Monthly Archives: December 2007
Following our breakdown of the expertise comprising the IPCC’s WGII, we’ve now done the same for WGIII, “Mitigation of Climate Change”.
First, the numbers: Of 270 contributors, 66 were from the USA and UK. We haven’t been able to establish the expertise and discipline of 12 of those – yet. 14 contributors had expertise in physics, chemistry or engineering. 4 from other engineering disciplines. 2 were bio/geochemists. 5 were from forestry ecology, or soil science. 2 had expertise in law. There were 7 social scientists, and a whopping 20 economists.
There were no obvious instances of administrative assistants or web designers being included on the list, unlike WGII. However, the 12 contributors we couldn’t locate don’t appear to possess a great deal of the academic credibility Andrew Dessler demands, and work for business or the US EPA – no surprises there. There appear to be fewer PhD candidates, and among the contributors who did not work in the private sector, most had academic positions. The best in the world though? It didn’t seem likely.
The presence of 27 economists/social scientists again gives the lie to the claim that the IPCC is an institution made up entirely of climate scientists. WGIII explains their function as follows:
In the first two volumes of the “Climate Change 2007” Assessment Report, the IPCC analyses the physical science basis of climate change and the expected consequences for natural and human systems. The third volume of the report presents an analysis of costs, policies and technologies that could be used to limit and/or prevent emissions of greenhouse gases, along with a range of activities to remove these gases from the atmosphere. It recognizes that a portfolio of adaptation and mitigation actions is required to reduce the risks of climate change. It also has broadened the assessment to include the relationship between sustainable development and climate change mitigation.
Winston Churchill once quipped:
If you put two economists in a room, you get two opinions, unless one of then is Lord Keynes, in which case you get three.
Somehow, the IPCC has managed to stuff more than 20 economists in a room, and achieved a “consensus”. Remarkable.
Once upon a time, economics was a matter of politics. Now, it seems, economics is as much a matter of rock-solid objective fact as physics. The problem is, though, that environmental economic orthodoxy cannot be challenged politically – especially in the UK – because all politicians hide behind the “scientific consensus”, even though it is formed by a large number of economists and social scientists.
And in case anyone is in doubt that the whole ‘2500 scientists of the IPCC’ thing isn’t common currency in political debate about the state of the planet…
Drawn up by more than 2,500 of the world’s top scientists and their governments, and agreed last week by representatives of all its national governments, the report also predicts that nearly a third of the world’s species could be driven to extinction as the world warms up, and that harvests will be cut dramatically across the world.
writes The Independent this very month. Or
For the first time in six years, more than 2,000 of the world’s top scientists reviewed and synthesized all of the scientific knowledge about global warming. The Fourth Assessment Report makes clear that the accelerating emissions of human-generated heat-trapping gases has brought the planet close to crossing a threshold that will lead to irreversible catastrophe. Yet like Cassandra’s warning about the Trojan horse, the IPCC report has fallen on deaf ears, especially those of conservative politicians, even as its findings are the most grave to date.
We must also be ready to take decisive measures to address climate change. It is no longer so hard to imagine what might happen from the rising sea levels that the world’s top scientists are telling us will accompany global warming. Who can claim that we are doing enough?
For any (ahem) sceptics out there, note that this is firmly within the territory of WGII and WGIII, in that it is about predictions, and not scientific evidence for climate change and its causes to date.
In November, we ran a post about Green MEP Caroline Lucas’ comments about there being just 8 years left to create policies to save the planet.
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…
When we rang them, Lucas’s press office cited WGIII AR4 as the basis for her comments. As a result of her campaining – in part – the EU passed legislation to cap emmissions from aircraft on that same day. The same arguments, based on the same ‘consensus’ created by WGII and WGIII are being made by the major UK political parties, who, as we have also reported, are promising 60, 80 and 100% carbon reductions by 2050.
Science or politics – wodjafink?
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS. 13 December 2008.
This post is linked to from other sites more than any other. This has lead to criticism that we have been dishonest in ignoring the scientists in IPCC WGI, which is where the bulk of the scientific analysis is done. It is true that this post does focus on the work of WGII, but it is not true that we do not look at WGI. We do it here. We also look at WGIII, here.
