Who'd've Discredited It?

Posted by admin on May 30, 2008
May 302008

‘Case against climate change discredited by study’ shrieked the Independent yesterday. That must be one hell of a study. Except that it isn’t:

A difference in the way British and American ships measured the temperature of the ocean during the 1940s may explain why the world appeared to undergo a period of sudden cooling immediately after the Second World War.

Scientists believe they can now explain an anomaly in the global temperature record for the twentieth century, which has been used by climate change sceptics to undermine the link between rising temperatures and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Not only does the study (published this week in Nature) not claim to discredit what the Independent‘s headline claims it discredits, but it doesn’t even discredit what the scientists behind the study claim it discredits. Moreover, what the scientists claim their work does discredit was, according to prominent Environmentalists, discredited years ago. And finally, what everybody seems to be trying to discredit isn’t even something that sceptics seem to be crediting in the first place.

Yes, sceptics are concerned about the post-war temperature slump, but not because of the sudden steep drop around 1945; it is the downward trend in temperatures between about 1945 and 1975 that they suggest needs explaining (which is actually longer than the upward trend between 1975 and 1998, just so you know), given that greenhouse gas emissions were rising throughout that period.

And as the graph used by the Independent to bolster its case (supplied by CRU, apparently) demonstrates, the Nature study does absolutely nothing to address that concern:

In fact, the most striking thing about the graph is that, once the sampling errors identified by the study have been taken into account, the period of warming in the latter half of the twentieth century was shorter than previously thought, and that the ’45-’75 temperature slump is more pronounced.

According to Phil Jones, a co-author of the paper, the study

lends support to the idea that a period of global cooling occurred later during the mid-twentieth century as a result of sulphate aerosols being released during the 1950s with the rise of industrial output. These sulphates tended to cut sunlight, counteracting global warming caused by rising carbon dioxide.

“This finding supports the sulphates argument, because it was bit hard to explain how they could cause the period of cooling from 1945, when industrial production was still relatively low,” Professor Jones said.

That might be so. But the aerosols issue is supposed to have been done and dusted long ago. One of the central criticisms aimed at the infamous Great Global Warming Swindle, for example, is precisely that it failed to entertain the idea that the post-1940 decline in global temperatures was the result of increases in sulphurous emissions that masked the forcing effect of rising atmospheric CO2. George Monbiot described the omission as ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty‘. After all, he said, that ‘temperatures declined after the Second World War as a result of sulphate pollution from heavy industry, causing global dimming…is well-known to all climate scientists.’ And as we have reported before, this was also one of the main points raised by the Royal Society’s Bob Ward and 36 scientific experts in their open letter to Swindle producer Martin Durkin.

And yet, as we’ve reported elsewhere, other experts in the field just don’t agree. UC San Diego atmospheric physicist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, for example, told us that the empirical evidence for the sulphate masking of warming is ‘pretty flimsy’. We do not doubt that the Nature study is an important contribution to the field. (Although it’s interesting that Steve McIntyre seems to have produced a similar analysis more than a year ago.) What we do doubt is that the headlines, soundbites, and wild interpretations from newspapers and scientists alike bear much relevance to what is a dry, technical, scientific study, which, while increasing our ability to understand and predict climate trends, says little in itself about the truth or otherwise of global warming.

That said, the BBC’s Richard Black has demonstrated uncharacteristic reserve in his coverage of the paper, which includes the following quote from CRU’s Mike Hulme:

Corrections for this measurement switch have not yet been applied to produce a new graph of 20th Century temperatures – that work is ongoing at the UK Met Office – but as the land temperature record shows a flattening of the upwards trend from the 1940s to the 1970s, clearly something did change around the 1940s to ameliorate the warming.

“It perhaps suggests that the role of sulphate aerosols, that cooling effect, was less powerful than we thought,” said Mike Hulme from the University of East Anglia (UEA), who was not involved in the study.

George Monbiot and the Royal Society are just plain wrong – the science is plainly not ‘settled’. And so is Steve Connor, the author of the Independent article. As he wrote last year in response to the Swindle:

The programme failed to point out that scientists had now explained the period of “global cooling” between 1940 and 1970. It was caused by industrial emissions of sulphate pollutants, which tend to reflect sunlight. Subsequent clean-air laws have cleared up some of this pollution, revealing the true scale of global warming – a point that the film failed to mention.

‘Scientists’ have ‘explained’ nothing of the sort. As this case shows, the science is not settled. Indeed science is never settled. It is constantly re-evaluating what it understands about absolutely everything. And that’s especially crucial to bear in mind when the science in question has been bestowed with the kind of political significance that climate science has. To claim otherwise is to do a disservice to both science and politics. It reduces science to a flimsy fig leaf used simply to hide the embarrassing inadequacies of the latest political fad; and it reduces politics to an aimless exercise in number-crunching.

Ethics? What Ethics?

Posted by admin on May 29, 2008
May 292008

Ben has a review of James Garvey’s The Ethics of Climate Change: right and wrong in a changing world over at Culture Wars:

Few arguments in favour of action to mitigate the effects of climate change begin without claiming that ‘the science is in’. James Garvey’s The Ethics of Climate Change is no exception. There begins an account of the ‘science’ which forms the basis of an unassailable consensus that the world faces a terrifying future. The account is a breathless list of tragedies that await us: sea-level rises, species-extinctions, glacial retreat, resource wars, and climate refugees, all of which will be worse for the poor, and most of which have been caused by the industrialised world. We face ‘planetary upheaval, the deaths of countless living things, human suffering on an enormous scale and all sorts of other horrors’, Garvey tells us. Be very afraid. 

This scientific account generates the imperatives that we, in this perilous world, are supposed to respond to – if we want to be ‘ethical’, that is. But, as Garvey goes on to point out, ‘scientific facts are a necessary part of reflection on climate change, but they are nothing near the whole of it’. The moral philosopher is on hand to help us navigate the awkward journey, beset by doom, catastrophe, and other unimaginable horrors, toward a future of mere survival…

Read the rest of Environmentalism’s Fig Leaf here.

Environmentalism’s fig leaf

Posted by admin on May 29, 2008
May 292008

Few arguments in favour of action to mitigate the effects of climate change begin without claiming that ‘the science is in’. James Garvey’s The Ethics of Climate Change is no exception. There begins an account of the ‘science’ which forms the basis of an unassailable consensus that the world faces a terrifying future. The account is a breathless list of tragedies that await us: sea-level rises, species-extinctions, glacial retreat, resource wars, and climate refugees, all of which will be worse for the poor, and most of which have been caused by the industrialised world. We face ‘planetary upheaval, the deaths of countless living things, human suffering on an enormous scale and all sorts of other horrors’, Garvey tells us. Be very afraid.

This scientific account generates the imperatives that we, in this perilous world, are supposed to respond to – if we want to be ‘ethical’, that is. But, as Garvey goes on to point out, ‘scientific facts are a necessary part of reflection on climate change, but they are nothing near the whole of it’. The moral philosopher is on hand to help us navigate the awkward journey, beset by doom, catastrophe, and other unimaginable horrors, toward a future of mere survival.

