Monthly Archives: March 2008
We have reported before how climate alarmists seek to draw parallels between the shape of arguments made by the morally reprehensible, and climate change “denialists“. At the same time, some like to make analogies of climate scientists and physicians. Andrew Dessler, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University, former scientific advisor to the Clinton Whitehouse, and climate change activist blogger at Gristmill does both.
After spotting an advert [PDF] in the New York Times for the Indoor Tanning Association’s campaign website, sunlightscam.com, Dessler compares the strategies employed by the Indoor Tanning Association, and the deniers:
The association between sun exposure and skin cancer is every bit as robust as the association between greenhouse gases and climate change. And that means it’s pretty damn robust. What’s interesting is that the Indoor Tanning Association seems to have virtually plagiarized the strategy incorporated by tobacco companies and global-warming denialists. The phrases “hypothetical risks” and “no compelling scientific evidence,” along with efforts to smear the mainstream scientific community with accusations of corruption, are right out of the global-warming denialists‘ handbook.
This really underscores the effectiveness of the strategy. Regardless of how strong the evidence is — whether it’s the connection between smoking and lung cancer, exposure to sunlight and skin cancer, or greenhouse gases and climate change — it seems possible to create doubt in the general public’s mind with a concerted PR campaign.
What is interesting about Dessler’s inability to discuss global warming without recourse to crude analogy is that it reveals a strategy of his own, and the poverty of climate change “ethics”. Climate alarmists find it so difficult to connect their arguments to people that they need to seek abstract parallels in the structure of dubious arguments, and those of their opponents, despite their being totally unrelated. Thus we see Naomi Oreskes struggling to identify continuity between the legal defence offered by tobacco companies and the inertia of the environmental movement in the USA. And we see Marc D. Davidson attempting to diminish the moral character of climate change “deniers” by comparing their arguments to the arguments in favour of the continuation of slavery made nearly 200 years ago.
These are sure signs of the exhaustion of the climate change argument. It borrows the moral high-ground from history, but struggles to make the moral case for ‘action’ on its own terms; climate change denial is the equivalent of being in favour of the slave trade. The climate change argument borrows scientific credibility from medicine; climate change is like cancer, and climate scientists are like doctors. This unsophisticated reasoning isn’t designed to shed any light on the matters at hand. It merely uses this borrowed moral and scientific certainty to position climate alarmists on the “good” side.
Earth Hour 2008 ‘happened’ yesterday. Except it didn’t. The whole point is that nothing happens.
Created to take a stand against the greatest threat our planet has ever faced, Earth Hour uses the simple action of turning off the lights for one hour to deliver a powerful message about the need for action on global warming.
Except that this wasn’t a message, because anybody who wasn’t involved wouldn’t have been able to witness anything. Everyone who was involved would have been reflecting on the “greatest threat our planet has ever faced” silently, while everyone else carried on about their business, oblivious to the most pointless demonstration in the planet’s history.
Even if anyone had noticed, what would the “powerful message” have been? “Look, we don’t have any lights on”.
The organisers tell us that “Earth Hour 2008 was a global movement.” But this form of action is in fact inaction. Environmentalist campaigns may consider themselves “movements”, but in fact, they are characterised by antipathy towards any form of movement whatsoever, like last year’s Climate Camp at Heathrow Airport was, for example.
Similarly, Friends of the Earth’s campaign The Big Ask Virtual Web March is about channeling the collective apathy of the environmental non-movement to create a database of video whinges about modern life. Tellingly, it boasts many more contributors than they could muster at any real-world march.
The environmental unmovement is not only confused about what is action and what is inaction, but also what is progressive, and what is retrogressive. A consequence – could it ever been realised – of dragging the developed world back to primative technologies and basic lifestyles is that the expression of political action will also be limited. The environmental unmovement is against mass movements. Literally. And it is by depriving mass movements of the means of action that the environmental unmovement becomes a retrogressive and deeply conservative force.
Here’s something special (and not work-friendly), to mark our 100th post, which brilliantly captures the absurdity of the nature worship in today’s world. Unless you are easily offended, turn up the sound:
Back in February, we reported on the new plans for ‘eco-towns’ in the UK, to make up part of the housing shortage. We suggested that it was unlikely that even the eco-town-planners would actually go as far as to replace the sewage system with water-free composting toilets…
It is not clear whether the Government intends that eco-homes in eco-towns will feature eco-toilets. It seems unlikely. Yet the principle remains – the ethic driving these developments is not that humans deserve a pleasant space to live in, but that their basic functions and needs are grudgingly catered for in such a way as to remind them that everything they do contributes to destroying the planet.
We may have been wrong. According to a Guardian story today, there may be no option for the eco-proles to be connected to the sewers.
By capturing rainwater and reusing waste water, eco-towns will also have to be “water-neutral”, which means there should be no overall increase in water demand as a result of the development.
The Government’s view of human needs is very clear. As a human being, you are entitled to no more water than falls on the land you occupy. That’s your lot.
The Guardian chooses not to focus on this aspect of the developments, however. The title of the piece is, “New eco-towns to make it hard going for cars with 15mph limit”.
Half of all households in eco-towns will have to live without a car and those that have one will find their speed limited to 15mph, according to standards for the wave of new towns unveiled yesterday. In, a series of anti-car measures announced by Hazel Blears, the secretary of state for communities, large parts of the towns of up to 20,000 homes each will be car-free. Homes will instead be built no farther than 400 metres from a bus or tram stop, and car-sharing schemes will replace car ownership.
Anti-car and ‘sustainable’ (i.e. rationed, and insufficient) water provision reminded us of the following sketch from Monty Python.
