenda. Enron, perhaps being the most visible and earliest example, saw its own future in the regulation of carbon more than in the generation and trade of energy — the financialisation of the energy sector. Similarly, IT and high-tech firms have sought to emphasise their green credentials. This would seem to speak to a split between lightweight and heavy industry, leading in turn to a split on green-brown lines within capitalism as such. But in spite of this perception, which the green movement likes to milk heavily, the efforts to lobby or campaign against climate policies or fund climate scepticism are remarkably hard to find any evidence of, to compare to the $billions spend on the opposite case. Brown capitalism — the Brown Blob or ‘Black Fog‘ — is better characterised as acquiescent. The embryonic fracking industry in the UK, for example, not only concedes to the green movement, it tries to draw strength from it, claiming that shale gas could serve as a ‘bridging technology’ towards a ‘cleaner’ future. The coordinates of Lynas’s world seem very much out of kilter with the real world.

Lynas is a tad confused also, about the ‘culture wars’. What the culture wars represent is not the continuation of ideological struggle between left and right as such, but the dearth of political ideas with which to do battle. Lynas has the clue — Klein’s seemingly recent conversion to environmentalism. But he stops short of seeing it through.

Why does so much of the putative radical left now seek to identify itself with the climate change issue? We could take their arguments at face value, of course. But as even Lynas observes, whereas there were, in 2004, enough sufficiently ‘anti-environment’ leftists to scold them for it, there appears to be none worth speaking of today. There’s not really much left left, and what left there is left isn’t very left.

The argument offered here is that the reds turned green as the broad left movement disintegrated. Even by the 2000s, the left was a shadow if what it had been in previous decades. It had been depoliticised, and rather than emphasising alternatives to capitalism, became preoccupied with identity, tradition and social order — tropes that belonged to conservative thought in previous generations. But the major characteristic of this change is the collapse of its popular base. As the established left lost contact with its traditional base and its traditional philosophy, so it grew more hostile to the very masses it once promised to liberate. The phenomenon of Klein is the epitome of this hollowing out and collapse of left wing thought. The celebrated public intellectual doesn’t even understand the mathematical claims that seemingly make the case that ‘this changes everything’, whereas even yesterday’s Marxists were (or were supposed to be) fluent in Capital volume I, if not II and III. For Klein, who is more likely to be self consciously left on suburban bourgeois coffee tables than picked up and studied by factory workers (Urgh — factories! Urgh — workers!), and who is a celebrated ‘public intellectual’, it is sufficient that some authority instructs the revolution. The left’s corpse lies twitching.

But left-right politics is a game of two halves. Let’s not forget that the recent history of conservative or capitalist ideology is no less graceful a swansong. In 2011, Jeremy Grantham aimed:

… to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.

As I pointed out,

It is intensely irritating when the mega-rich lecture the rest of the world on its oh-so profligate ways. But the real issue here is that when men who command $hundreds of billions of capital express such a lack of confidence in capitalism, the putative political right has a problem. If (some) capitalists have lost faith in capitalism’s ability to produce increasing quantities of produce at decreasing costs, what is capitalism good for, as far as the man-in-the-street concerned? Why should he trust it, if the fabulously wealthy can only see dearth at the end of the tunnel? And why should he trust its institutions: banks, international trade agreements, government departments, contracts… and so on? Many who might identify with the Right may protest that Grantham is no capitalist, yet he is no socialist; his criticism is not of capital as such — he’s not seeking to abolish private property or dismantle capitalism — but an apology for it in an era (so he claims) of increasing scarcity. Reinventing Malthus, Grantham warns that ‘if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of’, before promising to return to offer ‘shorter-term views on the market and investment recommendations’. The end is nigh, but there’s plenty of opportunity to increase the value of your portfolio.

Grantham’s millennial anxiety reflects the failure of his own imagination. Like the Malthus he reinvents, he can not see what he has brought to the data which apparently tells him that the abundance produced throughout the era spanning the industrial revolution to the present is some kind of gift from nature. Divine providence. Capitalism doesn’t unleash human creative potential on this view; it merely digs stuff out of the ground and shifts it to where it is needed. It is this bleak outlook which is prior to the science. Grantham sees a ‘different, more constrained, world’, but isn’t it him that’s different, and constrained?

Grantham doesn’t speak for all capitalists, of course. But he does speak to the problem of capitalism losing its nerve, its moral authority and its promise in a way that mirrors the left’s. Losing his own authority, in the way that Klein does, Grantham searches for it by establishing his very own institute at the London School of Economics, supporting no lesser figures than Lord Stern and his cronies. In other words, the capitalist seeks the authority of academic scientists and researchers. The main difference between Klein and Grantham being, of course, Klein can’t quite summon up the cash that Grantham can, for her own institutions — which is perhaps why she prefers to ‘Occupy’.

The emphasis on climate change then, whether it hails from the left or right, is a search for authority. Essential to this search is a process of engendering a sense of terminal crisis, and the construction of saviours, to elevate institutional science as that authority. This makes the priorities of politics non-negotiable (unless we want to die), and the terms of politics if not incomprehensible, exclusive to an elite. Lynas words, ten years apart, ask to eschew normal politics, to peruse an ideological trajectory that is orthogonal to the old axis, to leave behind the battle over how respective interests might be reconciled for the interests of authority itself. But although he claims his statement…

Climate change is real, caused almost entirely by humans, and presents a potentially existential threat to human civilisation. Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.

… puts him at odds with ‘most people on either side of the climate debate’, he in fact alienates himself. And one of those parties he is now alienated from is institutional science. Take, for example, the words of soon-to-be-erstwhile President of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, in his attack on Nigel Lawson at the University of Melbourne

A feature of this controversy is that those that deny there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity. I think that is a crucial point, because these actions are likely to include measures which involve greater concerted world action, curtailing the freedoms of individuals, companies and nations, and curbing some kinds of industrial activity, potentially risking economic growth. These are all critical key issues about which we should be worried.

Paul Nurse argued that global warming might indeed necessitate ‘curtailing freedoms’ and ‘risking economic growth’. Science said so. And he said that this necessity is what drives objections to climate politics.

This is a major problem for Lynas, because claims from mainstream, scientific opinion seem to reflect at least in part what Klein is saying, meanwhile, green capitalists are on the case, securing their own ground.

One way out of this impasse, I would suggest to Lynas, is to admit to the political or ‘ideological’ aspects of the climate debate and even his own argument. What seems to be revealed by Nurse and his predecessors is that institutional science is overtly seeking more power for itself under the compact that has been formed under the logic of environmental alarmism. (See for examples, this discussion about Royal Society statements on climate change from 2010, and this post script from 2012). That is to say it is no more Nurse’s place to claim that science demands freedoms and wealth to be sacrificed for survival than it is Klein’s. Yet institutional science has not asked itself about the extent to which institutional science has become ‘ideological’, thus making climate politics climate change sciences’s a priori and its a posteriori.

But instead, Lynas simply heaps more science onto the problem:

Depressingly, all this confirms what social psychologists have long insisted: that most people accept only scientific “facts” that are compatible with or which reinforce their political identities and worldviews. The environmental left leapt on climate science because it seemed to confirm deeply held notions of the planet being fragile, and modern civilisation being in essence destructive. Moreover, climate science at last seemed to herald the global doom that the eco-Malthusian left had always hoped for.

It would appear that there is some sympathy between Lynas and Nurse, to the extent that both believe ‘ideology’ of one kind or another, drives resistance to what appears to be climate science. But Lynas’s own distaste for ‘ideology’ brings into question Nurse’s ideology, and consequently his own.

The recruitment of social psychologists into the debate, to patch up the inadequacies of climate science and of course, the highest ranking members of scientific academies, reveals a darker political aspect to the argument. If science is only accepted to the extent that it conforms to or confirms a political ‘ideology’, then why does this only ever apply to the sceptics, and to one or two inconvenient political radicals, like Klein? Why does it never seem to apply to Nurse? Or to Lynas?

Such self reflection on the ‘ideology’ of those anointed by Oxford University and the Royal Society — the establishment — of course, would undermine the entire argument. Cod psychology has never once successfully interrogated the ‘ideology’ of climate change sceptics, partly because it seems to be the case that its scientists even more gripped by the alarmist interpretation of climate science than even Lynas or Nurse, and partly because such activist-scientists barely make a secret of the fact that their ‘research’ is intended to frame the debate to particular ends. Psychologists entering the climate debate invariably over-estimate their own purchase on climate science, under-theorise ‘ideology’, and search in the main part for what they understand the subjects ‘ideology’ to consist of. This stems from the necessity of social psychologists measuring their studies’ participants responses against their own understanding of the scientific consensus, which is presumed to be correct, complete, and unimpeachable. The result is that the pay very little attention to the mechanics of the interaction between ‘ideology’ and ‘facts’.

If Lynas was hoping to undermine his own argument, he wouldn’t find anything more equal to this task than deference to social psychology. Climate change psychology is perhaps the most vivid example of politics — ‘ideology’ — having colonised science that it is possible to find since the days of the Soviet Union.

The point of social psychology’s recruitment, however, is not simply to undermine sceptics. It also has the virtue of differentiating the establishment from the hoi polloi it claims to serve. ‘Ideology’ is how the masses understand their own interests, and politics is (or was) how interests are bargained for. By diminishing the faculties of those who fall victim to ‘ideology’, the political establishment can elevate itself, in its own interests, hidden behind scientific authority. On the view Lynas offers, “ideology” is arbitrary — nothing more than subjective or relativised preferences — and contaminates a clear view of objective reality. But this view of human faculties is itself deeply ideological. It says that, humans not being capable of perceiving what is in their interests, and the world being such a dangerous, complicated place, political institutions need to exist above their reach.

But with Lynas, there is always something agree with…

Forget the political myths: here’s the hard reality. The emergence from poverty of the developing world is non-negotiable. Humanity will therefore double or triple energy consumption overall by 2050. Our challenge is to develop and deploy the technology to deliver this energy in as low-carbon a way as possible, probably using some combination of efficiency, renewables, next-generation nuclear and carbon capture. We need to pour vastly more resources into R&D, and put a significant international price on carbon.

Hear hear.

But the sting in the tail is still present in Lynas’s conclusion…

But to make any of this happen we will need to recapture the climate debate from the political extremes. We must then work to come up with inclusive proposals that can form the basis of a social consensus that must last decades if it is to have any meaningful effect on the climate change crisis that faces us.

The social consensus being sought is still a social consensus in which the job of deliberating the consensus is done away from the public. Lynas says he seeks an ‘inclusive’ solution, but ‘inclusiveness’ invariably means most people being equally excluded. The human condition precludes social consensus without the reconciliation of its contradictions in the public sphere. Everyone from left through right, Marx through to Hayek has imagined a world freed from politics, through various means and ends and justifications. But what appears to drive Lynas’s appeal, like most appeals to make climate the central organising principle of politics, is the inability to formulate a social consensus that consists of more than a promise of survival.

Lynas’s problem is deep. The energy required by the human race in 2050 is seen as an inherently problematic thing, which will be demanded, and will need to be provided, not as a positive thing. People are conceived of as technical ‘challenges’, rather than either opportunities or ends in themselves. But a society with sufficient energy, leaving aside the environmental problems it may cause for a moment, ought to be seen as a positive thing in its own right, which people should surely campaign for. The fact that even the green movement is itself so split — pro- and anti-capitalist, pro- and anti- technology, pro- and anti- humanity itself — should demonstrate to Lynas the scale of the task of uniting the entire world, never mind a nation, in a social consensus, never mind a treaty under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is well and truly beyond his abilities, or the abilities of climate science.

I don’t find Lynas’s views any less extreme than Klein’s. Klein at least recognises that the world divides into 99% and 1%, though she fancies herself to be in the larger part. Lynas, on the other hand, seems to want to put to rest the differences that persist, even within the green movement, to forsake arguing in our own interests because we don’t have sufficient faculties to understand what they are. To conceive of your own interests seems to be ‘extreme’. Lynas’s reformulation of politics, under threat of climate catastrophe, suits a narrow establishment which has, over the years, become more and more distant from its public. Climate change has come to the rescue of that political class, whether or not mainstream climate science has the better grasp of reality than its detractors. Untangling that science from the politics that has colonised it will be no more simple a task than uniting the world in a ‘social consensus’.

Not much has changed, then, since I reviewed Lynas’s book in 2011:

Never mind environmental science’s failures to produce proof of Gaia’s existence and failure to predict ecological Armageddon, we only need to look at environmentalism’s political failures to understand Lynas’s reformulation of environmentalism. On the street, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to become a mass movement. At the level of regional government, ideas about saving the planet by ‘thinking globally, acting locally’ have only antagonised relations between the public and officials while degrading local services. At the level of national government, the political establishment’s environmentalism only serves to reflect the gulf that exists between the public and themselves – their various planet-saving initiatives looking more and more like desperate and self-serving attempts to legitimise their functioning in an era of mass political disengagement. At the supranational level, environmentalism has failed to unite nations in fear of Gaia’s revenge.

