Monthly Archives: November 2007

Hey, who needs politics or history when we have climate science? New Scientist reports on a new study that finds (not for the first time ) a correlation between climate change and war, the implication being, of course, that the former causes the latter.

“Our basic model is that deviations in temperature can hamper crop production,” says Peter Brecke of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, US. This, in turn, has three effects: increasing food prices, a greater risk of death from starvation, and increased social tension, which leads to violent conflict.

And as New Scientist points out, people in high places are wont to agree that stable climate = world peace. They quote UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:

Sudan was “a conflict that grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation, and a scarcity of resources”

What this research does show is that humans have experienced climate change, and survived, and got better at both, to the point where we now need ‘scientific’ research to show us that once there was a relationship between the climate and people’s lives. Now, thanks to industrial agriculture – and development in general – that vulnerability is massively diminished to the point that climatic variation no longer has as significant social consequences as does the actual organisation of society itself. In this age, the means exist to feed the entire world, whatever the weather. Wars and politics – not climate – cause famines, and exacerbate the effects of drought. And yet ask yourself this: which political movement is against technological developments in industrial agriculture? Which political movement is against the mechanisation of farms in the developing world? Which political organisations campaign against the use of chemical agents in agricultural production?

If scarcity causes wars, environmentalism causes wars.

Prof. Philip Stott ponders the decline of the Independent newspaper…

Well, I never like the loss of media and debating outlets, but I have to say that the demise, if that were ever to happen, of the Indie would bring fewer tears to my eyes than most. As a purveyor of gloom and doom, it has been second to none. 

Indeed. There is an interesting relationship between doom and demise. That other sinking ship, for example, the UK’s Liberal Party has in recent months sought to secure its future by attempting to demonstrate that it is taking the global warming issue more seriously than its rivals.

But let’s not single out the Liberals. It’s not as if the rest of British Politics is enjoying any kind of renaissance, either. It’s sinking ships all round. Low turn-outs… Cynicism… Disengagement… Distrust… No difference of substance between the parties… Historically low party membership…

Whinings about global warming are the noises made by institutions in their death-throws. It is a profound lack of imagination and a poverty of ideas that drives them to this course of action. Pretending to be the only way to “save the planet” at “one minute to midnight” is the most desperate way to demonstrate relevance to an increasingly disinterested public; to terrify them into engaging. But what the likes of the Liberals and Independent don’t seem to realise is that nobody is buying it because it’s too easy to see that the crisis is at home, not in the sky. The politics that the Independent espouses is especially tired. Hence, they attempt to make the biggest noise about the “crisis facing the planet”. If they want to know why they are failing, they should look in a Mirror. (Or a Sun).

In case you hadn’t noticed, the IPCC released its AR4 Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers on Saturday.

‘Today the world’s scientists have spoken clearly and with one voice,’ said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The BBC reported the event on Friday (R4 news 18:00), before the report was published…

HARRABIN: They’re haggard with lack of sleep, but beaming that they’ve reached an agreement on an unequivocal message to politicians that climate change is real, dangerous, but manageable if steps are taken now. The results are compromised as usual, some wanted the final wording softer, others more strident still, but I’m told the final document when it’s published tomorrow will be impossible to ignore. It’ll say that we can see climate change happening already, sometimes, like in the Arctic, much faster than scientists predicted previously. We’re likely to have more droughts, floods, oppressive heatwaves and species extinctions, it’ll say, and some changes will be irreversible. That last phrase is so strong that some countries wanted it left out, but according to Steffan Zinger of WWF, they were voted down. 

ZINGER: The word irreversible for instance was strongly debated and strongly questioned by certain governments which are on the other side of the Atlantic. But they in the end gave in and accepted that climate change will have irreversible consequences.

So that’s how the ‘science’ that is supposed to inform the political process is achieved… Everybody stays up late, and argues until somebody ‘gives in’, or is ‘voted down’. Some kind of ‘speaking clearly and with one voice’.