With the science of the horror stories established and given credibility and authority by a host of international scientific organisations, Garvey asks us to consider ‘inequality’ in the world. Not, as we might expect, inequality as the unequal distribution of capital, but as the distribution of access to ‘carbon sinks’ – natural biological and geological processes, which remove carbon from the atmosphere, and maintain the ‘balance’ on which climatic security supposedly depends. According to Garvey, from our privileged, moneyed, positions, we in the industrialised world have been able to secure unfair access to these sinks, depriving the poorer inhabitants of the planet of their natural birthright. Worse still, we have overloaded the capacity of these sinks to absorb carbon for some time to come.

Producing carbon dioxide – that is to say, using more than our fair share of carbon sinks – is not simply a moral wrong in the present, according to Garvey. What we do now carries consequences into the future. Accordingly, he challenges us to consider that moral responsibility isn’t limited by any kind of proximity. We have as much a duty to reduce our carbon emissions for the sake of the starving child on the other side of the planet as we do the starving child a thousand years into the future.

But Garvey’s moral calculations are easily challenged. How might the same starving child, were he standing right in front of us, be helped by us reducing our CO2? To suggest that it would help would seem entirely uncaring, and not at all ‘ethical’. Garvey might answer that CO2 emissions are what have caused hunger and injury. But this would seem to forget that famine, drought, and disease have historically always been part of life for individuals and communities living at the edge of society. Such forms of poverty are not new, but they are ‘natural’. If we can’t say that reducing CO2 emissions would help this child, it is hard to see how Garvey’s argument against proximity can be sustained. If, in a wealthy country, we were to stumble across some case of poverty, we would not say that the conditions people were living in were the result of climate change. We would not, as Garvey does, say that it was a consequence of our ‘moral failure’ to consider the connection between our CO2-producing actions, and their consequences. We would instead suggest that it was a social problem, arising out of material inequality. So why aren’t the problems faced by Garvey’s victims, thousands of miles away, not also problems of material inequality? Why are our responsibilities to people thousands of miles away different to our responsibilities to people right in front of us?

This concern about equality in the world – as the distribution of carbon sinks – conveys a bizarre understanding of ‘equality’. Equality seems to be no longer understood as a matter of the relationships between humans through economics, politics, or through any social structures, but through geological and biological processes. The morality of actions in the unequal world are explained in ‘scientific’ rather than social terms; your desire, the big car, the combustion, the CO2, the greenhouse effect, the warming, the climate change, the drought, the poverty, the suffering. It’s as if material inequality were as inevitable as, say, rain or wind. Stranger still then, that it is supposedly the weather which we have altered, and that we seek to control, rather than the inequality. Garvey does not consider how different the outcome might be, were we to make an ethic out of, perhaps, solving inequality.

Garvey’s argument depends rather heavily on proximity – both geographical and in terms of time – in order to generate a sense of futility about any other approach to the plight of others that might involve us. The further away that victims of climate change exist, the more plausible is Garvey’s claim that we are unable to help them in any conventional way. On the one hand, Garvey wants them to be in front of us, so that we can witness their suffering as a direct consequence of our ‘unethical’ lifestyles. On the other, he wants them to be as far away as possible, so that we can’t actually help. All that we can offer is that we won’t make life any worse for them by emitting any more CO2, as though the only thing connecting people is the atmosphere.

In this way of looking at the world, every action becomes just a different degree of bad according to how much CO2 it produces. Our conception of ‘good’, is accordingly negatively defined as ‘not bad’, or disappears altogether. But in this world, no moral calculation could be achieved by an individual engaging his own moral sense. Instead he has to defer to carbon footprint calculators, science academies, and the environmental movement’s constant barrage of nauseating scientific and ‘ethical’ factoids. But how could the brutal logic of the carbon calculator weigh the value of acts of genuine human solidarity against the environmental impact they might cause? Must acts of solidarity be rationed according to the limits of what the ‘biosphere’ can absorb? What right do we have, under this system of ethics, to perform our own cost-benefit analysis? Would it be wrong to rush that injured child to hospital in a 4 by 4 car? Or must we take the bus? Should ambulances be run only from renewable forms of energy, and constructed only from ‘sustainable’ sources? Is a hospital still a good thing, if it fails to be carbon neutral? Since carbon is not, in fact, the root of all bad in the world, it is inevitable that ‘the ethics of climate change’ will clash with the business of doing good things in other ways – not good things as simply the avoidance or correction of bad things, but things which are positive.

Garvey’s portrayal of the remote, poverty-stricken victims makes use of the environmentalist’s maxim that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. But the sense of responsibility that Garvey appears to wish us to understand is not responsibility in the sense of commitment, or duty, but culpability. We are asked to engage with Garvey’s view of the world as culprits. And as culprits, we are asked to stop what we are doing, and ‘give’ back to the poor what is theirs by some kind of right. In this relationship, the poor are like puppets that Garvey uses to act out a kind of morality play to elicit our sympathy – or guilt – for his cause. And just as Garvey needs distance, and poverty on this stage, he also needs victims to make his case. After all, where is this system of ethics, if there are no victims? He does not allow us to consider how we might begin to change things so that people are not poor – to make things better – but how we can avoid being responsible for making things worse.

But surely if the whole population of the world were wealthy, it would be easier to adapt to the problems caused by the climate change that Garvey says we face? With sufficient wealth, doesn’t the problem of sea-level rise becomes a matter of deciding where you’d like to move to, rather than being displaced as a poor person? Accordingly, problems of ethics, with sufficient resources, can just become matters of engineering. Just as Garvey’s argument depends on the proximity it claimed it didn’t, it also depends on the very poverty it claims to to wish to avert.

Garvey tells us, ‘the larger moral problems won’t really bite unless you know something about our prospects, the prospects for us as a species, in the face of climate change. Those predictions are not rosy’. But without the dark vision made plausible by science, Garvey would not be able to make a case for such crude moral calculations – goodies, baddies, tragedies, poverty, victims and culprits – all of which act to displace from the discussion, a political understanding of equality. So much of Garvey’s view of the world depends on the science providing the most hideous nightmare, from which there is no escape, that it’s hard not to wonder if, in spite of his claim that there is more to his argument, the science is the ‘whole of it’, and is little more than storytelling.

We’re never allowed to interrogate the claim that we will not be able to cope with the effects of climate change, nor explore the idea that it will not be as bad as many bogus statistics suggest it will be. All such challenges to the ethical system get deferred to science. Garvey flatly refuses to consider the possibility, and insults anyone who might dare to. As with any challenge to climate change alarmism, the answer is ‘but the science says…’ In this sense, science is environmentalism’s fig leaf. How ‘ethical’ is that?

May 222008

We reported earlier in the year how claims that a ‘denial lobby’ had influenced public opinion on climate change were totally at odds with reality.

The UK’s Royal Society, for example wrote an open letter to Exxon in 2006, accusing it of funding these sceptics. The image of oil barons distorting the truth for pure profit was appealing to an environmental movement desperate to account for its own lack of popular appeal. Through their site ‘Exxon Secrets’, Greenpeace ‘exposed’ the millions of dollars that had allegedly been given to think tanks and other deniers to brainwash an unthinking, gullible public.

