Road to an Atomic Damascus or the Green Reformation?

Poor old Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: our future on a hotter planet, who once thrust custard pies into the faces of people who dared to question environmental orthodoxies. He now finds himself on the receiving end of eco-dogma. Fancy that.

Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. […] The backlash to my first magazine article on the subject prompted my inbox to collapse, the blogs to drip with venom, the dirty looks to multiply.

In August, Lynas wrote an article for the New Statesman magazine, How nuclear power can save the planet. Citing eco-prophet Dr. James Hansen’s shrill and attention-seeking mission to persuade world leaders to give up coal (and defend vandals in courts), Lynas concluded that:

Deployed entirely in tandem with renewables, fourth-generation nuclear could offer a complete decarbonisation of the world’s electricity supply – and on the sort of timetable that Dr Hansen and his fellow climatologists demand.

Lynas’s conversion isn’t all that spectacular, nor even newsworthy. Author of the Gaia Hypothesis, James Lovelock, has long been an advocate of atomic energy, as this interview with the Guardian in 2000 revealed:

This answer, Lovelock says, is ecologically clean and tidy and has a very bad press. It is nuclear power. “I can envisage somewhere about 2050, when the greenhouse really begins to bite, when people will start looking back and saying: whose fault was all this? And they will settle on the Greens and say: ‘if those damn people hadn’t stopped us building nuclear power stations we wouldn’t be in this mess’. […]

“I have told the BNFL, or whoever it was, that I would happily take the full output of one of their big power stations. I think the high-level waste is a stainless steel cube of about a metre in size and I would be very happy to have a concrete pit that they would dig – I wouldn’t dig it – that they would put it in.” He says he would use the waste for two purposes. “One would be home heating. You would get free home heat from it. And the other would be to sterilise the stuff from the supermarket, the chicken and whatnot, full of salmonella. Just drop it down through a hole. I’m not saying this tongue-in-cheek. I am quite serious…”

Although Lovelock’s attitude to atomic energy raised eyebrows and caused a bit of a debate, it didn’t seem to influence the environmental movement much. This is because science is only interesting to environmentalists when it is saying something is dangerous. When it says something is safe (or rather, it puts risks into some greater perspective), it is generally ignored. After all, Caroline Lucas, the new Leader of the UK’s Green Party is very much ‘for science’ when it appears to lend her ideas about Apocalypse some credibility. However, the rest of the time, she seems to be very much against it.

Take, for instance, her claims earlier this year that ‘Around 75 per cent of all cancers are caused by environmental factors, mainly chemicals…’, and that EU legislation designed to stop ‘chemicals’ was being undermined by a conspiracy between the major parties and industry.

Or, how about her efforts last year to ensure that ‘alternative’ ‘medicine’ was ‘recognised’ by European health agencies? ‘It wasn’t easy persuading the governments’ negotiators to accept […] the importance and relevance of alternative medicine – but we have managed it, which should serve as a tool towards a broader and indeed holistic approach to public health.’ So much for evidence-based medicine, then.

And on the subject of medicine, consider her attempts to ban animal research in the EU, on the basis that ‘Animal research is not only cruel, it also has significant scientific limitations which mean it can never be relied on to guarantee human health or safety.’ She neglects to tell us how ‘alternatives’ to medicine – such as staying ill, perhaps – guarantee human health and safety. Presumably, it’s better to be dead than unsafe. Whatever… clearly the decision to use animals in the development of therapies to cure and alleviate human suffering from conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, cancer, and the rest is not undertaken by scientists on the basis that there is no better alternative to the animal model, but because they are sadists, who enjoy using them.

‘What has Lucas got to do with any of this?’, we hear you ask. Well, first, we never like to miss an opportunity to point out what a total lunatic the new leader of the Green Party is. Second, Lucas was on BBC’s Radio 4’s Today program last week, arguing with Lynas about whether atomic power was really Green or not. A bun-fight between two of our favourite subjects. Here it is.

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Lynas’s discovery that ‘a lot of the environmentalist’s anti-nuclear case was based on myths’ seems to have taken him by surprise. We can only hope there is more to come. Lucas’s response is of course simply irrational. After claiming that inefficiencies in the current system could be effectively converted into supply, she then claimed that atomic energy is no solution because there simply isn’t time to install new nuclear power stations, because the time it takes to plan and build them. The risks of nuclear are too great and too expensive. She won’t entertain the prospect, no matter what the ‘science’ says is possible, because the risks are simply to great. Terrorism, accidents, nuclear proliferation… It’s all just too impossible.

And here lies the problem for Lucas… (we’ll return to Lynas in a moment)… She can’t consider the possibilities that abundant centralised energy – green or otherwise – might create because it would totally undermine her ethics and her political edge. It would turn all climate problems into engineering problems rather than moral ones. In her view, today’s troubled geopolitics is created principally by the capitalist system’s need for growth, and cheap fuel. This in turn creates the terrorists she seems to imagine have designs on our atomic energy infrastructure. (Never mind that power plants are designed to withstand such attacks). It creates also the very antagonism between countries that moves them to seek ways to establish their muscle on the world stage by acquiring nuclear weapons. There is a causal relationship, in her view, between the satisfaction of your dirty desire to eat burgers from McDonald’s, global warming, terrorism, the war on terror and Iraq, and nuclear proliferation. The only solution to this is the mitigation of climate change, through mediating material aspirations and desires. But if science can produce a clean and cheap form of power, then the relationship ends. The fuel of capitalist growth ceases to cause climate change. Geopolitics is no longer ‘all about oil’. And what’s worse, this engineering solution can be realised by either the politics of the Left, or the Right. Lucas therefore looses her political capital, even if the discussion of atomic energy is only hypothetical. Lucas needs nuclear to be necessarily a totally unworkable, implausible, terrifying technology. It needs to be worse than carbon. Because if it’s better than carbon, then it is a solution.

This is Green dogma. It defends itself in this way. Any deviation from its tenets results in Armageddon, apocalypse, catastrophe, damnation. Lynas has seen this in a rare moment of sanity, according to him on some kind of road to Damascus, but in truth this conversion bears less resemblence to the Story of St. Paul – Lynas was already a Believer – than it does to the Reformation, and it is founded on ideas just as sloppy as Lucas’.