All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us
With roads and water infrastructure out of the question for Britain’s new eco-slums, you have to wonder about the legitimacy of a government which doesn’t sufficiently provide for the public. Eco-proles will be stuffed into these developments so that the Government can tick its “sustainability” targets, and satisfy the mean-spirited and authoritarian demands of the environmental movement. The concept of “sustainability” is used here by the Government as a means to regulate lifestyle, but also to wash its hands of the responsibility of providing adequate public goods. No one will be asking what else Environmentalism did for them, because the entire point of Environmentalism is to provide less and less opportunity for life to be about more than existing.
The irony is that it is highly unlikely that these new estates will be populated by the middle class eco-evangelists, but by the working poor – the ones hardest hit by the housing shortage. It’s one thing to make the lifestyle choice to switch from the electricity supply grid, and to disconnect yourself from the water main and sewage system, and to get around by bicycle and bus. More power to the elbows of people who want to experiment with different ways of life, if that’s what really floats their boats. But it’s another thing entirely to lock an entire generation into a lifestyle with such low horizons. This is a political act that serves to control people, limit their possibilities, inconvenience them, diminish their expectations, and force a lifestyle upon them. It will create a class of people who cannot take a bath, or even a shower without checking that there has been sufficient rainfall. It will prevent people who may find themselves in need of a car from taking work which is not near a bus or train stop. What if someone living in an eco-town has a relative who suddenly falls ill and needs regular care, making a car a necessity? What if someone is relocated by their employer, making public transport an impractical solution? Or, dammit, what if someone actually enjoys having a bath, or having days out in the car? Who the hell is the government to decide that these are aspirations beyond what is reasonable?
As we have said before, the politics that has given rise to the eco-slum has never been tested in the UK. Nobody has ever voted for the concept of “sustainability”, yet increasingly, people are being asked to live with the consequences of sustainababble.
They like their weird analogies at Gristmill. The latest comes from scientist and Green oracle Joseph Romm, in an introduction to a tirade about geo-engineering by guest poster Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project:
Geo-engineering is to mitigation as chemotherapy is to diet and exercise
Weird. Because chemotherapy is rather more useful than diet and exercise when it comes to, say, curing someone of cancer. It’s even weirder for the fact that Gristmill’s last weird analogy, by Romm’s fellow scientist and Green oracle Andrew Dessler, likened the planet to a sick child in need of expert medical advice. Romm, it seems, would rather turn Dessler’s sick child over to some TV nutritionist to get them jogging and eating more broccoli.
The thrust of Becker’s piece is that the planet might be screwed, but that efforts to mitigate global warming through geo-engineering – giant mirrors in space, the injection of aerosols into the atmosphere, carbon sequestration, seeding oceans with iron oxide, and that sort of thing – are unethical and impractical.
Intergenerational ethics argue against us leaving massive, intractable problems for future generations, forcing them to deal in perpetuity with nuclear waste, carbon sequestration sites, and geo-engineering systems – all subject to human error and to failures that would be deadly.
Apparently, however, leaving future generations without infrastructure and energy supplies to withstand the ravages of future climate, is perfectly acceptable. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any human endeavour – apart from jogging and eating broccoli, perhaps – that would meet Becker’s ethical criteria. Ultimately Becker’s is an argument against progress, because pretty much all human activity is geo-engineering. As William M. Briggs puts it, “It is trivially true that man, and every other organism, influences his environment, and hence his climate.” And as Becker continues, his antipathy towards humanity’s efforts to improve its lot shines through:
Think of dams and levees designed to control rivers so that people can live in natural floodplains – sometimes with disastrous results ... Geo-engineering is born of the dangerous conceit that human engineering is superior to nature’s engineering … Lacking regard for natural systems, we have upset them … we lack humility.
The Greens’ resistance to geo-engineering sits very uncomfortably with its message that the planet is screwed and we’re all going to die. It suggests that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations. It suggests that they don’t actually believe their own press releases, and that they know the situation is not as dire as they would like the rest of us to think it is. And that Environmentalists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces – “we’ll save the planet our way or not at all.” It suggests that Environmentalists regard science and engineering as the cause of problems, and not the solution.
Even if [geo-engineering] were able to stabilize climate change – which is doubtful … We still would be addicted to imported oil, still would be subsidizing terrorism with our gas dollars, still would suffer the cost and supply traumas that are inevitable with finite resources, still would send our children off to die in resource wars, still would pollute the air and cause respiratory problems for our children, and still would wipe out species, many of them beneficial to us, as we invade their habitat.
As if reducing CO2 emissions would stabilise the climate. The weather will continue to pick off those who are not buffered against it regardless of whether climate change predictions are realised or not. As if a stable climate would prevent resource wars or global terrorism. If anything creates resource shortages, Environmentalism does. Indeed, by drawing on the dangers of terrorism to justify environmental politics, Becker merely demonstrates how Environmentalism and the War on Terror are united in their deployment of the Politics of Fear.
There are good reasons to think that geo-engineering cannot stabilise the climate either. Control of the climate might well be too much to ask of a strategy that manipulates a single variable in a hugely complex system. And yet the tweaking of a single variable – CO2 emissions – is precisely what the Greens are demanding.
Contrary to Romm’s analogy, the Greens’ efforts to save the planet are far more like chemotherapy than diet and exercise. After all, it is the Greens who liken humanity to a plague, virus or a cancer infecting planet Earth. And their insistence that we batten down the hatches, tread lightly on the Earth, ration our energy and bow to the superiority of Mother Nature would leave us even more vulnerable to her whims than we are already.
