Monthly Archives: February 2008

Patron of the Optimum Population Trust, neo-malthusian and miserablist to world governments, Sir Crispin Tickell went head-to-head with Austin Williams of the Future Cities Project on the question of “are there too many of us?” on Thursday. BBC Radio 4’s PM program has been featuring the question all week, leading to some interesting discussion. You can catch the program here. (It starts about 42 minutes in. And it’s only online for another week.)

The program’s blog has received a flood of comments from listeners (or just OPT activists) angered, not by Sir Crispin’s dark gloom, misanthropy, and pessimism, but by Williams’s challenge to it. It is interesting that some of the comments seem to reflect the idea that Sir Crispin’s ideas are radical, when in fact they are very much the establishment position. It is also interesting to see how challenges to environmental orthodoxy are met with expressions of outrage. It’s also interesting to note that, just a few decades ago, the one-child-per-family policy of China is something that would have been pointed at as an example of the nasty, controlling authoritarianism of the Chinese Government. Now, it’s something many aspire to.

Crispin Tickell was at York University recently, giving a lecture on “the future” – a nasty place, according to him, so we better do as he says. The lecture, hosted by the very interesting New Generation Society, who take as their inspiration JFK’s inaugural speech, was reviewed by Climate Resistance co-editor Ben for the society’s online journal.

The New Generation Society’s Kennedy Lecture aimed to embrace the kind of challenge that its namesake laid before the world nearly half a century ago.

“Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

President John F. Kennedy
Inaugural Address
Washington DC, 20th January 1961

In short, by pursuing humanity’s common interests, the New Generation could transcend its differences.

Enter Sir Crispin, who brings to this lecture as many years experience of dealing with the World’s problems as have passed since Kennedy’s speech. He is someone we might like to turn to for sober reflection on the issues that the next generation faces. He is an authority on many subjects, from the scientific to the political. So how do the words of the two men compare?

Read the rest here.

This is the first in a mini-series of posts about videos that really annoy us. First up – “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See:

Greg (we almost feel a little bit bad for having a go at someone who describes himself as “A high school science teacher in the process of burning out“[EDIT: especially now that Greg - not Gary - pointed out to us, much more politely than would have been perfectly reasonable, and to our embarrassment, and for which we apologise, that we got his name wrong first try]) presents “inescapable proof” that it is definitely better to “do something” (anything?) about global warming than to “do nothing”. That’s because, if global warming is happening, the consequences of not doing something are too horrible to contemplate, and if it isn’t, then hey, no great harm done. The thing is, this is just a reformulation of the Precautionary Principle, which, as Philip Stott notes, is itself just a reformulation of Blaise Pascal’s famous wager. Stott does a fine job of explaining why Pascal’s Wager (and, therefore, the Precautionary Principle, and Greg) cuts no ice in climate change debates.

We would only add that it is striking that Pascal was arguing the case for believing in something – God – in the absence of proof or evidence. We have pointed out before that once you remove Environmentalism’s scientific fig leaf, all you are left with is an embarrassment of blind faith and bad politics. Which is presumably why the video has been received and distributed so enthusiastically. Take out Greg’s sciencey-looking graphs and tables and what remains is an argument for embracing Environmentalism regardless of what science says. It is not science; it is theology – a theology written in the language of science, but which you’re not meant to take too literally or anything.

We are flattered to have been included in the “50 Best Eco Blogs” published today by the Times (London). Apparently, we are

A site actively involved in standing up for climate change sceptics, [that] puts its points across eloquently and is not afraid to stand up to the Grists of this world. 

It’s especially lovely to be nestled in there among such excellent others as Climate Audit, William M Briggs and Climate Debate Daily.

On The Nation blog, David Roberts of Gristmill (another blog) writes:

Long-time greens are painfully aware that the arguments of global warming skeptics are like zombies in a ’70s B movie. They get shot, stabbed, and crushed, over and over again, but they just keep lurching to their feet and staggering forward. That’s because — news flash! — climate skepticism is an ideological, not a scientific, position, and as such it bears only a tenuous relationship to scientific rules of evidence and inference.