Lynas’s change of mind came at the same time as another high priest of environmentalism was undergoing a similar epiphany. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian a couple of days before Lynas that, ‘…I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen…’.

We wrote at the time that the Green’s were ‘Split Over the Atom‘, a situation that was made all the more absurd by the presence of Arthur Scargill at the Climate Camp. This rift deepened, a few days later when Ewa Jasiewicz, a ‘writer, journalist, human rights activist and union organiser’ took issue with Monbiot’s pragmatism about the possibility of ‘solving climate change’ within the framework of conventional politics. ‘Changing our sources of energy without changing our sources of economic and political power will not make a difference. Neither coal nor nuclear are the “solution”, we need a revolution.’, She said, and called for something resembling an anarchist revolution.

In response, Monbiot misconceived identity politics as political identity, as though espousing a political philosophy – such as anarchism, in this case – was some kind of equivalent to being black, gay, female, physically disabled, or whatever. This form of politics, he said, was what had beset the radical movements of the 1990s in their attempts to change the world, forgetting, it seemed, that Monbiot’s own shrill protests in the 1990s, and well into the 2000s were very similar to Jasiewicz’s today.

As we also pointed out, Monbiot’s change of heart about the necessity of dismantling capitalism in order to achieve climate stability – or, as he put it, ‘Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim’ – reflected very closely Lynas’s own sentiments that ‘The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere’.

The task of the saving of souls, it seems, must take precedence over the politics of soul-saving.

The logic of risk, precaution, necessity and pragmatism have seemingly been extended by Monbiot and Lynas, to undermine the foundations of environmental politics. The Green Party was established with the intention of being a new axis from which to challenge the Left and Right, to form a politics ‘as if nature mattered’, on the basis that it was the only way to save the human race from annihilating itself. But it seems that, now, even that axis is impeding the very job it was set up to achieve. Behind the Protestant Reformation lay political interests, as it was at least as much about politics as it was theology. The dominance of Rome (Club of Rome?) prevented European elites from expressing their power as they wished. Similarly, the establishment, whilst absorbing environmentalism to the extent that for them, ‘climate change is the defining issue of our time’ (Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the UK Government), cannot accommodate calls for social revolution. For example, while Conservatives such as Tory leader, David Cameron and his aristocratic, Etonite eco-chums are happy to agree that there is something wrong and environmentally destructive with capitalism, Jasiewicz’s anarcho-syndicalism just isn’t their cup of tea. And it’s certainly not cricket. The environmental movement has long shared the ambitions of the political establishment to dampen the masses’ expectations, but perhaps this unholy alliance of convenience between the establishment and the scruffy eco-warriors has served its purpose.

It is no surprise that Monbiot’s and Lynas’s conversions have happened as their relationship with the establishment has become more cosy. As we reported last year, former president of the Royal Society, Lord May of Oxford, favourably reviewed Monbiot’s book, Heat, in the TLS, and in the process reinvented his organisation’s motto, ‘nullius in verba’, from ‘on the words of no one’ to ‘respect the facts’. The Royal Socety’s creed, too, has undergone a transformation, it seems. Earlier this year, we reported that Lynas had won an award for science writing from the RS, now headed by Sir Martin Rees, who himself wrote Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century? As we said at the time:

There is a peculiar symbiosis, in which, Lynas and his ilk give the scientific establishment authority by constructing nightmare visions of the future, which are given credibility by figures such as Sir Martin Rees and Lord May. The service that Lynas does for the Royal Society is to connect this institution to our everyday fears and anxieties, to give it relevance at a time when, as with politicians, it struggles to define its purpose.

The fact that eco-theologans such as Lynas and Monbiot are breaking away from the orthodoxy of the environmental movement to create their own, establishment-friendly orthodoxy should not be seen as progressive. As with the protestant reformation, it made little difference to ordinary people in the C16th whether they worshiped a Catholic god, or a Protestant one – they had no choice. Similarly, environmental politics is estranged from human values, it’s not as if people have any choice about what the new theologians decide for them, and Monbiot and Lynas do not put humans and their interests any closer to the establishment’s agenda. It’s all about the polar bears.

The potential of atomic energy should not be discussed in environmental terms. The predominance of nonsense about ‘solving climate change’ causes people to lose sight of what the purpose of power stations actually is: to enable people to live more comfortable and more fulfilling lives. Once this has been forgotten, providing energy is reduced to a balancing act between administrating sheer necessity – keeping the lights on – against a fictional catastrophe – the end of the world. There should be more power stations, atomic, coal-fired, gas, oil, geothermal, renewable… It really doesn’t matter. What matters is the potential they create for people to determine their own lives, rather than have it determined by eco-zealots.

Green-Eyed Monsters

Few ecotastrophists will be disappointed that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has had to be shut down for at least a couple of months to fix a technical problem. Because, for a while there, the Greens’ perpetual thunder about the imminent thermageddon was stolen by newspaper headlines insisting that we couldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that fundamental physics would get us first.

Environmentalists have more to be jealous of particle physics than that their end of the world might be nigher than their own, however. Because, despite the best efforts of the press, by the time CERN scientists flicked what is presumably a very big switch indeed, causing the LHC to shudder into life and drive two beams of protons in opposite directions around a 27-km-long circuit at close to the speed of light and at pretty much absolute zero, the remote possibility of the end of the world didn’t figure in our collective imaginations. We were too interested in whether Higgs bosons would turn out to exist or if we would have to re-think our working models of the material universe.

Climate science cannot compete with that sort of thing. Once you strip out the apocalyptic environmental prophesies, it has little to offer the non-specialist. Which is why, if global warmers want more of the action, they have to make even more of their scary scenarios. So, to justify why he thought the £4.4billion spent on the LHC would have been better spent on climate change, Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, current president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and author of books about climate change that have pictures of polar bears on the cover, has little choice but to resort to hyperbole and extravagation:

David King: This money was spent on curiosity-driven research, which may conceivably have some impacts on our well-being in the future. I suspect it won’t. I think we’ve probably driven this type of research far enough that it’s now more navel-searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind […]

Jeremy Paxman: So you say decide upon investment on the basis of what the likely outcome will be – search for a particular outcome like, for example, climate change solutions?

DK: Yes, that is what I’m saying, because I think we’re faced with the biggest challenge our civilisation has ever had.

