Poor Thinking

Apparently, ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. Who’d have thunk it? We really don’t need the IPCC WGII report to tell us that – things are always worse for the poor. And yet the report seems to have taken many by surprise.

Stranger still is how this rather obvious notion is being used by greens as a call for climate change mitigation.

If poverty and wealth are the factors which determine our immunity to the effects of climate change, then it seems obvious that the solution, rather than changing the climate, is to change people’s circumstances.

But environmentalists and NGOs favour ‘sustainability’ and empty, feel-good gestures such as Fair Trade over development. And political parties of all persuasions are locked in an arms race of climate-mitigation policy-making. The result is that changing the circumstances of the poor is not a serious option.

Anyway, there is good reason to believe that, despite what they say, environmentalists have little real interest in the plight of the world’s poor. According to Mark Lynas, a high-profile UK environmentalist, and one of National Geographic’s celebrated ‘New Explorers‘, ‘The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere‘.

Of those that maintain that that alleviating poverty remains a primary concern, ‘climate instability’ serves as a convenient peg on which to hang other neuroses. So, the idea that climate change will be worse for the poor is now being used, by the UK government and others, to exploit our fears of political instability and threats to the security of the West. (In this respect, the vulnerability of the world’s poor is being used as a reason to be suspicious of them rather than as a call to improve their lot.)

All such attempts to use the poor to lend moral weight to climate mitigation policies are bankrupt. Poverty necessarily involves a close, dependent relationship with Mother Nature and a vulnerability to her every whim – one’s ability to shape one’s own future is diminished by the necessity of merely surviving in the present. In contrast, development buffers people against the elements. And yet that security is precisely what the environmental movement, in pushing mitigation over adaptation, seems intent on denying people. Justifying the push for mitigation using the story of the poor’s battle with the elements won’t help them, but it might well prove a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sheryl Crow's Latest Hit Reaches Number Two

Sheryl Crow announced her plan to save the planet this weekend. As she says on her website:

I propose a limitation be put on how many sqares[sic] of toilet paper can be used in any one sitting. Now, I don’t want to rob any law-abiding American of his or her God-given rights, but I think we are an industrious enough people that we can make it work with only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where 2 to 3 could be required. 

That’s easy for her to say, she’s never eaten anything. Meanwhile, back in the real world, we at Climate Resistance are hoping that this is some form of joke from the Davids. Laurie (Larry’s wife) shared a platform with Crow at a tour of eleven US university campuses to promote a Tides Foundation campaign called, simply enough, ‘Stop Global Warming‘.

Crow should stick to writing songs. We no more need celebrities to tell us about global warming than we need them to tell us how to wipe our bottoms.

On the Word of No One… Except Us

Nullius in Verba, the motto of the UK’s Royal Society, usually gets translated as ‘on the word of no one’. That’s a pretty good motto for a scientific body, the message being that knowledge about the material universe should be based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than authority.

However, in the TLS, Robert May, erstwhile President of the Royal Society (and ex-Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government), offers a different translation. Nullius in Verba ‘roughly translates’, he says, as ‘respect the facts’. Indeed, ‘Respect the facts’ is the title of May’s cover-story review of seven recent publications on climate change (although it is called ‘The world’s problem’ in the online version). This also seems to be the translation preferred these days by the Royal Society itself.

But why is ‘respect the facts’ better than ‘on the word of no one’?

We at Climate Resistance have no problem agreeing that evolution by natural selection or gravity are scientific facts. Hey, we’d even accept that it is a fact that atmospheric CO2 is a driver of the greenhouse effect.

But, there are facts, and there are ‘facts’. And many of May’s facts, are, in fact, ‘facts’.

For example: ‘CO2 is, of course, the principal “greenhouse gas” in the atmosphere’. That is wrong whichever way you look at it. It is in fact water vapour that contributes most to the greenhouse effect. And other gases – methane, for example – are more potent, measure for measure.

May quotes the Stern Review Report to demonstrate how climate change will lead to species extinctions (which is itself a rather blatant appeal to authority, given that Stern’s is an economic analysis rather than a scientific one):

Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming.

Is that a fact, too? It’s hard to say, because we cannot find that particular section in Stern. The closest match we can find is this:

‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15 – 40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming’ (part II, ch.3, p.56)

On the word of no one? Absolutely. Respect the facts? Of course. Respect the evidence? Yep, that too. But May is asking us to respect evidence dressed up as fact, when any scientist worth their salt should be encouraging us to challenge the evidence, and any GCSE science student would be able to.