Despite the headlines and column inches, there is virtually nothing new in this report. It’s a rehash of the three reports published earlier this year by the IPCC. All that is new in the report itself (and which most news outlets chose to lead with) is the word ‘irreversible’. Writing on the BBC website, for example, environment correspondent Richard Black tells us that ‘The IPCC states that climate change is ‘unequivocal’ and may bring ‘abrupt and irreversible’ impacts’. But the only mention of these words in the IPCC report are in the section ‘Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change’, which reveals a far less frightening and urgent picture than such accounts suggests:

Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands. Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales, but more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded. {3.4} 

Does that mean immediate sea-level rise can’t be ruled in? ‘We don’t know’ would have sufficed. Similarly…

Climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts. There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5oC (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5oC, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that extinction is an irreversible process. The clue is in the word “extinct”. And anyway: likely… some… medium confidence… approximately… 20-30% of species assessed so far… likely… increased risk… if… Of how many ‘assessed species’, exactly?

As for the ‘abrupt’ bit (which isn’t new, in that it was in the Working Group II report published back in April), all we get is

Based on current model simulations, the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) of the Atlantic Ocean will very likely slow down during the 21st century; nevertheless temperatures over the Atlantic and Europe are projected to increase. The MOC is very unlikely to undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21st century. Longer-term MOC changes cannot be assessed with confidence. Impacts of large-scale and persistent changes in the MOC are likely to include changes in marine ecosystem productivity, fisheries, ocean CO2 uptake, oceanic oxygen concentrations and terrestrial vegetation. Changes in terrestrial and ocean CO2 uptake may feed back on the climate system. 

Contrasting the report with statements in the press reveals very different pictures. Over the weekend, BBC Radio 4 was ending its news items on the report with: ‘The mainstream message from the IPCC is that it’s not too late – if we act now.’ According to Black’s article on BBC online: ‘The panel’s scientists say the reversal needs to come within a decade or so if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided.’ Trouble is, the report doesn’t actually say that. Anywhere. At all. Whatsoever.

So what is going on here? It is true that Dr Pachauri said in the press conference that CO2 emissions need to peak and start declining by 2015. But Pachauri is not the IPCC. And as we’ve pointed out recently, his statements on this issue do not reflect the IPCC position. Meanwhile, journalists are happy to confound ‘the consensus’ with ‘what Pachauri reckons’ because that way they can say that ‘things are worse than ever before’.

The only differences between this report (and the press coverage of it) and previous ones concern the language, not the science. That language is getting more abrupt, and the problem is becoming irreversible. And our models predict it to get worse than previously expected.

In a conversation about EU policy on restricting CO2 emissions from aircraft, on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, this morning, Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for the Southeast region said

Well, when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.

More often than not, what green politicians mean by “what scientists say” is actually “what green politicians say”. So this morning, we rang Caroline Lucas’s office to ask her which scientists are telling her that we’ve only got eight years left. We’ve never heard them say it, and we listen out for them saying it. They said they’d get back to us…

Meanwhile… this is not Lucas’s first comment of this nature. Back in July, we picked up on her comments on climate change scepticism being the equivalent of holocaust denial.

What’s prompted me is real concern that a recent opinion poll showed that half the population still don’t think that there’s scientific certainty about climate change; they still think there’s a real debate to be had there. And it worries me enormously because if we don’t have a population that really understands that 99.999% of international scientists do believe that climate change is happening and do believe that it’s human caused, if people don’t understand that then they’re not going to put the pressure on the politicians that is so desperately needed and so urgently needed because we’re being told we’ve literally got between five and ten years in which to put in place a proper policy framework to address climate change. And unless people are really convinced that it’s a problem they’re not going to act to change it.

Dr Lucas’s comments this morning seem equally confused. On the one hand, she appears to be claiming that people are terrified into demanding action because they’ve heard scientists say we’ve only got eight years left to save the world. On the other, she’s demanding that air travel is restricted. But if people really are as concerned about what Lucas says scientists say as Lucas says they are, then there would be no need to respond to their fear with new EU legislation, people simply wouldn’t fly. But, as she points out, aviation is a growing industry.

So if Lucas isn’t talking on behalf of the frightened public, (the ones who manage to find their way to the airport in spite of their fear) is Lucas speaking for science at least?

It turns out not, because in answer to our question, Lucas’s press office emailed us back with a bunch of links, saying,

The quote in question – that which contains the estimated ‘deadline’ of 8 years for the world’s government to act seriously on climate change – has been used generically for some time now, and is taken from a consensus view among a number of scientists.

“The consensus of a number of scientists”. Would that be the same as “the majority of some of the population”? We read the links to find out. They consisted of:

* Guardian Environment Correspondent David Adam’s interpretation of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report – “Governments are running out of time to address climate change and to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures, an influential UN panel warned yesterday”. (The influencial UN panel don’t actually seem to say that).