Sir David has rather a quaint view of how science works in practice. Fortunately, Professor Brian Cox (the LHC’s single most important discovery prior to the technical hitch) is seated next to him:

With respect, I think that argument just doesn’t hold water. Because you could have made it at any point in the past. And at every stage of this journey to understand how the Universe works, the spin-off technologies and the knowledge that we’ve gained have proved to be immensely valuable. Nobody is clever enough to predict where the next wonderful discovery is going to come from […] You have to put CERN in its context. This is part of a journey that we’ve been on for about a hundred years to understand the building blocks of matter and what are the forces that stick them together. This journey has given us, for example, the transistor, the silicon chip […] it’s given us the ability to use particle beams to […] potentially kill brain tumours.

But it turns out that Sir David – like most members of the establishment, scientific or otherwise – is less concerned with the way that scientific funds are distributed than he is with the idea that technology – and society – is out of control:

At which point are we going to say ‘this particle accelerator is as big as we want to build’?

To which Cox responds with the only answer possible:

It depends what you discover and where you go next.

More here:

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The third Big Science du jour is biology. Next year, we celebrate Darwin’s double anniversary (the bi-centenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species). This comes at a time when the scientific world – not to mention the social one – is still trying to get to grips with the implications of the more recent genomics revolution. Combined, natural selection and genomics drive home the extent to which humanity is both part of, and apart from, biology. Biology resonates so deeply because it provides a mechanism for how very complicated things like humans can come about from really simple things like molecules without divine intervention, while at the same time highlighting just how different we are from the apes with which we share so much of our biological recipe. A bonus is that, fingers crossed, genomics might also lead to cures for a bunch of horrible diseases.

But even biology is inclined historically to bouts of physics envy. Indeed, the phrase was coined with biologists in mind. Physicists don’t have to prove their science is hard enough by picking fights. Biologists, however, are inclined to puff up their scientific credentials by belittling the really soft sciences, like psychology. Similarly, physics is man enough to entertain the possibility that it’s got it all arse-about-face. Biology doesn’t talk in terms of ‘working models’. Although neither does it stoop to talk of ‘the consensus’ like climate science does. Biologists might no longer be eugenicists by default, but they would rather not dwell on the fact that they once were.

And biology still feels the need to make promises to justify its worth to society. Just like climate science, only the latter is more desperate. So while biology promises salvation – cures for cancer and degenerative disease – climatology brings us the end of the world, sweetened by the glimmer of a hope of mere survival. As Brian Cox’s Newsnight contribution testifies, physicists don’t promise anything. They don’t have to; they’ve already got our attention.

It is striking that genomics and climatology are both failing to live up to their promises. While global warmers have to resort to rhetorical, proverbial ticking time-bombs and coalmine canaries, the modern genetic sciences must keep assuring us that all those gene- and stem-cell-therapies that were supposed to have cured us by now are even closer to emerging from the end of the pipeline than they were the last time we asked. It’s getting embarrassing. Five years ago, biomedical scientists would have thought nothing of wheeling a multiple sclerosis sufferer on stage at a public lecture or press conference and vowing that we’d have a cure within five years. They can’t get away with that anymore. Neither audiences nor MS sufferers will let them. Not because we don’t recognise the value of the research, but because most of us have by now twigged that science is a messier, less predictable business than the likes of the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science would still like us to think it is. Likewise, we are becoming increasingly immune to the doomsday predictions of environmental scientists. The only difference is that they don’t seem any less inclined to keep making them.

Biology does have a smattering of its own end-of-the-world scenarios: genetic modification, pandemics, and ‘thrifty genes’ that condemn us to obesity in a world of plenty might all lead to our downfall. And biological and environmental prophesies come together in James Lovelock’s likening of the human population to a virus plaguing Gaia; global warming, he says, is just her way of ridding herself of the infection.

Biology and climate change have much in common that neither share with particle physics. Read high-profile scientists and science commentators like Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers or Chris Mooney and you could come away thinking that all good scientists are evolutionists, environmentalists and atheists. Biologists and environmentalists both tend to perceive themselves as somehow under siege from those perpetrating a War on Science. One has its creationists; the other has its climate ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’. And if there are two things that Myers, Mooney and Dawkins don’t like it’s creationists and climate sceptics/deniers.

But it’s a mistake to think that creationists have anything much in common with climate sceptics. Being sceptical of the climate consensus is in a completely different kettle of ball parks to rejecting the evidence for evolution. At Climate Resistance, for instance, we don’t have a problem with evolution. We are quite happy to accept that evolutionary biologists are doing good science. We’d go as far as to say that evolution by natural selection is about as close as is possible to get to a scientific fact. Neither do we have much of a problem with the science of climate or the environment. We won’t grumble if you call it a fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that civilisation is producing quite a lot of it. Our problem is with the way that climate science is deployed politically, and the meanings that are attached to it. A few climate change sceptics do push the line that it’s all just a scientific conspiracy. But as we have argued many times, climate scepticism is a broad church rather than a specific ideology, and most sceptics are more concerned that climate science is being used as a substitute for politics than that it is a willful corruption of the scientific process.

Despite Iain Stewart’s assertion in the final episode of his BBC series Climate Wars that anthropogenic global warming is ‘one of the most rigorously tested theories in the history of science’ (we’ve covered Part Two here), it isn’t. Biologists have been scrutinising and testing evolution intensively for 150 years, compared to the 30 years that anthropogenic global warming has been under the spotlight. Sure, there are gaps in knowledge – eg, the evolution and maintenance of sexual reproduction, or the origin of self-replicating macro-molecules – but just like gaps in the fossil record, two are created every time you fill one. The gaps in our understanding of global warming are fewer but wider. Moreover, the truth of evolution is not dependent on the future course of human history and politics like the truth of catastrophic climate change is.

Evolution is the fulcrum about which the entire discipline of biology pivots. It is often said that biology makes no sense without evolution. It is biology’s theory of everything. Climate change, on the other hand, is a tapestry of ideas stitched together from climatology, psychiatry, sociology, political science, economics, ethics, physics, biology and chemistry. And it’s used to rewrite history. It is a theory of everything first and a science second.