But as we pointed out, the $22 million that Exxon allegedly gave away between 1998 and 2008 is peanuts compared to Greenpeace’s $2.2 billion income over a similar period.

Following our post yesterday about the WWF’s use of a rather dodgy scientific measure to secure headlines and public attention, we thought we’d have a quick scan of their accounts, too.

Income ($US)
2003 370,245,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwffinancialrpt2004.pdf
2004 468,889,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwfintar005.pdf
2005 499,629,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwfannualreport.pdf
2006 549,827,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_ar06_final_28feb.pdf
2007 663,193,000 http://assets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_annual_review_07.pdf

The accounts prior to 2003 aren’t available online. (If you have access to them, we would be grateful if you would let us have a look). But the point stands. The WWF has an enormous amount of money behind it – far more than any dirty ‘denialist’ organisation has been able to get its hands on.

Even more surprising is the source of their funding. One thing that might be said in Greenpeace’s defence is that it apparently doesn’t accept money from Governments. But a closer look at WWF’s regional sites shows that a significant amount of funding does come from the state. For example, WWF USA:

And in the UK:

It is curious that the WWF, who are so sharply critical of the US, UK and EU Government, should take such a large amount of money from them.

For example, a headline from the site on the 15th May tells us that “US government: climate change threatens polar bears” And today, the site urges that “The government must act to ensure that no new coal-fired power stations are built in the UK until carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology has been proven to work on a large scale and can be installed from the outset”.

This is especially curious, because the environmental movement has been telling us for somewhile that, apart from ‘manipulating’ public opinion with distorted science, the establishment is reluctant to act on climate change. Yet here we can see that the government is handing over cash to that same movement.

And it’s not just the WWF, which is just one of nine environmental NGOs that constitute a “Green Ten” that are beneficiaries of EU funding.

We work with the EU law-making institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers – to ensure that the environment is placed at the heart of policymaking. This includes working with our member organisations in the Member States to facilitate their input into the EU decision-making process.

Membership contributions are an important part of the finances of Green 10 organisations. We also receive core funding from the European Commission, except for Greenpeace. Furthermore, some member organisations of the Green 10 receive funding on a case-by-case basis for specific projects from governments and foundations. Some organisations also receive specific donations from industry. Greenpeace does not request or accept financial support from governments, the EU or industry. All Green 10 organisations are externally audited every year.

The members are:

What is stranger than Green lobby groups being happy to take significant wads of dosh from the very governments that they accuse of being climate criminals is that those governments should want to fund the enemy within to the tune of tens/hundreds/thousands of millions of dollars annually.

Could you imagine the fuss, if the sceptics had had nearly 5 billion dollars, to do ‘scientific research’, and were contracted by the government to ‘inform the public’?

Time and again, year after year, and in spite of the billions of dollars available to the environmental movement, polls show that US and UK publics are not interested in being eco-hectored. (And here’s another example courtesy of Philip Stott).

Governments, on the other hand, seem to enjoy being told what to do. Or, more accurately, to enjoy paying people to tell them what to tell other people to do – it saves them the trouble of having to work out for themselves what to tell people to do. Environmentalists might like to think they are part of some sort of grass-roots, popular, and radical movement. But what kind of grass roots movement needs such huge handouts to spend on PR? Environmentalism is rife at all levels of society except one – the electorate. It is anything but a popular, mass movement. The Environmentalist’s superficial radicalism, and the bogus urgency of calls to ‘save the planet’ have been attractive to politicians only because their endless and desperate search for popular policy ideas has consistently failed to engage the voters. But they are mistaken. Environmentalism is very much part of the establishment.

May 192008

Last year we mentioned Ian Roberts’ theory, as reported in New Scientist, that fat people are responsible for more than their fair share of global warming, and, in order to get a snappy headline out of it, we tied it into another New Scientist article, which was critical of research by Willie Soon, who had suggested that polar bears aren’t as vulnerable as is widely claimed. Both NS articles were, in our view, rather shoddy, reflecting the magazine’s partiality in the climate debate. Who could not form the impression that fat people were more responsible than the rest of us for the demise of the polar bear, if they took the magazine at face value? Excuses for snappy headlines aside, our post – ‘Fat People Are Killing the Polar Bears - was intended to demonstrate the confusion between the science and morality of climate change.

True to the eco-warrior’s demands that we ‘Reduce! Re-use! Recycle!’, Roberts’ argument – which deserves to go to landfill – has been recycled, in an article entitled Fat is an environmental issue in, yes, New Scientist magazine, who, on the same day, also reports uncritically more recycled ‘news’ from uber-eco-warriors, the WWF, that human activities are devastating the world’s wildlife. What have these fatsos got against polar bears, for goodness sake?

According to Roberts and his London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine colleague Phil Edwards, the fatties have to take the blame for not only climate change but also for panic-du jour, the global food crisis. Writing in the Lancet they argue that:

Petrol tanks and stomachs were competing well before biofuels were proposed to tackle climate change. Motorised transport is more than 95% oil-dependent and accounts for almost half of world oil use. Because oil is a key agricultural input, demand for transportation fuel affects food prices. Increased car use also contributes to rising food prices by promoting obesity which, for the reasons outlined below, increases the global demand for food.

Roberts and Edwards want the government to address the obesity ‘epidemic’, climate change and the food crisis in one fell swoop by making it more difficult for people to get around:

Urban transport policies that promote walking and cycling would reduce food prices by reducing the global demand for oil, and promotion of a normal distribution of BMI would reduce the global demand for, and thus the price of, food. Decreased car use would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus the need for bio-fuels, and increased physical activity levels, would reduce injury risk and air pollution, improving population health.

Of course, the government is already making it more difficult for people to get around. Increasingly, making it more difficult for people to get around is what governments are for, hence our point that local and national governments use ‘saving the planet’ to justify the reduction of public services, in favour of authoritarian, restrictive, and punishing policies, and in doing so, turn the notion of public service on its head.

But why pick on fat people? If calorie intake is the problem, what about those irritating, self-righteous athletic types? Or if resource use is what troubles them, how about, let’s say, academics, whose airmile quotient between conferences and (mis)use of precious paper outstrips by orders of magnitude what your average gluttonous member of the general public gets through? Or what about overweight academics? Or, overweight, denialist academics?

But calorie intake is not the only problem, apparently. Fat people are also lazy people, inclined to use cars more than the rest of us. And using cars makes you fatter. And then there’s all the extra fuel needed to transport all that extra lipid from A to B.

Recycling old research is, of course, necessary to keep the climate issue high up on the news agenda. But it has little to do with science. Nor, for that matter, news. It is political. And Roberts isn’t the only one doing it. Enter the WWF

The latest data on the global biodiversity of vertebrates shows that it has fallen by almost one-third in the last 35 years. But experts say it may still underestimate the effect humans have had on global species counts.