Engineering fixes for global warming are, says Becker, “born of desperation”. Quite possibly. But what he should be asking himself is who created the climate of desperation in the first place.
It’s spring. And you can tell, not by the chirping of birds in the trees, or the frolicking of lambs in the fields, but by the whining and bleating of journalists in the Independent and Guardian newspapers about how spring is coming earlier every year, and how this means a catastrophe is just around the corner.
In ‘How the blurring of the seasons is a harbinger of climate calamity‘, Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor of the Independent, writes,
According to documented observations throughout 2007 and 2008, events in the natural world that used to be key spring indicators, from the blooming of flowers to the appearance of insects, are now increasingly happening in what used to be thought of as mid-winter, as Britain’s temperatures steadily rise.
The problem for McCarthy is that much of the UK is set to be covered in a blanket of snow this Easter Sunday. Hardly a ‘key indicator’ of spring.
But what is a ‘key indicator’ anyway? And in what sense does Spring ‘exist’, such that it has scientific meaning? Is there an objective measure of spring, so we know that it has sprung in the way that we can know what time sun-rise and sun-set are?
To be fair, Paul Evans in the Guardian is far more circumspect than McCarthy.
Despite its stops and starts and the recent wild and extreme weather, all the signs point to this being one of the earliest springs Britain has had. But can we rely on the traditional harbingers to announcespring’s arrival, or should we be looking for new signs as the seasons become more complicated with the effects of climate change?
After listing some anomalies of some species behaving in spring-like ways before they are ‘supposed’ to, Evans gives an interesting account of ‘phenology’.
Phenology is the study of such natural first events, and the Nature’s Calendar website, run by the Woodland Trust, is bulging with early sightings of frogspawn, tadpoles, nest-building birds, butterflies, catkins, celandines and snowdrops from 5,000 volunteers around the UK. “The natural world is giving us clear year-on-year indications that things are changing,” says Kate Lewthwaite, phenology manager at the Woodland Trust. “The timing of natural events is one of the most responsive aspects of the natural world to warming, so it is an important indicator of change.”
McCarthy tells us something similar,
The changes and many others have been monitored in detail because in Britain there has been a renewal of the old discipline of phenology, or the study of the timings of natural events, which was favoured by the Victorians but largely abandoned by the 1950s. It has been revived by an environmental statistician, Dr Tim Sparks from the Monks Wood wildlife research centre nearHuntingdon, part of the Government’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). Dr Sparks set up the UK Phenology Network, which has been taken over by the Woodland Trust, a charity which runs it in partnership with CEH as Nature’s Calendar, with 40,000 people from all over Britain contributing records.
Thing is, now that there are thousands of volunteers, listing this kind of thing, with more leisure time than ever before, and new forms of communication being opened up by the Internet, it is likely that there are more opportunities for spotting such anomalies. The earliestphenologists would have been rare, eccentric rich people, rather than dog-walking amateur wildlife spotters. And early signs of spring are likely to have been regarded previously as simple anomalies, whereas now, the hunt is on not only for ‘harbinger of climate calamity’, but also attribution to a single causal factor. In other words, when we’re on the lookout for climate change, anything will suffice as evidence.
The razor-sharp John Brignell of Numberwatch has, over the last few years posted some interesting thoughts on Spring madness. He is especially sceptical of phenology as a method of detecting climate change.
BBC: Spring 2006 couldn’t have been more different from 2005. Weather always varies from year to year but with climate change it is the long-term trend that is it important. What this year’s “cold” weather allows us to do is show very clearly how timing of events closely reflect temperature. Given that the average temperature for January – April was 1.5 C lower than last year, all events (average dates) were later than the same events in 2005.
Brignell: What would have been the opening paragraph if events had been earlier? It is inevitable that these embarrassing moments for the phenologists will keep recurring. Will even their media allies eventually lose patience?
The assumption made by phenologists is that spring is an ‘event’ that happens to, or in the world that we can establish by better and better measurement. But is there really a definitive measure of spring? An old English proverb tells us,
Cast not a clout till May be out.
Spring has always been variable. And, let’s face it, so is the UK’s summer. Environmentalists look for order which has been upset, without testing the idea that order ever existed in the first place.
McCarthy continues his doom-saying.
Although many people may see the changes as quaint or charming – butterflies certainly brighten up a January day – they are actually among the first concrete signs that the world is indeed set on a global warming course which is likely to prove disastrous if not checked.
In fact, the blurring of the seasons in Britain is now as serious a piece of evidence of climate change as the rapidly increasing melting of ice across the globe, in glaciers and in the land-based and marine ice sheets of the Arctic and the Antarctic.
The phenomenon shows that a whole range of organisms is already responding actively to the greatest environmental change in human history, in a way that people – and especially politicians – are not…
It is undeniable confirmation that a profound alteration in the environment, the consequences of which are likely to prove catastrophic, is already under way.
It is happening so quickly, and without people realising its true significance, because, in Britain, the major effects of climate change are initially being felt as less cold winters, rather than as hotter summers.
Did you get that? In case you missed it AN EARLY SPRING MEANS WE’RE DOOMED, AND WE’RE GOING TO DIE! Yet McCarthy can’t even get his facts straight…
Last month, that shift produced its most remarkable image yet – a photograph, taken in Dorset, of a red admiral, an archetypal British summer butterfly, feeding on a snowdrop, an archetypal British winter flower.