The attempt to locate planetary boundaries is equally an attempt to locate boundaries for humanity – to put it in its place within a supposed natural order. And within that order is a design for political institutions that are not legitimised by the public contest of values and ideas, but by the claim that they are necessary for ‘saving the planet’ and ourselves. Environmentalism is an ugly political experiment. That experiment failed, but not simply because its material science was flawed. Just as it was environmentalism’s political failure that preceded Lynas’s revision of its scientific basis, environmentalism’s political idea – its ideology – precedes the science. Rewriting the science won’t make the experiment any more successful for Lynas than it was for Ehrlich.

Yesterday saw the ‘Time To Act 2015′ protests in a number of cities throughout the world. The Huffington Post proudly announced ‘People’s Climate March In London Draws 5,000, Including Russell Brand And Naomi Klein‘.

Have you ever been to Central London on a Saturday afternoon? In a city of more than 8 million people, just 5,000 (0.0625% of the city’s population) is hardly a spectacle. To illustrate the point, here is one of London’s tourist attractions, the London Eye.

360px-London_Eye_-_TQ04_26
[image Wikipedia]

The Eye has 40 capsules, each with a capacity of 40 people, and takes half an hour to complete a trip (one revolution). The entire Time to Act march could be accommodated by the London Eye in little more than three revolutions in just over an hour and a half. As protests go, Time to Act was a demonstration of the lack of political movement behind climate action. It was a warm day. Yet people were more interested in London’s food, drink, shops, museums, galleries and big wheels than in ‘saving the planet’. It doesn’t even compare to the 1998 march by the Countryside Alliance to protest the banning of fox hunting, which drew 250,000. That’s right: more people seem to want to hunt foxes than save the planet from global warming.

One of the marchers was Labour MP for Brent North, and Ed Miliband’s Special Envoy for Climate Change & The Environment, Barry Gardiner, who some readers may remember threatened to sue me for calling him a liar on Twitter in 2012 after he repeated claims about subsidies for fossil energy he knew to be wrong. Gardiner’s tweets today were no less removed from reality:

Here is a selection from his Twitter timeline.

These glib tweets help to show that climate activists prefer to trade in image rather than reason and debate. But it was this image which particularly sticks in the throat.

The implication appears to be that climate change caused the condition that these children suffering — poverty — and that climate policies will rescue them, and children like them. The link between climate change and species is weak enough, but the link between climate change and poverty is weaker still. Who were these children? How had their lives been affected by climate change? How would climate policy make their lives better?

No answer from Gardiner, of course.

But the origins of the image were soon discovered by Vinny Burgoo

Gardiner had simply lifted the image from a stock photo library.

Corbis describe the image as follows.

Afghanistan – Daily Life – Brother and Sister in Kabul
Afghan girl holds her brother as they take a break from searching for items to recycle in Kabul.

So war, not climate change, in one of the poorest countries in the world explains the condition of the two young children.

It is heartbreaking to see such tiny children shoeless, filthy, and so utterly impoverished. And this makes Gardiner’s cynical exploitation of the image all the more revolting. It’s not merely that he wants to elicit an emotional response from you with it, he wants to make instrumental use of their image, regardless of how their condition arose and can be understood, for his own political ambitions. In other words, he has no sympathy for them whatsover, they are simply useful to him.

Imagine, if you can, that you became some victim of some event or other that left you in such a state: what clothes you had in tatters, covered in mud and dust, exhausted and utterly lost. Now imagine that somebody took a photograph of you, which was used to campaign for something that had nothing to do with the event that had left you in your most damaged, vulnerable, and helpless state. How would you feel? That’s how much sympathy Gardiner has for the children in the photograph.

Gardiner flicked through photo libraries and took images out of context, to use them in his self-serving political campaign. Is this mere, accident, thoughtless oversight, or does such casual disregard for careful argument say something deeper about politicians who seek to identify themselves by the climate issue?

If there really were an abundance of evidence that animals and poor people were vulnerable to climate change, it wouldn’t be necessary for Gardiner to search stock image libraries for content to underpin his glib sloganeering.

There has been some discussion about the D-word recently. The Science of Doom blog considered the historical implications of the word, and argues that its use in the climate debate trivialises the deaths of millions, and urged people to stop using it. Keith Kloor agreed, saying that the use of the word was needlessly ‘emotionally and politically charged’ and inflammatory. Lastly, Richard Betts has a guest post at And Then There’s Physics’ blog, urging the readers there to ‘Label the behaviour, not the person‘, which fell on deaf ears. More about those articles shortly.

I have never been particularly upset by the epithet, ‘denier’, for the simple reason that it says much about the person who utters it than it says about the putative ‘denier’. I don’t know who made the observation that ‘once you give something a name, you don’t have to argue with it’ (I think it was Lenin), but it seems to me to explain the use of the word. Once you call someone a denier, you don’t have to explain what it is they have denied. Anti-deniers deny debate.

For instance, climate scientists who have slightly lower estimates of climate sensitivity than the IPCC are called ‘deniers’. I’m thinking especially of scientists like Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen here. Rather than looking at the arguments about how and why Lindzen and Michaels’ analyses come out at the lower end of the spectrum (and it is a spectrum) of estimates of warming, many have chosen to see the expression of denial as a phenomenon in need of explanation. The likes of Naomi Orkeskes have sought to chart a history of a conspiracy of deniers and their strategies. Others, like psychologists such as Jon Krosnick and Stephan Lewandowsky, have sought to establish the pathology of denial. Building on this, Researchers in Cardiff University have sold their insight into ‘denial’ to the government, to suggest strategies for confronting sceptics’ influence in the public sphere.

Climate advocates could have dealt with their interlocutors’ arguments in the same way that most academics deal with disagreement — by testing and developing better theories. But the climate debate is largely a battle of received wisdoms. And it is also a battle in which people are greatly invested, and which people have internalised. Rather than admitting controversy, or at least nuance, into the debate, it is much easier to explain away disagreement as the expression of moral deviance and conspiracies. Hence, the the climate debate is divided into two by the clumsiest interpretations of the ‘consensus’.

Just as in the battle of received wisdoms the scientific consensus is a consensus without an object, the entire point of the use of the word ‘denier’ is intended to avoid debate about what it is that is being denied. The consensus without an object meets denial without an object. This produces a remarkable paradox: you can know all about climate change denial without knowing anything about climate change science. As long as you know that ‘climate change is happening’, you’re equipped to comment on climate change as an expert, and to research the minds and motivations of anyone who disagrees or who is not interested. Anyone can sell themselves as a ‘climate change communicator’, no matter their actual grasp of climate science and its controversies.

This, I believe, is a far more interesting thing to observe than the claims and counter-claims about climate science. How is it possible, for example, for the likes of the UK’s most senior climate change bureaucrat to intervene in the debate in this way:

Lord Deban, PKA John Gummer, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) used to tweet about ‘deniers’, ‘delayers’ and ‘dismissers’. But he has apparently broadened his fight, to take on the ‘lukewarmers’.

But even when he was aiming his sights at ‘deniers’, Gummer never revealed who the ‘deniers’ were, much less what their arguments were. Similarly, here, we don’t learn who the ‘lukewarmers’ are, much less what their claims are, and much much less how these claims are wrong. For so much emphasis on science, the science is distinctly lacking in claims about ‘deniers’ and ‘lukewarmers’. The chair of the CCC — which sets the carbon budgets that the entire population will have to endure — should be in a position to inform us about the errors made in the debate. Instead, he prefers hollow invective.

Gummer has obviously finally got the memo: the continued use of the word ‘denier’, attached to arguments that never explain what is being denied, and who is denying, has been counter-productive. All it revealed was the intransigence of people who have responded to criticism of climate politics by hiding behind science, and by use of the word ‘denier’. The reality of denial as a phenomenon is nothing more the fantasy of climate alarmists, attached to conspiracy theories and cod social science. Many have now seen through it, and that those who were accused of denying were doing no such thing.

This brings us to the present discussions about ‘denial’.

The point made on the Science of Doom (which I refuse to turn into a TLA, for obvious reasons) blog is straightforward enough: ‘Understanding climate means understanding maths, physics and statistics. This is hard, very hard.’ So, reasons Doom,

The worst you could say is people who don’t accept ‘consensus climate science’ are likely finding basic – or advanced – thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and statistics a little difficult and might have misunderstood, or missed, a step somewhere.

The best you could say is with such a complex subject straddling so many different disciplines, they might be entitled to have a point.

But in spite of his granting that would-be deniers ‘might be entitled to have a point’, Doom’s injunction is ultimately unmoving. The problem divides in two, depending on the credence we give to the idea that the historical allusion is intended. Even if If Doom is right that the term ‘denier’ is used in the climate debate as a deliberate allusion to holocaust denial, it isn’t wrong merely because it defames the millions of people murdered by Nazis. It’s wrong in the present because of the bad faith of the people who use it, towards their opponents. It is as if it were okay to denigrate people in this way, as long as we are careful not to lump any of history’s victims in with the would-be ‘deniers’. In this case, the interesting thing is that it was necessary for so many people engaged in the debate, to eschew debate as such, and to put their counterparts in the lowest available moral category. If Doom’s greener critics are right that the word ‘denier’ only coincidentally makes equivalents of holocaust deniers and climate sceptics, then the problem remains that using the word only serves to belittle people people’s moral character, to avoid substantive debate — i.e. to not take seriously the object of denial.

In either case, and for any proportion of each, the point is much less about what is the best and worst thing you can say about ‘deniers’ than it is about what you can say about people who need to use the word.

Whatever it is called, ‘denial’ remains a category that Doom is still extremely reluctant to appear close to, as Maurizio Morabito notes at his blog,

… both SoD and Kloor find it necessary to go for brownie points, and clarify, clarify and clarify again that they ARE part of the Good Guys Brigade indeed, and have NO DOUBTS about the greenhouse effect, or the fact that increasing anthropogenic GHGs has been a significant contribution to rising temperatures of the last 100 years.

… The point being that on this basis, very little in fact separates the putative deniers from their counterparts. And perhaps this is the root of the problem. One reason for people reaching for such crude allusions to holocaust denial might be the moral certainty that is leant by the horror of WWII to the present. That is to say that it is hard to find the moral dimensions of an argument about possibly no more than +/- 0.5 degrees C. The easy thing to do is to compare people who go with the lower estimates to the perpetrators of the most grotesque acts in modern history. But this reaching for the most dramatic moral equivalent is a symptom of weak moral foundations, in fact. Hence, many people involved in the climate debate don’t make sophisticated moral arguments on points of principle, but in terms of totalising consequences: of millions of deaths, of catastrophic and extreme weather, and of the end of civilisation. In other words, the form of climate change alarmism that resorts to words like ‘denier’ might be the consequence of an exhausted moral framework, in desperate search for authority and legitimacy.

This brings us to Keith Kloor, who superficially agrees with Doom’s superficial criticism of the use of the word ‘denier’, and who tries much harder to sustain the polarisation of the debate without recourse to the D-word. For Kloor, the real test of sceptics’ actual scepticism is their treatment of claims about ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ (WTS). Kloor searches WattsUpWithThat and Bishop Hill for articles about WTS which are not, in his view, sufficiently critical, and declares all climate sceptic bloggers to be fake sceptics.

The articles in question are here: Bishop Hill, WUWT(1), WUWT(2). DO check them out.

What you will see is that the Bishop Hill article makes zero reference to WTS at all. In fact it refers to research about the acoustic effects of wind turbines, to which the wind sector had apparently conceded. Kloor had conflated the issue of noise with the issue of WTS. Yet Kloor says: ‘No skepticism whatsoever, no critical thinking skills exhibited by these “climate skeptics” about a claim that has as much scientific validity as the power lines-cause-cancer scare.’

This simply isn’t true. The effect of ‘excessive amplitude modulation’ is tangible. And although some people respond to noise differently and subjectively, it remains a fact that disturbing noises disturb, and that loss of sleep can produce many health effects. The attempt to group these effects into one syndrome may well have its flaws — I have argued this much myself, and suggested that it is a mistake to give much weight to WTS — but it is wrong to say that there is no evidence of the effects grouped under WTS as Kloor has. It is in fact as unscientific as Kloor suggests WTS is. So much for ‘critical thinking skills’, then.

The two articles at WUWT are guest posts. The first, by Mike Duchamp, does seem to be about WTS at first glance of the title. But actually reading the article — a prerequisite to ‘critical thinking skills, NB, Keith — reveals that the issue is not WTS, but the effects grouped under WTS:

These mega turbines are reported to be emitting more low frequency noise (LFN) than smaller models, and this causes more people to be affected, and over greater distances, by the usual symptoms of the Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS): insomnia, headaches, nausea, stress, poor ability to concentrate, irritability, etc, leading to poorer health and a reduced immunity to illness.