* A BBC Online article claiming that “The world may have little more than a decade to avert catastrophic climate change, politicians and scientists say“. But what they mean is a scientist, not scientists, because, all that “The taskforce’s scientific adviser is Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” says is “I think in the last few years the increase in emissions does cause concern. It gives you the feeling we might end up in the middle of that temperature range [1.5 and 5.5C], and if we do that wouldn’t make very good news.” Note that Pachauri isn’t a climate scientist, but has doctorates in industrial engineering and economics. Also note that Pachauri isn’t exactly what you’d call “balanced” about the politics of climate change, previously asking “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s?… If you were to accept Lomborgs way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing”.

* An article from the Socialist Workers Website. Enough said.

* A link to the IPCC’s website.

We pointed out to Lucas’s press officer that these links leave a bit to be desired. We’ve been reading the IPCC website for years, and hadn’t noticed a statement about 8 year windows, and the articles she linked to were subject to the interpretations and prejudices of their authors. And asking David Adam for an objective view of climate science is like asking Bin Laden for a balanced view of the USA. Who were these scientists? Where do they say “we’ve only got 8 years left”?

The press office again pointed us to the IPCC, emphasising that Pachauri is the “highly respected chair of the IPCC and is quoted as a spokesperson on climate change across all levels of the media”. (But does he speak ‘for scientists’?) They then referred us to the IPCC’s Working Group III Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers which, according to the press offcier “focused on economic changes that need to be made, pointing out that emissions must start declining by the year 2015 to prevent the world’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrialized temperatures”.

So we were now faced with an economic argument, rather than a scientific one. Even so, we read it. There is indeed a reference to 2015. But only one. It is the “peaking year” for CO2 emissions in one of several categories of scenarios, where CO2 is stabilised at various concentrations or less, thereby stabilising average global temperature at an amount above the “preindustrial average”. But all that is said in the report about the six categories of 177 scenarios assessed by the 33 authors is

In order to stabilize the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, emissions would need to peak and decline thereafter. The lower the stabilization level, the more quickly this peak and decline would need to occur. Mitigation efforts over the next two to three decades will have a large impact on opportunities to achieve lower stabilization levels (see Table SPM.5, and Figure SPM. 8)

There is no mention of impending catastrophe. There is no mention of deadlines. There is no mention of this being a consensus amongst scientists that we have to meet the 2015 deadline, nor any deadline over another. In spite of the fact that neither Lucas nor her press officer can produce anything which supports her claim that “scientists say we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change”, they continue to make it. The press officer finally told us that,

Both the UN and the IPCC subscribe to the figure of eight years, and many in the scientific community have also supported the need to drastically reduce emissions by 2015. Caroline has primarily relied upon both the UN conclusions and the IPCC report, and as a busy MEP without the scientific resources to physically perform independent large-scale research on climate change, working across a vast range of issues in her South East constituency and in the European Parliament on a daily basis, Caroline trusts that the IPCC and the UN provide accurate and well-researched reports.

Lucas’s press office don’t seem to want to continue the conversation, so we have had to look for statements by IPCC scientists for ourselves. You don’t need your own pocket-sized IPCC to evaluate claims made about climate science… We found two pertinent quotes on this very site.

Prof Mike Hulme of the UK’s Tyndall Centre tells us that

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[Note: AR4]. To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. Is any amount of climate change catastrophic? Catastrophic for whom, for where, and by when? What index is being used to measure the catastrophe? The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.

And of the projections in WGII, which Lucas’s press office seem to think amount to a “scientific consensus”, Kevin Trenberth tells us that,

In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers “what if” projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios. There are a number of assumptions that go into these emissions scenarios. They are intended to cover a range of possible self consistent “story lines” that then provide decision makers with information about which paths might be more desirable. But they do not consider many things like the recovery of the ozone layer, for instance, or observed trends in forcing agents. There is no estimate, even probabilistically, as to the likelihood of any emissions scenario and no best guess.Even if there were, the projections are based on model results that provide differences of the future climate relative to that today. None of the models used by IPCC are initialized to the observed state and none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate.