The Snowdrop is not an archetypal winter flower, but a spring flower, as Evans in the Guardian points out, quoting botanist Ray Woods:
The cues that trigger bloom in spring flowers are complex. “Snowdrops this year are not particularly early,” Woods says. “The reason for this is that the cue for snowdrop flowering is the temperature of the previous autumn, not the current spring. If autumn is mild, snowdrops flower later in the following spring; if it’s cold, they flower earlier.
And the red admiral is not a summer butterfly, but in fact famous for being the last butterfly of the autumn, and earliest in the year. As the Wikipedia article on the Red Admiral tells us:
In northern Europe, it is one of the last butterflies to be seen before winter sets in, often feeding on the pale fire of ivy flowers on sunny days. The Red Admiral is also known to hibernate, re-emerging individuals showing prominently darker colourings than first brood subjects. The butterfly also flies on sunny winter days, especially in southern Europe.
Being on the Southwest coast, in the path of the warm currents, the Dorset climate itself is especially mild, and the sunniest region of the UK.
What McCarthy believes to be a harbinger of death is in fact barely even an anomaly. But why let facts get in the way of good climate change story? Butterflies and snowdrops aren’t ‘archetypes’ of a confused climate on the brink of catastrophe, but McCarthy’s article is an archetype of poorly-researched, ignorant, opportunistic and alarmist climate activism, dressed up as journalism.
Writing in the Guardian this week, John Vidal says,
The government is in danger of losing credibility on climate change because more than half of all its departments are failing to reduce their carbon emissions enough to reach levels that the nation as a whole is expected to meet.
This data is from the Sustainable Development Commission, who are, they tell us,
the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, we help put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.
The fact that there is a public institution watching over the other public institutions to make sure they are ‘sustainable’, might have once implied some kind of economic auditing process in the public interest. But this quango is more worried about the UK Government’s carbon footprint than the uncorrupted delivery of public goods. The Commission’s website front page says,
Carbon emissions from offices have fallen by 4% since 1999, however nearly two thirds of departments are still not on track to meet the target of reducing carbon emissions from offices by 12.5% by 2010. The sixth annual assessment of government operations finds that, despite encouraging initiatives, government is still not on course to meet targets and urgently needs to raise its game.
But who gives a toss what the UK Government’s performance in delivering ‘sustainability’ actually is? Did anyone vote at the last elections for the concept of ‘sustainability’? Governments are supposed to deliver public goods, and the level of ‘sustainability’ of that process bears no relation to the utility of those services, the legitimacy of delivering services to particular end users, or the diligence of the civil servants engaged in delivering services. As long as services are being delivered, then it’s not as if anyone is being robbed.
Words that used to mean something in political discourse related to human experience; ‘Libertie, Egalitie, Fraternitie’. We know what these words mean, even if we might enjoy the expression of them in different ways. Similarly, once the influence of Churches and accidents of birth no longer had so much pull on the direction of society, political ideas were about how society might be more legitimately organised so as to best realise those values.
Today’s green buzzwords are instead designed to bridge the chasm between Environmentalism’s objectives and human values. Like ‘balance’ (as in ‘the climate is out of balance’), ‘sustainability’ in fact has very little meaning. Your house is not ‘sustainable’ – it is, at some point, going to fall down, or be knocked down. You are not sustainable – you are going to die, at some point. Nothing material is ‘sustainable’. The political currency of these words has not been achieved by the prospect of them making the world a better place, but by capturing anxieties about the security of the future. The values of ‘sustainability’ and localism reflect a breakdown in the belief in society and its ability to improve life through industry and democratic organisation. Indeed, industry becomes an antithesis to Environmentalism, and pesky democracy just gets in the way of ‘ethical’ lifestyles.
Environmentalism’s attempts to justify itself on a rational basis by using ‘science’ belie its mystical foundations; ‘sustainable’ lifestyles which are ‘balanced’ or otherwise in ‘harmony’ with ‘nature’ are designed well before any scientific evidence exists that they will have any effect whatsoever. Hairshirt lifestyles and Gaia worship existed before the Gaia hypothesis. Now it’s trendy, not because the world has been brought up to speed on the science, but because the ‘ethics’ are so appealing in our ethically disorientated world. In other words, being ‘sustainable’ is not about one’s actual ‘impact’, but about distancing oneself from the chaotic, immoral world in favour of the comforting morality of natural orders.
Vidal is wrong, the Government may be embarrassed by it’s performance, but this will not undermine its credibility, because no one cares. In setting up the quango, it set itself up to be embarrassed, but this embarrassment will not make any difference because only a small group of people believe that ‘sustainability’ actually means anything.
CommentIsFree, rather like Grist, is a rich mine of ecobabble. Its writers are so prolific that it’s hard to keep up with their imaginations. Yet its writers are also often the highly qualified experts we’re all being asked to invest our confidence in. We missed “It’s time for a body count” by Dr Simon Lewis, who is a Royal Society research fellow at the Earth and Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds, last week. But it is an article of such absurdity, it’s worth digging up. He is one of the experts who are telling us what the priorities for the future ought to be, after all.
Lewis begins by giving a quick account of a trial following some direct action which aimed to shut down a UK power station.
In the trial, for which I was an expert witness, crucial questions were how many people does climate change kill, and what proportion is the UK responsible for?
Lewis believes that an accurate body count attributed to human CO2 will help us prioritise global warming:
The World Heath Organisation publishes the only global estimate of the number killed by climate change – about 150,000 annually. Worryingly, this estimate comes from a single modelling study in 2002, and includes only four impacts of climate change (deaths from one strain of malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea-type diseases and flooding). It is, as the authors point out, a highly conservative first estimate and, by now, considerably out of date.