In other words, the issue is the regulation of noise emitted by turbines. As the article notes: ‘”Hardly anyone would accept 30 dB(A) in their homes at night”, wrote the Professor last month (2).’ For what it is worth, I think Duchamp would have put his argument better if he had simply said “Wind Turbine Noise affects more people than previously thought” rather than “Wind Turbine Syndrome affects more people than previously thought”. But this difference is hardly the difference between applying “zero critical thinking skills” and their full deployment.

The second WUWT, far from demonstrating a lack of ‘uncritical thinking skills’ in fact asks for more evidence. Kloor had said, “Of course, nothing is too far-fetched for Watts, who also published a post by someone claiming that horses in Spain were becoming deformed by wind farm noise”. But the author of the post, Ric Werme, made no such claim at all:

So, WUWT readers who actually know something about horses, have you heard of this case or similar cases at other farms with new wind turbines? Or, if you live near wind farms that are near farms with horses, cattle, etc, have they had problems like this?

This is just one study, involving one farm and not very many horses, clearly more research is warranted. If it’s confirmed, it would be interesting to know if other animals are susceptible to a similar problem.

So Kloor’s test of scepticism is pure and simple bullshit, and an example of exactly what he claims to be against.

I mention all this to illustrate why I don’t consider these “climate skeptics” to be true skeptics. They don’t think skeptically; they are captive to their ideologically-driven biases and it often shows. So if they are not “climate skeptics,” how do you characterize them and others who don’t think the earth is warming (or at least not at a worrisome rate)?

So Kloor, noting that the use of the word ‘denier’ is problematic, sees it as merely a semantic problem, not a problem requiring the self-reflection he demands of sceptics. He still wants there to be a way to divide sceptics from the rest of the world, to belittle and to impugn their moral character. And he wants a way of doing it precisely so that he can continue to avoid having to actually read their arguments below the headline. In the process of making his argument, Kloor, being keener to shout down rather than find out, reveals that the problem is not the lack of an adequate definition of ‘denial’ or climate scepticism, but himself and his need to polarise the debate, to divide into neat categories of good and bad, to avoid the argument and the need for debate altogether.

Richard Betts’s contribution is more straightforward. The use of the word ‘denial’ in the sense of denial of grief, illness or other loss has been lost by the use of the allusion to holocaust denial, says Betts. Moreover, labelling anyone with anything is a poor communications strategy, and can only inflame dialogue.

I think the whole climate conversation would be better off with the word ‘denier’ being dropped completely, and with ‘being in denial’ only being used very judiciously, when it really is appropriate.

Label the behaviour, not the person, and even then take care to do so only when justified.

There is much less to take issue with in Betts’ comments than in Doom and Kloor’s. The problem remains, though, that we have only an objection to the semantics or strategic sense in using the word ‘denier’, not an examination of its usage. Imagine if some racist were to be challenged for his use of racist epithets, not because of the racism he was expressing, but because the words he used weren’t an effective way of ‘communicating’. In fact, the racist communicates his racism very effectively — nobody is confused by it. And equivalently, nobody should be confused by the words ‘denier’, ‘denial’, ‘denying’ and ‘denialism’, whether or not they are an allusion to holocaust denial.

I would argue that racists and holocaust deniers should be free to speak. This is not out of sympathy for racists and holocaust deniers, but firstly on the principle of free speech in its own right, and a commitment to the more consequential understanding that the way to eliminate bad ideas like racism is to confront them, rather than lock them away. The use of the word ‘denial’ in the climate debate is an attempt to control and prevent debate. It is this motivation and the reasons for it that should be exposed. Anything less is merely word-play.

Those who are criticising their colleagues’ choice of language will face considerable resistance. The arguments which make use of words like ‘denier’ emerge from institutions which have been established firmly on the highly-polarised view of the debate. The example of John Gummer’s interventions is given above. And then there are the likes of Bob Ward, formerly of the Royal Society (with its own history of using the word, ‘denier’, and its presidents clumsy interventions), now at the Grantham Institute, attached to the London School of Economics. Ward’s campaign against critics of climate policies continues to take the form of complaints about the denial of climate science to editors and organisations in a position to censor or censure the putative ‘denier’. It is not enough for Ward, who believes he has challenged Richard Tol’s arguments with scientific facts, to use the muscle of his billionaire backer, the power of the academic institutions he is a member of, and his contacts in the press to disseminate the material he has produced; he seeks the humiliation of the author, the deletion of the articles written on the basis of the authors research, and for the intervention of the censor.

When the editor doesn’t step in, Ward complains about the censor…

Ward and Gummer should embarrass any advocate of climate change policy that believes in debate no matter how convinced they are of their own position. Ward and Gummer are symptoms of the extent to which a narrow interpretation of climate change and set of polices were allowed to dominate the public debate, and to police the public discussion. The institutions of climate change were established outside of the usual processes which steer the construction of public bodies — their rectitude given from the outset, as planet-savers, no need for debate, no need to test their legitimacy or purpose, no need for meaningful oversight. The institutions of environmentalism, in other words, have developed outside of any real culture of debate. So when confronted with criticism, those who either are not acquainted with debate, or otherwise feel entitled to be protected from it, can only escalate criticism to hostility.

These are origins of the word ‘denier’. It is not a mere accident of language, or slight on the memories of people murdered by the Nazi regime. The use of the word ‘denier’ is the result of a delinquent form of politics, as insidious as the organised political racism that allowed the officials of governments that espoused racist doctrines to use racist epithets. (Though that is not to make moral equivalents of racism and climate alarmism). It justifies itself in the same way: that the shortcomings of the group in question preclude it from self-government. Racism, too, had a ‘scientific’ justification, even in the C20th. But scientific justifications quickly turn into pejorative terms. ‘Deniers’ are impugned — if they are not simply invented — for their moral and intellectual shortcomings precisely for the preservation of a political class as it struggles to sustain its hold over the public sphere. The word ‘denier’ is in the official climate change lexicon. It is not street slang. It is not shorthand. It is precise. It is deliberate. Its use is intended to service a political agenda.

So, I find hand-wringing about what is the most effective word to use to refer to the out-group somewhat pointless. Even if urging people to cease may ameliorate some of the excesses of the non-existent debate, resistance to the word ‘denier’ means nothing if it does not amount to resistance to the predominant political ambition. Gummer can now include Betts in his hidden list of ‘lukewarmers':

We are not 100% certain that climate change will definitely cause huge negative impacts, but there’s enough reason to think that there is a major risk.

Here, Betts explains the difference between questioning climate science and insisting that it is wrong. “if you’re questioning then I don’t have a problem with that” he says, “but if you are insisting, then I think you are dismissing large swathes of scientific research.” But Betts’s view is naive. In particular, he seems oblivious to the predominant mode of politics, which is centred around the concept of risk. (This is discussed in a recent post, which looked at comments from Gavin Schmidt, and the legacy of Ulrick Beck who developed the concept of Risk Society with Anthony Giddens).

Risk is a highly political concept, not simply the objective, statistical definition of threats. For instance, climate — stable or changing — is a risk to anyone until a level of wealth is achieved. A few milimeters of snow can bring the southern half of the United Kingdom to a standstill, but other parts of the world cope with as many meters of snowfall in a single event as parts of the UK receive in a year. To talk about risk independent of politics, is equivalent to talking about sight independent of eyes.

Betts believes that it is the job of science to enumerate and quantify those risks. But whatever the reality of climate change — the degree of change that will occur, the quantifiable risks that this will cause — a number of things prevent a clear view of what ‘science says’ about it. First, a great deal of political capital is invested in climate change. This is to say that, no matter how real climate change is, there was an intention, from the outset, of making the environment the ground for political authority — in particular supranational political bodies — outside of democratic oversight, on the logic of Risk Society. Second, an ideology which puts the environment at the centre of its outlook contaminates much research with a great deal of green a prioi. This in turn elevates highly deterministic theories about society and its dependence on natural processes, above ideas that emphasise human agency in response to trivial climate change, and the ability of politics-as-usual to respond to larger-order changes requiring government intervention. In other words, green ‘ideology’ amplifies the theoretical risks of a few degrees to a country as developed as the UK,to a threat to to its very survival. Third, science has not yet developed a way of excluding green ideology. And worse, as has been observed previously here, there is a difference between institutional science and science as a processes — the former having been entirely co-opted into climate politics, to the exclusion of the second. This is evidenced by Betts’ employers, for example, his research priorities, and of course the priorities of research funding being directed by bodies such as the Royal Society, and other organisations which have chosen to identify the climate as a priority. And let us not forget the researchers who, on the same brief and from the same coin, insist on pathologising scepticism.

Although it is good that Betts wants to urge people to tone down the rhetoric, I can’t help thinking that his naivity is as problematic as the thing he wants to address. He rightly says that suggesting that to question science is not to deny it. But he still draws a line in the sand: thou shall not insist. But if we insist that there is not ‘enough reason to think that there is a major risk’ (or that these risks are largely unquantified, theoretical and subjective), even as a consequence of interrogating the science, then we are now ‘denying’. We don’t seem to be allowed to form a judgement from the fruits of our questioning.

It is not enough to say there is a problem with using a word. The word has a history of its own, and a politics behind it.

While browsing Twitter the other day, I chanced upon this tweet from the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)…

Climate change brings out the weirdest things. The event seems to have been a joint venture between Prospect magazine and the DECC, and hosted by Channel 4 news anchor, Jon Snow (who you may remember got himself in a flap about whether the weather last year was caused by climate change). It is unsurprising that two of the speakers were Matthew Pencharz, a Senior Advisor on Environment & Energy to the Mayor of London and Dr Tom Counsell from the DECC. But what caught my eye was the presence of Shappi Khorsandi, who is a comedian, and Jay Rayner, who is the Guardian’s food critic.

So, the weirdness…

Prospect magazine claims to be ‘the leading magazine of ideas’…

ProspectLogo

But the magazine’s ‘energy’ section does not reveal much evidence of an editorial commitment to the idea of bringing ideas to the energy debate. There are a few articles, notably from DECC Secretary of State, Ed Davey, and his shadow, Caroline Flint. But given the un-diametric mutual opposition between Davey and Flint’s parties on the climate issue, this hardly counts as a battle of ideas, and barely even a disagreement about policy beyond the superficialities of inter-party politics. There is a short debate between the GWPF’s Benny Peiser and the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Shaun Spiers on the issue of fracking. Otherwise, Prospect magazine has run just a handful of articles on this topic over the last year, most of which seem to represent the orthodox position, espoused by the government, or its orthodox critics, such as Dieter Helm.

But the weirdest thing is… What do a comedian and a food critic have to say about energy policy? Why would a magazine, which sells itself on the virtues of exchanging ideas in the public realm, host an event, apparently on behalf of the government, unopposed, with a minister, two bureaucrats a comedian and a food critic?

Clearly an evening of discussion between a DECC minister and the London Mayor’s chief climate bureaucrat would be boring. Not even the events team at Prospect believed that their chin-stroking readers would drag themselves through the cold mid-January streets of London without some celebrity endorsement. DECC, for its part, take as condescending a view of the public as Prospect. Where the event needed a celebrity, DECC felt the campaign needed an animated video to arouse interest in London’s energy future.

I’m not going to say too much about Shappi Khorsandi — partly because there doesn’t appear to be much comment about the event itself, and because she doesn’t seem to have said very much in the past about either energy policy or climate change. Her stand-up act instead usually trades on her ethnicity and identity. But as I have suggested before here, the graveyard for one-time satirists is to ditch the standing-up for something for finger-wagging.

There is probably some kind of law, somewhere, which states that as a comedian’s product becomes less funny, the more likely he or she will be to attempt some kind of political posturing. NB: I do not mean political satire here. I mean comedians, seemingly eschewing comedy, to use their profile to instead tell the world how it ought to be. The previous post mentioned two such comedians — Stewart Lee and Robin Ince (who is discussed again shortly) — who were perhaps funny in the 1990s, but have been reduced to grumpy old men, ranting at the world about how stupid it is. Ince and Lee follow in the wake of two other has-been stand-ups that have chosen to save the planet rather than make people laugh: Marcus Brigstoke and Rob Newman.

The point about satire is worth repeating and updating. A comedian cannot do a gig with a Secretary of State and pretend to be a satirist. She is now on new territory.

Since I wrote that post, Russell Brand, who was mentioned in it, has become more famous for his shallow and incoherent revolutionary politics than his stand up comedy, having penned a book laying out his manifesto — ‘Revolution’ — with the help of plagiarist, fraudster and Wikipedia editor, Johan Hari. The cosy milieu of liberal-left comedians has expanded. And is now part of the political establishment, as much as Brand seemingly rails against it. There is Khorsandi, who appears with Davey, to urge Londoners to get with the coalition’s energy policy…

… And there is this, from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) — “an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative and creative practical solutions to today’s social challenges“…

Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change

Climate change is no laughing matter, but when all else fails, perhaps it’s time to take humour a bit more seriously?

With the climate clock ticking we witness a seemingly endless cycle of public talks, journalistic comment pieces and debates on old turf, mostly reinforcing what we already know and fear.

In a bid to generate a new dialogue that sparks enduring change, the RSA is embarking on a series of climate events with a difference, starting with a comedy night.