There is no escaping the fact that Caroline Lucas has made up what “the scientists” are telling us. However busy she is, given that ‘climate science’ is the basis of her entire political agenda, there is no excuse for not knowing what she’s talking about. Lucas neither accurately nor honestly reflects scientific opinion, yet attempts to use it to win moral arguments. Worse still is the fact that whilst she claims to be representing people who are frightened by scientific reports and reflecting the views of scientists, she is in fact doing the frightening by misrepresenting the scientists.

Just how deep does Lucas’s love of science really run? That depends on whether the science in question promises to make life better, or legitimises her alarmism. In the case of science making our lives better, ban it. “Nanotechnology will revolutionise our lives – it should be regulated” she writes in a 2003 Guardian article called “We must not be blinded by science”. Oh, sweet, sweet irony.

Another gem from the New Scientist, caught our eye – though even they don’t seem to be taking this one too seriously.

The fact that women travel less than men, measured in person-kilometres per car, plane, boat and motorcycle – means that women cause considerably fewer carbon dioxide emissions than men, and thus considerably less climate change. 

On further investigation, Gerd Johnsson-Latham’s “study on gender equality as a prerequisite for sustainable development” is confused about whether it wants to stop global warming, or achieve equality between the genders. Men, who are violent, risk-taking, and selfish, take all the resources, while women are more likely to be generous, help others, care about the environment and live in abject poverty. Even feminism seems to struggle to justify itself in today’s world without appealing to fears about global warming.

For a much funnier take on this, see Luboš Motl’s blog.

The Institute of Ideas have put the video of The Science and Politics of Climate Change debate from this years Battle of Ideas festival online.

We’ve given Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre a bit of stick in our time, but he’s very good in this – “The real issues are about why we disagree about what to do about climate change, and science cannot provide us with the script from which we all read from” – as are Chris Rapley of the British Antarctic Survey, Hans Von Storch, and Joe Kaplinsky. It’s a very cool and positive debate, and they discuss their differences in good humour, avoiding the angry exchanges and accusations that too often accompany the meetings of different opinions on climate change politics and science. It’s well worth watching in its entirety.

A single press release; double standards. Yesterday, in response to the UK’s proposed climate change bill, Friends of the Earth UK director, Tony Juniper said:

We’re delighted that the UK is set to become the first nation to introduce legislation to cut its contribution to climate change. But the Government must strengthen its proposed legislation if it is to be truly effective and deliver the scale of action that scientists are now calling for. This means setting annual milestones that will deliver at least an 80 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, and including Britain’s share of emissions from international aviation and shipping. If Gordon Brown toughens up this legislation, his visions of becoming a world-leader in developing a low carbon future can become a reality.

But responding to proposed changes in planning law, also outlined in the Queen’s Speech, in the same press release, Friends of the Earth’s Planning coordinator, Naomi Luhde Thompson said:

Government plans to overhaul the planning system are bad news for democracy and bad news for the environment. Its proposals will strip away one of the public’s key democratic rights to have a say on how their area is developed, easing the way for a whole range of climate-damaging developments. These proposals are undemocratic, environmentally-damaging and – according to recent legal advice – likely to be unlawful.

So, it’s a Good Thing for political decisions to be made by unaccountable bodies, without either debate or due democratic process, if it will lead to a reduction in CO2 – because “scientists say so” – but it’s “undemocratic” to loosen planning law (if that is what is being proposed) so that new houses and civil infrastructure can be built without interruption from organisations such as itself.

As we pointed out last week, environmentalism has never been tested by UK politics, and there has not been a debate about how best to respond to scientific evidence. Juniper conjures scientific opinion out of his hat in order to close down the possibility of debate by saying “scientists are now calling for” 80% cuts in emissions by 2050, but where do scientists actually say that? Where has this figure come from? Many scientists challenge the idea that the only way to face climate change is to reduce CO2 emissions, arguing instead for adaptation.

If there were to be a proper debate, it would reveal that our interests are frequently not the same as the “environment’s”. FoE don’t want development to happen, yet most people acknowledge the need for more houses, and better transport and energy infrastructure. It may well be that people don’t want these developments in their backyard, but that is quite a different thing to not wanting the development to happen because of the damage it might do the the environment – the enemy of my enemy is the FoE.

In yesterdays Guardian, George Monbiot tells us that,

A powerful novel’s vision of a dystopian future shines a cold light on the dreadful consequences of our universal apathy

Oh, God! What is this novel that tells us about the dark, horrid abyss of the human condition?