The Living Planet Index (LPI) follows trends in nearly 4,000 populations of 1,477 vertebrate species and is said to reflect the impact humans have on the planet…

New figures show that between 1970 and 2005, the global LPI has fallen by 27%. This suggests that the world will fail to meet the target of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss set by the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity.

Just as Ian Roberts grabs the headlines whenever – like some sort of bulimic ex-deputy prime minister – he regurgitates his antisocial theories, WWF can rely on the world’s media to tell it how the WWF like to think it is every time they publish the latest version of their Living Planet report. And they’ve been publishing it every couple of years or so for ten years now:

Year of Report Living Planet Index Years Covered Species Sampled URL Hysteria
1998 30 1970-1995 70 freshwater, 87 marine, terrestrial based on declines in natural forest cover link  
1999 30 1970-1995 102 freshwater, 102 marine, terrestrial based on declines in natural forest cover link Planet Earth under pressure
2000 33 1970-1999 319 forest, 194 freshwater, 217 marine link  
2002 35 1970-2000 282 terrestrial, 195 freshwater, 217 marine link Living standard seen slumping as resources run out
Earth ‘will expire by 2050′
2004 40 1970-2000 555 terrestrial, 323 freshwater, 267 marine link World Living Beyond Its Environmental Means – WWF
Consumption of Resources Is Outstripping Planet’s Ability to Cope, Says WWF
2006 30 1970-2003 695 terrestrial, 344 freshwater, 274 marine link Global ecosystems ‘face collapse’
Humans using resources of two planets, WWF warns
The state we’re in
Humans Living Far Beyond Planet’s Means – WWF
2006 27 1970-2005 813 terrestrial, 344 freshwater, 320 marine link Wildlife populations ‘plummeting’
Humans blamed for sharp drop in wildlife

World wildlife numbers down 25% in three decades
An epidemic of extinctions: Decimation of life on earth
World wildlife numbers down 25% in three decades
World species dying out like flies says WWF
Wildlife is down by one-third, says WWF
Wildlife numbers plummet globally: WWF

Year after year, the WWF and newspaper headlines tell us that wildlife is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. And yet the latest report, which surveys a larger number of species than previous ones and incorporates the expertise of scientists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), finds that the decline is not as bad as previous estimates have suggested. In the ten years that have passed since the first report, the Index has remained fairly constant. In fact, the 2008 Living Planet Index is the lowest since records began, despite the extra decade available for further declines. Carry on at this rate and, at some point, extinct species will start rising from the ashes. Of course, this apparent decline in species declines might be the result of many factors – increased sample sizes, involvement of the ZSL (for the 2006 and 2008 reports only), better controls for biased samples (earlier reports did not even attempt to control for the fact that species for which long-term population data are available tend to be species for which we have good reason to believe might be declining – rare or commercially important species, for example), etc. But the fact remains that species declines have been significantly overestimated in the past – by about a third, according to this latest estimate. It’s just that ‘Wildlife declines not as bad as previously thought’ doesn’t quite pack the same punch headline-wise. And one can only imagine the eco-pocalyptic headlines had previous estimates been found to be too low.

We remain unconvinced that the sample merits extrapolation to vertebrate species as a whole. The research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal (although, according to co-author Dr Ben Collen of the ZSL, it has been accepted for publication by Conservation Biology), so all we have to go on is the WWF report (which isn’t much help) and an interview with Collen. He told us that, while all species were weighted equally in the index, they did check for bias towards declining species by looking at the rationale behind the collection of population data for each species in the first place. This way they were able to show that species declines did not become a more important factor in choosing which species to monitor over time. This, in turn, relies on the argument that conservation biology is a relatively modern sub-discipline, emerging in the 1980s. Prior to that, he said, the emphasis was on ‘natural resource management’. But, by the same token, natural resource management could be expected to be more concerned with monitoring scarce natural resources than plentiful ones. With regard to commercially important species, which might also be expected to be declining by definition, Collen told us:

That would be true if our index had a lot of commercially exploited species. But it doesn’t. We have 241 fish species in comparison to, say, 800 birds [a taxon that is less important commercially]. In an ideal world, we’d be able to pull out all this meta-data on all these individual species, but that’s not possible.

As we keep stressing, an environmentalist conspiracy this is not. It’s just convenient. It’s convenient for the WWF (obviously); it’s convenient for journalists and newspapers, in that they can keep on publishing big scary numbers devoid of sobering context; it’s convenient for the scientists at the Zoological Society of London who, like all scientists, increasingly have to justify themselves in terms of media coverage and social impact; and it’s convenient for directionless politicians. A sure sign of just how convenient big numbers are for everybody concerned is that, following the 2002 edition of the Living Planet report, Reuters reported erroneously, in a story picked up by many other outlets (including Yahoo, ENN, Planet Ark), that more than a third of all species had gone extinct since 1970:

The study found that human economic activity had reduced the number of surviving animal, bird and fish species by 35 percent over the past 30 years.

Freshwater fish had been especially badly hit, losing over half the species in existence in 1970, while key marine species – most of which provide food for the burgeoning popu
lation of humans – were down by just under 40 percent.

A simple mistake, perhaps. And yet nobody raised a sceptical eyebrow. Except us. As we said at the time:

News of environmental catastrophe tends to be accepted without question. The idea of plummeting biodiversity has become so ingrained in our mindset that the actual number of species reported to be disappearing per unit time doesn’t matter – just as long as it’s a very big number. Society, it seems, is content only when it can be confident that Mother Nature is drawing her final, wheezing breath.

The Living Planet Index comprises but one half of the Living Planet report. The rest consists of the Ecological Footprint – the index of how many planets-worth of resources we are using up with our decadent modern lifestyles. We might revisit this in the near future. Because you can bet your internal organs that the footprint is as silly as the LPI is hyped. Suffice it to say for now that we suspect that humankind has been using the Earth’s resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished throughout the entire course of our history. Because the WWF’s calculations take absolutely no account whatsoever of the possibilities for technological development. How many planets-worth were we using prior to the Green Revolution, for example? How many planets-full of North American buffalo would have been required to make the Native American lifestyle ‘sustainable’? We like to think that someone somewhere has actually done the calculations. But then again, that sort of research isn’t quite so convenient for anyone.

It is also worth noting that the ZSL scientists involved in the Living Planet report are commissioned by WWF. At Climate Resistance, we don’t really give a monkey’s (endangered, fat or otherwise) who funds what research by whom. Many do care, however, including, as we have seen, New Scientist, who chose to make Willie Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry the focal point of its coverage of his polar bear research last year. Strange, then, that the mag doesn’t even mention the ZSL’s financial links to a dodgy pressure group in its coverage.

May 152008

Over at the Daily Kos, and European Tribune, blogger ‘Johnnyrook’ attempts to connect ‘denialism’ with an ideology. The piece itself is an answer to a blog post elsewhere by Joseph Romm, The denialists are winning, especially with the GOP. David Roberts tried this approach on the Nation blog back in February:

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. 

We replied that environmentalism used ‘science’ as a fig leaf. Environmentalism is an ideological position, whereas scepticism encompasses a range of objections to it, some of which are, in fact, perfectly valid on scientific grounds.