Humour has long been a powerful tool in the social-change arsenal, but is it powerful enough to help us break through the static on this colossal issue? Is ‘laughing-it-off’ just about evasion, or is it the key to transforming public perspective at scale, in time?

Working alongside BBC comedian and Sunday Assembly founder Pippa Evans, we have gathered a group of talented comics to inject fresh life and verve into what is often a technocratic debate.

Marcus Brigstocke, Steve Punt, The Showstoppers, Rob Auton, Jessica Fostekew, Holly Burn and Pappy’s will help us think through how to reimagine the climate challenge, loosely based on RSA’s Seven Dimensions of Climate Change framework.

Seven comedians tackle one of the seven dimensions each. And here’s the punchline: “The seven dimensions of climate change project seeks to turn a scientific fact into a social fact by clarifying what it really means to ‘act’ through the complementary and competing perspectives of Science, Behaviour, Technology, Culture, Law, Economy and Democracy.”

And this is the result:

As you will have discovered, it is funnier with the sound off. And it is probably even funnier if you don’t watch it at all. This event was far more painful than it was funny. I shall spare you a blow-by-blow account because there really isn’t much to say about the content other than to highlight its failure. The real issue here is what kind of thinking produced this phenomenon.

But let’s discuss briefly the first of the seven skits. Steve Punt is allegedly a satirist, and one of the team behind BBC Radio 4’s ongoing lefty satire, The Now Show, which is also home to pompous climate-change activist and comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, who also does a turn at the RSA event. Punt reads unconvincingly from a script, lampooning an imaginary climate change denier’s understanding of “so-called science”. The putative joke being that the denier takes issue with science itself.

Hilarious stuff. But in this hilarity, Punt, like so many before him, doesn’t get to the substance of the phenomenon of denial to satirise it. Sure, by being so stuffed full of the zombie canards, it’s a comedy version of what people like Punt and his colleague, Brigstocke imagine denial to be. But it is a reflection more of their own ignorance of the debate than their masterful understanding of it, so as to satirise it: the skill of satire. As such, the vulgar satire says more about the satirist than the object of it.

If this were just a ticketed event, or half an hour of BBC radio that one could easily switch off, it would not really be worthy of much comment. But the intention here was to ‘turn a scientific fact into a social fact’. Like some kind of social alchemy, the conceit is that getting famous comedians to tell jokes about the ‘them’ will encourage people to become one of ‘us’.

The presupposition here is rooted in the logic of political correctness. The predominantly middle-class, public school and Oxbridge alternative comedians that emerged in the 1980s, and became established in the 1990s ousted (from the broadcast media, at least, and latterly the circuits), a bawdier, rougher, tougher and working class tradition, which became deeply unfashionable and itself the object of much ridicule. The belief was that the crass homophobia and racial and sexual stereotypes that (on the emergent view) were the stock-in-trade of the stand-up comic in a working mens’ club transmitted values to the audience… Life imitates art. Accordingly, the RSA hoped to reproduce in the wider public the appropriate values and norms — social facts.

There are several problems, of course. The first being Punt’s own grasp of the science he wanted to turn into social fact, and the confusion about what it was he was satirising. As observed here at length, the comedian who dips into politics or campaigning risks proceeding from his ignorance, not his knowledge, and so invents what ‘science says’ (or what ‘so-called science says’) from merely his knowledge that a consensus exists. He improvises from the consensus without an object. Second, his skit was not funny. I don’t say it out of humbug; it really wasn’t funny. The audience barely laughs at all. Which is remarkable, because, and thirdly, this audience is already cemented into the RSA’s framework of ‘social facts’. Not being funny, Punt’s skit is worse than a bad or misleading lecture. Not being an event the wider public are at all interested in, it is a lecture to the choir. And the RSA being the establishment, with a mandate from the Queen, the whole event looks about as promising a prospect for satire as the government abandoning its daily business to instead mock comedians.

So the irony, which ought to be the subject of satire, is that the RSA — which exists by Royal Charter — has sought to engineer social values, but instead reveals that it has little grasp of the science or that the scientific facts aren’t as important to it as the control it seeks. And it reveals its own isolation from the minds in which it desires to reproduce its values.

The consequences for ‘satire’ then — and with apologies to Charlie, and for my French — can be summed up thus: Je Suis un Changement Climatique Denier. The point of the RSA comedy night was to shut down other opinions, to close down debate. The Great and the Good assembled at the RSA were there to giggle at deniers as proxies for the stupid and little people. And much of this performance self-consciously reflected on the inadequacies of democracy — in particular Marcus Brigstocke’s sketch. Said Brigstocke,

That’s the problem, isn’t it. The elitist slow nods that happen in rooms like this where people all gather somewhere nice, where clever people come together and go, hmmm. We are very off-putting. I mean, I’m not, I’m on the telly, but… We are, we’re fantastically off-putting. People find idiots much more appealing than us. You see. So I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know how you make it sexy. The breasts from page three have gone from The Sun today, maybe we replace them with some sustainability solutions. Obviously I don’t have a conclusion, I don’t have a solution to the issues that are thrown up by existing within a democracy where fundamentally everybody’s opinion on polling day is of equal value.

But it would be hard to satirise the smug, self-importance of the RSA and its funny men and women. Don’t be fooled by Brigstocke’s apparent self-awareness — he really does think that he is above the rest of the world — the idiots. There’s nothing that could be brought out of his act which would tell us anything new. He admits he is arrogant. He is aware of the problem caused by the gulf between the elite that has appointed itself to engineer and police public values. The only thing he doesn’t understand is the possibility that he and the audience have embraced climate change whereas the broader public aren’t interested, not because he and the RSA have a better grasp of the science than the people on the other side of that gulf, but because the gulf creates an existential problem for the elite. After all, the RSA was mandated to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce”… The elite now turns its back on such filthy things as enterprise and manufacture — so many consumer trinkets will destroy the planet. And it uses science and the arts to sneer at plebs, to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi. Having failed in its duty, it now problematises that failure, not as a consequence of its own divorce from reality and the public, but as a “social challenge”, to which it seeks to “innovative practical solutions”. Climate change rescues the RSA from its irrelevance. It gives it mission, importance. And it justifies the smug.

Comedy, then, isn’t just a fun night out any more. It is an instrument that social engineers believe they can use to get the public to conform. Never mind the melting ice caps and polar bears; climate change is killing jokes.

Even Adam Corner, the climate change activist-academic-psychologist anticipated the failure of the event.

But while online ridicule directed towards climate ‘deniers’ (generally portrayed as either too stupid to understand the science, or as conspiracy theorists) may appeal to the usual crowd, its hard to see how this kind of approach will breach the political divide. After all, the feeling of being laughed at by a sneering, left-leaning elite is not appealing. One notorious attempt by the 10:10 campaign and director Richard Curtis at ‘humorously’ marginalising opposition towards environmentalism backfired completely. It turns out that most people don’t find graphic depictions of children’s heads exploding all that hilarious after all…

But his own punchline equally fails to raise a chuckle…

What’s required is for climate change to seep into the fabric of satirical and humourous TV programming, in the same way that other ‘current affairs’ often provide the backdrop and context for creative output. Jokes ‘about’ climate change can in fact be ‘about’ any of the dozens of subjects – family disputes over energy bills, travel and tourism, or changing consumer habits – that are directly impacted by climate change.

Just as explaining a joke denies its humour, if comedy is instrumental, it ceases to be spontaneous. So Corner moves the climate change issue to the stage backdrop, in front of which people repeat gags about mothers-in-law who keep leaving the lights on.

Or here’s a better idea… A sitcom in which a BBC executive is trying to squeeze the subject of climate change into a sit-com he is commissioning. But the problem is, the sit-com isn’t very funny. And there’s the problem… It’s all so postmodern. Everyone is so self aware, self-conscious they are forced to explain the joke, and the purpose of making the joke, because not even jokes can be told for the sake of telling jokes — they have to have higher purpose, sanctioned by academic psychologists at the University of Cardiff who double-up as climate change activists for the Climate Outreach & Information Network and Guardian eco-bloggers. All spontaneity has been expunged from the schedule. Comedy, in the hands of people who take themselves far, far, far too seriously.

And it doesn’t stop at comedy, either. The desire to colonise the cultural sphere — and in particular popular culture — knows no limits. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Al Gore and Pharrall Williams declared that they would ‘literally’ have ‘humanity harmonised all at once’.

The unlikely combination of Pharrell Williams and Al Gore have announced what they hope to be the largest global campaign in history, in the form of a second round of Live Earth concerts to promote awareness of climate change. The concerts will take place across all seven continents – including Antarctica – on 18 June.

But the real satirists were quick off the mark…

Williams’ words aren’t just hypocrisy… This is eight-mile-high-in-a-private-jet green hypocrisy. It compares to Will.I.Am’s turning up to an Oxford conference on climate change in a helicopter. Said the rapper,

Climate change should be the thing that we are all worried and concerned about as humans on this planet, how we affect the planet, our consumption, and how we treat the place that we live in.

The Telegraph goes on to quote climate scientist Myles Allen, “The irony didn’t escape everybody. But he’s committed to the issues and he’s written songs about it.”

So just as we can ask what Shappi Khorsandi was doing at an event intended to get Londoners to ‘think’ about their energy supply, to the exclusion of any contrary ideas, we might wonder what Oxford — the second oldest University in the world — needed from Will.I.Am, and what Will.I.Am really needed to speak to Myles Allen about. Will Will.I.Am be rapping Myles Allen’s next paper? It sounds about as entertaining — not to say spontaneous — a gig as the RSA’s night of uninterrupted laughter.

The point, of course, is that celebrities, be they has-been comedians or stratospheric rappers, prostitute their status. And its not hard to work out what they’re whoring themselves out for

Celebrities and campaigners including Matt Damon, Bill Gates, Jody Williams and Malala Yousafzai are joining forces to launch an international campaign to persuade the planet’s leaders to make 2015 the defining year in the fight against world poverty and climate change.

The campaign action/2015 – which launches on Thursday backed by more than 1,000 organisations across 50 countries – is focused on securing successful outcomes for two pivotal UN summits, one in September on remodelled development goals, and the other in December in Paris on a new international agreement on climate change.

The harder question to answer is why. One answer might be that they believe in the causes they seem to champion. In which case, they really should butt out. Because what they reveal is not only their own ignorance of the ‘issues’ they want to ‘raise awareness’ of, but their rank hypocrisy.

But a more likely answer is that celebs have an insatiable need to be flattered. It must, after all, be hard to account for the luxury you enjoy when you sit in your private jet or in a helicopter. It’s not enough to say “I wrote a few songs and it made me $millions”. Self importance is incompatible with such ephemera as topical jokes and pop songs. There must be more to it, that justifies pop-singers and funny men’s sense of self-importance, that they can preach austerity from a jet-powered pulpit or rotary-winged lectern. It is the same with the fellows of the RSA as it is with the pop stars. A pathological narcissism in search of endless self-justification.

The science-advocacy axis has provoked much fraught discussion over the years. Crudely put, there appear to be scientist, activists, and activist-scientists, and scientists-activists. The consensus appears to be that political advocacy and science should not be confused.

I half agree. But I think the ideal of keeping distance between the two is far more easy spoken about than acheived. My argument has been that scientists in the schema might not recognise the political nature of their work, or the presuppositions their work proceeds from. While it may be that the scientific process is intended to exclude the influence of human subjectivity, to discover things as they are independently of our preconceptions, merely instituting science does not preclude such effects. In fact, where science is an institution, it may become more vulnerable to political effects, for obvious reasons, especially in the following case observed by Andrew Montford:

You can imagine someone explaining that they believed in small government and that they had therefore decided to study the cost of subsidies in the renewables industry. The pathological hatred of such views among most members of the academy hardly needs to be mentioned, so while the dismiss/deconstruct options would still be available for readers of such a study, the chances are that this would result in ostracisation, discrimination and ultimately the end of the particular researcher’s career.

We don’t need to search far and wide to discover this phenomenon at the very top of the UK’s scientific institutions. The Royal Society, given the climate brief (in particular) by Prime Ministers, has abandoned the principle of its motto, to seek a greater role for ‘science’ in society, and in particular in policy-making. Now that scientists are recruited into the business of social organisation, there more at stake than the discovery of the material world. Interlocutors threaten to upset the course to discover the optimal administration of public life… Hence the ire of the Royal Society’s presidents past and present. More on that shortly. The point for now being that the world’s oldest scientific academy took a position in the climate debate, effectively issuing a memo to all scientific institutions that certain views are not to be tolerated.

Andrew Montford’s observation comes in response to an article by Gavin Schmidt, in which he apparently shows more reflection on the problems of science and advocacy than I would have expected, given his robust statements about ‘deniers’, and his refusal to debate with more sceptical climate scientists in the past, and his impatience with his scientific critics, to the delight of climate activists.

