The Independent – Where the Sun Never Shines

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).

Climate Change Rhetoric Worse Than Previously Thought

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.

Lucas and the Majority of Some Scientists

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.

Fat Swedish Men are Killing the Polar Bears…

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.

Battle of the Planet

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.

Friend (of Democracy) or FoE?

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.

Why Monbiot is so Miserable

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.

Emissions Policy Policy Omission

Hilary Benn, Environment Secretary, son of Tony, successor to David Miliband, announced on Monday that the target of 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 set by his predecessor may not be enough. This comes in the wake of the Tories trumping the 60% figure, with 80%. This has been trumped in turn by the Liberal Democrats, who announced their plans for a zero carbon Britain.

This latest development isn’t yet the promise of a carbon negative Britain we have predicted, and there’s not much wriggle room after the Lib’s 100%. So how does Benn answer the other parties’ offers?

The changes to the draft Bill, set out in a Command Paper entitled ‘Taking Forward the UK Climate Change Bill’ published today, include:

  • As announced by the Prime Minister in September, asking the Committee on Climate Change to report on whether the Government’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 60 percent by 2050 should be strengthened further;
  • Asking the Committee to look at the implications of including other greenhouse gases and emissions from international aviation and shipping in the UK’s targets as part of this review;
  • Strengthening the role and responsibilities of the Committee on Climate Change, including by requiring the Government to seek the Committee’s advice before amending the 2020 or 2050 targets in the Bill;
  • Strengthening the Committee’s independence from Government, by confirming that it will appoint its own chief executive and staff, and increasing its analytical resources;

… (our emphasis).

In other words, the latest policy is that there is no policy. Emissions targets in the future will be determined not by politicians (you know, those people we elect once every few years to make decisions), but deferred from politics, to a committee. According to the DEFRA website,

The Committee will be comprised of 5-8 members including the Chair, supported by a standing secretariat of staff to conduct in-depth analysis into the issues being considered.

To ensure its credibility, it is important that the Committee is able to clearly and rationally present the economics of the costs, benefits and risks of abatement decisions. This means that the Committee’s members should be experts in their field, rather than representing specific stakeholder groups. The following list provides an indication of the types of expertise that will be desirable in the overall composition of the Committee:

  • business competitiveness;
  • climate change policy in particular its social impacts.
  • climate science;
  • economic analysis and forecasting;
  • emissions trading;
  • energy production and supply;
  • financial investment; and
  • technology development and diffusion.

If passed, the Climate Change bill will force the government to “explain its reasons to Parliament if it does not accept the Committee’s advice on the level of the carbon budget, or if it does not meet a budget or target”, but won’t let us challenge the decisions made by this committee democratically. This is because, according to DEFRA:

The debate on climate change has shifted, from whether we need to act towards how much we need to do by when, and the economic implications of doing so. The time is therefore right for the introduction of a strong legal framework in the UK for tackling climate change.

When did the UK ever have a debate about “whether we need to act”? And when was it settled? Over the last ten or twenty years, the “debate” has been dominated by climate orthodoxy, not by differences of opinion. Political environmentalism has never been challenged by any UK party, let alone the climate science questioned. But this is because dissenting views have been excluded from debate far more than they have been invited, not because a debate has been had. We can tell this is the case because of the disparity between statements made by politicians, and statements made by scientists. Furthermore, this orthodoxy has thrived and gone mostly unchallenged because of a profound lack of defining political ideas across the political parties. As we have pointed out before, fears about climate change serve to provide a direction for directionless politics, and the sense of crisis evoked by alarmism provides political parties with legitimacy. With no crisis to manage, politicians face an existential crisis – “why am I here? What is my purpose?”. That is why we see this policy which misses something… politics. Even though what we decide to do with scientific evidence is ALL about politics.

But this move to put decisions which affect us outside of politics is not new. One of Gordon Brown’s first acts as Chancellor of the Exchequer was to put the Bank of England outside of political control, giving it responsibility for setting interest rates. As soon as a “debate” or an issue becomes inconvenient or just difficult for the government, it simply prevents it from being a political matter. So why not simply manage the country by committee? What is the point of politics? Don’t ask Mr Benn.

Climate science: truth you can wear on your hands

‘We are armed only with peer reviewed science’, declared the banner at the head of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow in August. And in one sense they were – literally. The protesters were wearing gloves made from photocopied research papers and waving them at the police and television cameras as though nothing more needed to be said. For anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that behind the gloves was a careful argument for why the runway should not be built, Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever was on hand to put them straight. ‘It’s not us saying you need to stop flying’, he said, ‘it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.’

There are, of course, no scientific studies that show that Heathrow should not have a third runway, just as there are no scientific studies proving that we should fly less. These are political and moral questions, which can be informed by the best available science but not dictated by it. Science can no more tell us that air travel is wrong than it can help us navigate the ethics of evicting people from their homes to make a runway, or any other civil infrastructure. But that didn’t bother the protesters. Or anyone else for that matter. Because when it comes to climate change, science is being used in a similar talismanic fashion – and for similar ends – right across the political spectrum, and by the scientific establishment itself.

