Left, Right and Wrong

When we were wondering why Environmentalism is often assumed to go hand in hand with the political Left, we suggested that Environmentalism and the War on Terror had similar roots in the politics of crisis and fear. A commenter named Harry made an interesting point that we missed at the time, but which certainly needs addressing:

The editors here say that they would define the Global War on Terror as one based solely on fear. If so, (and I certainly dont buy into that), it’s a fear based on actual evidence or occurrence of global terrorism.

Balance that against the current global warming evidence and tell me which one is more likely.

Well, that’s not quite what we said, but, hey. Harry is right that there is evidence for global terrorism – the World Trade Centre was attacked, and so on.

But there is evidence that the world has been warming up a bit recently; there is evidence that human activities have something do with some of that. The problem is with the political response to that evidence. The point is that to argue that ‘there is no such thing as global terrorism’, or that ‘there is no such thing as global warming’ is to fail to take issue with the idea that evidence of global terrorism or anthropogenic global warming is sufficient argument for the execution of the ‘War on Terror’, or for ‘drastic action’ to mitigate climate change.

We don’t buy into that.

Of course, there is a reasonable expectation that those responsible for terrorist attacks will be brought to justice, and similar attacks to be prevented. But what passes for justice and prevention often has the consequence of the precise opposite. The images of a world ravaged by terrorism and global warming are both used to reign in liberties, and to limit political imaginations. Proponents of these causes use the promise of a secure future to hide the fact that they lack any idea about how to deliver a better one.

We do not think that AGW is the result of a conspiracy of communists to raise taxes, or whatever. Likewise, we don’t think the Iraq war is “all about oil”. No UK party would have stopped us going to war in Iraq. And you’ve got to wonder where John “The climate debate is over” McCain fits into a Leftist conspiracy to tax people on the pretext of saving us from Gaia’s Revenge. Rather, the War on Terror and Environmentalism are two peculiar responses to a crisis of politics in which it fails to resonate with the public. This crisis is expressed variously as moral panics, urgency for ‘drastic action’, and the conviction that a failure to respond will undoubtedly spell the end of civilisation as we know it. In other words, where you see politicians responding to a ‘crisis’, it is invariably nothing more than their inability to make sense of the world. The irony is that the politics generated by fears about terrorism and eco-catastrophe is dictated by the readings of thermometers, or by the will of terrorists, rather than by the purposeful actions of world leaders.

Snowmen Families Hit by Meltdown Double Whammy

Continuing the English tradition of judges making absurd public statements… And following Professor Philip James‘s call for a “climate plan” to “tackle obesity”… And following Sir David King’s “climate change poses a bigger threat than terrorism“… Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Justice Coleridge:

“Without being in any way over-dramatic or alarmist, my prediction would be that the effects of family breakdown on the life of the nation, and ordinary people, in this country will, within the next 20 years, be as marked and as destructive as the effects of global warming. 

“We are experiencing a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the meltdown of the ice caps.”

What Happened to the Precautionary Principle?

It only seems like yesterday that the Precautionary Principle was the standard currency of Environmentalist rhetoric. But like acid rain and global cooling, the precautionary principle seems to be disappearing from the Green lexicon. Increasingly, Environmentalists are drawing on the putative certainties of science – “The debate is over”, “The science is in” – rather than its inherent provisionality, to support their politics.

Take Naomi Oreskes’ belief that prominent denialists who created the “tobacco strategy” are now involved in undermining the scientific case for action on climate change, by “creating” doubt.

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. 

What Oreskes seems to forget is that doubt, rather than being generated by the “denialists”, has long been at the very core of environmental politics. Consider the following statement, which is part of the 1992 Rio Declaration, agreed at the Earth Summit…

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats to serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. 

It is even more interesting in the light of Oreskes’ claims that scientific certainty on global warming had been achieved well before 1992:

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 [at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio], why are we still here, in 2007, still arguing about whether global warming is even happening? 

Article 3 of that declaration states:

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this, such policies and measures should take into account different socio-economic contexts, be comprehensive, cover all relevant sources, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and adaptation, and comprise all economic sectors. Efforts to address climate change may be carried out cooperatively by interested Parties. 

Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.

The Environmentalist narrative of catastrophe, doom, and apocalypse, once given superficial scientific plausibility (in that science cannot exclude the possibility of such things happening – which it never could), provides doubt and uncertainty about the security of the future, which in turn provides political momentum and legitimacy for environmental policies. For example, we wrote back in November about how the language used in the IPCC AR4 synthesis report was taken out of context. The IPCC report said:

Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands. Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales, but more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded. 

The fact that “more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded” means little more than “we don’t know”. Yet as we said at the time, this highly ambiguous statement made it into the headlines – with the help of senior IPCC members – as a statement that ‘The IPCC states that climate change is “unequivocal” and may bring “abrupt and irreversible” impacts’. In other words, it was not what the IPCC knew which was making the headlines, it was what the IPCC didn’t know. This is reflected in an article by Oreskes in July 2006 in the LA Times.