It is not Silent Spring, Small Is Beautiful or even Walden. It contains no graphs, no tables, no facts, figures, warnings, predictions or even arguments. Nor does it carry a single dreary sentence, which, sadly, distinguishes it from most environmental literature. It is a novel, first published a year ago, and it will change the way you see the world. Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot.

We were equally worried about an attempt to overthrow democracy throughout the universe, and to install an evil emperor who practiced dark arts, until we realised that what we were watching was just a series of films by George Lucas, not a documentary.

Seriously, though. George tells us that apathy is going to destroy the biosphere – just like in the novel. But then he tells us that,

On Saturday … I went to a meeting of roads protesters in Birmingham. They had come from all over the country, and between them they were contesting 18 new schemes: a fraction of the road projects the British government is now planning.

He can relax, for if it is true that people are apathetic, then these roads will not get built.

Did we say seriously? Okay, maybe not. George continues…

Who will persuade us to act? However strong the opposition parties’ policies appear to be, they cannot be sustained unless the voters move behind them. We won’t be prompted by the media. The BBC drops Planet Relief for fear of breaching its impartiality guidelines: heaven forbid that it should come out against mass death. But it broadcasts a programme – Top Gear – that puts a match to its guidelines every week, and now looks about as pertinent as the Black and White Minstrel Show.

George needs to put the sci-fi back on the shelf, and get with the program. BBCTV 1 and 2 broadcast 24 hours a day. BBC3 and BBC4 for around 9 hours. On top of this, BBC radio 1,2,3,4,5,6 and 7, and the world service, not to mention the vast web site. These all are dominated by exactly the environmental gloominess Monbiot wants us to see and hear; program after program, after program telling us that we must reduce our CO2 emissions, or we’re doomed. Top Gear is but an hour of broadcasting a week, and perhaps the only show from the network which does regularly challenge the cultural pessimism offered by environmentalism. And yet it remains one of the most popular programs ever conceived of, and often achieves an audience larger than the rest of the network combined.

George’s problem is not that people are apathetic. Nor is it that culture is dominated by messages which tell people to consume at the expense of the environment. Many corporations bombard the consuming masses about their green credentials; even ice cream and bottled drinks now come in packaging which urge people to consider their environmental impact. And even the most tabloid media – Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV for example – feature seasons of documentary films on “combating climate change”. There are Hollywood films about catastrophic climate change, there are plays, pop-songs, T-shirts, magazines, consumer and lifestyle guides, all of them ramming home the same message. So why isn’t this enough for George? Why is it that just one hour of broadcasting a week is so popular it leaves George feeling as though it’s just him and his sad novel in a mad, mad world?

George’s problem is that the culture he wants us to be part of is entirely negative. In contrast to this cultural pessimism, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May celebrate human achievements – however shallowly, and appear to risk their lives for their passions, while Monbiot considers us to be a destructive plague on the planet. Clarkson is a hero, and Monbiot is a chicken. Clarkson bumbles his own way into making history by doing dangerous things like driving to the North Pole, while Monbiot twitches behind his curtains, tutting about what other people are getting up to. Clarkson, for all his faults, is full of spirit, letting bad things bounce off of him. Monbiot dwells on the fantasy dystopia he’s read about. The irony here is that while the things that Top Gear represents are somewhat coarse, it is Monbiot’s dark dark narrative which creates apathy. The only reason he can think of for organising our collective efforts is that if we don’t, we will all drown. What George needs to realise is that people don’t drive cars because they watch Top Gear, they watch top Gear because they love cars and the positive things that cars represent. Environmentalism offers us nothing positive.

If things were better, Top Gear would be just another program. But they aren’t, and it’s not. If we want to know why Clarkson is the last bastion of resistance to dull orthodoxies such as environmentalism and political correctness, don’t watch Top Gear, read Monbiot – but don’t take his word for it. It is relentlessly bleak, shrill and hollow. The cultural norms that environmentalism wants to establish have been established within the political and cultural elite, yet he continues to whine that the masses will not march to his command. Monbiot will tell you that people don’t want it because they are influenced by the cultural dominance of Top Gear, but the truth is that people have a much better understanding of their own interests, and a better nose for bullshit than he gives them credit for. They are not blindly following the doctrine of Clarksonism, and shame on Monbiot that he thinks they are. People are resistant to Monbiotism precisely because they are not blindly obedient.

Post archive
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2007
  • 2006
  • 2002