Back at Gristmill, Andrew Dessler stands by his cancer/doctor analogy in the in-whom-do-we-trust war, after some comments on his blog:
The complexity of climate change does not suddenly make a sociologist, economist, computer programmer, etc. a credible skeptic. In fact, the weakness of Inhofe’s list is readily apparent by the very fact that he had to include such people on his list.
The crown jewels of skeptics are Lindzen, Christy, Singer, etc., but as I’ve said before, there are only a small number of them. In order to bulk up the list, Inhofe lowered his criteria to basically include anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change — regardless of their technical background in the subject.
As far as my analogy being unsuitable, I stand by it. If your child is sick, you take him/her to the experts. Ditto if your planet is sick. You don’t take either your child or a planet to a sociologist or economist.
For the uninitiated, here is the lowdown: Andrew Dessler is a professor at the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University. He is complaining about a US senate report which listed hundreds of individuals who have been reported in the media during 2007 as speaking against the “scientific consensus” on climate change, claiming that they are scientists. The report naturally challenges the very principle of the consensus, which has given climate policies the authority they have needed to be carried forward. The global warming camp have sought to undermine the value of this new list, by claiming that the scientists lack scientific qualifications, expertise, or moral integrity.
But Dessler has made a significant concession here. He is visibly shifting from the idea that the power of the consensus comes from the weight of scientific opinion – numbers. An “overwhelming number” of scientist’s opinions might indicate that the “science” had been tested. Now, you have to be qualified to have an opinion on climate change. But Dessler doesn’t tell us exactly how we are to measure the qualifications, we just have to take his word for it that the 400 sceptics aren’t qualified, but the IPCC scientists are. So it’s not simply a consensus, it’s a qualified consensus, and he gets to call the qualification. So much for science. So, apparently, the IPCC scientists who represent the consensus are more qualified than their counterparts. They are akin to the experts you would trust your desperately ill child to, not the ragbag of mavericks you would avoid. Worse still, many of the sceptics are in fact mere computer programmers or – gasp – sociologists!
We decided to test Dessler’s claim. So we downloaded IPCC WGII’s latest report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. There were 380 contributors to the report [PDF of contributors]. A thorough and exhaustive analysis of the backgrounds of these experts (or were they?) was too ambitious (it’s Christmas, and we have wine to drink, and mince pies to eat, too). So, we focused on the contributors who operate in the UK. Of the 51 UK contributors to the report, there were 5 economists, 3 epidemiologists, 5 who were either zoologists, entomologists, or biologists. 5 worked in civil engineering or risk management / insurance. 7 had specialisms in physical geography (we gave the benefit of the doubt to some academics whose profiles weren’t clear about whether they are physical or human geographers). And just 10 have specialisms in geophysics, climate science or modelling, or hydrology. But there were 15 who could only be described as social scientists. If we take the view that economics is a social science, that makes 20 social scientists. This gives the lie to Dessler’s claim that IPCC contributors are analogous to medical doctors. There are economists working on saving that dying child!!! That’s got to be wrong, by Dessler’s own standards.
Nonetheless, were these contributors the “experts” that Dessler claims they are? There were a few professors, but few of them had the profile Dessler gives them. Many of them were in fact, hard to locate to establish just how much better than their counterparts they were. One professor (Abigail Bristow) wasn’t what you’d call a climate scientist, but a professor of Transport Studies at Newcastle University. How is she going to cure the sick child? Will she be driving the ambulance? Another Professor – Diana Liverman at Oxford University – specialises in “human dimensions of global environmental change” – Geography is a social science too. Another – John Morton of the University of Greenwich, specialises in “development Anthropology”. Professor of Geography, and Co-Chair of IPCC WGII, Martin Parry’s profile merely tells us that he is “a specialist on the effects of climate change”. But what does that actually mean?
Among the remainder – most of whom are not professors, but research associates at best, are an assorted bunch, many of whom are better known for their alarmist statements in the mainstream press than they are for their contributions to scientific knowledge – activists in other words, with their own political motivation. And in spite of being reported as “climate scientists”, involved in scientific research, also seem to be working within the social sciences, albeit for “climate research” institutions, such as Tyndall. Johanna Wolf, for example, is an IPCC contributor from the University of East Anglia, who works in the department for “development studies”. Does that make her a climate scientist? Anna Taylor, of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Oxford has no PhD at all, her research focuses on “stakeholder engagement in adapting to multiple stresses, including climate variability and change, water scarcity, food insecurity and health concerns” – not climate science, and has simply not been alive long enough to join the ranks of the specialists of specialisms that Dessler demands of sceptics. Similarly, Susanne Rupp-Armstrong, listed as a member of Southampton University only appears to have ever contributed to one academic paper. Research Associate at the University of East Anglia, Maureen Agnew does not focus her research on climate science, but on such things as “Public perceptions of unusually warm weather in the UK: impacts, responses and adaptations”, and “Potential impacts of climate change on international tourism.” Katherine Vincent specialising in “Social Capital and Climate change” at the UEA, only began her PhD thesis in October 2003. How can she be cited as a specialist in climate science?