In other words, we don’t know how many people die as a result of climate change, and there’s no evidence for it…. but it must be much higher… because… science says… well… erm… it just must be.
We can, with a greater degree of accuracy, measure the effects of lack of money and development on humans. According to a recent UNICEF report, The State of the World’s Children, 9.7 million under-fives die every year – mostly in under-developed regions, and from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea (17%), malaria (8%), and pnuemonia (19%). Even if the entire world focused its efforts on climate change mitigation, that figure would barely change. In fact, the figure is a historic low – the first time it has ever been under 10 million, according to the report’s authors.
Climate kills people, changing or not. A “stable” climate is dangerous if you’re not equipped to cope with it. If climate change will be “worse for the poor” – as is often claimed – then, as we have argued before, the problem is that people are poor.
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.
“Why are we relying on a single, limited, out-of-date study for our information on the numbers of people killed by climate change?” asks Lewis. The reasoning seems to imply that such a figure is even possible. But this legitimises a very nasty approach to human problems. If someone lacks access to resources, and is killed in a flood or drought, what has really killed them? Environmentalism transforms the moral imperative to help other humans into a responsibility to balance atmospheric gases. Such are the consequences of using climate science as a stand-in for moral philosophy.
Lewis continues by explaining that accepting responsibility for whatever figure would be found isn’t politically convenient.
Politicians have not asked for a body count. But why not? Perhaps there are parallels with another politically charged issue involving widespread mortality, where nobody counted: the war in Iraq. Governments probably do not want to hear about people dying in foreign lands because of their own choices. Who is going to fund comprehensive studies when the headline might read “British carbon emissions responsible for 3,000 deaths last year”?
And here, Lewis forgets that the most compelling image in the climate change battle for media attention has not been the dying baby, but the polar bear clinging to an iceberg. We have plenty of mortality statistics (ie, 9.7 million children) which we could take responsibility for solving, without feeling responsible for causing. The problem is that “science” can’t actually find a way of blaming anyone for it. And here is the rub: as a moral philosophy, Environmentalism operates on blame, by the “scientific” attribution of causes to effects. In other words, guilt is the substance of the Environmentalists’ version of “solidarity”.
Our stance on the climate debate is often assumed – with approval or derision, depending on who’s doing the assuming – to reflect a wider Conservative outlook. We wouldn’t want people <cough> to go around thinking that Climate Resistance is some sort of Conservative reply to Environmentalism. Because it isn’t.
Steve McIntyre made a similar point after that very amusing voting malarky at last year’s Weblog Awards. McIntyre usually avoids the politics, believing that the best contribution he can make to the debate is to audit the science. And very good at it he is too. We doubt that the problem is at root a scientific one. But we are certainly intrigued as to why the Left and Environmentalism are assumed go together like the Right and Denial.
Many critics of climate orthodoxy argue that Environmentalism is the continuation of various left-wing ideologies. The argument is that the Left – following the collapse of Communism – has had to find new ways and new reasons to regulate. This is true to an extent: Anti-Capitalism and Environmentalism appear to be interchangeable in the words of protesters and activists at G8 protests and the like. But just as often, the language of the protesters is the same the establishment’s. After all, it was Margaret Thatcher – no Commie, her – who put climate change on the mainstream political agenda in the UK. The current leader of the UK’s Conservative Party, David Cameron, goes to considerable lengths to appear greener than Brown, to the extent that he’d get into bed with Greenpeace. If Environmentalism were truly an antithesis to the Right, why would Greenpeace be so willing to give Cameron an edge? The mainstream political parties are hardly distinguishable from each other or from fringe parties when it comes to Green policies. The Labour Party has not gone as far as to replace its logo with a green tree, but Tony Blair was apparently quite keen to use his relationship with George Bush to get the US into line on the Kyoto Protocol. Equivalently, there are people on the Left and the Right who dismiss climate alarmism on their own terms, whilst disagreeing about the nature of capital, and the best way to proceed into the future. Left and Right simply do not define the global warming debate, but two perspectives that are struggling to positively define themselves.
Things are, of course, divided differently in the USA. It has been harder for Environmentalism to establish itself there. But it would be hard to argue that Environmentalism has not gone mainstream in a country where Al Gore wins Nobel Prizes and Oscars, and John “The climate debate is over” McCain gets the Republicans’ Presidential nomination. So, what has Environmentalism really to do with the Left?
Our view is that the rise and rise of Environmentalism is not the result of the reinvention of Red as Green, but because politics as a whole is in crisis. Increasingly, policy areas are becoming detached from the Left-Right process. Not that the Left-Right axis is necessarily worth returning to, as it is evident that it is exhausted. The problem for politicians is in defining something new. As we put it in our opening statement: “Environmental concerns are serving to provide direction for directionless politics”. The inability to define themselves in such a way as to achieve public engagement is something that both the Left and the Right struggle with in today’s world, and Environmentalism is an expression of that disorientation, not the cause of it. Challenging environmental orthodoxy is a way to address that disorientation.
Imagining ecological collapse as an overweening crisis demanding immediate action and collective sacrifice, with emergency decisions overriding citizens’ normal wants and wishes, is not really a politics at all, but the suspension of politics—there is no political choice, no constituencies to balance, nothing to deliberate. There is no free activity, just do or die. It seems we will have traded one state of emergency for another.
But Environmentalism is not the only expression of directionless politics. On both sides of the Atlantic, and on both sides of the political spectrum, the agenda is set by the Politics of Fear. That is to say that politics is legitimised by the terrifying scenarios that politicians promise to protect us from. We would agree with Gourevitch when he draws parallels between the climate change movement and the War on Terror as the Left and Right’s deployment of the politics of fear:
… in conditions when conventional political ideologies fail to inspire, there is a temptation to resort to the politics of fear as a way of restoring the power and authority of elites. The hope is that the quest for security, rather than anything higher, can become a unifying political principle in its own right.