Whereas he claimed in 2009 that ‘I don’t advocate for political solutions. If I do advocate for something, my advocacy is focused on having more intelligent discussions’, Schmidt now argues,

Despite this careful distinction between advocacy and facts, the term “advocate” is regularly used pejoratively in scientific circles and is frequently associated with the cherry-picking of science to support a preconceived idea. In order to avoid these connotations, scientists often go to great lengths to deny being advocates for specific policies. However, it is almost always the case that a scientist speaking in public is in fact advocating for something—deeper public understanding of the science, more research funding, a more informed public discourse, awareness, and, yes, sometimes for specific policy action. Each of these examples is a reflection of both a scientific background and a set of values that, for instance, might prize an informed populace or continued research employment. It is most often when addressing a group with a shared set of values that scientists are the least aware that their call for something that “should” happen is still advocacy.

In my view, it is impossible to divorce public communication from advocacy, and scientists should not even try. Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace the terminology and, in so doing, define clearly what our own values are and exactly what we are advocating for.

So what is Gavin advocating for?

My exhortations here are (of course) also advocacy, and I would be remiss in not expounding on my own values and their relevance to this topic. I have a strong belief (or, perhaps, hope) that an informed democracy is more likely to make good decisions than one in which ignorance and tribalism are the dominant factors. I don’t believe that scientists themselves are in any special position when it comes to making decisions, but I do believe that their expertise must be an input into the decision-making process. The ability of climate science to probe and answer questions about the Earth system, the changes it has undergone, and the potential for change in the future has been (in my opinion) very successful in exploring the scope and limits of climate system predictability. There are many complexities and uncertainties, to be sure, but also many fundamental features that are as well established as any textbook science.

At face value, Gavin might as well advocate for Motherhood and Apple Pie. Though there is a question here about whether he advocates ‘informed democracy’ as some kind of qualified democracy, rather than the somewhat more mundane, ‘wouldn’t it be very nice if nobody was ignorant’.

What I would have preferred from Gavin is not this hollow secular piety, equivalent to nothing more than ‘I advocate science’ — everyone says that, and the claim that climate advocates are merely ‘speaking up for science’ is nowt new — but rather an attempt to enumerate and expand on those values.

For example, in the game of musical chairs he played with his climate science counterpart Roy Spencer on the Stossel show, linked to above, Gavin made the following claim:

Schmidt: What we’ve been doing in the last 150 years is we’ve been increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere — over 40% in terms of CO2, we’ve more than doubled the amount of methane, which is another greenhouse gas, and the signatures of those changes are very very clear, all the way through the system.

Stossel: Assuming this is true, why is this necessarily a problem? Warmer might be better. More people die from cold than warm.

Schmidt: We have built a society — an agricultural system and cities and everything we do based on assumptions that basically the climate is not going to change. The fact that we have so much infrastructure right near the shore is because we didn’t expect sea level to rise. The damage that we had from Hurricane Sandy was increased because sea level has increased by 10-12 inches in this area…

The dangers of attributing sea level rise and Hurricane Sandy to global warming to one side, it is these claims much more than his ‘science advocacy’ which reveal Gavin’s values. (And it is a shame that Stossel cut him off at this point, to concentrate on the claims which some environmentalists, but not Gavin, have made).

Gavin’s view, put simply, is that there is some equivalence of climate’s sensitivity to CO2 and society’s sensitivity to climate.

I visited New York in the aftermath of Sandy, and what struck me was that it had put in place a remarkable, and visible recovery from both that storm, and the 9-11 attacks. Mobile generators and pumps were on the scene. And an incredible building has been put in the place of the World Trade Centre. However, talking to New Yorkers, the recovery from Sandy had not yet reached the poorer parts of the city. New York is well and truly capable of recovery — more capable than it was 150 years ago, notwithstanding that the benefits of that wealth do not reach all that need it. The rights and wrongs of that is not a question for science.

It may well be true that New York may have been slightly more vulnerable to inundation because of sea level rise, and that some of that sea level rise may be the consequence of anthropogenic global warming. But the implication — Gavin’s values — that New York is more vulnerable to nature’s whims or vengeance now than at any point in its history is not plausible.

New York is also capable of defence. It would not have taken much might to defend against the storm. And it would not take much to protect New York against another 10-12 inches, as it would need to anyway, like London or Amsterdam have needed to, and will need to, and New Orleans should have been. It is Gavin’s assumption here that society, or cities, have been organised around the principle of an unchanging environment, and that a stable climate can ever be achieved. There is an assumption that cities would not ever, given a stable climate, be assaulted by the waves.

Gavin’s climate sociology is simply wrong. Society has never been built on the assumption of climate stability. No good farmer lacks the knowledge that drought, famine, are possibilities and that climate varies. No forward-thinking architect ever imagined that the weather could not get the better of his building. Consequently, people improved their skills and climate takes fewer and fewer lives, and society founded on industrial agriculture produces more and more, to feed more and more people, who live longer, healthier and more wealthy lives — all in spite of climate change.

It is this low estimation of society — that it is dependent on the environment, rather than resources of its own construction — that is the value which should be reflected on. That’s not necessarily something I think Gavin should be aware of when he declares the causes he advocates for. But he will not hear it unless it is pointed out to him in debate, along with the observation that his deterministic, and highly ideological understanding of society’s relationship with the environment is a view that dominates the scientific establishment, the academy and global politics (especially in Europe).

And Gavin nearly gets it:

Scientists and philosophers have long distinguished between descriptions of what “is” (derived from scientific investigations of the real world), what “ought” to be (based on one’s value system), and suggestions for what one “should” do in the face of this knowledge (Hume, 1740; Schneider, 1996).

Schneider’s talk is unfortunately no longer available, though, he, like Gavin, strikes me as an odd person to be pontificating on the is-ought fallacy. Rather, I think they have stumbled across this obstacle, and are trying to revise a way around it, in much as the way Gavin is avoiding admitting that he is advocating a political cause, by claiming that he is only advocating science.

Here is one such instance of is-ought thinking which popped up today… Roger Harrabin is back, telling the winter that it is misbehaving…

Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day.

They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom.

It raises further questions about the effects of climate change during the UK’s warmest year on record.

There may be many reasons why the world does not act in accordance with textbooks. And climate change may be one of them. But to immediately frame the phenomenon as a consequence of climate change reveals the extent to which climate change and its presuppositions has become an encompassing narrative, as if an early bloom could not happen in an uncontaminated world, and was a harbinger, as deadly as Hurricane Sandy. Environmental correspondence are obsessed with early and late winters.

Back to Gavin. Anyone invoking the is-ought fallacy should ought to think more carefully about why it happens, rather than drive a train through it. What causes people to read is as ought?

And this is why I find these epiphanies so unconvincing — the author fails to reflect on the epiphany itself. For instance, as I pointed out in my review of Mark Lynas’s book, The God Species, the book, and his newly-found support for GM technology and nuclear power did not reveal anything about what drove the more orthodox-green Lynas.

Lynas’s transformation shows few signs of self-reflection. Yet this would surely be the most interesting thing he could discuss. Why did ‘denial’ provoke such incomprehensible rage to the younger Lynas? And now that he finds himself accused of it, why is he not more cautious about the word ‘denier’, which he still uses with abandon? Instead, he puts his past eco-zeal down to mere ‘ideology’. Ideology it may have been, but there is no discussion about its character, its origins and context, or how he came to be vulnerable to it. His metamorphosis from long-time anti-GM campaigner to advocate came about, he explains, after he read some scientific literature in 2008. Lynas’s conceit is that he has freed himself from ideology simply by reading ‘the science’.

But doesn’t every green campaigner believe himself to be armed with the science against the dark forces of ideology? […] Clearly, the coordinates of the environmental debate are not easily determined as ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, and a deeper reflection on both concepts is necessary to understand it. Lynas, in spite of his claim that ‘science’ has helped him overcome ‘ideology’, fails to provide that insight.

And Gavin has much of his former self to reflect on, too. When he declared back in 2009 that he was not an advocate, he also explained his views on ‘noise’ in the climate debate:

This leads to maybe the final question that I think about, which is, “how do you increase the signal-to-noise ratio in communication about complex issues?” We battle with this on a small scale in our blog’s comment thread. In un-moderated forums about climate change, it just devolves immediately into name-calling. It becomes very difficult discuss science, to talk about what aerosols do to the hydrological.

The problem is that the noise serves various people’s purposes. It’s not that the noise is accidental. When it comes to climate, a lot of the noise is deliberate because if there’s an increase of noise you don’t hear the signal, and if you don’t hear the signal you can’t do anything about it. Increasing the level of noise is a deliberate political tactic. It’s been used by all segments of the political spectrum for different problems. With the climate issue in the US, it is used by a particular segment of the political community in ways that is personally distressing. How do you deal with that? That is a question, which I am still asking myself.

‘Noise’ is the price you pay for science and for unqualified democracy (if it’s qualified, it’s not democracy). ‘Noise’ is the consequence of trust in other people, even though they might be wrong. Noise is what you have to suffer, when you understand that science is messy and that science and politics are not easily delineated. And noise is what you must accept you may be producing in an open, democratic society, in which science can trump politics.

You can’t stand on a soapbox to shout about ‘the hydrological’, and expect an audience to obediently go away, to rebuild society on the premise of the seemingly correct understanding of climate. Not even scientists have the right not to be challenged, to be challenged robustly, and to be challenged by people who are wrong. ‘Noise’ is ultimately the process by which the best way forward is negotiated, in spite of mistakes made on the way. Gavin, albeit mealy-mouthed, seems to have realised that the idea that scientists channel uncontaminated, noise-free truth from objectivity itself, is not credible.

This returns us to the question, how is it that is becomes ought?

One reminder of the real role that science is playing in society, and why Gavin misapprehends the human world’s relationship with the environment is the recent death of Sociologist, Ulrich Beck.

Beck, along with New Labour sociologist Anthony Giddens, developed an influential theory of Risk Society. According to Beck, the modern era — technological, industrial society — had exposed society to ever greater, global risks, and that our awareness of these risks and the scepticism of modernity’s achievements marked the beginning of a new historical era, in which this awareness of risks and their amelioration would become the basis of politics. In particular, Beck, the European Federalist, noted environmental risks, and his thinking is in many sense the blueprint for environmental policy. An informative interview with Beck on the LSE’s website reveals how the concept of risk altered the political landscape, and became the basis for new political institutions:

If we look at how the issue of climate change fits into the general perspective we have in politics and the social sciences, we can see the limitations of what I call ‘methodological nationalism’. We frame almost every issue, whether it relates to class, conflict, or politics, in the context of nation states organised in the international sphere.

However, when we look at the world from the perspective of climate change, this doesn’t fit at all. For example, if we take the basic concept of risk – in this case global climate risk – we find that there is a new power structure already imbedded within the logic of this concept. This is because, when we talk about risk, we first of all have to relate it to decisions and decision-makers. We have to make a fundamental distinction between those who take the risk and those who are affected by it. In the case of climate change these groups of people are completely different. Those who are taking the decisions are not accountable from the perspective of those who are affected by the risks, and those who are affected have no real way of participating in the decision-making process.

So from the start we have an imperialistic structure because the decision-making process and the consequences are attributed to completely different groups. We can only observe this when we step outside of a nation state perspective and take a broader view of the issue. I call this a cosmopolitan perspective, where the unit of research is a community of risk which includes what is excluded in the national perspective: i.e. the decision makers and the consequences of their decisions.

Beck’s largely imagined, and entirely unquantified notion of climate catastrophe allowed him to construct the idea of an imperialism of risk, to which the solution appears to be the construction of a cosmopolitan institution — let us call it the UNFCCC — to mediate the relationship between the two putative categories of people: those who benefit from risk and those who pay for it. Hence the climate activist’s, UN cheerleader’s and European Federalist’s maxim: ‘global problems need global solutions’. The truer maxim, however, is that global solutions need global problems.

Beck’s blueprint (if it wasn’t merely an observation), is not hard to spot in debates about climate. Take Nicholas Stern’s words, for example…

Policy-making is usually about risk management. Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making. … Thus, climate science supports sound policy when it informs risk management, informing the selection of climate policy measures that influence key aspects of the causal chain of climate change. This chain runs: from humans to emissions and changes in atmospheric concentrations; from changes in concentrations to changes in weather conditions which, with their induced feedbacks, change the climate; and from the weather of this altered climate to changes in risks and the circumstances of individuals. Coherent risk management across such a chain requires input from both the social sciences and the physical sciences, and not only from economics and physics but also from other disciplines, such as ethics. Deep insights and frightening uncertainty in one link may prove either critical or irrelevant, as the implications of a policy option are propagated down the chain to explore their ultimate impact on people.

Stern and Smith, you will note, were housed at the same institution as Beck — The London School of Economics. These economists have eschewed the idea that simple wealth is the best defence against things as trivial as different weather — climate resistance.

And their way of looking at the world exists outside of the climate debate, which brings us back to the Royal Society, and what it and its presidents were trying to do with their scientific authority. Rees, in an online bet, and in his book, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?, claimed that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event.”

by 2020 there will be thousands-even millions-of people with the capability to cause a catastrophic biological disaster. My concern is not only organized terrorist groups, but individual wierdos with the mindset of the people who now design computer viruses.