Then there are the contributors whose involvement we cannot explain. Farhana Yamin is an international lawyer, based at the University of Sussex. Rachel Warren and Paul Watkiss are merely listed as “environmental consultants” at the latter’s consultancy firm, and clearly have a commercial interest in climate change policies being developed. Kate Studd is listed as a contributor, but she works for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, and doesn’t appear to be an academic at all. What are these people doing on this list of the most expert climate specialists in the world?
We were surprised by the results. Was the prevalence of social scientists from the UK representative of the whole group? We decided to repeat the test for the contributors based in the USA.
Of the 70 US contributors, there were 7 economists, 13 social scientists, 3 epidemiologists, 10 biologists/ecologists, 5 engineers, 2 modellers/statisticians, 1 full-time activist (and 1 part time), 5 were in public health and policy, and 4 were unknowns. 17 worked in eart
h/atmospheric sciences. Again, we gave the benefit of the doubt to geographers where it wasn’t clear whether their specialism was physical, or human geography.
In a follow-up post, Dessler has set about ‘Busting the ‘consensus busters” by ridiculing the qualifications of Inhofe’s 400 experts, starting with a certain Thomas Ring. In the comments section he justifies this approach:
I agree it would be quicker to simply note the qualified skeptics on the list (there are probably a few dozen), but, from a rhetorical point of view, I think pointing out these immensely unqualified members of the list is more effective.
Well, we can all play that game… Included as contributors to WGII are Patricia Craig, Judith Cranage, Susan Mann, and Christopher Pfeiffer, all from Pennsylvania State University. It’s not that these people aren’t experts in their field – they probably are. Our problem with their inclusion on the list of Contributors to the IPCC WGII Fourth Assessment report is that their jobs are (in order) website-designer, administrative assistant (x2), and network administrator.
Also on the list is Peter Neofotis who appears to be a 2003 graduate of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology from Columbia. Are there many experts in anything who graduated in 2003? Would Dessler take his sick child to a doctor, who, according to our understanding of medical training, would have not yet qualified? Also at Columbia is Marta Vicarelli, who is a PhD candidate in ‘sustainable development’. Can she be the amongst the world’s leading experts on sustainability? It seems hard to take the claim seriously. Or what about Gianna Palmer at Wesleyan University, who, as far as we can tell, will not graduate from university until 2010?
And yet Dessler insists that
Inhofe’s list is chock full of people without any recent, relevant research on the problem. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re skeptics: people with the relevant experience are immediately persuaded by the evidence. This should be compared to the IPCC, which includes exclusively people with recent, relevant expertise on the problem.
Anything which can be thrown at the sceptics can be thrown at IPCC contributors.
That is not to say that social scientists and computer programmers have nothing to offer the world, or the IPCC process. They are crucial in fact. What it is to say, however, is that, when social scientists, computer programmers and administrative assistants comprise a significant proportion of IPCC contributors, the global warmer mantra that the IPCC represents the world’s top 2500 climate scientists is just plain old-fashioned not true.
Dessler’s wish to maintain that the IPCC comprises unimpeachable experts in their field mirrors the common desire to create an unassailable scientific consensus that political changes in the world are a necessity. This is driven less from the data generated by these experts – they aren’t as expert as is claimed, and the consensus is not unassailable – and more to do with the desire to drive politics by creating scientific orthodoxy. This would be scientism, if there was any matter of science about it. The only claim to authority that the IPCC has is not tested, scientific expertise, but just the fact of being established as an authority. There is obviously no substantial attempt to select the best in the field to contribute, as there is no objective measure of such expertise. If we do not take the view that IPCC’s authority rests on its contributors’ expertise, then the consensus it generates is meaningless. It is merely a ‘ministry of truth‘ – the existence of which is only designed to reduce inconvenient challenges to political, not scientific, orthodoxy.