Not only is evolution more scrutinised and more robust than climate science but it is more detached. Evolutionists are not demanding that society be restructured around the very existence of natural selection. And neither are creationists. They don’t have to believe in evolution to be perfectly happy to use the fruits of evolutionary biology to their own advantage – in agricultural and medical strategies in the arms races with pests and diseases,for example. Creationists just happen not to like the idea that their ancestors are monkeys. Environmentalism, however (and let’s not forget that environmentalism is – as environmentalists keep telling us – based on ‘the science’), asks that we restructure our societies and global economics in the light of climatology. Environmentalists draw on ‘the science’ to prove that Capitalism is flawed. And it is flawed, of course, but not because the thermometers say so. IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri tells us that we should all stop eating meat. Dr Iain Stewart concludes his Climate Wars series with a call for action – ‘the stakes are so high, doing nothing simply isn’t an option’.

But one may make of evolution what one will. Even the Pope says so. And while the vast majority in the UK have no problem with evolution, few sign up to the environmental agenda despite encouragement from all directions. It’s not like anybody voted for it or anything. But then, those evolutionary psychologists are on hand to explain what’s wrong with us and how we might be persuaded otherwise.

Meanwhile, physicists are still looking for their unifying theory. They are more aware of how much we don’t know. Mark Vernon argues that biology is the heartland of militant atheism; physicists, he says, tend to be agnostic.

By way of example, Vernon pitches The God Delusion, by biologist Richard Dawkins, against What We Still Don’t Know, by Sir Martyn Rees (astronomer). Intriguingly, Rees – President of the Royal Society – is not so modest when writing on environmental matters. In Our Final Century? he calculates that humankind has a 50% chance of wiping itself out by 2100. That’s one hell of a model he must be using there to calculate the next century of human history.

Physicists are only too happy to talk about how they don’t know what they’re going to discover tomorrow – or when the LHC goes back on line. Evolutionary biologists are notoriously uncomfortable about speculating on the future course of evolution. So why should we have so much more faith in the predictive abilities of a science that claims to tell us how to run the world for the next hundred years?

All this is not to knock climate change as a field worthy of study. At all. It would be very handy to be able to predict the climate. And the weather. Like transistors, lasers and vaccines have been handy. Like a cure for MS or a fusion energy source would be. And like a Higgs boson or Origin of Species doesn’t need to be, but might well be.

But let’s not forget it is only science. If the hockey stick graph doesn’t capture our imagination like the Higgs boson does, or like they think it should do, it’s not our problem – it’s theirs.

We wish the LHC a speedy recovery. And give the last word to Brian Cox: ‘Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.’

More Climate Wars

Ben has an article on Spiked-Online today, about the BBC’s recent ‘Climate Wars’.

Iain Stewart, professor of geosciences communication at Plymouth University, introduced last week’s instalment with the words: ‘Global warming – the defining challenge of the twenty-first century.’ The programme examined the arguments made by the two putative ‘sides’ in the global warming debate, to show ‘how [the sceptic’s] positions have changed over time’. But Stewart misconstrued scepticism of the idea that ‘global warming is the defining issue of our time’ with scepticism of climate research. In this story, ‘the scientists’ occupied one camp (situated conveniently on the moral high ground) and the bad-minded, politically and financially motivated sceptics the other. But there was no nuance, no depth and no justice done to the debate in this unsophisticated tale, and it did nothing to help the audience understand the science.

Read on at

Fat Polar Bears Are Killing The Polar Bears

Last July, we reported that Fat People Are Killing the Polar Bears.

In November we reported that Fat Swedish Men Are Killing the Polar Bears.

In April we reported that Fat Polar Bears are Killing the Penguins.

In May we reported that Fat People are Killing the Butterflies and the polar bears again.

According to CNN:

Polar bears resort to cannibalism as Arctic ice shrinks

The article isn’t about polar bears at all, but about 2008’s Arctic sea ice extent – which failed to be worse than last year’s. But who gives a toss about ice cubes when there are charismatic mega fauna to write news bulletins about?

“The Arctic sea ice melt is a disaster for the polar bears,” according to Kassie Siegel, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are dependent on the Arctic sea ice for all of their essential behaviors, and as the ice melts and global warming transforms the Arctic, polar bears are starving, drowning, even resorting to cannibalism because they don’t have access to their usual food sources.”

Scientists have noticed increasing reports of starving Arctic polar bears attacking and feeding on one another in recent years. In one documented 2004 incident in northern Alaska, a male bear broke into a female’s den and killed her.

This is Disney for grown-ups. Evil fat people in SUVs force cuddly, friendly, vegetarian, and not at all vicious, nasty creature to perform a sadistic act of murder, just for dinner.

It’s telling that a story about Arctic ice extent has to feature fluffy bears. It’s a sure sign that the storyteller doesn’t credit the audience with the brains to be able to work out that it’s a bad thing for themselves. If you don’t care about finer points of cryospheric crisis, won’t you please, please, please think of the cutesy animals?

More animal-related madness….

What is the future for Arctic sea ice? Some scientists believe that in just five years, the Arctic may be ice-free during the summer.

“The Arctic is kind of the early warning system of the climate,” Meier said. “It is the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is definitely in trouble.”

Meier isn’t one of the scientists who believe that Arctic summer ice will be gone in just five years, as we revealed earlier this month. However, he doesn’t seem to be doing much to correct such transparently ridiculous reporting. And as we said last week, when everything… penguins, migratory birds, the Antarctic, the Arctic, Tuvalu, sea turtles, Kenyan pastoralists, islands, polar bears, Australian ski resorts, US ski resorts, Australian vineyards, Napa Valley vineyards, Canada’s Inuit, Alaska, mountain ecosystems, tropical ice-caps, Greenland, pika, naturists, the Bering Sea, intertidal zones, coral reefs, to name but a few… are all cited as ‘canaries’, then the whole wide world becomes a cage.

Going over the top in the ‘climate war’

‘Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand. The evidence is clear – the long-term trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise.’ (1) This emphatic statement from the UK Met Office yesterday is just the latest shot in the ‘climate war’. But in truth, the polarised and highly politicised nature of the current discussion on global warming features plenty of people on both sides with their heads firmly buried, using ‘science’ to disguise the real debate about the future political and economic direction of society.

This was neatly illustrated by a recent BBC TV series, Earth: The Climate Wars, which ended on Sunday. Last week’s episode, entitled ‘Fightback’ was a particularly one-sided attempt to undermine the critics of the orthodox position on global warming.