Let us put him straight. Climate scepticism (or skepticism) is not an ideological position. Climate scepticism is not an ideology. Climate scepticism does not offer a perspective on the world from which follow moral imperatives, and climate scepticism is not a doctrine, around which climate sceptics wish to organise society. There is no “world view” of climate scepticism.

Environmentalism,on the other hand, is an ideology. It does create moral imperatives. It does wish to organise society around its principles. It is a world view.

Of course, climate orthodoxy and environmentalism can be challenged from political or ideological perspectives. But there is no consistent “climate sceptic” position. There doesn’t need to be; It’s not an argument for a course of action, and its objections to environmentalism are varied. There have been criticisms of climate politics from the left, and from the centre (or center), and from the right. But these perspectives are not unique to climate scepticism.

To make his point, Roberts links back to a March ’07 post of his on Gristmill, where he makes the claim that,

The scientific contest — at least as it relates to the basic facts of global warming — is over.

If the science is settled, he reasons, then the idea that “The contest between climate advocates and their critics is primarily a scientific contest — a debate over who has the best science” is false. By elimination, the argument with no science must be political. Of course, both of Roberts’s premises are false. The scientific debate is not over – it’s never over, and can never be over. That is itself an unscientific statement.

Environmentalists hide their moral and political arguments behind science. If you challenge them, they will tell you that “the consensus” science is settled. There ensues a scientific debate about whether or not something “is happening”, not whether or not it follows from “something happening” that the appropriate course of action is the one which the environmentalist has proposed. But rarely is it the case that the political statement actually tallies with the science on the matter. What drives the political argument of environmentalists is catastrophism and images of polar bears clinging to ice floes. We have highlighted many times on this blog cases where the political language bears no resemblance to the scientific research on an issue. Our various posts looking at Caroline Lucas’s statements, for example, reveal that in most cases, she has simply made the science up. The “science is settled” argument is used as leverage in political arguments to diminish unqualified opinion, but even scientific authorities overstate the strength of research.

The claim that science has shown that “climate change is real and is happening” leads to an array of political arguments from environmentalists, as though all that need be shown to legitimise drastic action (the more drastic the better) is that mankind has influenced the climate. But ask any number of environmentalists what “climate change is real and is happening” actually means, and you will get as many different answers back. The “science” of the matter is portable, in that it is used to arm any number of arguments. But what is happening is not that the science of the argument is being used to illuminate the discussion. Instead the fact of the consensus is being used to avoid the argument being challenged. The moral and political argument is deferred to a “scientific fact”, which is neither. On Gristmill, Roberts continues:

Remember: the goal of political debate is not to establish scientific truth, or even to establish which side is closer to it, but to triumph in the realm of public opinion and public policy. No matter how much some people wish that having science on their side is an automatic trump card, it just isn’t. The relationship between accuracy and political advantage is tenuous at best.The most vociferous critics of global warming advocates — far-right conservatives — understand this viscerally, instinctively, if not consciously.

It is revealing that the issue on which Roberts choses to confront the “far right” is climate change. Environmentalism has thrived in an atmosphere of political exhaustion and cynicism. It therefore appeals to “science” to make it look like it isn’t political. It is. Nonetheless, Roberts is unable to challenge the “far right” – whoever he imagines them to be – on either any political basis, or any substantiated scientific basis. And in any case, it’s not as if there aren’t any far-right green perspectives. Environmentalism is not incompatible with some very nasty views about the human race.

Environmentalism has a lot to hide, and uses science as a fig leaf. Sceptics (and skeptics), in whatever political colours (or colors) they wear should not be afraid of bringing political perspectives to the discussion. It’s not about science.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a statement last month, outlining its position on global warming…

The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. 

The AGU does not explain what a “balanced” climate is supposed to be, nor do they offer any explanation as to what a “natural rate of change” is. This is, of course, because neither statement is scientific. The idea that the climate is “balanced” is an assumption, but with almost mystical significance, as is the idea that there are “natural” and “unnatural” rates of change.