What Johnnyrook writes in Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology is, frankly, unmitigated and unimportant crap. But it does offer some insight into the ‘thought processes’ of grass-roots Environmentalism. Johnnyrook whines that

Anyone who has tried to discuss Climaticide with a climate change denialist knows just how frustrating it can be. No matter how well informed you are, no matter how many peer-reviewed studies you cite, or how many times you point out the overwhelming agreement based on the evidence that exists among climate scientists that global warming is real and is principally caused by human fossil fuel use, you will get no where. Your adversary will deny the facts, cherry pick the scientific evidence for bits of data that, taken out of context, support his/her denialist view, or drag out long-debunked counter-arguments in the hope that they are unfamiliar to you and that you will not be able to refute them. If you succeed in countering all of his arguments he will most likely reword them and start all over again. 

Climaticide? Climaticide? Is it even possible to kill a climate? But moving on, Johnnyrook clearly believes himself to be in possession of a faultless argument. So it must be the rest of the world that’s wrong. Who said environmentalism was emotional, arrogant, and infantile?

After a couple of hours of this, you end up frustrated, angry and confused. You give up and storm off vowing to study and learn even more so that next time you will be better prepared and able to convince the denialist of the error of his/her ways. 

Our advice to little Johnny is that perhaps his tantrums would be easier to manage if he reflected on why his arguments aren’t convincing, rather than sought to find other reasons to explain his failure. But Johnny’s tantrums are characteristic of the environmental movement as a whole – a movement that is unable to take responsibility for its own failures.

No, the true climate change denialist is an ideologue. Understanding this fact is key to comprehending the denialist mentality and to knowing how to respond to denialist arguments. Ideologues are adherents of closed, ideological systems, in which all problems are ultimately attributed to a single cause: original sin (Christianity), the accumulation of private property (Communism), restrictions imposed on a superior race by inferior ones (Fascism), the destruction of “freedom” by “Big Government” (Conservative/Libertarian).  

And here Johnny gives us some insight into why he fails to make convincing political arguments. First, he doesn’t recognise his own perspective as ideological, and that it is, in his own terms, about a ‘single cause’. Perhaps we can help him – spell it out for him, in fact – with the aid of some emphasis to illustrate our point:


Environmentalists see society as intrinsically, fundamentally, inextricably linked to ‘nature’ – manifested as the ‘environment’. To the Environmentalist, all moral actions are transmitted through the biosphere. Your wealth, relative to another’s poverty is not seen in terms of the political, sociological, or historical background to your circumstances and those of your counterparts. It is instead seen in terms of biological and geological processes. You buy a big car, and the consequence is that it rains too much/doesn’t rain at all on the poor, starving child in Africa. So, instead of addressing the poverty of the poor child through developing a critique of the socio-political relations throughout the world in order that we might begin to help, the Environmentalist just wants you to withdraw from your evil lifestyle. This moral framework is unchallengeable, according to the Environmentalist, because the causal chain between your consumer choice and the plight of the child in can be explained in ‘scientific’ rather than social terms; the car, the combustion, the CO2, the greenhouse effect, the warming, the climate change, the drought. (Forget any sense of proportion between these steps).

This perspective takes poverty as a given. Indeed, it needs poverty. Without poverty to designate a moral absolute, Environmentalism’s moral calculations would cease to have meaning. Its objectives are, therefore, not to abolish poverty, but to make it ‘less bad’. And, of course, the abolishment of poverty is, according to Johnny’s maxim, ‘ideological’. Thus, we are prevented from approaching the problem of poverty – or even the effects of climate change – through politics. In other words, poverty is not seen as a political problem. After all, poverty is natural. Just ask Malthus.

Second, Johnny gives us a particularly ignorant description of ideologies. Christianity is all about ‘original sin’, apparently. But can we comfortably say that Christianity is an ideology? It may well offer us an account of creation, but not necessarily to the exclusion of other ideological ideas. Can a Christian not be committed to free trade, on the one hand, or the abolition of private property on the other? There are interesting moral arguments for both. But why should Jesus be bothered, either way? And isn’t that a problem for Christians, rather than political scientists? Communism, apparently, blames all problems on the accumulation of private property. Actually, Marx’s contention was that the accumulation of private property is necessary to create a working class in an industrial – rather than feudal – society. In this sense, the accumulation begins to solve many of the problems of oppression and inequality. And Johnny is very much mistaken with his conception of Fascism, which he confuses with nazism. Nazism is indeed a racialised form of Fascism. But Fascism itself isn’t a necessarily a racist ideology, and there is no consensus amongst historians about how fascism can be characterised; it is an issue of much debate, somewhat clouded by the fact that, at the time of fascism and Nazism, ideas about race such as eugenics were mainstream and orthodox – dare we say, the subject of a consensus. Finally, Johnny confuses libertarianism with conservatism. Yet conservatism, as the name suggests, seeks to use the state to preserve social orders, traditions and cultures, while libertarianism is a broader term, in that a libertarian would generally object to the state’s intervention in such matters. Johnny’s grasp on political ideologies is weak. No wonder then, that he fails to recognise
his own.

He continues, oblivious,

Once the initial conclusion is reached (often after a long, complicated chain of deductive reasoning–Marx’s Capital, the writings of Ayn Rand, etc.) that factor X is the source of all of society’s ills, all debate outside the ideology’s framework ends.

Hmm. Hasn’t Johnny opened his story by telling us that carbon is the source of society’s ills?

One may deduce new positions from the ideology’s fundamental principles, but the fundamental principles can not be questioned because such questioning might undermine the entire ideological system and the psychological security that it provides, leaving the true believer in that most urgently to be avoided of states: UNCERTAINTY. Ideology is thus, inevitably, by it’s very nature, anti-empirical. 

We repeat:


Moreover, is it not precisely uncertainty that blights the environmental movement? Isn’t it the environmental movement that needs to tell us that ‘the science is in’? Wasn’t it Johnny who was, just a few paragraphs ago, evincing his own sheer and absolute rightness? Isn’t the entire momentum of the environmental movement predicated on a ‘scientific consensus’?

Johnny borrows from Naomi Oreskes’ critique of the “tobacco strategy”, which we discuss – at some length – here. Oreskes’ thesis is that doubt has been manufactured against the scientific case that smoking causes cancer and that global warming is caused by anthropogenic CO2, out of an ideological conviction. This forgets two things:

1. That, whatever the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer is, and whatever the evidence that humans are influencing the climate is, our response to that evidence is necessarily political. Only a lack of response – indifference – is apolitical. In the case of smoking, the possible political responses to such information are many: we could put out the information that smoking causes cancer; we could restrict the sale of tobacco; we could ban it altogether; or we could even decide that we should all smoke more and die horribly. But all options are political.

2. That any objection to a political argument in favour of a course of action, founded on a scientific case, will necessarily ‘doubt’ that the scientific evidence is sufficient to warrant the political action to which one objects. To point that out is to state the obvious.