Iain Stewart, professor of geosciences communication at Plymouth University, introduced last week’s instalment with the words: ‘Global warming – the defining challenge of the twenty-first century.’ The programme examined the arguments made by the two putative ‘sides’ in the global warming debate, to show ‘how [the sceptic’s] positions have changed over time’. But Stewart misconstrued scepticism of the idea that ‘global warming is the defining issue of our time’ with scepticism of climate research. In this story, ‘the scientists’ occupied one camp (situated conveniently on the moral high ground) and the bad-minded, politically and financially motivated sceptics the other. But there was no nuance, no depth and no justice done to the debate in this unsophisticated tale, and it did nothing to help the audience understand the science.

‘At the start of the 1990s it seemed the world was united’, Stewart told us. World leaders were gathered at the Rio Summit to sign up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the instrument that would pave the way for the Kyoto Protocol. He recalled the excitement felt by researchers at the prospect of the world being united by concern for the environment. ‘Even George Bush [Senior] was there. But the consensus didn’t last.’ Sceptics, it seems, are responsible, not just for the imminent end of the world, but also for corroding global unity.

Stewart’s intention was to show that ‘the scientific consensus’ existed prior to international agreements to prevent climate change. But the basis of the UNFCCC was not a consensus about scientific facts. It could not have been, because scientific facts about human influence on the climate did not exist in 1992, as is revealed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) First Assessment Report in 1990, which concluded that ‘The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.’ Even the second IPCC assessment report in 1995 did not provide the world with the certainty that Stewart claims: ‘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.’ (2)

Instead of consensus and certainty, the UNFCCC was driven by the precautionary principle. Principle 15 of the Rio declaration states: ‘In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of 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.’

Omitting the role of the precautionary principle creates the idea that scientists have always known that industrial activity caused global warming. So, with the benefit of hindsight, Stewart could lump various objections to the interpretation of controversial evidence which existed at the time into one ‘sceptic’ category. Not according to the scientific substance of the argument, but according to whether the argument was later vindicated; not by the consistency of the argument with reality, but whether or not it ‘supported’ the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

In 1992, the data simply wasn’t available to conclude with any great confidence that global warming was happening. But by the logic of Stewart’s argument, as long as you were right about global warming being a ‘fact’ at that time – even if that meant in reality you were wrongly interpreting the evidence available – you were a ‘scientist’. But, if you were right about the unreliability of data in 1992, then you were wrong in 2001, because you were a ‘sceptic’. If this were just a debate within an academic discipline, such challenges would not have any major significance outside of it. But Stewart, like many others, takes routine and isolated differences of scientific opinion, and groups them to imbue them with political significance.

A warming world?

The first scientific debate Stewart presented concerned the reliability of data generated by compiling the records of tens of thousands of surface-based weather stations. Sceptics had argued that these installations were too sparsely distributed and data from them had been contaminated by urbanisation over the twentieth century. Stewart demonstrated that this is indeed a problem. He used the example of the temperature at Las Vegas Airport – home to a monitoring station and heavily urbanised since it was originally set up – and compared it with the temperature outside the city limits, which was markedly cooler. This suggests that making comparisons over time using data from many such stations, where the local environment has changed, may result in over-stating global warming.

The sceptics’ argument was seemingly corroborated in the 1990s by satellite data that showed a slight cooling trend over the 1980s. Ten years later, it turned out that the satellite data had been flawed, Stewart told us. The satellite’s orbits had been drifting downward, and the data they had produced improperly compiled. A correction to the data revealed a warming trend. ‘The sceptics had to admit the world was warming’, said Stewart.

But here again, we see an artefact of the retrospective polarisation of the ‘climate wars’. The truth was that both ‘sides’ were wrong while they had invested their confidence either in the surface station data or the satellite data; both sets of data were ‘wrong’ – Stewart had just demonstrated it himself. But the nuances of the debate don’t interest Stewart. ‘The scientists’ are vindicated by any evidence which shows that ‘the earth is warming’, regardless of its quality. The sceptics, on the other hand, are not vindicated for having pointed out that the surface station record was questionable.

The not-so jolly ‘hockey stick’

Stewart then examined the sceptic claim that an episode in Earth’s history known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) shows that current temperatures are not unprecedented in recent geological history. This was countered by climate researcher Michael Mann, who reconstructed past temperatures where no instrument data were available. By analysing ‘proxies’, such as tree-ring width, ice cores, and coral reefs, he produced a graph which apparently revealed that the MWP was not a global phenomenon, and showed current temperatures to be in excess of anything in the previous millennium.

Temperature reconstruction of past 1,000 years, showing difference between estimated temperature and the 1961-1990 average (IPCC, 2001)

‘Sceptics hated it’ announced Stewart. Indeed they did. Mann’s study remains highly controversial for good reasons. But Stewart gave no time to explaining the objection to these reconstructions, other than to characterise them as ‘personal attacks’ against Mann. The graphic had been the centrepiece of the IPCC’s 2001 Third Assessment Report, used to demonstrate the unequivocal influence of human activity on the climate.

Yet perhaps one of the reasons it was so prominent – in spite of criticism – is that Mann himself was a lead author on the chapter which featured it (3). The IPCC is understood to be a meta-review of the available literature on climate change, but allowing authors to review their own work represents something of a departure from the scientific process. In 2007, following continued criticism of Mann’s method, the IPCC were far more circumspect about the value of such reconstructions. Where Stewart presented these reconstructions as ‘proof’ of todays high temperatures, the IPCC give the statement that ‘twentieth century was the warmest in at least the past [1,300 years]’ just 66 per cent confidence (4).

Sceptical ‘guns for hire’

It is only Stewart’s binary treatment of the issue into true and false and ‘scientists’/’sceptics’ that allowed him to reach his conclusion: ‘There are a lot of people who don’t want global warming to be true’, he tells us. ‘Cutting back on greenhouse gases threatens the freedom of companies to go about their business.’ According to Stewart, companies used the media to emphasise the uncertainties in climate science for their own ends – profit – a cause and strategy taken up by the Bush administration.