Andy Revkin ran a post about the statement on the New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, the responses to which constitute an epic online battle between some high-profile sceptics and warmers. (The link follows, but BE WARNED: the conversation is a gigantic 1050+ posts long, and it is likely to cause your browser some problems. HERE. )

Environmentalism’s public enemy #2, Marc Morano, raised the point that the statement cannot be representative of the organisation’s 45,000+ membership. This then led to a comment from Raymond T. Pierrehubert, a member of the climate modelling blog team, Real Climate. (A fine example of newspeak, that climate modellers call themselves ‘Real’ Climate”).

In response to Mr. Morano, I’ll echo one of the other commenters in pointing out that AGU is a democracy, and the officers are elected by vote of the entire membership. If any significant part of the leadership were notably out of tune with the membership, they would be voted out of office pretty swiftly, or would never have risen to the posts they have. To deny the significance of this statement on the grounds that it is a product of the council is like denying the legitimacy of US law because we have a representative democracy. 

It emerged during the conversation that the AGU statement was in fact written by a committee, appointed by the AGU’s council, agreed ‘unanimously’ by the elected council after a seven-month process. That’s less than a paragraph every two months, yet it possesses zero explanatory power. No science. It could have been written by any old eco-warrior. It is a political statement.

It is striking that the truth of the statement was defended on the basis of the AGU’s democratic organisational structure, as though material facts can be determined in this way. Voting is a test of mandate, not a test of truth. The AGU leadership only needs to demonstrate legitimacy to its membership in a small way. You wouldn’t expect earth scientists to divide themselves on political matters, as though, for example, plate tectonics was a “left wing” theory of geography, and the nitrogen cycle a piece of neoliberal political philosophy. Earth science is about studying the material world, and it seems hard to imagine why differences of political ideology should split that study. However, the last paragraph of the statement says,

With climate change, as with ozone depletion, the human footprint on Earth is apparent. The cause of disruptive climate change, unlike ozone depletion, is tied to energy use and runs through modern society. Solutions will necessarily involve all aspects of society. Mitigation strategies and adaptation responses will call for collaborations across science, technology, industry, and government. Members of the AGU, as part of the scientific community, collectively have special responsibilities: to pursue research needed to understand it; to educate the public on the causes, risks, and hazards; and to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

The statement asks for the world to put earth scientists at the centre of a political process involving “all aspects of society”. Whatever side of the debate you are on, you have to admire their political ambition. The AGU statement attributes change to humans, and takes the unscientific view that change will spell disaster for human civilisation, unless, of course, we surrender sovereignty to earth scientists because,

Members of the AGU … have special responsibilities … to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate. 

If making statements such as “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming” is “communicating clearly and objectively”, then god help us. Such alarmist and unscientific language give all of us good reason to challenge statements like this. Which is unfortunately what didn’t happen, back at the NYT blog.

The conversation did not answer any problems with the AGU’s statement about the science (what is a “balanced climate”, etc) and nor did it answer the political questions raised by such politicisation of science. Instead, it avoided both by descending into wranglings of the eternal “it is happening”/”it isn’t happening” variety, with increasingly bitter accusations being hurled at and by either side. This seems to be how any discussion about climate change ends up. It resorts to “science”. But it is science that has been neutered. It is not science with explanatory power, it is science which is used to legitimise a course of action. The logic appears to be that if it is, once and for all, comprehensively proven that humans had influenced a change in the climate, the rest of the argument – that we put earth science at the heart of our political process – follows from it. But even showing that climate change “is happening”, doesn’t explain a “balance” or “stable” climate. As it happens, sceptics and warmers do find plenty of science to argue about – which is a good thing. Perhaps if climate scientists didn’t put their names to statements which appeal to “balance” and “natural” rates of change, those arguments would be harder for the sceptics to have. You don’t actually need to be a climate scientist to know that it’s bullshit.

Political arguments about the way to respond to climate change get deferred to scientific arguments. This takes the form of “the science is settled, and anyone who doubts it has a political agenda” followed by “it is happening” versus “it isn’t happening”. If the conversation at the NYT blog was just a battle of received wisdoms of the kind you can find all over the web, then it would not be significant. But the blog was populated by many of the “qualified scientists” that we’re being asked to store so much faith in, and who posted to the blog to register their support of the AGU statement. These were no amateurs. Warmers ought to realise that, although they may not believe themselves to be arguing from an ideological position, what they are arguing for is deeply ideological; they want to reorganise society around a new system of values. No amount of science and fear mongering legitimises that intention.