By “bioerror”, I mean something which has the same effect as a terror attack, but rises from inadvertance rather than evil intent.

And it is Rees who really lets the cat out of the bag, and gives the best illustration of the transformed role of science — the thing that Gavin Schmidt is advocating — in society. Beck’s observation is that the modern era unleashes ever greater risks, and that these risks become the basis on which politics is organised. In other words, it is science which unleashes destructive potential. But it is that potential, in the hands of people, that science becomes risky. Rees worries that an incautious or malicious scientist will kill a million people in one event, and that as the 21st Century develops, so the potential for wrong-doing and error increases. While risk society appears to be conceived of in order to protect people, and science is emphasised by its advocates to inform people, what is really going on in these arguments is not in their interests — it is intended to deprive them. In this, postmodern scientific era, people need to be regulated, because as individuals, and as groups, they are risk factors to themselves, to each other, and to the continued survival of the species and life on the planet.

Whether or not Gavin Schmidt would agree with Stern, Beck or Rees, their words describe the context into which he has stepped, nonetheless. That is what ‘science’ is doing in the 21st Century: regulating people, limiting their expectations and making arguments from authority, for authority, in contrast to the promises made by science in the modern era, to respond to the desire to improve circumstances. On the Risk Society perspective, improving our lot through industrialisation has inadvertently created incalculable risks, which need to be mitigated by the likes of Stern and Rees.

So it is not enough to admit, mealy mouthed, that he is an advocate for ‘science'; science is not a straightforward thing. The scientific process may well be simple enough, but the priorities and presuppositions of science as an institution — which ‘speaks’ to the public, to tell them what to do and what to expect — owes much more to the historical context and to politics and ideology than its advocate can admit. Like Beck, Rees and Stern, Schmidt imagines a society, not comprised of autonomous, thinking agents, capable of negotiating their own risks and responding to their own ‘challenges'; but of a fragile system, which is closely dependent on stability for its own survival, imperilled by the arbitrary decisions and desire of so many unthinking, blind, and ignorant bodies.

NGOs are weird. And green NGOs are even weirder. Even at face value they are weird, precisely because we are supposed to take them and the issues they seemingly speak for at face value, as plainly as we would take the Campaign for the Abolition of Stubbed Toes (CAST) which doesn’t exist yet. But give it time. Nobody likes stubbing their toe, so it stands to reason, right(?), that we should all get behind a movement to end pain caused to the lower extremities. CAST will speak not just for anyone who has ever stubbed their toe, but the friends, lovers and families of people with toes, who are vulnerable (i.e. they have toes) to stubbing. Research has shown that some people are at risk of stubbing their toe as often as once a month.

But take a step back from your concern for people with stubbed toes, and outrage about toe-stubbing. Who said CAST speak for us? Who appointed them? Who said they should raise awareness of stubbed toes? And why should their demand of action against stubbed toes be taken seriously by politicians, who were elected by us, to represent our concerns? This is the question that no NGO can answer: who the **** do NGOs think they are?

The latest Green NGO weirdness comes via Donna Laframboise. Donna notes the case of Greenpeace’s disturbance of the Nazca Lines, and adds the case of the Cross on Mount Royal, Montreal, which was hijacked by a Greenpeace publicity stunt. The effect, says Laframboise, is to say “We spit on your sacred spaces”.

Other instances of NGO weirdness emerged out of the UNFCCC meeting in Lima… Guardian “journalist” turned WWF activist, Leo Hickman chaired a discussion organized by the Met Office Hadley Centre, Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and the University of Reading, which “explored the challenges of making climate projections and linking damages from extreme weather events to changing emissions; risk management in the face of uncertainty; and the ethics of loss and damage”.

This is weird for several reasons. First is Hickman’s own emphasis on expertise — the consensus — in the climate debate, whereas he has none himself. Indeed, some might argue that a donkey has a greater intellectual qualification to chair a discussion between climate researchers than the Graun’s former ethical agony aunt, who in the past laboured with such questions as ‘how green is your web search‘. Having been so keen to reduce the carbon footprint of such trivialities as searching the internet for information about how green the internet is, however, Hickman seems happy to have jetted off to Lima, spewing tons of CO2 into Gaia’s face for the sake of a jolly in Lima. So much for ‘ethics’, Leo.

I digress. The point is the omnipresence and influence of green NGOs like WWF is a question which has been raised by Donna Laframboise again. Last Year, she braved the shenanigans of COP19 in Warsaw, and found them creepy. Here, again, is the WWF, chairing events at COP meetings, as though it were natural. And this brings me back to the point raised above about taking NGOs at face value.

Survival International — who may not thank me for highlighting their campaign — suggest that the WWF’s moral standing isn’t what it seems, and that they are ‘complicit in tribal people’s abuse‘.

Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, has uncovered serious abuses of Baka “Pygmies” in southeast Cameroon, at the hands of anti-poaching squads supported and funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The Baka are being illegally forced from their ancestral homelands in the name of “conservation” because much of their land has been turned into “protected areas” – including safari-hunting zones.

Rather than target the powerful individuals behind organized poaching, wildlife officers and soldiers pursue Baka who hunt only to feed their families.

A later article goes into more detail.

But now the Baka are forced to stay in roadside villages and fear going into the forest which has provided them with most of what they needed for generations. Anti-poaching squads routinely arrest, beat and torture Baka and their neighbors in the name of “conservation” and many Baka say that friends and relatives have died as a result of the beatings.

Imagine, though, if it were an oil company that was accused of such human rights violations. Or, for that matter, an energy company had desecrated a sacred historical monument in blind pursuit of their aims. What might be the response?

Godwin Uyi Ojo of Friends of the Earth Nigeria had this to say about Shell at the conference in Lima.

Since 1956, when Shell came to Nigeria’s Niger Delta, the Niger Delta have known no rest. It has been conflict, violence, human rights violations, killings and series of deaths. You all are aware of the situation of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Shell has polluted our rivers. Shell has taken our land. Shell has destroyed our livelihood. We say it is time that the world stand up against Shell, that they cannot continue in their violence against people, in their violence against communities. Shell has no place in Nigeria. Shell has no place in these negotiations.

[Full story]

I wonder if we can now see WWF in any better light than FOE want us to see Shell. Indeed, we now see WWF accused of hiring helicopter death squads, to protect large areas of land for rich people, by evicting people from the land they have occupied for countless years, on a scale greater than any attempt of genocide in the Western world.

Without taking sides, then, we can see that the world is far more complicated than the story offered by environmentalists — of indigenous people at the mercy of powerful companies, who rule over corrupt governments, with only NGOs holding the wrong-doers to account. It seems green NGOs are much closer to that story than they will admit.

And the story gets murkier. Uyi Ojo words were uttered as a group of green activists attempted to disrupt an event at the Lima COP meeting.

We’re now at the entrance of the International Emissions Trading Association Pavilion, where they’re trying to present themselves as part of climate solution. In fact, the event they’re about to hold is with Shell, one of the biggest polluters in the world; the World Coal Association, that’s trying to work coal in a solution to climate change; and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. This event is also sponsored by Chevron. These are not players we want to see in our climate solutions, in our climate policy. So we’re here to ask them if they’ll politely, please, to leave, and we don’t want to see fossil fuels anywhere near these talks.

These words belong to Pascoe Sabido, a member of Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO which aims to “expose the power of corporate lobbying in the EU”.

An aside… As much as Corporate Earth Observatory claim to be against ‘the power of corporate lobbying’, they admit:

Corporate Europe Observatory receives grants from a number of trusts and foundations. Currently we receive funding from the Adessium Foundation, Isvara Foundation, Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation, RH Southern Trust, Sigrid Rausing Trust, JM Goldsmith foundation, Misereor, Human Earth Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind and the Marisla Foundation. CEO doesn’t receive any EU or member state government funding.

So where would the Corporate Europe Observatory be without cash from billionaires, eh?

Back to the story.

Who are Corporate Europe Observatory to say who should and should not be at side events at COP meetings? Who, apart from JM Goldsmith and Joseph Rowntree appointed Corporate Europe Observatory to police these discussions?

In fact the green activists had very little to complain about, as is revealed by the object of their anger — Climate Change Advisor to Shell, David Hone — who was speaking at the event. The event was about Carbon Capture and Storage, which Hone points out,

The Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) held an excellent and well attended side event on Monday afternoon which was initially mobbed by some 100+ demonstrators and their press entourage. The demonstrators crowded into the modest sized room and the hallway outside, waited for the start of the event and then promptly left as Lord Stern opened the side event with his remarks on the need for a massive scale-up of CCS. Arriving and then departing en masse allowed them to tweet that civil society had walked out on Lord Stern. The demonstrators were equally upset that Shell was represented at the event with my presentation on yet another sobering reality; 2°C is most likely out of reach without the application of CCS; also a finding of the IPCC in their 5th Assessment Report.

Hold on to the thoughts about Stern for a moment. Green NGOs might not like CCS as a solution to climate change. But it is as viable as solution to the problem of climate change as is, for example, wind energy. To illustrate the point, we can do some back-of-an-envelope maths, to work out that if the approximately 8,300 COP20 delegates had each taken a five hour flight to get there, they would have used approximately half of the power output of the world’s 80GW of net wind generating capacity while they were in the air (i.e. 4MWh per person).

The delegation from European Corporate Observatory would be stuck in Europe if it were not for fossil fuels.

I don’t particularly like CCS or wind energy, for that matter. But I don’t want to stop people who think it might be a solution, and who have worked on it being a solution putting their ideas across in appropriate fora. European Corportate Observatory don’t like Stern rubbing shoulders with Shell. It’s bad PR, they explain

By speaking, Stern gives all involved – and particularly the WCA – the veneer of respectability they received when Figueres spoke at their International Summit last year. It would be a gift for the IETA and the WCA, but there’s nothing to be gained from his side. If the intention is challenging them, it’s a lost cause. The room is tiny – maximum 30 people – and no-one outside the room will hear about it. Instead, IETA and the WCA will write it up, pull out a nice quote and show how they’ve engaged and even won-over serious climate change thinkers. His name will forever be there, associated with organisations who are stopping progress on tackling the crisis. Should he even be attending? Christiana Figueres’ attendance at the coal summit didn’t weaken the industry, it legitimised them (she said they had an important role to play and that they were key for development). At least since then she has taken a tougher stand against coal, perhaps as a result of the backlash.

Stern should set example to us all

If Lord Nicholas Stern decided not to go, it would send a strong signal to those very industries undermining the effort to tackle the crisis. It would question their legitimacy and stop their march towards the heart of our governments with false solutions like CCS. If we’re going to tackle climate change, then we need to delegitimise the role that dirty industry currently plays, remove its access to power and channels of influence it has with our governments. And as an influential person himself, with strong climate credentials, Lord Stern has an important role to play. Those fighting against lung disease would not speak at a tobacco event, so Stern should should do the right thing and not attend this one.

Corporate Observatory have done so much more to publicise the event than the sponsors could ever have achieved by themselves, it’s hard not to imagine that they asked them to try to shut it down for the free publicity.

Stern, of course, is supposed to be some kind of climate hero, who shouldn’t get his hands (or shoulders) dirty in this way. his are hands (and shoulders) that carry the weight of the entire planet’s future, if Pascal Sabido’s attempt to hashtag his somewhat poorly-conceived campaign is to be understood properly:

Another delegation at COP 20, tweeted to remind us to ignore the corporations, and to tell us just how cheap it would be to save the planet.

Bargain!

This weird NGO protest mirrors the ‘civil society’ ‘walkout’ staged at previous COP meetings.

The Guardian reported last year that,

Environment and development groups together with young people, trade unions and social movements walked out of the UN climate talks on Thursday in protest at what they say is the slow speed and lack of ambition of the negotiations in Warsaw.

[…]

Frustration with the climate talks has grown in the past two years but progress in this year’s conference of the parties (COP) has seen negotiations deadlocked in technical areas, and rich and poor countries at loggerheads over compensation and money. Anger has also mounted over the perceived closeness of governments to industrial lobbies, and because several developed countries have reneged on their commitments to cut emissions.

But although they walked out with shared purpose — to disrupt the, erm, failing talks — they were undecided about why. ‘Lobbying from fossil fuel companies was impeding progress at the talks’, claimed Hoda Baraka, global communications director for 350.org. Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International, said that ‘The Polish government has done its best to turn these talks into a showcase for the coal industry’, and that ‘backsliding by Japan, Australia and Canada’ was a ‘slap in the face to those suffering as a result of dangerous climate change’ (i.e. nobody). ‘We are walking out of these talks because governments need to know that enough is enough’, said Winnie Byanyima, director of Oxfam International, ‘The stakes are too high to allow governments to make a mockery of these talks’. ‘Civil society is being suppressed’, said Anjali Appadurai of youth group Earth in Brackets. ‘Developed nations would rather spend their time playing to vocal minorities at home rather than meet this global threat head-on’, said Friends of the Earth International’s climate campaigner, Asad Rehman. But though NGOs had failed to get their story straight about why their ‘spontaneous’, and not at all pre-planned, arranged months in advance walkout was happening, they had in fact had time to have T-shirts bearing the slogan “Volverermos” (We will return) printed to commemorate it.