Johnny’s uncertainty and Oreskes’ ‘tobacco strategy’ hypotheses are meaningless. They say no more than “objectors doubt the proposition”. But Oreskes and Johnny have convinced themselves that scientific evidence exists in some separate, apolitical space, from where it can make scientifically sound political arguments; they hide their political ideology behind their scientific fig leaves.

He continues with another mischaracterisation…

The Soviets understood this way of thinking perfectly because Marxism too is an ideology, only in Marxism the great enemy is not the State but private capital. 

Actually, the state is the ‘enemy’ in Marxism. For Marx, communist society is a stateless society, and the state is the apparatus of the bourgeoisie; it maintains the conditions in which the working classes are oppressed. Marx explicitly seeks the abolition of the state. Johnny is completely wrong.

He goes on to argue that it is pointless to argue with people who hold an ‘ideological’ objection to climate change alarmism, because ‘facts’ are not important to them. He offers a psychological account of his political opponents:

ideologues find psychological safety from an uncertain world in the certainties of their ideology. What you think of as an argument about global warming, they perceive as an attack on their entire world view. And they’re right of course, even though it’s not your intention. 

We have seen attempts to profile the psychology of ‘deniers’ before. Here, for example.

What is interesting here is that Johnny, who, as we can see, fails to recognise his own ideology as an ideology, now makes an attack against all ideology – against all political perspectives. Ideology is now a symptom of a pathology, in much the same way that religion is seen as a pathology by Richard Dawkins et al; it is a comforting delusion, with a biological basis. This scientistic nihilism allows Johnny to diminish his opposition, rather than confront them. Isn’t this what the Nazi’s do, according to Johnny’s account of ideology, to other races? Aren’t other races, by virtue of this pathology, not only morally and intellectually inferior, but biologically inferior too? Johnny has just diminished his opponents to sub-humans, who do not have the right to engage in political discussion or to raise political objections. Disagree with Johnny and you are persona non grata. Johnny isn’t even capable of identifying the opposition – of which he is evidently utterly ignorant – to his ideas. He doesn’t need to know what ideas in an ideology might commit an ‘ideologue’ to an objection to Environmentalism, and it would seem that he doesn’t care. All he can see is that convictions to ideas appear to stand in the way of his own beliefs.

Johnny’s claim to empiricism belies his blatant anti-intellectualism. He too wants ‘facts’ but only in the sense that a caveman wants a club. He says that “one should generally ignore the denialists and concentrate on persuading the open minded”. But anyone who is open-minded has to agree with him, or they are suddenly closed-minded. Johnny finishes:

For those of us in the reality-based community, understanding the role that conservative/libertarian ideology plays in determining Climaticide denialist behavior, whether sincere or simulated, can be very useful in making sense of the denialist position, a position which, ultimately, is rooted not in facts and critical thinking, but in political and psychological needs. 

For Johnny to tell us that ‘denialists’ are blinded by ideology seems as reasonable as, say, somebody who wants to completely reorganise society around a principle of, ohh, let’s say, ‘harmony with nature’, telling us that they are against reorganising society around a particular principle. Of course Johnny has an ideology – Environmentalism. And of course he is an ‘ideologue’. Why then, does Johnny protest so much about ideology?

Johnny’s inability to reflect on his own ideology, his poor grasp of politics and his disregard for others all go some way to explaining his frustration, anger, and confusion. This is a symptom of the environmental movement. We have written before about the many different ways that Environmentalists have tried to diminish their opponents by questioning their psychology and moral character, and by trying to locate a conspiracy – in every way, in fact, other than through careful, honest, political argument. Johnny’s emotions characterise the shrill, impatient, self importance of the environmental movement, which prefers trantrums to debate, and panic and alarmism to convincing arguments. It prizes emotion over intellectual engagement. Environmentalism isn’t so much a cause to fight for, than a symptom of belonging to nothing. It is, nonetheless, an ideology – one that needs to be challenged.

Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, asks in the Yorkshire Post (H/T Benny Peiser):

In the election for London’s Mayor, the Greens got just over three per cent of the vote. Leaving aside such misguided places as Norwich, where the Green Party gained three seats, they struggled elsewhere to poll anywhere near that. [...] Yet Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Nationalists dance slavishly to the Green tune. [...] Why do we put up with this “green” extortion to so little purpose? That’s the real mystery.

We have asked this question before. Environmentalism is a political ideology, yet its influence on policy decisions is not challenged politically in this country, and barely anywhere else. How come?

The closest thing to a challenge are the scientific discussions offered by ‘sceptics’, ‘deniers’, ‘realists’ or whatever you want to call them. Of course, these challenges are waved away by many as ‘politically-motivated’ – as if Environmentalism was above that sort of thing. And there’s the rub. ‘Politics’ has become a dirty word, and Environmentalism fills the void, because, with ‘scientists’ backing it, it is presented as a ‘value free’ set of imperatives that we must all respond to. Environmentalists will tell you that it’s not a question of political values, it’s a matter of material fact, scientifically established by the IPCC. But the truth is that the unchallengeable measurements that the movement depends on do not exist. Instead, science only lends Environmentalism credibility through the ‘precautionary principle‘; it is superficially plausible that anthropogenic CO2 will cause global catastrophe (given a substantial number of mainly political assumptions), therefore it is worth treating the possibility of a nightmare as a certainty, according to this doctrine.

From here, Environmentalism easily becomes a religious world view: we start to see disobedient countries through this prism (Burma and its missing mangrove swamps being the latest example); we start to judge the actions of others through green-tinted spectacles; and we start to do the things that are demanded of us, ‘for the sake of the planet’ – not for a genuine conception of a ‘greater good’, but just the mitigation of a worse bad.

Back to Ingham’s question: the Tories (as any party would) will explain their recent success at the polls as a consequence of their taking green issues more seriously. For example, last Friday, on BBC Radio 4′s Any Questions, Chairman of the Conservative Party, Caroline Spellman, said of the successes her party had enjoyed the previous night,

Our council candidates campaigned very simply on following policies that would deliver a cleaner, greener, safer country, one that is more family friendly, and one that gives tax payers better value for money. That is a very simple message, it’s one that the electorate like, that is why they have returned conservative governments – in local government – because they like what they see.

Spellman’s words offer no political vision whatsoever; just a promise of better management of public (and, most likely, private) life than the Labour Party – which is exactly the basis on which Blair took power from Major in 1997. The vote did not reflect an ideological shift among the public, nor Blair’s resonance with the electorate. But contrast Spellman’s words to those of Sir Bernard’s former boss. Whether you agreed with her or not, Thatcher’s aim was a political transformation of the UK, if not the world. She went Green as that vision was running out of steam, in spite of its success (and she closed far more coal mines than any environmental protest could wish for).

Surely, if anyone knows how that played out, and consequently, why the world seems to have gone green, Ingham does?

Disagreeing that politics is dominated by a green consensus is the Independent‘s Andrew Grice, who complains that “nobody is talking about climate change” anymore.