Moreover, it’s very hard to draw a comparison between the philosophies of the traditional Left and Environmentalism. Unlike Environmentalism, the Left is not characterised by opposition to economic growth; its goal has been to distribute its riches more rationally amongst those who actually generate capital, rather than just those who simply own it. This new disregard – antipathy even – for production distances Environmentalism from the Left. It might sometimes be Anti-Capitalist, but it is more the kind of Anti-Capitalism that the Taliban offer, not the old Left. Furthermore, across the range of Green arguments are plenty of economic ideas which depend on the market creating the solution to environmental problems; ‘fair trade’, for example, or creating markets to encourage the growth of “new technologies” (the Greens’ very own techno fix) in renewable resources. Meanwhile, the working class – the very group that the Left aimed to rouse, so that it could realise its potential – are the object of Environmentalism’s demands that we “Reduce! Re-Use! Recycle!” – they are, according to the Green ‘left’ the unthinking consuming masses, whose pleasures are base, destructive and need to be controlled.
In summary, we are not Conservatives. But please don’t let that put anyone off.
We find ourselves somewhat obsessed with this one. It’s a lecture by Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at the University of California, San Diego, that’s been doing the rounds for a while. It’s a polemic against US climate sceptics, who Oreskes believes are ideologically and financially motivated individuals, who have successfully impeded the dissemination of the “scientific message” about global warming.
Oreskes kicks off with statistics from a recent poll which suggest that “72% of Americans [are] completely or mostly convinced that global warming is happening” and that “sixty-two percent… believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. This shows, says Oreskes, that “the scientific message is getting through to the American people.” Except that it doesn’t. Because the message that “life on Earth” hangs in the balance, such that it faces “major disruptions” unless we take “immediate and drastic action” is not a scientific one. You certainly won’t find it in any IPCC reports. Two minutes into a lecture about how climate sceptics misrepresent the the science for political ends, and Oreskes has herself done precisely that.
Her next offering is an “unequivocal” statement from the IPCC TAR (2001):
“Human activities… are modifying the concentrations of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions”
But here is the entire paragraph, from which she quotes selectively:
Human activities — primarily burning of fossil fuels and changes in land cover — are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents or properties of the surface that absorb or scatter radiant energy. The WGI contribution to the TAR—Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis—found, “In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” Future changes in climate are expected to include additional warming, changes in precipitation patterns and amounts, sea-level rise, and changes in the frequency and intensity of some extreme events.
“Most” and “likely”. “Unequivocal”. Spot the difference. Undaunted, Oreskes quotes the IPCC’s 1995 Second Assessment report to show that “in fact, the scientific community had actually already come to a consensus that global warming was beginning to happen in 1995”:
“The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human impact [sic] on global climate”
And here is the full section from which she quotes:
Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors. These include the magnitude and patterns of long term natural variability and the time evolving pattern of forcing by, and response to, changes in concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and land surface changes. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.
In 1995, the scientific consensus, if that is what the IPCC represents, was little more than “we don’t know”. But, according to Oreskes, the consensus is even older than that. She quotes from a press release that announced the publication in 1979 of the US National Research Council’s Charney Report:
A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use
which is, she says, a
very clear statement of what it was that scientists felt they had come to understand. In short, there was already a consensus in 1979 that global warming would happen. And that it was not a small issue.
See what she did there? The fact that a 1979 press release used the word “consensus” (or more specifically, the words “indicates a consensus”) means that, in 1979, there was a consensus. Hey, it’s easy this history of science.
And who needs a consensus anyway? Lyndon B Johnson didn’t. His message to congress in 1965 (“in the days when politicians actually listened to scientists” says Oreskes) that “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels” demonstrates the gathering political momentum, she says. But here’s Johnson’s quote in its original context:
Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Entire regional airsheds, crop plant environments, and river basins are heavy with noxious materials. Motor vehicles and home heating plants, municipal dumps and factories continually hurl pollutants into the air we breathe. Each day almost 50,000 tons of unpleasant, and sometimes poisonous, sulfur dioxide are added to the atmosphere, and our automobiles produce almost 300,000 tons of other pollutants.
Johnson’s 5,500 word message contained just that one reference to carbon. And nothing about climate change. It talks instead about clean air, disposal of waste, pesticides, that sort of thing. But Oreskes makes it look as though anthropogenic climate change was high on the political agenda 40 years ago.
The scientific case really firmed up, she says, in the 1970s. And importantly, she insists, the science was not yet politicised. She cites three studies, including one from the JASON Committee in 1979, which was commissioned by the US government amid a fuel crisis to analyse the environmental repercussions of a switch from oil to coal. The report featured an early climate model. The abstract of the paper says:
Calculation with this zonally averaged model shows an increase of average surface temperature of 2.4 deg for a doubling of CO2. The equatorial temperature increases by 0.7 K, while the poles warm up by 10 to 12 K. Effects of the warming of the climate are discussed.