So why the new translation? Why drop ‘on the word of no one’? Perhaps it is another example of a political body hiding healthy debate behind scientific certainties that do not exist. Or maybe the Royal Society, like any political body, would rather we trust the word of nobody but itself? May makes some noises about oil companies ‘misinforming the public about the science of climate change’. But May would appear to be doing a pretty good job of that himself. We’re not going to take his word for it.

Lib Lab Lip Service

Yesterday, the UK’s third political party – The Liberal Democrats – launched their Climate Change Starts at Home campaign.

Menzies Campbell unveiled bold proposals that demonstrated how upgrading Britain’s homes could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by millions of tonnes, save energy, and lead to significant cuts in energy bills.

Last week BBC2’s Newsnight featured a review of a journalist’s gruelling year-long attempt at ‘ethical living’ which reduced his family’s ‘carbon footprint’ by two tonnes. But as Bjorn Lomborg pointed out on the program, if that reduction were to be acheived by families nationwide, the saving would postpone the effect of global warming by a mere seven hours by the year 2100.

‘Millions of tonnes’ sounds big, and makes good copy, but it doesn’t change the planet at all. This leaves Menzies with only the claim that insulation, paid for with ‘Energy Mortgages’ secured on homes, would shave hundreds of pounds a year off consumers’ energy bills. But with an added risk of losing that home on top of having to pay back the loan, it seems unlikely that this scheme will make much of a difference to anyone for whom £300 a year makes a difference.

Away from home, UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett is due to take the issue of climate change to the security council on the basis that ‘the cumulative impacts of climate change could exacerbate these drivers of conflict, and particularly increase the risk to those states already susceptible to conflict.’[DEAD LINK]

Perhaps this is a case of Blair attempting to secure his legacy by getting the world to move on climate change. Indeed, it’s not like him to be against things that ‘exacerbate the drivers of conflict’. Or perhaps it’s just an attempt to offset all that carbon used in the Gulf war…

The Church of God the Ecologist

Late respects to the late Kurt Vonnegut (1922 – 2007) R.I.P.

1,780,000 have already said ‘So It Goes’. So, we’re not going to.

11,100 have cited ‘The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent’. Um.

Ah, hardly anybody mentions ‘The Church of God the Ecologist’. Perfect. If only Vonnegut had written that.

It’s also a shame he’s not around to read this. It isn’t entirely unconnected.

In line with all the mainstream political parties and some of the supposedly more radical ones, Christian groups are also seeing the light in an ever deeper shade of green. Indeed religions around the world are turning to Gaia for guidance, according to Andy Crouch. It’s just those pesky ‘evangelical Protestants’ left to convert, apparently.

Your atheist, humanist hosts at Climate Resistance hope they resist. Opposition to the necessity of urgent action against climate change is possibly the only thing we have in common with your average evangelical Protestant (and probably for different reasons). Kurt Vonnegut wouldn’t have agreed with us on that one. He wrote some cracking books, though.

How the Marxists Have Fallen (For It)

Over at Political Affairs, which promises “Marxist Thought online”, an article published today warns that, according to the latest IPCC report,

Mass extinction of species is likely within 60-70 years, on a scale larger than most of the five major extinction events that have occurred in the earth’s history.

But neither of the reports issued so far this year say anything of the sort. The only mention of extinction in either of the reports are in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability – Summary for Policymakers, Working Group II:

Approximately 20-30% of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5-2.5°C.

and

There is a risk of significant biodiversity loss through species extinction in many areas of tropical Latin America.

These largely unquantified statements are so far removed from the alarmism in Political Affairs that there seems little point going into any greater depth about the article’s scientific merit.

We can safely assume that this kind of alarmism is the way the magazine thinks the masses will be roused. But as we pointed out yesterday, there is little difference between the ways in which the left and the right stretch scientific reports beyond recognition. So what is the difference between the establishment and the revolutionaries?

In Crisis Politics, the Only Way Is Up

UK Conservative Party leader David Cameron has announced his commitment to an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. This move ‘beats’ Labour’s promise of a 60% reduction by the same date.

Cameron’s announcement follows statements by the Conservative Party’s Quality of Life Challenge policy group, whose website announced last weekend that they had ‘publised [sic] an important update to the Quality of Life Group’s recent report on acceptable climate change and CO2 emmission [sic] targets‘. The policy group challenge the Stern report, drawing on the IPCC’s WGII summary for policymakers, and others, to conclude that ‘the existing 60% goal is likely to prove inadequate […] UK emissions will have to be reduced by at least 80% by 2050’.