This is an almost verbatim copy of an argument put forward by a prominent climate change advocate and science historian at the University of California, San Diego, Naomi Oreskes. She had claimed that the ‘climate change denial’ movement comprised the same individuals and network of organisations that had been instrumental in denying the link between smoking and cancer (5). By emphasising doubt and uncertainty in the claims of honest and decent scientists, Oreskes claims, ‘the tobacco strategy’ aimed to influence public opinion to secure the interests of oil and tobacco companies, and the political Right. It should be no surprise then, that Naomi Oreskes was credited on the first episode of the series.

Stewart’s and Oreskes’ conspiracy theories depend on reducing scientific arguments to meaningless factoids, and casting the debate as one between goodies and baddies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the film’s closing moments. In order to demonstrate that ‘the sceptics’ had changed their arguments in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, the film used footage from the Manhattan Conference on Climate Change earlier this year, a meeting that featured a large number of sceptical writers and researchers.

‘For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet, today, he’s in surprising agreement with the advocates of global warming’, said Stewart. Michaels is then shown giving his talk, saying ‘global warming is real, and in the second half of the twentieth century, humans had something to do with it’. But there is nothing surprising about Michael’s apparent turnaround, because it isn’t one. A 2002 article in the Journal of Climatic Research, authored by Michaels et al argued for a revision of the IPCC’s projections for the year 2100. Instead of saying that there would be no warming, the paper concluded that rises of ‘of 1.0 to 3.0 degrees Celsius, with a central value that averages 1.8 degrees Celsius’ were more likely than the IPCC’s range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius (6). Hardly climate change denial.

What could have been an interesting film was instead a fiction. It attached fictional arguments to fictional interests to legitimise the politicisation of the debate – exactly what it accused the sceptics of. Rather than concentrating on the arguments that have actually been made, Stewart invented the sceptic’s argument to turn climate science into an arena for an exhausted political argument for ‘change’ that has failed to engage the public.

The real ‘climate war’ is between those who do not believe that our future is determined by the weather and those who think that ‘climate change is the defining challenge of our time’ and define themselves – and everybody else – accordingly. Don’t expect a documentary film about it any time soon.

(1) Global warming goes on, Met Office, 23 September 2008

(2) IPPC TAR. Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis. 12.1.2 Summary of the First and Second Assessment Reports

(3) IPCC TAR. Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis. 2. Observed Climate Variability and Change

(4) IPCC AR4. Working Group I Report “The Physical Science Basis”. Chapter 6. Palaeoclimate (PDF)

(5) Watch Orekses’ lecture on The American Denial of Global Warming, Youtube

(6) Revised 21st century temperature projections, Michaels PJ et al, Climatic Research, Vol. 23: 1–9, 2002 (PDF)

Biased Broadcasting Climate

Dr. Iain Stewart’s new BBC2 series Earth: The Climate Wars promised to be a ‘definitive guide’ to the climate debate. Instead, this week’s episode ‘Fightback’, which focused on the sceptics was as shallow and as hollow as any old commentary. The film’s blurb on BBC iPlayer, advertises it thus:

Dr Iain Stewart investigates the counter attack that was launched by the global warming sceptics in the 1990s.

At the start of the 1990s it seemed the world was united. At the Rio Earth summit the world signed up to a programme of action to start tackling climate change. Even George Bush was there. But the consensus didn’t last.

Iain examines the scientific arguments that developed as the global warming sceptics took on the climate change consensus. The sceptics attacked almost everything that scientists held to be true. They argued that the planet wasn’t warming up, that even if it was it was nothing unusual, and certainly whatever was happening to the climate was nothing to do with human emissions of greenhouse gases.

Iain interviews some of the key global warming sceptics, and discovers how their positions have changed over time.

Before the film has started, it is clear that it lacks objectivity. Notice how the blurb casts the players of the debate as either ‘scientists’ or sceptics’, as if they were mutually exclusive terms. Notice too, how it is supposed to be important that ‘positions have changed over time’, as though the counterpart argument had such integrity that it had never shifted, or responded to emerging evidence. Third, Stewart characterises the 1992 Rio summit (both in the blurb and in the film) as evidence of a consensus, which was seemingly attacked by ‘the sceptics’, when in fact, agreements and frameworks since then have failed for their non-viability, not because of any attack. And there was no such consensus in 1992. As we have pointed out before, in 1992, the ‘consensus’ was characterised very differently to today, and the UNFCCC agreements proceeded not on the basis of scientific evidence and certainty, but according to the precautionary principle.

As the headlines of the 1995 Summary for Policymakers from WGI of the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report (a far slimmer document than today’s reams and reams of graphics and text) shows, the claims to have understood the climate were much more cautious than Stewart implies.

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. […]

1. Greenhouse gas concentrations have continued to increase

2. Anthropogenic aerosols tend to produce negative radiative forcings

3. Climate has changed over the past century

4. The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate

5. Climate is expected to continue to change in the future

6. There are still many uncertainties

Contrary to Stewart’s claim that the world was united by scientific evidence in the early 1990s, even by 1995, there was still only the ‘suggestion’, on the ‘balance of evidence’, that there had been a ‘discernible human influence on global climate’ – and that’s in the Summary for Policymakers document, which has consistently been far more alarmist than the more technical parts of the report. The First Assessment Report, which would have been the basis for the 1992 UNFCCC had concluded that ‘The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more’, making it clear that in the early 1990s, there could have been no consensus as Stewart describes it. As the 1995 report continued:

There are still many uncertainties

Many factors currently limit our ability to project and detect future climate change. In particular, to reduce uncertainties further work is needed on the following priority topics

• Estimation of future emissions and biogeochemical cycling (including sources and sinks) of greenhouse gases, aerosols and aerosol precursors and projections of future concentrations and radiative properties.

• Representation of climate processes in models, especially feedbacks associated with clouds, oceans, sea ice and vegetation, in order to improve projections of rates and regional patterns of climate change.

• Systematic collection of longterm instrumental and proxy observations of climate system variables (e.g., solar output, atmospheric energy balance components, hydrological cycles, ocean characteristics and ecosystem changes) for the purposes of model testing, assessment of temporal and regional variability, and for detection and attribution studies.