We might just look back on May Day 2008 as the moment when the power of green politics peaked and went into reverse. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it. The reaction of the two main parties to the elections was instructive. Desperate to prop up his own position after Labour’s rout, Mr Brown needed to toss a few bones to the voters and jittery Labour backbenchers. So it suddenly emerged that he was about to dump the so-called “bin tax” – allowing councils to charge householders who do not recycle their rubbish. Downing Street didn’t confirm it, and five token pilot schemes will go ahead, but it’s clear the bin tax has been binned.

A temporary halt to the progress of a law demanding that people recycle, or face punishing fines means that climate is off the agenda, apparently.

Grice goes on to complain about the possibility that a 2 pence rise in petrol/diesel tax will be scrapped – even though the current high price of fuel makes these entirely unnecessary, as the Inland Revenue already takes VAT (17.5%) of the sale price (~£1.108) on top of ~£0.50 a litre of petrol. A genuinely ‘anti green’ policy would surely make fuel cheaper, rather than allow it to get much more expensive. Grice continues:

Mr Brown was not alone in relegating the environment to the back burner. David Cameron, the wind in his sails after the elections, held a prime ministerial press conference in which he set out his priorities for government. Significantly, the words “environment” and “climate change” did not appear in his 1,200-word statement.

It is indeed a rare thing when David Cameron utters 1200 words, none of which are green. These seem to be the ones Grice is referring to. Here is another speech Cameron made shortly before that one:

If Cameron has indeed abandoned the environmental cause, he has done it very suddenly. But there’s nothing in the later speech which contradicts it, in spite of Grice’s claims.

Of course, 1200 is a small number of words. If, perhaps, green was ommitted from Cameron’s speech, it was because the cause has been fully embraced by all of the parties. Why mention it? Likewise, does the fact that we can find 1200 words uttered recently by Caroline Lucas that include no reference to the environment mean that our favourite Green Party MEP has also turned her back on Mother Nature? As is the case with most shrill environmentalists, Grice confuses omission with opposition. It is what Cameron didn’t say which upsets him. A bit like a failure to say Amen after a prayer, or to say grace before a meal; it offends religious sensibilities. So Grice treats it as a statement that the Tories have dropped all green policies, and are to stand against them in the future.

No such luck. And, as is clear from the past, the Conservatives have been key to establishing environmental orthodoxy in the UK.

The reason there is no challenge to Environmentalism is that there is nothing to challenge Environmentalism with. Instead, Environmentalism, and the senses of crisis and urgency it generates, are useful vehicles for policies for the sake of policies, and for the purfunctory policy initiatives that masquerade as ‘progress’. Historically, for example, it has been sufficient to announce programs to build new homes on the basis that places for people to live are a good thing. New towns, however they turned out, were planned on the premise that it would make life better, and society more rewarding. Now, homes themselves are problematic. The very idea of housing developments upsets people. They use up resources and roads. They change the view. They are the manifestation of the idea that ‘hell is other people’. Environmentalism is on hand to furnish ways in and out of that problem. For those wishing to resist new developments, instead of making selfish objections to the planning process, they can appeal to the ‘greater good’, and claim that the principle of environmental ‘sustainability’ has not been given due attention. Developers, in reply, can greenwash their proposal, to claim that the greater good is being served. Never mind that homes are supposed to be all about people.

Politics today, whether it be Cameron’s or Grice’s, needs crises – real, or imagined – in order to maintain their relevance to an increasingly disengaged public. These appeals to catastrophe are wrapped up in the language of political change. But claims to be about radical change for the sake of “SAVING THE PLANET” belie an exhausted political perspective on the world that increasingly fails to connect with the public in any other way than through high drama, and struggles to distance itself from its opposition.

The current success of the Conservative Party follows the descent of the Labour party, whose 1997 success followed the descent of the Tories, who had enjoyed, since 1978, success at the polls after Labour’s problems in the 1970s. It seems that rather than winning elections, parties loose them. We punish their embarassing yet inevitable failure to connect with the public and reward their increasing mediocrity. This is the environment that Environmentalism has thrived in.

Critics of Environmentalism from the right claim that it is the reincarnation of failed socialism. Clearly, that criticism is incomplete. Critics of Tory policy, such as Grice, claim that ‘vote blue, go Green’ rhetoric is nothing more than spin; empty gestures to convince the public that it is responding to their fears. This too misses the point that that is also the very nature of the environmental movement, which has, like conservative ideologies of the past, used such fear to stand in the way of progress and harked back to traditional ways of life and natural social orders, lest unintended consequences of change cause upheaval.

Challenging environmental orthodoxy will take more than not mentioning it. That is not because Environmentalism is a powerful political idea, but because it exists as a consequence of the inability of political perspectives – Left and Right – to reflect on their own collapse.

We’re glad to see that the BBC has removed the error we flagged up on Thursday. Where it said

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 5.4C rise in tropical temperatures expected by 2100. 

it now reads

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 2-4 degrees Celsius rise in tropical temperatures predicted for the late 21st Century. 

It’s certainly not as ridiculously alarmist as it was. But we are no less confused as to where the new figure, 2-4 degrees Celsius, comes from than we were with the last one. It looks like some sort of hybrid between AR4 projections for tropical sea temperature increase and global average surface temperature rise. Which is odd, given that temperatures in the tropics are expected to increase less than those at the poles and temperate regions.

Anyway, we missed a trick with our last post on the issue. As commenters have reminded us, mosquitoes are insects too. But they’re the sort of insects that spread tropical diseases and, given that we already know that climate change change will be a Bad Thing, they must, therefore, be expected to buck the trend and increase in numbers and range as a result of climate change, spreading tropical disease as they go. Alex Cull puts it rather nicely:

Cuddly species such as polar bears and koalas, pretty butterflies and other cute creatures such as pandas and dolphins will suffer massive extinctions. At the same time, we will see a rise in nasty, unpleasant species such as weasels and wolverines, anopheles mosquitos, icky bacteria and other creepy-crawlies such as slugs, snails and puppy-dog tails. No arguments please. 

Climate change is bad for insects; but it’s good for bad insects. Another BBC article reveals that it is good for British butterflies, too – but in a bad way…

Butterflies need a warm summer in order to help numbers recover from last year’s washout, say conservationists.

Data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showed that eight species were at an all-time low as a result of an unsuccessful summer in 2007.

The main reason behind the decline was an above average rainfall, which meant the insects, such as the common blue, had fewer chances to feed or breed.

In other words, Britain’s butterflies would benefit from the sort of warmer, drier summer that we are told we’ll be getting more of as a result of climate change. (Although given that the BBC also reported recently that the “Next decade ‘may see no warming’”, what are the chances of that?) And yet, UK Biodiversity Minister (yes, there really is such a thing) Joan Ruddock still manages to twist things around so that it becomes a climate change scare story:

Butterfly populations also indicate the speed and extent of climate change. We will provide every encouragement for those working to conserve them. 

OK, so it’s hard to blame the BBC this time. But imagine the headline had the butterflies suffered after a particularly hot, dry summer.