The Heathrow protesters’ running battles with the police might give the impression that the protest was radical, and its aims at odds with the establishment, but Climate Camp’s ultimate goal of 90 per cent reductions in UK CO2 emissions by 2050 is only 10 per cent more than the Conservative party has pledged. And the Tories, too, tell us that it is the science that dictates the way forward: ‘The politics must fit the science’, says the party’s Quality of Life Challenge report, which prompted the pledge (Hurd and Kerr 2007: 2). (Next to the Liberal Democrats, who promise a zero-carbon Britain by 2050 and petrol cars banished from our roads by 2040, the protesters almost appear like climate change deniers.) Even those to whom we might think to turn for a cool, calm, detached appraisal of the scientific evidence – our very own scientific academies – are bestowing scientific papers with totemic significance. Hence the Royal Society’s press release – headed ‘The Truth About Global Warming’ – that accompanied its publication in July of a paper countering the claims made by the infamous TV programme The Great Global Warming Swindle that recent variations in global temperature are better explained by solar activity than by CO2 emissions. (The reaction of the scientific establishment to the Swindle has been so much more interesting than the film itself.) Since when has a single scientific paper constituted ‘the truth’ about anything?

A further indication that the Royal Society now sees itself as some sort of new-fangled custodian of scientific truth can be seen in its recent efforts to rebrand itself. The Society’s motto ‘Nullius in Verba’ has, since 1663, been translated as ‘on the word of nobody’. It distanced science from the scholasticism of the ancient universities, and stressed that scientific knowledge is based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than to the word of authority figures. But in the twenty-first century, the Society has dropped all mention of that translation. According to Robert May, former president of the Royal Society and ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK government, the motto is now best translated as ‘respect the facts’ (Pile and Blackman 15.5.2007). Like any political body, the Royal Society would prefer that policymakers and the public take the word of nobody but itself.

It is not alone. Amateur climatologist Steve McIntyre, who recently identified a significant error in the calculations behind the very temperature records that tell us the world is warming, reports that NASA and the UK’s Climate Research Unit – institutions charged with compiling those records – are now refusing to make their methods available for scrutiny (McIntyre 11.8.2007). In what other scientific discipline would this be remotely acceptable?

The custodians of the facts will jump on anyone they deem guilty of not respecting those facts. The Royal Society and its most prominent members have recently been taking it upon themselves to make statements – via open letters, the media, and public debate – about the moral character of those who dare to challenge the climate orthodoxy. And in doing so they often display a flagrant disregard for the facts themselves. Speaking at an environment festival in Oxford in June, Robert May told an audience of 250 people that Swindle producer Martin Durkin had previously been responsible for a series of three films denying the link between HIV and AIDS (Pile and Blackman 1.9.2007). Durkin has made no such films. Other so-called ‘deniers’ are, the Royal Society tells us, the work of the Devil, or at least his modern, secular equivalent, ExxonMobil (Ward 4.9.2006; Royal Society 2005).

Such attacks are less about the science on offer from dissenters, and more to do with singling out those who go against the political consensus that the world is doomed unless we reduce our carbon footprint now. Indeed, Bjørn Lomborg, who believes that global warming is real, anthropogenic and a problem, attracts the ‘denier’ label simply because he doesn’t conform to the mainstream view of what we should do about it, not because he questions the science underpinning climate change.

Some go further than that. Dissenters, they say, are not just corrupt, or disrespectful of the facts, or plain old-fashioned wrong – they are deluded or ill. There are even research papers available for anyone wanting to ‘prove’ it by fashioning a pair of gloves out of them. German psychologist Andreas Ernst has developed a theory that people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats (Deutsche Presse-Agentur 3.5.2007). And in an editorial earlier this year in the journal Medscape General Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry Steven Moffic proposed the use of aversion therapy involving ‘distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming’ to encourage responsible environmental behaviour among sceptics (Moffic 2.9.2007). This is less A Clockwork Orange and more Clockwork Green.

Meanwhile, the Climate Campers can carry on with their own misrepresentations of the science safe in the knowledge that nobody will pick them up on it. And so can anyone else, just so long as it does not bring them into conflict with the political consensus. So, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time recently, Independent MP Clare Short could confidently assert that ‘The UN has a panel of all the best climate scientists in the world, and they’ve issued report after report after report…and they say that if we don’t act now, we’re in desperate trouble’, despite her comments being at complete odds with the scientific reality. As Myles Allen, head of Oxford University’s Climate Dynamics group, told the Battle of Ideas last year, the arguments for immediate action on climate change are economic ones rather than scientific.

You can get away with contradicting the scientific ‘consensus’ only if you don’t challenge the political orthodoxy. So, in July, to expound his theory that the world will witness sea level rises of five metres this century (the IPCC estimates between 18 and 59cm), NASA’s James Hansen gets a 3,000-word feature in New Scientist (Hansen 25.9.2007). In contrast, when the same magazine, in the same month, reported on Harvard scientist Willie Soon’s paper in the journal Ecological Complexity, which challenged received wisdom that climate change is imperilling polar bears, the scientific argument was ignored in favour of speculation about Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry, and that the research was part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the environmental movement’s use of the polar bear as an icon (New Scientist 1.7.2007). The ‘consensus’ is fair game, it seems, as long as the challenge pushes things in a more apocalyptic direction. The rhetorical power of the consensus flows not from its content, but from the fact of its existence.