Dessler says :
The problem is not the several dozen credible skeptics on Inhofe’s list, some of whom you’ve named, it’s the 350 others. Overall, There are nowhere near 400 credible skeptics on his list, or on the planet.
Even if it were possible to draw together the best scientific minds (and perhaps even the best sociologists and programmers too), would it even be desirable? Science has never ‘worked’ by measuring opinion, but by testing hypotheses. It doesn’t work by generating orthodoxy, but by challenging it. The IPCC doesn’t represent the best available understanding, but the paucity of understanding of the factors governing climate. If the ‘truth’ really is ‘out there’ then it doesn’t need to be decided by committee.
Over at Gristmill, Andrew Dessler complains about the list of 400 sceptical scientists who seem to challenge the “scientific consensus”:
The question is: does their opinion matter? Should you revise your views about climate change accordingly?
The question is then, should scientific opinion matter? But in order to stop this question being turned back to the “consensus” scientists, Dessler makes an exception for them:
To understand why Inhofe’s claims are fundamentally bogus, consider the following scenario: imagine a child is diagnosed with cancer. Who are his parents going to take him to in order to determine the best course of treatment?
Dessler goes on use the tragic image of a hypothetical child with cancer, by saying that you would not take the child to any old doctor, but a specialist of a specialism.
Expertise matters. Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. The list of skeptics on the EPW blog contains few bona fide climate specialists. In fact, the only criteria to get on the list, as far as I can tell, is having a PhD and some credential that makes you an academic. So Freeman Dyson makes lists. While I’m certain he’s a smart guy, I would not take a sick child to him, and I won’t take a sick planet to him either. In both cases, he simply does not have the relevant specialist knowledge. That also applies the large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem. The bottom line is that the opinions of most of the skeptics on the list are simply not credible.
The trouble for Dessler is that the earth is not a child. And climate scientists are neither doctors, nor pathologists, let alone pediatric oncologists. Let us use, instead of a child with cancer, a happy little puppy dog. Somebody presents themselves as an expert, and tells you that the puppy dog is terribly, terribly sick. But you look at the puppy, and to you it seems to be perfectly normal. It wags and chases its own tail. It investigates every new object and smell, runs around, eats a bit, and falls asleep. You challenge the expert. He says that unless you do as he says, according to the computer model of a puppy he has devised, the real puppy will die in a horrible, horrible way, and it will all be your fault. Do you want to be a puppy murderer?
But since climate science and medicine are not the same thing, Dressler’s analogy breaks down. Doctors and vets in the world that the poor little puppy dog and the tragic cancer child inhabit, have not done clinical medicine degrees, just some very basic biology. No therapy has ever been tested. No diagnosis has ever been proved. In fact, nobody has ever seen a sick puppy, nor a case of cancer before. It is just the untested view of the experts that the child has cancer, and the puppy will die unless you make changes to the way you live your life. Such is the state of climate science in this world. Is the Earth really “sick”? It still spins. It still rains. It still works. Perhaps the expert has confused a change in the puppy’s behaviour with there being something wrong.
So given the critical nature of the climate change problem, who should we listen to? My opinion, and the opinion of all the governments of the world, is that we should listen to people who specialize in climate science. That’s the IPCC.
What is conspicuously absent from all of this debate about which scientists to believe?
Science. It’s the science, Stupid. Yet Dessler asks us not to consider the science, but who we would trust a dying child to. Yet it is not the case that even “most” scientists at the IPCC are climate scientists, but exactly the “large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem” about whom Dressler complains. Dressler is wrong about the expertise of the IPCC. Neither is it the case that the IPCC scientists represent the “best in the field”.
For a long time, climate orthodoxy has hidden behind “the consensus”. Environmentalists have attempted to defend the idea of this consensus, because it has invested all of its currency in the fact of its existance. If the consensus doesn’t exist, how can the environmental movement proceed with legitimacy? We have already heard arguments about how this new group of scientists lacks authority, expertise, and how these scientists might be funded by Exxon Mobil. Anything but science. The consensus only exists by diminishing the moral character or professionalism of those who do not agree, not by allowing competing theories to be tested by the scientific process. If it carries on like this, the environmental movement will prevent science from being part of the process which forms the scientific consensus on the climate.
Climate science will eat itself, tail first. It is a sick puppy.
What is there to say about Bali?