If you challenge politicians or public figures on climate policy you will hear the answer that it is the view of the majority of scientists. We have pointed out many times before that public statements on climate rarely match the reality of what has been said by the IPCC, even when it’s high-profile scientists (such as Lord Ma
y
, or Lord Rees), not politicians, who are doing the doom-saying. They ought to be answering questions about what kind of world that would be. Even a world dominated by climate-scientists-as-politicians would not have a “stable” or “balanced” climate, nor will that world be any better informed as to what a stable or balanced climate actually is.

Obesity ‘requires climate plan’ is a perplexing headline from the BBC today. While we are only too aware that the fat people have to take more than their fair share of responsibility for the ravages of climate chaos, we couldn’t help wondering what a ‘climate plan’ for obesity might entail. Treadmills wired up to turbines? Something to do with blocking out the sun? Or with methane?

It’s hard to say, because Professor Philip James of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce (duhh duh duh duhhhhhh, duh duh duhh duhh etc), and whose speech to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science inspired the BBC’s piece, isn’t really very specific.

Professor Philip James said the challenge of obesity was so great that action was needed now, even without clear evidence of the best options. 

Ah so that’s what he means – we need to take a lesson from climate policy, and run around implementing stuff for no apparent reason.

He also called for stricter rules on marketing and food labelling. 

He doesn’t specify which particular rules. But they should definitely be stricter.

And that’s your rations. In fact, all we actually learn from what Professor Philip James has to say is that Professor Philip James is just another opportunistic purveyor of crisis politics whose message is being broadcast uncritically by just another opportunistic purveyor of crisis politics. And these people wonder why the rest of us don’t take them seriously. Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, famously described climate change as a bigger threat than international terrorism. So, if obesity is as bad as climate change… erm… ‘International terrorism more frightening than fat people,’ anybody?

The New Generation Society’s Kennedy Lecture aimed to embrace the kind of challenge that its namesake laid before the world nearly half a century ago.

“Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, Washington DC, 20th January 1961

In short, by pursuing humanity’s common interests, the New Generation could transcend its differences.

Enter Sir Crispin, who brings to this lecture as many years experience of dealing with the World’s problems as have passed since Kennedy’s speech. He is someone we might like to turn to for sober reflection on the issues that the next generation faces. He is an authority on many subjects, from the scientific to the political. So how do the words of the two men compare?

In order to look forward, we have to look backwards, Sir Crispin tells us: past Kennedy and his vision of the world, and past history, to the birth of the universe. From this perspective, life on earth is “limited, ephemeral and precarious”, and humans necessarily more so. From this perspective, we can observe that subtle changes to the ‘fragile balance’ of interdependent relationships between organisms and geological processes have caused precipitous changes in both. And from this perspective, we are interfering with that natural order’s ability to achieve the balance on which the whole system depends. We are “tipping the system”, he says, and, quoting Al Gore, this is a “planetary emergency”. Therefore we must either alter the way we live our lives or expect a precipitous change in consequence. This scientific perspective creates the imperatives that New Generation must respond to.

But what a very different science this is to Kennedy’s. Where Kennedy talked about conquering deserts, Sir Crispin cautions against upsetting the fragile balance of nature. Where Kennedy urged the world to encourage the arts and commerce, Sir Crispin warns us that we have to entirely rethink economics, and that the ‘consumerist bonanza’ of the twentieth century is over. And where Kennedy hoped to inspire humanity with the idea of eradicating disease, Sir Crispin appears to regard disease as an inevitable consequence of our incautious meddling.

In order to respond to the crisis we face, Sir Crispin tells us there is a need for a new form of governance, and an entirely new philosophy. Humanity’s technological advances have generated such perilous unintended consequences that international legal frameworks to compel governments to ration consumption, and limit individual behaviour are necessary, he says. Leaving such important matters to conventional politics is not an option; politics is too easily influenced by the petty self-interests of human nature. This all seems to suggest that our moral, political and economic thinking should be integrated with, and mediated by, our scientific understanding of the planet. Already, the idea that moral actions are transmitted through the ‘biosphere’ has captured moral and political imaginations. Taking an ‘unnecessary’ journey is frequently depicted as an act of violence against future generations for the environmental impact it will cause. George Monbiot, for example, claims that flying across the Atlantic is the moral equivalent of child abuse.