None of this is to say that there are no uncertainties left — there are always uncertainties in any live science. Agreeing about the reality and causes of current global warming is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. There is continuing debate in the scientific community over the likely rate of future change: not “whether” but “how much” and “how soon.” And this is precisely why we need to act today: because the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become, and the harder it will be to solve. 

What matters to Oreskes is not the substance of scientific understanding, but an isolated, binary fact that “climate change is happening”. From here, “climate change” can mean anything. Once it has been established as a “fact”, it doesn’t matter what science says, because the doubt incubates the imagination better than certainty, and prohibits scientific expertise from undermining the power of the nightmare.

So is there really a difference between the application of doubt by the warmers, and by the tobacco strategists? The warmers use doubt about future security, while the tobacconists – as they are depicted by Oreskes – doubt that the science is sufficiently complete to make statements about the security of the future. The two “sides” Oreskes invents only differ in how best to respond to the same doubt. The dichotomy that Oreskes asks us to consider is not which argument is more sound, but which is safer, given the honesty of the parties in question. Oreskes invents an opposition and an argument for them, in order for the precautionary principle to look sensible by contrast, because scientific “fact” is not something Oreskes even has
time for.

In a 2004 study, Science and public policy: what’s proof got to do with it? Oreskes writes,

In recent years, it has become common for opponents of environmental action to argue that the scientific basis for purported harms is uncertain, unreliable, and fundamentally unproven. In response, many scientists believe that their job is to provide the “proof” that society needs. Both the complaint and the response are misguided. In all but the most trivial cases, science does not produce logically indisputable proofs about the natural world. At best it produces a robust consensus based on a process of inquiry that allows for continued scrutiny, re-examination, and revision. Within a scientific community, different individuals may weigh evidence differently and adhere to different standards of demonstration, and these differences are likely to be amplified when the results of inquiry have political, religious, or economic ramifications. In such cases, science can play a role by providing informed opinions about the possible consequences of our actions (or inactions), and by monitoring the effects of our choices. 

Oreskes appear to want things both ways. On the one hand, she claims that there is scientific certainty, which is being undermined by tobacconists. But on the other, she claims that scientific certainty is not a necessary requirement for action on climate change, and that no such thing exists. The consequence of this strategy is that the doubt is used to close down the possibility of any approach to climate problems other than mitigation – we have to constantly mitigate against the worst imaginable scenario. (Even though, ironically, great doubt surrounds whether such a strategy would actually have the effect intended.)

A last thing to consider is what certainty might do to Environmentalism. If we really were able to determine what climate problems exist in the future, we would be able to respond efficiently, taking into account both the costs and the benefits of changing the way we live either to adapt to our new circumstances, or mitigating to avoid them. This would deprive the environmental movement of the thing which drives it: fear. Such a loss would destroy Environmentalism. The preoccupation with worst-case scenarios generates legitimacy for Environmentalism only because science is unable to rule out the possibilities that green imaginations generate. Doubt is the fuel of Environmentalism.

The precautionary principle thrives beneath the surface of contemporary eco-rhetoric about the consensus. It’s just that it’s very hard to talk about that at the same time that you’re banging on about how the science is settled.

Fat Polar Bears Are Killing the Penguins

This is funny. Funnier is the outrage expressed by Grist readers, of whom Newscloud is funniest:

If there is a hell, Inhofe belongs there 

The Grists need to watch out. And not only on 1 April. All those stuffy, old-fashioned churches want their congregations back. And even stuffy old-fashioned churches can recognise a good scare tactic when they see one. Grist are disconcerted by the slogan on an Evangelical t-shirt:


Apparently, those pesky evangelical Protestants even have the cheek to claim that the Rapture will get us before the Ecopocalypse does.

But why fight when they have so much in common? On the back of the t-shirt:



Whenever they do manage to work out a way to agree that Christ and Gaia are sort of kinda like the same thing in a way really if you think about it, they get on like a house on fire. A house probably set ablaze by the ravages of climate change for some reason or other that sounds vaguely biblical, and which might yet turn out to be untestable scientifically. But there is a pdf knocking around somewhere. It was peer reviewed and everything. Onward Gristian Soldiers…

Women Ultimately Responsible for Fat Swedish Men Killing the Polar Bears

Further to this and this, there’s now this:

One of Johnsson-Latham’s main theories is that global warming is a gender issue because men pollute more because they work more, drive longer, take airplane trips, etc., whereas women pollute less because they are at home are not driving or traveling as much. 

I had problems with this for several reasons. One of them is that I believe that many men these things in part so they can earn the esteem, affection, love, and loyalty of women. I said that one of the problems we have is that there is a big, big difference between what feminists want men to do — focus less on making money, spend more time taking care of their children, be less competitive — and what women in the dating market place want men to do.

I said that this is a problem which I have never heard a feminist take responsibility for. I said, “The first time I hear a feminist say that women have to change their expectations of men and their choices of men, she will be the first.” To my surprise and pleasure, she said, “Well, let me be the first” and said that women do need to take responsibility for this.

(Via Tom Nelson)