There have been rumours of punch-ups, singing and drinking and dancing, weeping delegates, and Mea Culpa’s from failed US presidential candidates on behalf of the entire USA. It was, in this sense, like any other industry’s Christmas party – an expenses-paid event, which went on too late, at which the tired staff, drunk on their own self importance, became emotional, and fell out with each other. Office politics, writ really bloody large. So much ado about nothing.
The media lapped up the hysteria nonetheless, and gave it ‘meaning’. What has emerged are unsatisfied eco-activists, disgruntled at the failure of the world’s politicians to achieve a “legally binding framework” to reduce green house gases in the atmosphere. These responses tell us more than Bali itself.
First, George Bush is once again vilified as the “climate criminal” second to none, for his undoubted links to the oil industry. According to some, he’s almost single-handedly managed to ruin the party for everyone else. We at Climate Resistance are no fans of the Bush administration, but it seems to us that, if the US were to tie themselves to the framework – whatever it turns out to be – it would be against the interests of Americans. (We believe that the same is true of any other country, too, incidentally – it’s not really in anyone’s interests). In this respect, we find ourselves curiously aligned with GWB, if indeed it is he who is wrecking the Bali Roadmap. For he is one of the few who appears to be representing people’s actual interests – err, you know, like, in a democratic kind of a way.
It’s all well and good sitting around in conferences, pretending to be sorting out the world’s problems, but actually, beating up the USA for the failure of Kyoto (and the future failure of the Bali roadmap) smacks of a deep contempt for democracy – Kyoto simply wasn’t wanted in the USA. And what is stopping every country that wants to sign up to a legally binding framework which guarantees their populations a lower standard of living from going right ahead, and making laws which will reduce CO2 emissions? It’s happened here in the UK without an international law. Might it be because people aren’t trusted to make sensible decisions at the ballot box, so international frameworks are needed to make sure that no democracy gets out of hand?
Second, a sign of just how shallow and desperate the vilification of world-leaders and industrialists who do not genuflect to climate orthodoxy is the language that is used to diminish them. “Climate criminal”, for example, is one such cartoonish pejorative. And now, Dr Gideon Polya gives us “climate racism”:
“Climate racism” refers to the extraordinary, “might is right”, entrenched disparity in “per capita greenhouse gas pollution” between the “colonial” Anglo-Celtic countries of the US, Canada and Australia and the countries of the developing world. … The worst offenders (the US, Canada and Australia) successfully blocked Scientist and EU demands at Bali for definite “25-40% reductions by 2020” targets and argued for constraints on developing countries. The de facto position of these climate racist countries is that they somehow have a “right” to pollute with annual per capita CO2 pollution up to 160 times that of Third world countries such as Bangladesh but that developing countries must be constrained.
The irony of Polya’s singling out the Anglo-Celts as the polluting race, while complaining about “climate racism” may be lost on him. We’ve pointed out before how feminists and Marxists struggle to frame their agendas in today’s world, and so seek to clothe themselves in contemporary anxieties to make themselves look radical. (You have to worry when communists and conservatives are bleating the same thing about “the dangers of uncontrolled growth”.) Now, inequality is not a matter of actual substance – ie, cash – but how much you pollute. Racism is no longer defined in terms of attitudes towards racial groups, but how much pollution one group does, compared to another. In other words, Polya has lost the plot, and the only way he can express his moral calculations is by referring to absolutes like ‘racist’, just as others make equivalents between climate sceptics and holocaust deniers. If there were any real substance to the moral claims made by environmentalists, it wouldn’t be necessary to do this.
Inequality is, no doubt, a great wrong. But Polya misses the point. He doesn’t seem to want to solve inequality by creating more for those at the bottom, but by demonising those at the top. “Stabilising” atmospheric gases will do nothing to stop racism, nor will it create a world free of inequality.
Surrealist politics from UK Conservative Party leader David Cameron:
The issue we’re discussing today, and the subject of the policy document we’re publishing, is decentralised energy – again an issue on which Greenpeace has a distinguished campaigning track record.
But decentralised energy is just one component of a much bigger issue: man-made climate change and our response to it.
And our plans for a decentralised energy revolution in our country are just one component of our vision for Britain’s future.
So before outlining the plans we’re publishing today, I’d like to place them in the context of the big picture: our vision for the country, and the fight against climate change…
Decentralised energy provides a clear example of how this virtuous circle can work.