Future unexpected, large and rapid climate system changes (as have occurred in the past) are, by their nature, difficult to predict. This implies that future climate changes may also involve “surprises”. In particular, these arise from the nonlinear nature of the climate system. When rapidly forced, nonlinear systems are especially subject to unexpected behaviour. Progress can be made by investigating nonlinear processes and subcomponents of the climatic system. Examples of such nonlinear behaviour include rapid circulation changes in the North Atlantic and feedbacks associated with terrestrial ecosystem changes.

If there were still substantial uncertainties in 1995, then the characterisation of sceptics as changing their argument is highly disingenuous. The arguments they were responding to changed. Before the film has even started, it is apparent that it has false premises.

And in case viewers are still in any doubt about which ‘side’ Iain Stewart is on, the first words he speaks are ‘Global warming – the defining challenge of the 21st century’. This series is obviously intended as the antidote to the Great Global Warming Swindle. Indeed, don’t expect any complaints from the likes of the Royal Society about this one. If this is the definitive guide to anything, it is to how to dress up politics as a science documentary.

The film begins its exploration of the scientific arguments by outlining the sceptic’s objection to confidence placed in the temperature record obtained by weather stations, on the basis that they were too widely distributed to provide an accurate representation of global temperature. Stewart shows how this method had produced an upward trend throughout the 20th Century, but that it contradicted the satellite record produced after the late ’70s. Stewart asks which one is correct – the surface record, or the satellite data?

[youtube gywWnvAk5cs]

This is not, as Stewart claims, a classic scientific problem as much as it is classic bad science. For example, which of the following is correct?

A: 2+2 = 7
B: 2+2 = 1

Stewart explains the urban heat island effect, which, according to him drove the sceptic’s argument, but says there is a counter argument. Across the world, there was evidence that the world was warming: earlier springs, glacial retreat, warming oceans, all of which ‘seemed to back up the thermometer record, not the satellites’.

It was deadlock. one side had to be wrong. And it wasn’t clear which one. Finally, after almost ten years of pouring over the data, someone did find a fault. And it was with the data from the satellites.

Again, why can’t they both be wrong? He goes on to describe how friction, and the consequential downward drift of satellites, distorted the signal being received from Earth. The satellite data was reanalysed, and found to show a slight warming trend.

Now even die hard sceptics had to accept that there had been some warming in the second half of the century. […] The rising temperature was now a fact. With satellites and thermometers confirming it. The sceptic’s challenge had actually made the case stronger. But the battle was far from over.

The logic of Stewart’s argument is that the surface record was correct because the satellite record was wrong. But this is only necessary in an argument in which the thermometer record speaks for ‘the scientists’ and the satellite record speaks for ‘the sceptics’, and all sceptics, and all scientists divide according to these positions. The implication here is that any warming measured by either method substantiates the claim that ‘global warming is happening’, where ‘global warming’ stands for ‘dangerous global warming’, which calls for the ‘something must be done’ of conventional wisdom. Accordingly, Stewart seems to characterise the sceptical position as ‘global warming isn’t happening, therefore it is not necessary to reduce CO2 emissions’. This is not a careful argument, because people – sceptical and not – have been questioning the leaps between observing that the earths temperature changes, the attribution of that change to humans, the conclusion that it will cause catastrophe, and that the only way to confront that catastrophe is by mitigating climate change through reduction in emissions. Each leap – and there are many more – produces its own arguments and counter arguments. The idea that the entire range of arguments rested, at any particular moment, on one paticular scientific controversy is a grotesque simplification of a debate with many sides to it, touching on political, social, economic, scientific and even ethical arguments.

Nonetheless, Stewart continues to the next controversy in the account: the sceptics were now arguing that the temperatures shown by the now synchronised satellite and thermometer records were not unprecedented in earth’s history. The Medieval warm period (MWP), he said they said, showed that today’s temperatures were not unusual. This section of the film begins in Greenland, and explores the idea that it was indeed once Green, to which the counter argument is that the MWP might not have been a global phenomenon. In order to show this idea, Michael Mann – the producer of the infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph – was introduced, amidst a whir of special effects. Mann’s graphic represented a reconstruction of past temperatures, not from thermometers or satellites, but by analysing data from proxies, such as tree-ring width, corals, and ice cores. This graphic is significant to the film for two reasons. First, it removed the Medieval warm period. Second, it depicted current temperatures well above any other time in its scope.

[youtube mqsG0nycIlQ]
It is interesting that Stewart should depict Mann as a victim of an attack on his integrity. As part of the team behind the website, Mann and his team are famously unreserved in attacking their critics, rather than their critics’ work, and removing dissenting opinion from the comments section of the site. As a No Scientist article in 2006 pointed out, Mann’s aggressive character is noteworthy.

Mann, however, still brims with self-confidence. Now at Penn State University, he treats his critics with something close to contempt. “A lot of scientists would have retreated, but Mike is tenacious,” says Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, his collaborator on the climate science blog RealClimate. Mann’s style does not always help matters.

It is is even more surprising that Stewart decides not to investigate the substance of criticisms of Mann and his methodology. This has indeed arguably been one of the biggest scientific controversies in the climate debate. But Stewart does not inform his audience as to the nature of that controversy. Whatsoever.

The graphic Mann produced became an icon for the global warming cause when it was given prominence in the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report. The IPCC is widely regarded as being the authority on climate matters, and is intended to be a kind of super-charged peer-review process. But Mann was a lead author on the chapter in which his own study became the centrepiece. In short, Mann was peer-reviewing his own work. This makes about as much sense as a defendant sitting as judge at his own trial. Does this not raise questions about the integrity of the IPCC process?

Second, Mann refused – until recently, after he was ordered to – to release the data relating to his methodology, on the basis that it was his own private property. Similarly, climatologist and Professor at the UK’s UEA, Phil Jones – who worked with Mann on the reconstruction – told climate-realist, Warwick Hughes, who had asked for details about his methodology that

We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.

Mann and his team were refusing to explain how they achieved their result to people wishing to subject it to scrutiny – exactly what is supposed to happen in the scientific world, otherwise, it is not science. Mann was able to elevate his research by using his position as lead author. These are just two of the many reasons Mann was ‘attacked’ by the scientific and sceptical communities, and websites set up to examine his claims. Stewart, by not even mentioning this, does no justice to the debate. His omission is fairly straightforward bias.