So NGOs will blame big businesses, intransigent governments, disinterested publics and narrow interests for failed negotiations. But never themselves. Rather than recognising that the UNFCCC process, at best, suffers from something of a democratic deficit, and furthermore attempts to negotiate many competing interests, and seeking to find ground on which those differences might be reconciled, environmental NGOs actively disrupt negotiations that are not to their taste. Green organisations don’t like CCS, so rather than seeking to hold a debate on CCS, they try to shut down the discussion on CCS.

Is it possible that one, major reason that talks fail is due to the fact that NGOs act like complete jerks?

“Civil society” groups’ direct action/disruption is utterly incongruous with their actual status. It’s like a teacher refusing to behave properly, a policeman breaking the law. They’re at the top table, demanding to be at the top table, but complaining that they are not getting their own way. They represent nobody at all. They produce nothing. They have no mandate. Yet they are invited to the highest levels of political negotiations, such as the COP meetings, and to national and supranational governments. But you or I, as members of the public, could not go to see these events for ourselves, much less could we walk out of them to register our disgust.

And yet they behave, when things don’t go according to their plan, in such a way as to disrupt proceedings — either of day-to-day life, or of political business.

There is no distinction between this and the destruction of ancient monuments. In both cases, green NGOs imagine themselves to be above the rest of the world. The most illustrative case of this was Greenpeace UK’s demand to ‘change the politics, save the climate’ — a stunt in which activists climbed the Houses of Parliament, to unfurl their banners.

Just as Greenpeace activists in Peru trample over the country’s history in order to achieve the NGOs’ look-at-me objectives, UK activists believed that the elected representatives in the debating chambers below should be doing as they — not the public — had instructed. Greenpeace put itself above — on top of — democratic institutions. And NGOs also see themselves above the undemocratic UNFCCC process in Lima.

This is what organisations which feel they need no mandate from ordinary people, who feel themselves to be above the institutions of mere people, and who feel able to judge ordinary people do. This is how they behave. Like the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the tyrants of feudal Europe, they do not recognise that they are accountable to anyone. Not to the public, and not to the law. They have a higher purpose.

Their ‘direct action’ in the West usually consists of little more than inconveniences — the blockages of airport runways, roads and railways. But where their money gives them more power, they are no less toxic than the companies they attack, and no less intransigent than the governments they criticise. Indeed, they may be more toxic and more indifferent to suffering than any business and any corrupt government. This power is unchecked. Whereas we can hold governments and businesses to account, there is no mechanism for voting out of office an NGO, or boycotting it.

The weirdest thing about NGOs is that they are there because governments needed them. They are a construction of governments, and processes like the UNFCCC, because political institutions such as these are so remote from ordinary life. “Civil society” has developed in the gulf between power and people, not to hold power to account, but to hold people further away. Their attacks on power — ridiculous, childish publicity stunts — are charades, or rituals, intended to convince those who play them out more than the public, that they really are in opposition, and that there isn’t a revolving door between NGOs, government, media, and big business.

I have a review of Chris Rapley’s “play”, 2071, over at Breitbart London.

The latest development in the green colonisation of the cultural sphere is the planet-saving stage play. This year, the Royal Court Theatre commissioned Duncan Macmillian and Chris Rapley to adapt for the stage the latter’s concerns about the state of the planet when his eldest granddaughter will be the age he is now, in 2071. That year gives the play its title.

Yes, I actually went to see 2071.

I felt a bit sorry for Rapley at first. He was obviously nervous. And reviews were already saying that the performance was dull (“but important”). But then, I wondered who the hell puts themselves forward for this stuff? What colossal sense of self-importance is required to put oneself on the stage in this way, with nothing new to say?

I was going to discuss the difference between a lecture and a play in the article, but word limit precluded it. So here’s some brief thoughts not from the article.

I was lucky to have some great lecturers at university, and a few dreadful ones. If I was to do my time at uni again (which I would, without a second’s thought), I would choose more of my courses on the strength of the lecturers/seminar tutors. Of course, most arts degrees are dependent on self study. But a good lecture orients your study, lays out the coordinates, the history and the controversies of a subject, and thereby share their interest in something. Although many lecturers take quite strong positions on certain ideas, the best lecturers in my experience, were those who were not only unafraid of other ideas, but welcomed challenges to their own positions.

So my point here is not simply that Rapley’s lecture-play was dry and dull. It failed at being a play, and it failed at being a lecture too. It was more like what I imagine some kind of sermon to be, though, not being religious, I might not have understood the point of sermon’s correctly. Even preaching, I think, involves some element of putting yourself in front of a crowd with the expectation that they may challenge you.

What were the opportunities here, to challenge Rapley? It is true that The Royal Court Theatre have follow up events. But look at them:

DEBATE: CAN BUSINESS EVER BE GREEN?
1.30 – 2.30pm
Simon Graham, Environmental Strategist at Commercial Group, one of the biggest independent companies in the UK; Olivier Lawder, Creative Planner at Futerra, working to deliver sustainability campaigns; Bioregional Programme Manager, Tom Hill and Daniel Turner, Head of Disclosure at CDP.

It will seek to discover how and if business’ can operate commercially whilst lowering their carbon emissions.

DEBATE: CAN THEATRE EVER BE GREEN?
6.00 – 7.00pm
Theatre-makers discuss responsibility towards Climate Change in their work
Speakers: Natalie Abrahami (Theatre Director), Natasha Chivers (Lighting Designer), Alison Tickell (CEO, Julie’s Bicycle) Ben Todd (Executive Director, Arcola Theatre) and Paul Handley (Production Manager, Chair).

Analysing the responsibility to climate change in their work and discussing more environmentally friendly ways of producing theatre.

WORKSHOP: PSYCHOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO CLIMATE CHANGE
11.00am – 12.30pm
Hosted by Paul Hoggett, Chairman of Climate Psychology Alliance from the University of West of England.

An interactive workshop to help audiences come to terms with psychological responses to Climate Change exploring the guilt and ambivalence we feel, and the dilemmas we face around the subject.

WORKSHOP: TRANSITION TOWN
1.00pm – 2.30pm
Transition Town: the power of just doing stuff!
Hosted by Sarah McAdam, Transition Network and Hilary Jennings, co-founder of Transition Town Tooting.
A transition town is a grassroot community project that seeks to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction and economic instability.
Hear more about the spread of the Transition movement internationally, gain inspiration from the action communities are taking to help create a low carbon, socially-just, healthier and happier future and explore how you might get things started in your neighbourhood.

WORKSHOP: AFRO RETRO’S UPCYCLING
3.15 – 4.45pm
UpCycling, is it just a fad or could it be a way of life?
Let team AFRORETRO show you just how easy it is to breathe new life into your old, unwanted stuff.
In this workshop with the help of AFRORETRO; upgrade an old unwanted t-shirt into a one-of-kind, statement infinity scarf.
All materials will be provided but in the spirit of UpCycling please bring a t-shirt, the larger the better.
Sewing skills not necessary however imagination and curiosity a must.
www.afroretro.com

WORKSHOP: WE’RE ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE
5:15pm – 6:45pm
Hosted by Caralampo Focas, from Oxford University.
Caralampo Focas is an experienced researcher with an established international reputation. For over 25 years he has been writing, consulting and researching into transport, consumer and quality of life themes, expanding the research horizons in methodological, social, economic, comparative and policy issues.
www.tsu.ox.ac.uk/people/cfocas.html

CLIMATE CONSULTANTS
11am – 7pm (15 minute slots throughout the day)

Jane Orton and Tony Wragg will assess your carbon footprint then discuss practical ways to reduce it.

Jane Orton has been working as a psychotherapist for over 20 years. She was formerly a teacher and educationalist, member of a radical theatre group and for a long period lived in a community aiming for sustainability. She is a keen cyclist and tandem rider. She has been involved with Carbon Conversations since 2009 is a Designated Trainer and Community and commercial Facilitator.

Tony Wragg practices as a psychotherapist, but had a quite different earlier career as an engineer and research and development manager. He provides consultancy on technology and intellectual property. He continues a lifelong love affair with the Scottish Highlands and is a passionate on-and-off-road cyclist. He has been involved in Carbon Conversations since 2009 and is a Designated Trainer and Community and Commercial Facilitator.

There is no suggestion in these workshops that the academic can be challenged. Their purpose is instead instruction. You can talk to a psychotherapist about your carbon footprint, or have a group therapy session about your feelings of climate guilt. But there is no opportunity to put to Rapley or his workshop leaders that other perspectives might exist.

The only sense that a question remained unanswered in Rapley’s talk was the question he said science couldn’t answer: “what kind of world do we want to live in”, he asked. But the choice he was offering was only a world in which we did as we had been told, or face ecological Armageddon. His question was rhetorical.

But there is much to take issue with. What struck me was his glib treatment of the facts, in fact. Like many of his kind, for example, Rapley trotted out the “$500 bn a year on fossil fuels” line, that was discussed here a few posts ago.

If the academic hasn’t researched this very simple claim, how much confidence should we have in the rest of his presentation, much less the moral consequences that seem to emerge in consequence?

And there’s the problem in a nutshell. If the environmental argument is protected from interrogation, and is delivered in circumstances that preclude debate, in what sense is it based in science? How can Rapley’s epic appeal to authority be legitimised, when it is presented in such a way as to deprive it of the virtue that legitimises it?

It’s Lewandowsky time, again. ‘Are you a poor logician? Logically, you might never know‘, he observes with Richard Pancost over at the Conversation Nonversation. More about that logic shortly…

At the Nonversation, of course, comments from Lewandowsky’s critics have been removed. Meanwhile, Andy West has a three part series (one, two, three) over at WUWT examining Lewandowsky’s work in considerable detail. Lewandowsky and Pancost’s (‘L&P’ hereafter) new logic, the deleted comments and the exhaustive critique of his work reflect in microcosm the climate change debate.

It has been argued here before that the amazing thing about Lew is not simply the low quality of his work, but the failure of academe to act as a check on it. The professor of psychology makes bold claims. He believes that he understands the entire world’s relationship to the natural world. He believes he understands the natural world, and professes expertise in climate science. And he believes he knows how society should be organised. Surely he is a true Renaissance Man… A polymath… A Renaissance Polymath… Or he is an epic blowhard.

The task of taking Lewandowsky et al to task has fallen to bloggers (and latterly José Duarte). It is bloggers who have identified the problems with Lew’s claims, and tried to bring them to the attention of a largely indifferent academic community, who don’t seem at all willing to hold an academic to account.

Perhaps this is understandable. The climate debate is hostile. And in spite of claims that bloggers are the agents of this hostility, Academics can be found making statements — such as the idea that influential climate sceptics ought to face the death penalty — which don’t exactly serve to cool the atmosphere, much less shed any light on the matters of debate.

But the trouble for those academics is the fact that, if the academy’s standard is so low as is necessary to admit Lewandowsky’s work, it says something about the standards of every discipline that Lew comments on, from psychology outwards, to climate science. If the academy cannot check itself, its population have no business acting as a check on society, and on power in particular. The academy is redundant.

This not to say that academe’s rightful role is to be the check on society, or to supply policy-makers with the closest possible approximation of the the Truth. But those roles are what the academy seems to increasingly sold itself as in recent years.

Of course, someone might say that the academy — for the first time since scholasticism was eschewed — really had settled on a consensus. But a more likely explanation is that a political settlement — dogma — was established, either spontaneously or by design. The most political arguments made in the climate debate by academics are made by those pronouncing on the ‘psychology’ of climate change ‘denial’, just as psychologists were able, per the political orthodoxy of the era, to deal with political dissidents in Soviet Russia. Whether or not a scientific consensus on climate change exists, and whatever the substance of that consensus is, academics have been slow to realise that ‘climate change’ has an ideological form, no matter how well grounded in science it is. Head-shrinking your political opponents is as political act as any form of apartheid. It delimits the putative subject’s political and civil rights, and confers to the psychologist political authority over that subject.

Academic resistance to that observation results in hostility towards not only those who might dare utter it, but towards the public in general. Lewandowsky, amongst others, set about overcoming the impasse by belittling sceptics, primarily, but also the faculties of the wider public, and thereby to elevate academics. The public must STFU, said Lewandowsky, or challenge his work through the ‘proper channels’ — i.e. academic publishing. When that happened, and a paper he had authored was eventually withdrawn, he accused those he had previously accused of ‘conspiracy ideation’, of organising a conspiracy against him.

Because I value freedom of speech and academic freedom, I oppose and resist the bullying and intimidation employed by some opponents who refuse to engage in scientific debate by avoiding peer review. My thoughts and experiences are summarized in an article on the Subterranean War on Science.