By enabling people to generate their own electricity, we are literally giving them more power over their own lives.
This really is power to the people.
Once people start generating their own electricity, they will become far more conscious of the way in which they use it – they will become more responsible about energy use and their own environmental impact.
And the overall effect of these changes will be to make Britain greener – to help reduce our carbon emissions and thereby contribute to a safer country and a safer world…
Our plans will help create a mass market for micro-generation.
The current framework inhibits innovation.
Today, anyone wanting government help to install micro-generators has to grapple with pages of regulations.
We need clear and simple rules to make it easier for households to generate electricity.
Supermarkets and other commercial enterprises with premises could also become generators and suppliers.
Schools, hospitals and community groups too.
This is not a pipe dream: it is tomorrow’s world.
Speaking of pipe dreams,
Magritte’s apparent contradiction in “The Treachery of Images” is not a contradiction if we take the view that the image is just an image, not the object it represents. Magritte’s pictures depicted ‘juxtaposed’ objects and statements in reality-defying configurations to reveal the superior reality of forgotten or repressed thoughts, unconstrained by the tyranny of false reason and morality. Cameron’s approach to policy making is little different, albeit unintentional. Indeed, it is not a pipe dream, because Cameron was not smoking a pipe as he uttered the words. He delivered the speech (we must assume) sober, sane, and after having thought about it. That makes it much, much worse. He was, nonetheless, as high as a bat on something which caused him to believe that the reality which governs power generation, distribution and use is somehow negotiable. As even George Monbiot observes, “Small Is Useless“:
Last year, the environmental architect Bill Dunster, who designed the famous BedZed zero-carbon development outside London, published a brochure claiming that “up to half of your annual electric needs can be met by a near silent micro wind turbine”. The turbine he specified has a diameter of 1.75 metres. A few months later Building for a Future magazine, which supports renewable energy, published an analysis of micro wind machines. At 4 metres per second – a high average wind speed for most parts of the UK – a 1.75 metre turbine produces about 5% of a household’s annual electricity. To provide the 50% Bill Dunster advertises, you would need a machine 4 metres in diameter. The lateral thrust it exerted would rip your house to bits.
Micro-generation cannot produce the energy demands of even the most basic of contemporary lifestyles, let alone feed electricity into the grid. Cameron is running with this policy because he is more interested in demonstrating that he’s in tune with the anxieties that people suffer in today’s chaotic world than in developing an energy policy fit for the 21st century. In this way, he is more like an artist seeking to prove that he has captured an understanding of contemporary experience than he is a politician. And he’s not even any good at that. Because people are actually far more discriminating and sophisticated than Cameron, his new friends Greenpeace, and for that matter everyone else on the green bandwagon, give them credit for. Which is why they end up trying to make environmentalism cool rather than persuading us with careful argument. A case in point (and continuing with the pipes theme) is Greenpeace’s viral marketing campaign that they like to think will convince ‘lads’ (UK vernacular for young men whose thoughts are dominated by beer, football, scantily-clad women, and disregard for seriousness) to reduce their CO2 emissions:
Greenpeace and Cameron may not wish to claim that the sun shines out of their back pipes, but that doesn’t stop them speaking out of them. In fact, Cameron is the arse through which Greenpeace speak.
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On Commentisfree, A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosphy at Birkbeck College London, writes in “An antidote to the black poison”
Over-determination is a particularly interesting phenomenon as it besets efforts to arrive at explanations in the social sciences. [...] And yet: in the heaving crowd of causes one can pick out a few tall malefactors, ubiquitous and malevolent, diffusing noxious, maddening, riot-provoking odours as they dart about to spread their evil. One is mentioned so often here by me and others that the curse of its name can be given momentary rest. Another is mentioned far too infrequently, though frequently still. It is the black, toxic, planet-sickening ooze on which the world is so utterly drunk that it has become insane – lusting for the ghastly poison because burning it belches out wealth, and wealth means power and influence.
In other words: oil is the evil which explains the evil of Middle Eastern human rights atrocities, that nasty man, Putin, that nasty man, Bush, and his nasty father, and that nasty man Osama bin Laden.