This way of viewing humanity and its relationship with the natural world is legitimised by appeals to scientific truth. But the consequence is that arguments such as Sir Crispin’s desire to end consumerism are framed in terms of its effects on the planet, not because there exists the possibility of a more meaningful culture than one that celebrates material indulgence for its own sake. Right and wrong can no longer be discussed in human terms, but by appeals to natural science. And putting science at the centre of our moral and political understanding means that grand political visions which demand that we surrender material and political liberty go unchallenged on human terms. The language of politics is kept outside the realm of public discussion. It is instead issued by climate simulations running on computers, verified by select committees of qualified scientists.

Kennedy’s political vision – for better or worse – won him legitimacy and authority. Science was the means by which the New Generation could transcend their differences. Sir Crispin’s view of science limits the imagination and aspirations of the new New Generation. Kennedy asked us to contemplate exploring the stars, Sir Crispin says we must aspire to minimise our impact, lower our expectations, and mediate our aspirations.

During Kennedy’s short administration, the world saw how easily a conflict might escalate to atomic war. Since that time, the politics of the world have changed, and it no longer divides so easily into East and West. But, correspondingly, competing visions for the future have also collapsed, with the consequence that leaders and thinkers have struggled to find ways of making their roles legitimate. In response to this widespread disengagement from politics, the imagination unleashed during the Cuban Missile Crisis has been captured and exploited in order to elicit public sympathy for political campaigns in a variety of ways best summed up as ‘the politics of fear’. Climate change is our looming nuclear holocaust; our world war; the tyranny under which we labour. The Kyoto Protocol is our Cuban missile crisis. The very latest IPPC Assessment Report is our Little Red Book, our Das Kapital, our Bill of Rights.

We should not let claims to scientific truth put us off subjecting Sir Crispin’s call for a new form of governance and eco-centric philosophy to the scrutiny and challenge that all political ideas need. We need to establish whether his vision is a means to solving a problem that actually exists, or is an end in itself. Indeed, the science supporting Sir Crispin’s lecture is not uncontroversial, even amongst the climate science “consensus”. Professor Mike Hulme from the UK’s Tyndall Centre, for example, says of such politics: ‘The language of catastrophe is not the language of science … To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.’

Climate change is the defining issue of our time, but only because there are so few perspectives on offer to see through the world through. But the challenge facing the New Generation is not environmental catastrophe, but environmental catastrophism. We need to form a new way of looking at the world that isn’t so unremittingly negative about human achievements and to see ourselves as more than simply parasites, viruses, or a cancer infecting a dying planet. The New Generation should look forward to the future – not fear it – and look back through history, not to revise its horrors, but to reignite its passion and to create a history fit for the next New Generation.

On Gristmill, Andrew Dessler provides us with an excuse for a self-indulgent recap:

I was at a meeting earlier this week and was talking to one of the coordinating lead authors of the recent IPCC working group 1 report on the physical science of climate change. He remarked that he was quite surprised that how little substantive criticism the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report had received since its release just about one year ago. 

Reflecting on why this might be the case, he says:

the scientists writing the report knew that the denial machine would go over the report with a fine tooth comb looking for any “gotcha” mistakes to use to discredit the IPCC. Because of that, the IPCC report was extremely carefully worded so as to make virtually every statement in the report bulletproof. 

That may be so. But as we’ve reported before, the ‘denial machine’ is way behind the warmers – media, politicians and the IPCC itself – when it comes to misrepresenting what the IPCC reports have to say. Writing about AR4, for example, the BBC’s Richard Black claimed that ‘The IPCC states that climate change is “unequivocal” and may bring “abrupt and irreversible’ impacts”‘. When we looked at the report, however, it was clear that Black had simply taken words from the report and reassembled them to mean something entirely different. The report itself only used the word ‘abrupt’ once: ‘The MOC is very unlikely to undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21st century’. ‘Very unlikely’ becomes ‘may’.