Burning coal would exacerbate the problem, they concluded. We resist the temptation to shout “it’s all about oil”. And of course, Oreskes is guided only by the cold, hard facts of science. She presents a graphic from NOAA, to show how the JASON report’s predictions have been confirmed by subsequent data:
This graphic does more than merely support the model, she says – it shows that the prediction has come true to a “startling degree”:
They also predicted an effect which we now call ‘polar amplifaction’; that the effect would be greatest at the poles, maybe as much as 10-12 degrees incre
ase in temperature at the poles, for doubling of CO2. So, in other words, four or five times as great as the global average. Well, I want to jump ahead in my narrative for just a moment, because it’s not that common that scientific predictions actually come true. Or at least not that often that they come true to a high degree of specificity. But this is an example of a prediction that has come true to a startling degree. So this is a map recently released by NOAA that shows the mean surface temperature increase compared to a base period 1951-1980. But not just average for the whole world, but showing you how the changes are different in different regions. So the global mean increase for this period, or now, compared to this period is half a degree centigrade. But look at the polar regions; look at Alaska. The increase in Alaska is 2.1 degrees. That’s four times the global mean. That’s exactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979.
“[E]xactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979” our collective arses. Were Alaska representative of the entire Polar regions, she might have a point. But it isn’t. Most of the Northern Polar region’s temperature anomaly is +1.2-1.6 or +0.8-1.2. And we can see there is just one small area of the Southern Polar region which is warmer than the global mean. Oreskes has selected an unrepresentative worst-case to support her point. From the evidence she presents, it would be equally justified to argue that the model predictions were wrong to a “startling degree” on the basis that parts of Africa, Asia and South America have seen temperature rises as big as those in Alaska. (And remember that the 2D projection used in the figure artificially increases the apparent size of Alaska compared to the Tropics.)
Anyway, the story goes that the Charney and JASON reports, among others, grabbed the attention of the White House. The IPCC was established in 1988, and in 1992 George Bush Sr. signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set the stage for the Kyoto Protocol. Mother Nature was going to be OK. Except that then it all started to go horribly wrong. Oreskes wonders why:
If scientists understood in 1979 that global warming was going to happen, and if they knew by the early 1990s that it was starting to happen, and if our first president Bush signed the framework convention, why are we still here, in 2007, still arguing about whether global warming is even happening?
This question is the subject of the second half of Oreskes’ talk. In her own words, “the first half of this talk was about the truth; the second half is about the denial”.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so, really trying to understand what has happened here in the United States in the past fifteen or twenty years and I believe the answer is explained by one very strange poll result. The fact is that although the American people are now convinced that global warming is indeed happening, more than half the American people still think that scientists are still arguing about it.
This apparent contradiction is not, says Oreskes, the result of disagreements between scientists (as we can see do exist) and/or disagreements between the scientific predictions and observations (ditto). Nope…
We, the American people, think that scientists are still arguing about it because this is in fact what we have been repeatedly told.
That is to say that what the American public are being told is false, and they believe it, and this belief is reflected in the poll. Oreskes says that the sort of falsehoods peddled
include that there is no proof – that the science is uncertain. That there’s no consensus – that scientists are divided. That if warming is happening, it’s not anthropogenic, it’s just natural variability. If it is anthropogenic, it isn’t necessarily bad. That we can adapt to any changes that might occur. And that controlling greenhouse gases emissions would cost jobs, harm, or even destroy the U.S. economy.
Having just failed so spectacularly to prove the robustness of the consensus, Oreskes might wonder why anyone should find any of these challenges particularly outlandish. (And how can there possibly be a scientific consensus that we cannot adapt to any changes that might occur, or that controlling greenhouse gas emissions would not cause economic harm?) But instead, she asks: “When did scientific uncertainty become a political tactic?” (When surely a more pertinent question for an historian of science is: When did certainty start having anything to do with science?)
She tells us that the history of denialism is as long as that of the consensus on climate change. And at the heart of the denial industry is the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
The Institute was founded, according to Oreskes, to defend Ronald Reagan’s plans for the SDI “Star Wars” project. Members of the GCMI would make public statements in the mass media, to show that scientists were not “unified in their opposition, but in fact were arguing about it”, and would threaten to sue under a Fairness Doctrine that required balance in the media at the time. She asks:
If you have 6500 physicists opposing a program [SDI], and three supporting it, then what kind of balance would it be if you gave equal time to the three?
By the 1990s, however, the cold war was over, leaving the GCMI without a purpose. They employed their skills instead to casting doubt on the mainstream science of global warming, says Oreskes. To illustrate the point, she shows a graphic from a 2004 study by Boykoff and Boykoff of global warming press coverage between 1988 and 2002.
There is a number of problems with this approach. First, the study looked at only four publications – NY Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Such prestige publications are far more likely to report cutting-edge, controversial research, and are more likely to seek a counter opinion so as not to insult their audience. Second, this shows just one level of media bias – of which there are many (like which research gets covered in the first place. And indeed, the Boycoff study is not without it’s own biases. For example, it tells us on page 1 that, “The continuous juggling act journalists engage in, often mitigates against meaningful, accurate, and urgent coverage of the issue of global warming.”) Third, the study looks for agreement between the thrust of an article and the “consensus position” that AGW is real and is happening. In which case, a story reporting James Hansen’s claim that global warming will “result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century” will be put in the AGW dominant/exclusive categories, while a story along the lines of “global warming unlikely to cause significant problems to New York City in the near future” will find itself in one of the sceptic categories – even though the latter is closer than the former to the IPCC position. The statement “global warming is happening” simply isn’t sophisticated enough itself to provide anything meaningful to measure statements by. The analysis lacks any measure of how far a story departs from the IPCC – in either direction. Fourth, it assumes that the “global warming is happening” side has not engaged with tactics of its own. Yet, as we can see, the unsophisticated “global warming is happening” statement can turn barking mad statements about climate science into truth, while assigning informed caution to the “denier” camp. Is that n
ot a tactic? It certainly looks tactical. And, of course, the message that we’re all going to die, because something really really horrible is about to happen is also a tactic – one that we have referred to here as “the politics of fear”. Such tactics ask us to suspend our judgement because the consequences are just too great. Yet Oreskes shows that, if we suspend judgment, anything can pass as evidence. Fifth, Oreskes uses the statistics from the report with no historical perspective. Another graphic from the same study reveals the more interesting picture that, from about 1996, the number of “balanced” articles is roughly equal to the number of stories which push the AGW line:
Oreskes then says that it is an irony that the Reagan Administration had been dismantling the Fairness Doctrine, “which it viewed as unnecessary government intervention in communication markets”. Huh? Yes, it is ironic, but only because it undermines her own argument that there is a cabal of Republicans bent on distorting the scientific message.