In defence of oil – and nasty men aside for a moment – we can think of a number of positives which would struggle to survive without the energy and convenience that the ‘ghastly poison’ provides:
Cheap, abundant food
Freedom and means to travel
The Department of philosophy, Birkbeck College London
In spite of his lyrical prowess, Grayling doesn’t offer us a very detailed account of the mechanism by which oil makes men evil, other than to say that oil creates wealth, which creates power, which creates corruption. Give the professor of philosophy a Nobel prize for something.
Finally, Grayling wonders…
…what the cost of the Iraq war to date would have funded in the way of research into alternative energy sources?
The question here seems to suppose that, if only people didn’t ‘lust’ for oil, we would have an alternative. It is as though the oil itself were a narcotic that interfered in the process of rational judgement. Naturally, we would agree with Grayling if he were simply suggesting that the budget for the Iraq war were better spent on developing alternatives such as atomic or fusion energy. But what Grayling is saying is that the Iraq war was about oil, because of oil, and commissioned by junkies in search of another fix.
In this shallow view, Grayling mystifies oil. He turns it into a monster, a devil, an evil, malign spirit which possesses men. He himself ‘besets efforts to arrive at explanations in the social sciences’ rather than explains carefully why oil is a thing which adequately accounts for the current state of geopolitics, all by itself. He imagines that were there simply an alternative to oil, it would entail world peace. It’s as if politics, the desire for power, and the influence of powerful interests would each suddenly disappear were only we to spend enough dollars on wind technology as a ‘white’ alternative to the black magic of oil. In doing so, he looks for external reasons to explain human conflicts. (This environmental orthodoxy is just the sort of determinism Grayling seeks to avoid.) But arguably, fuel such as oil has given people the means to escape the mundane existence of subsistence living and to confront tyranny. The reason that it hasn’t in all cases is because such determinism as inherent in ‘oil = political freedom’ is equally wrong.
If wars can be fought for oil, wars can be fought for territories that provide better conditions for wind, solar, biomass, or tidal power generation. As green commentators have pointed out recently, the push for bio-fuels has caused problems for poor people as fertile land is given over to fuel crops, rather than food. Depriving the world of the means to create wealth does not remove from the world people with an advantage inclined to seek a greater share of it. On the contrary, it is poorer populations who are less able to resist powerful interests. And in a world where the production of fuel is limited to what ‘nature’ can provide on a moment-by-moment basis – such are the limits and demands of environmentalism – so the potential for conflict between tyrannies might escalate. But of course, that’s not going to happen, because oil offers an alternative way of life which is better than bondage to the land and feudal landlords. Environmentalism’s proximity to the anti-wealth, anti-development agenda should offend Grayling’s humanist perspective. It’s a real pity that it doesn’t. The result is an anti-human determinism: environmentalist orthodoxy, taken for granted, masquerading as humanism.
George Monbiot took us by surprise last week. Reflecting on the housing problems facing many people in the UK, George appears to have realised that putting the environment first can be bad for humans, and that that is a bad thing.
Is the housing crisis as acute as some people have claimed? Or has it been whipped up by the House Builders’ Federation, hoping to get their claws into the countryside? To find out whether these homes are really needed, I asked the charity Shelter to take me to meet some of the people it works with in London. I had no idea. I simply had no idea.
Credit where credit is due, George has finally grasped the fact that human and environmental interests are at odds with one another, and that the consequences of putting humans second are squalor and misery.
I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. But – though it hooks in my green guts to admit it – built they must be.
The problem is that in order for Monbiot to do the moral arithmetic, he needs a crisis. In this way, environmentalism will defeat itself… We know that Monbiot isn’t in favour of localised power generation. We know that he is not in favour of biofuels. We know that he is not in favour of atomic power. And we certainly know that Monbiot is not in favour of fossil fuel use. This doesn’t leave us humans many options. We’ll have a real crisis on our hands – an energy crisis, which will certainly produce the squalor and misery and worse that will make the housing situation look like a picnic, and at which point, naturally, we’ll have to put our own interests first.
It is true that much more could be done to mobilise empty houses, help elderly people to move into smaller flats and stamp out Britain’s ugliest inequality: second homes.
But there is another way to look at the problems Monbiot imagines, without crisis. What if it is a moral good – rather than a necessary evil – to build houses? What if it is a moral good to build sufficient houses for everybody so that there are plenty, even if people want two houses? What if it is a moral good to have cheap, abundant energy? Don’t expect George to come round to that one quite so easily. Because if you can only see the future as a series of crises, then you cannot imagine the world ever being a good place.