A few climate scientists do speak out about exaggerated climate change rhetoric. But even they do so for dubious reasons. One is Professor Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, who has criticised the alarmist language of some scientists, the media and politicians. But his objection is not that society needs the best information available to make difficult decisions about its future, or that scientists should not be confusing scientific knowledge with science fiction, or that we need to be able to distinguish science from politics. He is merely worried that it is politically counter-productive: ‘if those dangers are presented in too catastrophic a way, on too large a scale, then people just distance themselves and are less likely to take actions to reduce their own carbon emissions. That’s our concern’ (Hulme 2007).

Martin Rees, current President of the Royal Society, has no such reservations. He tells us in his book Our Final Century? that humankind has a 50/50 chance of surviving the twenty-first century. That judgement has nothing to do with science – scientists are still struggling to model the climate, let alone the future course of human history. And yet it has scientific authority on the basis that its author is president of the Royal Society. And the Royal Society – as they themselves tell us – are the custodians of the facts.

Science: available in any colour, as long as it’s green. It would be easy to see all this as the work of a conspiratorial network. But the reality is far more depressing. In a world that no longer divides so neatly into left and right, East and West, environmentalism has provided a new magnetic north for disorientated politicians, activists, scientists, journalists and society as a whole. Rather than being an organised conspiracy, the sense of crisis created by the consensus that the future is bleak is haphazardly exploited for political legitimacy and authority. In this limited view of the future, the role that is cast for science is as an external force, above politics, and above the petty aspirations, interests and needs of mere humans, which tells us how we ought to live. But it is orthodoxy not understanding that has been generated.

Back at Climate Camp, a final irony is that the ‘peer reviewed science’-cum-gloves worn by the protesters as a symbol of their unassailable righteousness wasn’t peer reviewed science at all. It was the front page of a report by the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University that developed policy recommendations for a low carbon future (Bows et al. 2006). Even more ironic, in the light of the fuss made over the corrupting influence of oil money, is that it was commissioned by Friends of the Earth and the Cooperative Bank. But again, don’t expect anyone to worry about such details. Because this isn’t really about science – it’s about climate science. And as the Heathrow protesters, the Royal Society, NASA, journalists and politicians demonstrate, climate science can be anything you want it to be.

References
Bows, A. et al. (2006). Living within a carbon budget. Tyndall Centre Manchester.
Deutsche Presse-Agentur (3.5.2007). Thinking like rats: why humans fail to act on climate change. Earth Times.
Hansen, J. (25.9.2007). Huge sea level rises are coming – unless we act now. New Scientist.
Hulme, M. (2007). BBC TV News.
Hurd, N. and C. Kerr (2007). Don’t give up on two degrees. Quality of Life Commission.
McIntyre, S. (11.8.2007). Does Hansen’s Error “Matter”? Climate Audit.
Moffic, S. (2.9.2007). Can Psychiatric Approaches Help to Address Global Warming? Medscape General Medicine 9(3): 2.
New Scientist (1.7.2007). Climate change sceptics criticise polar bear science. New Scientist.
Pile, B. and S. Blackman (15.5.2007). The Royal Society’s “Motto-Morphosis’’. Spiked Online.
Pile, B. and S. Blackman (1.9.2007). May, the “facts” be with you. Climate Resistance.
Royal Society (2005). A Guide to Facts and Fictions about Climate Change. Royal Society.
Ward, B. (4.9.2006). Open letter to Esso. Royal Society.

Battling On

The Institute of Ideas are putting online a series of essays called ‘Battles in Print‘ to complement their yearly Battle of Ideas festival of debates. One of the essays was written by us. You can read it here. And here’s a preview of Climate science: truth you can wear on your hands,

’We are armed only with peer reviewed science’, declared the banner at the head of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow in August. And in one sense they were – literally. The protesters were wearing gloves made from photocopied research papers and waving them at the police and television cameras as though nothing more needed to be said. For anyone still labouring under the misapprehension that behind the gloves was a careful argument for why the runway should not be built, Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever was on hand to put them straight. ‘It’s not us saying you need to stop flying’, he said, ‘it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.’

One of the 70+ debates likely to be interesting to anyone concerned with the rise of environmentalism is The science and politics of climate change, which features:

Professor Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia; founding director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
Joe Kaplinsky, science writer
Professor Chris Rapley CBE, director, Science Museum; outgoing director, British Antarctic Survey
Hans von Storch, director, Institute for Coastal Research, GKSS Research Centre; professor at Meteorological Institute, University of Hamburg

Check out the full program for a host of other debates which will also be interesting, whichever side of the warming debate you find yourself on.

We have exceptionally busy over the last two months, which means we’ve been unable to post anything new for a while. But please keep an eye on the site, as we’re hoping things will return to normal shortly.