“As the science became firmer”, says Oreskes, the “attacks became harsher and more personal”. She highlights a “highly personal attack” against IPCC lead author on the 1995 IPCC SAR, Benjamin Santer, by Frederick Seitz (GCMI Chairman), William Nierenberg, and S. Fred Singer, who, in an open letter to the IPCC…
accused Santer of making “unauthorized” changes to the IPCC reports to downplay doubts, make science seem firmer than it was
That’s a personal attack? As it happens, it is true that Santer made changes to the report subsequent to its approval, but before its publication. The letter claimed that Santer had removed the following three clauses, which had been agreed to by the authors, reviewers and governments:
“None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gasses.”
“No Study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic causes.”
“Any claims of positive detection of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced.”
This “personal attack” was neither groundless nor personal. Santer took responsibility for the changes, though it emerged that he had been “prevailed upon” to make the chapter consistent with the Summary for Policymakers (a point acknowledged by Fred Singer). Oreskes goes on to claim that the alteration was legitimate and within the peer-review process, as though it were the final word. But as Fred Seitz has pointed out:
Dr. Santer says that “IPCC procedures require changes in response to comments,” Of course they do, but not after the governments have accepted the final draft. The fact is that someone connected with the presentation of the published version — presumably Dr. Santer and others — rewrote basic technical material in Chapter 8 with the result that scientific doubts about man-made global warming were suppressed. Clearly, governments will have to look elsewhere than the IPCC for sound science on climate change.
Whether or not the revision was legitimate in terms of the IPCC process, it reveals something rather murky. Oreskes, meanwhile, sets the legitimate dispute up as an attempt to smear honest scientists, who had no questions to answer. She then proceeds to tell us “who Fredrick Seitz was”… Beginning with his academic credentials, and a few of his career highlights, culminating in his last paying job…
In 1979, Fredrick Seitz became an advisor to the R.J. Reynolds Corporation. His job was to direct a medical research program to confound the links between tobacco and cancer. Between 1975 and 1989 RJR Nabisco Company, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spent $45 million on this program. And from 1978 onwards, Seitz was its director. The focus of the program was to (quote) identify highly promising young investigators who are underfunded at present, and to fund them to do research that could be then used to argue that the scientific evidence was uncertain.
The next few minutes are spent going over old documents and speeches to show that the point of the scientific research was to build a case against litigation in the US courts. The important thing about this, Oreskes says, is that it shows that science was used not to show how tobacco was safe, but to create reasonable doubt. She then moves on to Fred Singer, and his work in challenging various “consensus” positions on environmental issues, and “defending tobacco”. Her point, it seems, is to show that in the cases of acid rain, CFCs, and environmental tobacco smoke, these men used the same argument: the science was uncertain, concerns were exaggerated, technology will solve the problem, no need for government interference. This is what Oreskes calls the “Tobacco Strategy”.
But why would they do this – attack science, defend tobacco – Oreskes wonders. It’s politics, she says. They are against regulation. It’s the ideology of laissez-faire. Earlier in their careers, when these men were working to defend Regan’s SDI program, they were driven, according to Oreskes, by anti-communism. They object to regulations and environmental laws because they represent “creeping communism”. Testing the men’s actions and words against the maxim that “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”, Oreskes concludes that it is indeed vice that Singer and Seitz are engaged in. They do not “make a political argument on political grounds”, she complains, and they “disguised a political debate as a scientific one”. She charges them with misrepresenting the science, confusing the American people, and, in the case of climate change, delaying political action on one of the most pressing global issues of our time.
To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between “denialist” arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.
In Oreskes’ world, a warm Alaska is enough to prove the 1979 theory of Polar Amplification, a single graph from a biased study is enough to show that the media is dominated by a secret political agenda, and the dealings of two dodgy scientists is apparently enough to undermine the good work of climate science in the eyes of the public – a public that she sees as an unthinking, uncritical mob who just sit there swallowing any old rubbish that is thrown at them. Oreskes accuses others of “distorting science”, ”
tactics” and “political motivation”. But her argument is all three. She lies to show that others have lied. She distorts the science to show that others have distorted the science. She points to others’ political agendas to conceal her own. She does not search for agreement between scientists about theories, and she does not look for agreements between theories and observations to prove a consensus. It doesn’t matter to Oreskes what the science is, or whether it can be verified, nor even if it is consistent. She is only interested in consensus. And consensus is about politics, not science.
But despite the onslaught from the influential denialists, the fact remains that – according to Oreskes’ own figures – 62% of the US public “believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. If any distorted message is getting through to the American poublic, obviously it does not come from the denier camp. Oreskes’ problem is not that science gets distorted for political ends, but that that distortion is not always in the direction that she would prefer. One can only assume that Oreskes would be happier only if the message that was getting through was even more unrepresentative – and even more hysterical – than it already is.