The ‘irreversible impacts’ part is just as tenuous. According to the report:

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. 

But as we said at the time:

likely… some… medium confidence… approximately… 20-30% of species assessed so far… likely… increased risk… if… Of how many ‘assessed species’, exactly? 

But such caveats and unknowns don’t stop the BBC hack using the word ‘irreversible’ to sex up an article that would have otherwise been “IPCC report marginally less alarmist than last time, yet doesn’t say anything all that new”.

Likewise, IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri can’t resist the temptation to extravagate the IPCC’s findings beyond recognition, for dramatic (comic?) effect.

We picked up on Andrew Dessler’s argument last year that the earth was like a sick child, which needed the attention of the equivalent of specialist pediatric doctors – the IPCC – rather than engage with any of the ideas put forward by sceptics. ‘So given the critical nature of the climate change problem, who should we listen to?’ he wondered.

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. 

Following that, our survey of the contributing authors to the IPCC AR4 reports showed that most weren’t climate scientists, as he had argued. Many, in fact, were precisely the social scientists, computer scientists, and economists he believed should be excluded from the debate.

In his latest contribution, Dessler goes on to say:

In fact, it is quite amazing to me that essentially none of the IPCC documents produced over the last 18 years has been found to contain any substantive errors. 

He obviously has not been listening to climate catastrophist and IPPC author James Hansen, who said in New Scientist last year:

I find it almost inconceivable that “business as usual” climate change will not result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century. Am I the only scientist who thinks so? 

And has he forgotten the controversy caused by the use of the “Hockey Stick” graph, invented by Micheal Mann, who also happened to be lead author on the IPCC working group which made it famous? (Roughly equivalent to a researcher “peer-reviewing” his own work).

With all this in mind, Dessler goes on to say:

The trolls, of course, will come out with their litany of “errors” that the IPCC contains (I suspect a few will appear in the comments to this post), but when you look closely, the trolls are almost always misrepresenting the IPCC’s statements. 

In fact, that’s the most common attack on the IPCC: make the claim that the IPCC said something ridiculous (which it didn’t actually say), then disprove that ridiculous statement, and then use that as evidence that the IPCC’s reports cannot be trusted. “The IPCC says that 2 + 2 = 5, but that’s just hogwash. We know that 2 + 2 = 4. Thus, climate change is a hoax.” Yeah, right.

But Dessler is doing the trolls’ work for them. It’s just that he is only sensitive to the misrepresentation of the IPCC in one direction. It is even funnier that he himself misrepresents the IPCC. One of the people doing the best job of discrediting the IPCC in the world right now is Andrew Dessler himself. May he keep up the good work.

Dr. Caroline Lucas – Green Member of the European Parliament for Southeast England – continues to peddle scare stories to generate political legitimacy. From a press release carrying the dramatic headline “CANCER ‘CAUSED BY POLLUTION’, MEP LUCAS TO TELL BRIGHTON WOMEN“:

CANCER is often caused by environmental factors including toxic chemicals added to household goods, pesticides and poor air quality, local Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas will tell a Brighton cancer-prevention day this Saturday, February 9th. 

This rather conjures up images of people deliberately lacing household goods with carcinogens out of sheer spite, doesn’t it? No mention of the usefulness of chemicals, nor even their effect on reducing diseases, and extending human longevity. Nor the countless improvements they have made to our lives in other areas, such as improving the quality and shelf-life of food, leading to lower prices, and better diets, and therefore longer lives. Nope. Chemicals… are bad.

An increasing number of scientists are pointing to the link between toxic chemicals – especially so-called gender-bending hormone-disruptors – and breast cancer, which kills more than 10,000 people each year in the UK alone. 

We phoned Caroline Lucas’s press office (again) to find out who these ‘increasing number of scientists’ actually are, and what they are actually saying, and what research actually supports it. They said they’d get back to us. It seems highly unlikely that anyone is deliberately putting carcinogenic compounds into your breakfast, just for fun, nor even just for profit, as our Caroline goes on to suggest:

Similarly links are being found between pesticide use and cancers. Yet these technologies are all growing apace – the Government and EU simply must exercise caution, and put human health above the profits of their friends in the companies that manufacture them. 