[…]

In no way do my values suggest that debate should be curtailed: I merely insist that a scientific debate should take place in the scientific literature and that the public be put in a position where it can make an informed judgment about the voices that are opposing mainstream science on crucial issues ranging from climate change to vaccination.

The problem for Lewandowsky is that if the observation that academia and its institutions have been colonised by political environmentalism is true to any extent, there would exist a barrier against dissent passing peer review. And there is good evidence that this is the case. There are entire academic institutions and university departments given over to a particular view of climate change, and of promoting that view in the public sphere. There is almost no possibility of substantive criticism emerging from these institutions, or through academic publishers, the editors and peer reviewers of which hail from those organisations, and whose editorial policies are equivalent to a lobbying organisation’s. Lewandowsky was calling for debate to be curtailed. That is what it means to create ‘ethics’ which preclude the unwashed masses from the sphere of public debate, and that is what is meant by his studies into the ‘psychology’ of named people he disagrees with and those who have the audacity to disagree with him. That is exactly what Lewandowsky did when he used dodgy statistical techniques to attack his critics, and what he did when he hid his shameful political ideas behind dodgy mathematics

Lewandowsky and Pancost’s (L&P) new argument is that…

It is an unfortunate paradox: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance. And if you don’t know much about a topic, you’re unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance.

Is this true? I cannot play the banjo, which as anyone who has seen this scene in Deliverance knows, it looks like it would be fun to be able to play. Yet I am very confident indeed in my ability to assess my own performance. If I were to attempt a performance, it would be as obvious to my own ears as it would be to any expert’s. Yet L&P counter:

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

This is obviously bullshit, or no progress would have ever been made in any field in which it is possible to be an expert, for the simple reason that, if confidence is inversely proportional to ignorance, nobody would ever have developed the inclination to advance their understanding.

L&P refer to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which claims that people who do less well in tests of their knowledge over-estimate their performance. Say L&P:

People whose logical ability was in the bottom 12% (so that 88 out of 100 people performed better than they did) judged their own performance to be among the top third of the distribution. Conversely, the outstanding logicians who outperformed 86% of their peers judged themselves to be merely in the top quarter (roughly) of the distribution, thereby underestimating their performance.

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

The claim, of course, is that sceptical climate change experts’ confidence belies their expertise. However, L&P’s own argument defeats them. Kruger and Dunning’s observation applies to the first and second quantile of their study’s participants, not to people with knowledge. Even the unnamed subject of L&P’s broadside — Anthony Watts — has extensive knowledge of the concepts in the climate debate, whether or not he counts, on their view, as a an expert. One could not, for example, devise a study such as Watt’s Surface Stations project and formulate a hypothesis about the recording of errors in the temperature record without such knowledge. And the same holds for individuals with established expertise in climate science, like Richard Lindzen, Patrick Michaels and John Christie, who are routinely vilified by Lewandowsky’s colleagues.

L&P extend the point. The problem, they claim, is that a putative expert’s confidence is fundamental in our evaluation of their level of expertise.

Does this mean that the poorest-performing — and hence most over-confident — expert is believed more than the top performer whose displayed confidence may be a little more tentative? This rather discomforting possibility cannot be ruled out on the basis of existing data.

If this is true, it has more worrying implications for L&P’s own argument than it has for climate sceptics…

there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from our economic activities are altering the Earth’s climate. This consensus is expressed in more than 95% of the scientific literature and it is shared by a similar fraction — 97-98% – of publishing experts in the area. In the present context, it is relevant that research has found that the “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” of the few dissenting researchers “are substantially below that of the convinced researchers”.

The “overwhelming consensus” might well be, on L&P’s admission, nothing more than the product of so many self-deceived experts’ over-estimation of themselves, except for their caveat that experts are “those who publish in the peer-reviewed literature in their area of expertise”. It’s a surprising thing for a Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol and a Professor of Biogeochemistry, Director of the Cabot Institute at University of Bristol to admit about debates about climate science, in a non peer-reviewed journal such as the Nonversation. L&P still defeat themselves.

The more substantive problem with the argument, if we take it at face value, is it’s own inability to understand the terms of the climate debate. L&P serve, again, as an object lesson in ‘the consensus without an object‘. As is discussed in the previous post, journalists tripped over their own ignorance of the debate. The idea of consensus preceded their knowledge of the consensus. So when their knowledge of the arguments in currency did advance, it appeared to them as a change of argument in the climate debate. The facts were plain: the journalists didn’t know what the consensus was, nor what the argument of the sceptics was, and so they didn’t notice that the putative sceptics’ arguments were not in fact outside of the consensus at all.

L&P play a similar game. Equally there is no object — no substance — to the consensus they propose. It means nothing to say “there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from our economic activities are altering the Earth’s climate”, because the statement is not quantified. This is the point also discussed in the previous post. If L&P quantified the consensus, they would be forced to notice that the putative sceptics’ claims, also quantified, do not exist outside of the consensus. The consensus is broad.

L&P’s logic is a binary logic applied to a debate to which binary axioms do not apply. Even at its most simple, the debate about global warming is a debate about a property of the Earth, which is a question of degree. The ‘consensus’ position encompasses a range of estimates, produced by research, none of which is true (or closer to the truth) by virtue of its proximity to others. To reduce the debate to a matter of binary logic is make statements equivalent to the claim that ‘the economy is true’, or ‘Wednesday is purple’.

L&P’s omission of nuance is startling, given their claim to be concerned about misinformation by ignorant non-experts. I don’t think they’re ignorant. I think they do it deliberately. If I have over-estimated their intelligence, I apologise to them.

One of the things I’ve tried to point out here is the emptiness of the categories and concepts that dominate reporting on the climate debate. In particular, the notion of ‘consensus’ has become so entirely divorced from its substance that those who invoke it often have no idea what it refers to. It is a ‘consensus without an object‘.

The idea that there is a scientific consensus, and a tiny opposing minority then informs coverage of the debate. These coordinates are forced over any story about the climate, which dares to raise the subject of the climate debate, rather than the inevitable doom. There are scientists, and there are sceptics, and never the twain shall meet.

But this polarisation exists much more in the heads of reporters than real life. The consensus is far more nebulous than many will admit.

Take BBC’s Environment Analyst, Roger Harrabin’s recent report on Nic Lewis’s research in the light of IPCC reports, for example.

‘Are the Climate Wars over?’ asks the presenter, introducing Harrabin… “We have reached the point now, where many climate sceptics are singing off the same hymbook as mainstream science over the effects of CO2..”, he claims.

Harrabin’s claim is brilliantly illustrated by Josh over at Bishop Hill.

It sounded like Roger thought sceptics were now changing their tune but clearly, with lower sensitivity, The Pause and no hope of any global policy harmony on the horizon, the strains that are coming from the alarmist camp now have much more of a sceptic air.

Indeed, and it has to be pointed out to Roger — other mistakes about his reproduction of Lewis’s research to one side — that the IPCC’s estimated range of climate sensitivity has changed, as is revealed by the AR5 WGI SPM [PDF]:

The equilibrium climate sensitivity quantifies the response of the climate system to constant radiative forcing on multi-century time scales. It is defined as the change in global mean surface temperature at equilibrium that is caused by a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. Equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C (high confidence), extremely unlikely less than 1°C (high confidence), and very unlikely greater than 6°C (medium confidence)16. The lower temperature limit of the assessed likely range is thus less than the 2°C in the AR4, but the upper limit is the same. This assessment reflects improved understanding, the extended temperature record in the atmosphere and ocean, and new estimates of radiative forcing.

And the footnote:

No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies.

The consensus changed between AR4 and AR5. But does this bring sceptics and the consensus closer together than they were?

Other BBC staff clearly got Harrabin’s memo. Yesterday, the GWPF’s Benny Peiser then appeared on BBC News 24…

The interviewer said to Peiser:

If you look at the whole argument… If you look at the historical difference between [sceptics vs scientists] The sceptics have said initially there’s no warming, then they’ve said it’s not down to man, and now they do seem, you do seem to be coming more into line with the international body of thinking over what is going to happen in the future. […] Take Nic Lewis, leading sceptical scientist, recent report coming out with forecast figures that are very much in line with the UN’s.

But how much have the sceptics changed their tune in relation to the consensus?

Going through some old articles of mine, I found my review of Iain Stewart’s BBC series, Earth: The Climate Wars for Spiked in 2008 — six years ago. The series had been co-written by Naomi Oreskes.

After a section featuring Christopher Monckton and his views that much climate science was fraudulent near the end of episode two, Stewart said,

To me, such attacks are a sure sign that the scientific battle is over. And sure enough, perhaps the most surprising thing at the sceptic’s conference is what I heard at the keynote speech.

The film then shows Patrick Michaels taking the stage at the 2008 International Conference on Climate Change. Stewart continues…

For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet today he’s in surprising agreement with advocates {sic} of global warming. […] He accepts the globe is warming. But the truly astonishing thing is he also accepts that we are partly to blame. […] [to camera]: You know I’ve heard things here that’s really surprised me. I’ve heard things I really didn’t expect to hear climate sceptics to say. They say global warming is happening. Temperatures are going up. And that humans are somehow implicated in some degree. That’s amazing. Those issues, it looks like, are behind us.

Stewart had claimed, six years ago, that Pat Michaels — who is in the first division of the environmentalist’s demonology — had changed his mind about climate change. But as I reported at the time,

‘For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet, today, he’s in surprising agreement with the advocates of global warming’, said Stewart. Michaels is then shown giving his talk, saying ‘global warming is real, and in the second half of the twentieth century, humans had something to do with it’. But there is nothing surprising about Michael’s apparent turnaround, because it isn’t one. A 2002 article in the Journal of Climatic Research, authored by Michaels et al argued for a revision of the IPCC’s projections for the year 2100. Instead of saying that there would be no warming, the paper concluded that rises of ‘of 1.0 to 3.0 degrees Celsius, with a central value that averages 1.8 degrees Celsius’ were more likely than the IPCC’s range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius. Hardly climate change denial.

The abstract of Michaels et al 2002 [PDF] is as follows.

Temperature projections for the 21st century made in the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate a rise of 1.4 to 5.8°C for 1990–2100. However, several independent lines of evidence suggest that the projections at the upper end of this range are not well supported. Since the publication of the TAR, several findings have appeared in the scientific literature that challenge many of the assumptions that generated the TAR temperature range. Incorporating new findings on the radiative forcing of black carbon (BC) aerosols, the magnitude of the climate sensitivity, and the strength of the climate/carbon cycle feedbacks into a simple upwelling diffusion/energy balance model similar to the one that was used in the TAR, we find that the range of projected warming for the 1990–2100 period is reduced to 1.1–2.8°C. When we adjust the TAR emissions scenarios to include an atmospheric CO2 pathway that is based upon observed CO2 increases during the past 25 yr, we find a warming range of 1.5–2.6°C prior to the adjustments for the new findings. Factoring in these findings along with the adjusted CO2 pathway reduces the range to 1.0–1.6°C. And thirdly, a simple empirical adjustment to the average of a large family of models, based upon observed changes in temperature, yields a warming range of 1.3–3.0°C, with a central value of 1.9°C. The constancy of these somewhat independent results encourages us to conclude that 21st century warming will be modest and near the low end of the IPCC TAR projections.

By the standards of IPCC TAR, Michaels was not outside the consensus in 2002. And by the standards of AR4 in 2008, Michaels was not outside of the consensus when Iain Stewart made his films. The only ‘surprising’ thing revealed — as the punchline — by the second of three episodes of Climate Wars is that Stewart was ignorant of the debate he was reporting on. He had begun his film with a preconceived idea about the climate debate, as one divided into two camps — sceptics and deniers — disagreeing about a single proposition: “climate change is happening”. And then, when he encountered the more nuanced reality, he imagined that it was sceptics who had changed their position. It was Stewart’s desire to frame the debate that led to his misreporting.

Harrabin tells me via email that there wasn’t enough time in a three-minute slot to cover the nuances of the debate. But Stewart, with his three-part series of hour-long episodes cannot make such a claim. And this error characterises so much BBC coverage of the ‘Climate Wars’. Unfortunately for Harrabin, who thinks the convergence of the sceptics and the consensus is new, and therefore an interesting development, the Climate Wars series and Michaels’ 2002 paper show that sceptics’ estimates haven’t changed much.

And the BBC’s treatment of climate sceptics hasn’t changed much either. It is surely a welcome thing that, be it on the Today Programme, or BBC News 24, or Earth: The Climate Wars, sceptics’ arguments at least get a little airtime. But the substance of those interviews, and the narrative around them, the editorial decisions about what is included from those interviews, and the questions asked are all informed by the same preconceived and false understanding of the debate, and the positions within it.

BBC journalists in particular trip over their own framing of the climate debate. They imagine it to be sharply divided, but when they discover nuance, they report a shift in positions with respect to the consensus, like the misconception of the Sun’s displacement through the sky leading to the misapprehension of a geocentric universe. They’re not reporting developments from climate science, or from the climate debate, just their own misunderstanding of what they see.

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