The statement is justified on the basis that ‘the politics must fit the science and not the other way round’ (‘Don’t give up on 2°C [PDF -NO LONGER AVAILABLE]‘). On the face of it, this seems a perfectly sensible approach. The trouble is that the science doesn’t actually say that mitigation is a better strategy than adaptation, let alone whether an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 is better than a 60% reduction. Mitigation, far from being a no-brainer is a complicated and controversial field scientifically. By claiming that their 80% figure is derived from the science, the Tories are hoisted by their own petard – this is a clear case of the science being stretched to fit the politics.

Moreover, mitigation policies cannot be a matter for science alone; they must also be informed by moral and political considerations. And yet when parties hide behind claims that their policies are derived from the science, these are necessarily excluded from the discussion. For example, in a recent article in Nature called ‘Lifting the taboo on adaptation‘, Roger Pielke Jr, Gwyn Prins, Steve Rayner and Daniel Sarewitz argued that the case for adaptation had not been sufficiently heard.

Yet policy-makers need to understand the limitations of mitigation for reducing vulnerabilities, and give more urgent consideration to broader adaptation policies — such as improved management of coastal zones and water resources — that will enhance societal resilience to future climate impacts regardless of their cause. To define adaptation as a cost of failed mitigation is to expose millions of poor people in compromised ecosystems to the very dangers that climate policy seeks to avoid.

So why would the Tories wish to exclude discussion of alternative strategies? Why would they claim that alternatives would contradict the science, that they are ‘at the margin of the debate’, and that ‘we cannot risk them being wrong’? The answer is simple: lacking a framework of political principles, they have such little scope to set themselves apart from their Labour and Liberal (and for that matter, Green) counterparts that their only option for demonstrating their fitness for leadership is to appear to be taking the issue more seriously. And that’s the only option open to their counterparts, too. The result is an escalation of the ‘crisis’ that ends up looking more like the razor wars than politics.

Cynics on both sides of the issue may dismiss Cameron’s words as empty rhetoric, as mere postures assumed to embarrass the Labour Party, and to rob the liberals and the Greens of their environmentalist edge. They may well be right, but what is important here is to recognise how dramatically environmental thinking is narrowing political discussion about the future. Crisis politics dominates thinking right across the political spectrum and hides politics behind scientific absolutes which simply do not exist, and cannot be interrogated. Even the Socialist Workers Party is getting in on the act, calling for cuts of ‘at least 80 percent […] by 2030‘.

That all parties are pushing in the same direction on this one might lead some to argue that they can’t all be wrong. But it would be more true to say that they can’t all be correct. Discussions about the future are being reduced to an arms race of gimmicks that appeal to the very same fear that they generate. It’s enough to make five blades in a disposable razor seem like a positively radical, world-changing idea.

Challenging Climate Orthodoxy…

April 2007. Since its release in February, the IPCC’s AR4 (Working Group I) Summary for Policymakers has been uncritically reported in the mainstream media, and its findings often exaggerated. Because of a perception that the public mood demands action to mitigate climate change, the UK government has used the IPCC findings to justify committing the country to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Like much environmental policy, this has gone largely unchallenged by opposition parties.

We believe that an unfounded sense of crisis – and therefore urgency – dominates public discussion of environmental issues. Thus, demands for urgent action to mitigate climate change thrive at the expense of genuine, illuminating, nuanced debate.

Neither the science nor the politics of climate change should be exempt from scrutiny. Our intention is to provide some decent commentary on how science, politics and the media handle environmental matters, for anyone interested in challenging this dangerous new orthodoxy. And for anyone just interested.

Where we’re starting from…

  1. There is good scientific evidence that human activities are influencing the climate.
  2. The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is neither as strong nor as demanding of action as is widely claimed.
  3. Our ability to mitigate, let alone reverse any such change through reductions in CO2 emissions is even less certain.
  4. The scientific consensus on climate change as widely reported inaccurately reflects the true scientific consensus.
  5. There is no scientific consensus on how society should proceed in the face of a changing climate.
  6. How society should proceed in the face of a changing climate is the business of politics.
  7. Science does not and should not proceed by consensus.
  8. Political arguments about climate change are routinely mistaken for scientific ones.
  9. The IPCC is principally a political organisation.
  10. Environmentalism is principally a political phenomenon.
  11. And yet climate change policies go unchallenged by opposition parties.
  12. The goals/aspirations/values of society are/should be matters of politics, not science.
  13. The current emphasis on mitigation strategies is impeding society’s ability to adapt to a changing climate, whatever its cause.
  14. The public remain unconvinced that mitigation is in their best interests.
  15. Widespread disengagement from politics means that politicians pander only to the loudest, shrillest voices.
  16. Science is increasingly expected to provide moral certainty in morally uncertain times.
  17. Environmental concerns are serving to provide direction for directionless politics.