Ah, it’s the Government and their mates again! A chemical conspiracy. Profit standing in the way of a cancer-free population. On this point, Caroline Lucas’s press officer told us that the statement that implies a conspiracy reflects her experience in working towards the EU’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances) regulations. Dr. Lucas apparently believes that a deal between European Conservatives and Socialists to reduce the extent of the regulations was the result of industry lobbying; not the result of debate and discussion. She didn’t like the result, so, of course, there’s a conspiracy… The conceit of the self-righteous. In a press release from 2005, Lucas said of the compromise…

Around 75 per cent of all cancers are caused by environmental factors, mainly chemicals, and each year more than 30,000 die in the EU due to occupational exposure to substances which are carcinogenic. This directive was designed to require manufacturers to ensure their products don’t contain the chemicals responsible, at least where safer alternatives are available. 

Is there any scientific basis for the claim that 75% of cancers are caused by environmental factors to imply that industrial chemicals are ‘mainly’ responsible? The claim that 75% of cancers have environmental causes is the corollary to the theory that 25% of cancers have genetic causes. It means nothing. Cancers take years to develop, and their causes are too many to attribute to one category of risk. The complexity of many factors interacting with one another make it virtually impossible to evaluate such a hypothesis scientifically, let alone in lay terms. It is pure speculation. If the true extent of the effect of environmental cancer-causing factors were known, it would imply that all of the factors had been identified. They simply haven’t. Not in synthetic compounds, and not in naturally occurring substances. Nature is made of chemicals too, you know. And in just the same way, we’ve barely begun to understand the role of genetics in cancer. About all one can say with any certainty is 100% of cancers are the result of a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors. And why stop at chemicals? Perhaps Lucas should be going the whole hog and banning the environment. After all, it’s not just cancer you can catch off it. Just walking through happy organic mother nature friendly fields exposes you to risk. And then again, so does locking yourself up behind your front-door, terrified that cancer is waiting for you at the top of the road. Lucas’s statistic – almost certainly bogus – is meaningless when wielded so inexpertly, and is terrifying to anyone who happens to take what she says at face value.

Lucas takes weak and controversial scientific theories out of context and uses them as scientific fact to use them to create legitimacy for her political campaign. Whether she does this consciously, or whether she is oblivious to the fragility of her argument is not our concern. The effect is the same, and she does not appear to be taking any steps to treat her words with caution, let alone get the measure of just how controversial they are. And she seems happy to terrify people to give her political cause some momentum. Her words are used to effect the same thing as the Labour Government’s claims of WMDs in Iraq being mobilised, launched and landing in the UK in 45 minutes. It is the politics of fear. Without that fear, and ‘sexed up’ scientific ‘evidence’, Caroline Lucas has absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to offer her constituents.

The problem for Lucas is that one moment science is bad, because it makes nasty chemicals, the next it’s great, because it tells us that we’re all going to die. But what Caroline wants is not for science to develop safe chemicals which better our lives at all. She wants no chemicals, and she wants society to be organised in a specific way. She uses the science which is convenient to give that vision authority, and the fear it generates is used to create political legitimacy. The remaining science is immoral science; the result of conspiracies which dazzle us with false promises to satiate lusts for consumer lifestyles, but actually poison us. There is no middle ground coming from the Lucas Press office. Check it out for yourself.

The irony is that in making people sick with worry, she is likely to have a more deleterious effect on people’s health than industrial substances in the environment. First, because of the direct effect of such terror about getting cancer any minute now. Second, because of the distrust it breeds about useful technologies. Third, because it may have the consequence of generating policies which actually throw the chemical baby out with the toxic bathwater. Lucas wants a chemical free society. But part of the reason that cancers appear to be on the rise is that people are living longer, not dying from other diseases – thanks in part, to the chemicals Lucas is intent on banning. But also, thanks in part to the kind of medical research that Lucas wants to outlaw. Her press office still haven’t got back to us about exactly where she got the idea that ‘increasing numbers of scientists’ are pointing to the link between toxic chemicals and breast cancer, or that 75% of cancers are caused by environmental factors (or what that even means). What they did say was that Europeans for Medical Advancement have something to do with it. Europeans
for Medical Advancement, like Europeans for Medical Progress – of which Caroline Lucas is a patron – campaigns against the use of animals in medical research.