These various reports on single studies/comments support an argument made a while back by Joe Kapinsky:

the genre of ‘study published today’ stories holds back understanding rather than enhancing it 

Science just doesn’t work in the way that the media generally portrays it, as an accumulation of individual studies that are like separate pieces in a giant jigsaw of truth. Science proceeds by replication, rejection, corroboration, falsification, stumbling up blind alleys, reformulation etc etc. It’s messy.

The only purpose this sort of science reporting serves is drama. It’s science as soap opera – it’s what we tune into when there is nothing else worth watching. It merely provides environmental politics with its latest installment of salacious talking points.

May 082008

Steve Connor, science editor at the Independent newspaper warns us that

Tropical insects rather than polar bears could be among the first species to become extinct as a result of global warming, a study has found. 

What does that even mean? Are the polar bears OK after all? Is the environmental movement looking for a new mascot for climate change? Is it out with the charismatic mega-fauna because of the environmental ethic that ‘small is beautiful’? But it’s nothing compared to the headline it appears under:

Insects ‘will be climate change’s first victims’ 

An image of a butterfly follows, with the caption…

Many tropical insect species, including butterflies, can only tolerate a narrow range of temperatures, and an average rise of 1C to 2C could be disastrous 

Contrast with the measured language of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article on which Connor reports, and which the journal has kindly made available for free:

Our analyses imply that, in the absence of ameliorating factors such as migration and adaptation, the greatest extinction risks from global warming may be in the tropics, where biological diversity is also greatest. 

This is not the first time the Independent has gone on about butterflies as the harbinger of doom. Back in March – a particularly cold March, as it happens – Environment Editor Michael McCarthy hit us with:

Last month, [climate change] 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. 

But as we pointed out, the red admiral is far tougher that McCarthy gives it credit for, occasionally making an appearance in Winter, and is certainly not unusual in Spring and Autumn. Yet again, the Independent is making claims about the vulnerability of species that aren’t consistent with the state of knowledge.

The BBC is no more level-headed about the research…

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 5.4C rise in tropical temperatures expected by 2100. 

5.4C expected by whom? Well, expected by the anonymous author of the BBC article, apparently. Certainly, the IPCC makes no specific prediction for temperature rise this century. And 5.4ºC is not mentioned in the PNAS study, nor in the accompanying press release. The only match we can find is in IPCC AR4 where it is the top-end prediction for SRES scenario A2 (Table SPM.3), the range of which is 2.0-5.4ºC. But why pick 5.4ºC? If you’re just looking for a big number to scare people with, then why not plump for the upper value for the A1 scenario (1.4-6.4°C)? Is this like buying the second cheapest bottle of wine in a restaurant to prove you are not a skinflint? Or like Josef Fritzl wondering why everyone hates him when he could have been so much more horrible? [EDIT: The BBC has now "corrected" this error.]

Call us pedantic if you like; but imagine the outcry had the BBC reported that global temperatures are expected to rise by only 1.4ºC by the end of the century (the second lowest low point among the four AR4 SRES scenarios). But then, of course, it’s not just journalists (and activists) who are happy to over-egg the ecopocalyptic pudding. When, for example, Bob May (erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former chief scientific advisor to the UK government) confidently asserted in the popular media that a global temperature of 2ºC will put 15-40% of all species at risk of extinction, it was on the basis of a single, worst-case study. He was no less unobjective when he announced that climate swindler du jour Martin Durkin was also some sort of whacko HIV/AIDS denialist. And then there are the science academies, who, while being suspicious of the industry move towards open access publishing, are happy to make papers of the the-world-is-screwed-and-we’re-all-going-to-die variety available to all and sundry for free. Which is what the US’s National Academy of Sciences have done with this paper. And last year the Royal Society did it, too, when they published a paper which they claimed proved once and for all that the sun has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. This wasn’t just any old paper; it was, in the words of the Royal Society itself, “the truth about global warming“. And for some strange reason, we are still expected to take these academies’ opinions on what we should do about climate change as the last word on truth and beauty – “respect the facts” as Bob May puts it.

Newspaper editors and headline writers could – possibly – be forgiven for not understanding quite how science works. It’s harder to see how science correspondents could. And it’s laughable that the science academies seem not to. Funnier is that scientists and science academies are only too happy to criticise journalists, newspapers and TV producers when they report the science ‘wrongly’ (and you can bet your house that none of them will be criticising the Independent or the BBC on this occasion). But what do they expect? What sort of example do they think are they setting?

As we keep saying, this is no conspiracy. It’s just that – as they’ve been trying to tell us for years – scientists are human, too. Being human and everything, scientists are as jittery about the future and unsure of their role in society as the rest of us. But just because it turns out that they are as anxious as the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to take the claims of environmentalists at face value, or any less reason to maintain objectivity. Just as global warming is convenient for local governments, directionless leaders and crisis politics, it is also convenient for scientists and science academies lacking raison d’être.

Science might never have been quite the objective producer of facts that we like to think it is. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t strive to be an objective seeker of facts. Because striving to be objective about the facts of the material universe is precisely what science is supposed to do. When it applies itself instead to arming political narratives with legitimacy and authority, it talks itself out of a job.

May 072008

Wikipedia tells us,

The term jumping the shark alludes to a specific scene in a 1977 episode of the TV series Happy Days when the popular character Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli literally jumps over a shark while water skiing. The scene was so preposterous that many believed it to be an ill-conceived attempt at reviving the declining ratings of the flagging show. 

The expression is used to refer to tired TV shows which have similarly passed their peak.

Once a show has “jumped the shark” fans sense a noticeable decline in quality or feel the show has undergone too many changes to retain its original appeal. 

Now, the same is true of the much over-cooked global warming. The Observer reported at the weekend:

Surge in fatal shark attacks blamed on global warming 

But, of course, we need the numbers.

Two deaths in the waters off California and Mexico last week and a spate of shark-inflicted injuries to surfers off Florida’s Atlantic coast have leftbeachgoers seeking an explanation for a sudden surge in the number of strikes. In the first four months of this year, there were four fatal shark attacks worldwide, compared with one in the whole of 2007, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History inGainesville.  

Gosh. Interesting. But correlation and causation, and all that. We ought to be careful. What is the warming climate doing to the sharks, to make them attack us?

‘The one thing that’s affecting shark attacks more than anything else is human activity,’ said Dr George Burgess of Florida University, a shark expert who maintains the database. ‘As the population continues to rise, so does the number of people in the water for recreation. And as long as we have an increase in human hours in the water, we will have an increase in shark bites.’ 

Hmmm. That’s not global warming though, is it?

Some experts suggest that an abundance of seals has attracted high numbers of sharks, while others believe that overfishing has hit their food chain. 

Hmmm. Still not getting the ‘global warming’ thing…

Another contributory factor to the location of shark attacks could be global warming and rising sea temperatures. ‘You’ll find that some species will begin to appear in places they didn’t in the past with some regularity,’ he said. 

“Could be”. Things “regularly appearing” where they hadn’t been “in the past”. We’re not going to worry about it until we see sharks in rollerblading rinks. It turns out that the headline is misleading.

The only sense which can be distilled from this absurd article is that sharks only attack you when you’re wet. Global warming has nothing to do with it.

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