Catherine Brahic, “New” “Scientist”‘s online environment reporter continues to reflect the magazine’s confusion between environmental science and environmental politics.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say “so much for the pulling power of oil money”. Reports suggested that it played a big role in George W Bush’s two terms in office, but according to this stunning online interactive graphic, it was powerless to save Rudolph Giuliani in the 2008 primaries.

The graphic is from OilChange International, who have made an online toy showing the relationships between past US presidential candidates and oil industry donors.

But what is the significance of oil money? Is it really surprising that corporations and businessmen donate to presidential candidates? Not a lot, and no. US presidential candidates are not going to have got to where they are by not taking donations and by refusing to be friends with rich people. You might find something equally scurrilous by looking at donations from any industry sector – toys, for example – and their donations. Even greener-than-though, pledge-making eco-warrior Al Gore took $142,014 in 2000, according to this silly database. (Only enough to pay his gas bills for just a couple of months though.) Rich people hang out with each other. It’s what they do. Companies (and individuals) make donations to US politicians. It’s how it is done.

Corruption? Hardly. Right or wrong? That’s a very different question. There are many discussions to be had about whether what goes on in Western democracies is ‘right’. But that it it ‘all about oil’ is an argument which comes up again and again, and again, in the climate debate. Why?

It reveals an awful lot about the Green movement (as well as a large part of the liberal left) that it can’t actually challenge its counterpart, or call for a new form of politics which doesn’t require such vast sums of capital. It’s easier to say, for example, that John Kerry ($184,037) lost the election to George Bush ($2,649,725) because of oil money, or because people are stupid, or like rats, and republicans appeal to stupid people. Instead of reflecting on why their ideas have failed to find a home in the public imagination, increasingly commentators have looked for other reasons to explain the failure of the self-proclaimed good guys. If politicians eager to identify with progressive movements were to try to challenge the politics by which powerful interests gain influence, they would undermine themselves. This is perhaps more evident in UK politics. We’ve linked to this video before… David Cameron, standing on top of Greenpeace’s HQ in London, showing off his ethical credentials, and announcing a new policy.

Is it any less dodgy to be in bed with Greenpeace (a multi-national player if ever there was one) than with an oil Baron? Who is Cameron trying to appeal to here? His plans for micro-generation will be appealing to about 0.001% of the UK population – mostly his landed school chums. Meanwhile, micro-generation is likely to serve only as a colossal pain in the arse to anyone who has to depend on it – everyone else. His policy has not emerged from a well-developed political philosophy that he wants to share, but just the immediate need to appear to be in bed with the “right people” in the mistaken belief that it will appeal to “the people”. Greenpeace are only too happy to be the powerful corporate interest in that relationship. All it has to complain about is that it’s own vast spending power hasn’t had the effect on the electorate that it imagines the oil money has.

If $2 million were enough to buy a US president, the US wouldn’t be quite the superpower it is. Like the shrill cries about ExxonMobil-funded sceptical scientists, the claim lacks any sense of proportion.

The oil argument is a big, black…er… red-herring tossed out by a movement that thrives on the exhaustion of political elites, but finds itself the object of just as much cynicism from the public. Naturally, then, the movement finds faults with both. The former is corrupt, and the latter is stupid. Tired politicians are turning to the environmental movement as a PR move for empty campaigns.

Back to the New Scientist blog… Brahic is, of course, not reporting science, but politics. We certainly don’t dissapprove of coverage of the politics of the environmental debate. But Brahic and the New Scientist’s agenda don’t actually bring a fresh perspective on the debate more than they epitomise it. You could hear the same old stories and tired rhetoric from any mouldy old hairshirt ecowarrior. Recycling internet innuendo, conspiracy theories and doom-mongery is not ‘news’. There is an interesting debate to be had about the relationship between science and politics, but New Scientist is not fuelling it.

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