For a full picture on the vast number of questions relating to his methodology generated by Mann’s graphic, visit Climate Audit where Steve McIntyre has documented his attempts to reconstruct Mann’s reconstruction. He also demonstrates that the other reconstructions presented by Stewart as a debunking of scepticism are not at all as independent from Mann as he suggests, nor are they compiled using substantially different methodology. For rebuttals to McIntyre, read Real Climate, ‘Tamino’s’ Open Mind (a misnoma, if ever there were one), and eli rabett (the cartoonish psuedonom of a commentator not brave enough to put his real name to frequently very childish arguments).

In 2001, the hockey stick alarmed the world. Today, it is widely regarded as a bit of an embarrassment. The 2007 IPCC (AR4) report’s chapter on paleoclimate reconstruction is far more circumspect.

On the evidence of the previous and four new reconstructions that reach back more than 1 kyr, it is likely [NB: “Likely” means greater than 66 percent] that the 20th century was the warmest in at least the past 1.3 kyr. Considering the recent instrumental and longer proxy evidence together, it is very likely that average NH temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were higher than for any other 50-year period in the last 500 years. Greater uncertainty associated with proxy-based temperature estimates for individual years means that it is more difficult to gauge the significance, or precedence, of the extreme warm years observed in the recent instrumental record, such as 1998 and 2005, in the context of the last millennium.

In other words, the hockey stick is not particularly significant. It does not ‘prove’ that today’s climate is warmer than ever before; nor are the findings of only marginal confidence given prominence. And here is the rub: Stewart overstates the importance of the sceptics’ case for a warmer MWP than present by saying that it would ‘prove’ to the world that anthropogenic climate change was false. Yet this is again a mischaracterisation, both of the range of sceptic’ argument, and the objections to Mann’s work. The challenge to the hockey stick concerned principally its undue prominence, and the lack of integrity of the IPCC process. The graphic was used, not as a device to further our understanding of the climate, and to build an effective response, but to serve as a vehicle for alarmism, and something that could be sold to the media as a conclusive, unchallengeable fact about humanitys influence on the climate.

The film continues to consider the argument in The Great Global Warming Swindle connecting the effect of solar flux on cosmic rays, and cloud formation. This was ‘debunked’, in spite of the strong statistical correlation until 1990, on the basis that the correlation ceases. But this correlation, ending as it does in 1990, must make for a good argument that temperatures prior to 1990 could be attributed to the sun. In other words, Stewart’s premise that a consensus, and a strong scientific argument both existed in the early 1990s was misconceived. At the very least, the question about the correlation between solar-cycle length and global temperature prior to 1990 has not been answered. Why did it end?

Stewart isn’t interested. From all this, he says, there is only one conclusion. Humans are responsible and emissions must be curbed:

There are only a tiny number of scientists who still question a human influence on climate. And yet climate scepticism hasn’t gone away. You’ll still see websites claiming that the world isn’t warming up, that it’s all down to the urban heat island. But that’s not true. You’ll still hear claims that there is proof that the Earth was hotter than during the medieval warm period. But that’s not true. And you’ll still hear people claiming that the sun somehow disproves global warming. But that’s not true either. So why is this stuff still around? The problem is there are a lot of people who don’t want global warming to be true. The fact is, I’m one of them. I wish there was no such thing as global warming, because taking action to prevent climate change is going to affect all our lives and mean giving up some of our freedom.

See what he did there? A seamless switch from the scientific to the political. Most scientists agree that humans have something to do with recent increases in global temperature, therefore we inevitably have to accept the politics of restraint. We all now have to change our lifestyles and give up our freedoms… because ‘most scientists say so’.

No argument is offered as to how Stewart knows that most scientists agree. As far as we are aware, no such poll has ever been taken. But more to the point, even if all scientists agreed, the way we live our lives, and the decision as to what liberties we ought to be entitled to are absolutely none of their business. Stewart clearly believes that an ‘ethical’ and political argument for action on climate change can be constructed purely on the basis of ‘scientific facts’. But how? And why should normal ethics and politics be suspended? Science may be able to shed light on the kind of future we might face, but it cannot tell us whether avoiding that kind of future altogether is better than another form of strategy. It cannot calculate the costs and benefits in human terms. And urgency is no substitute for legitimacy. This intellectual poverty is what drives objections to environmentalism. It is because demands for action to stop climate change use ‘facts’ in the same way that cavemen use clubs. They are blunt instruments of control, not careful arguments which persuade. To paraphrase Stewart, the problem is that there are a lot of people who NEED global warming to be true. Without it, they would be disorientated, and purposeless. As we say in our introduction, environmental concern is merely serving to provide direction for directionless politics.

Let’s get it straight – most sceptics are not doubting that humans have contributed to a warming trend. Indeed, Stewart had already interviewed Pat Michaels, who had made it quite clear that he agrees that the world is warming, and Fred Singer, who had stated that his gripe is not with the readings of thermometers. Stewart has in his possession the very facts he needs to understand that he has mischaracterised the debate, the arguments, and the motives behind objections to climate change alarmism.

It is the necessity of giving up freedoms, Stewart goes on to say, which has lead companies to seek ways to undermine the climate change argument.

[youtube Mix8RlJYz58]
Of course. It’s all Bush’s fault.

And there’s a familiar argument in this claim that the ‘strategy’ of the sceptics was to create doubt… We’ve heard it before. If we look back over the film, we can see exactly the same argument being made here, as were made by Naomi Oreskes in her ‘Tobacco Strategy’ thesis: there were a small bunch who viciously and nastily attacked a bunch of nice scientists, and who cast doubt over well established scientific truths in order to control the media, and influence the public. Oh, and they’re Republicans. As we said of Oreskes thesis earlier in the year:

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.

Stewart’s film is no different. The actual arguments for ‘drastic and urgent action’ to mitigate climate change are paper thin, so in order to make the case, Stewart and Oreskes re-write history. In fact, Stewart had little to do with it. As the credits of the first episode reveal, Oreskes was involved with the writing of the film, and it can be no accident that the second episode bears such a resemblance to her mucky thesis.

Finally, although the film promised interviews with the sceptics, this amounted to no more than Stewart accosting various people in the lobby of the Manhatten conference, to, rather childishly, challenge them, rather than understand their position. This failure to understand what he is arguing against is particularly well demonstrated by this last section.

[youtube VLHbn3kNTfg]
Stewart has invented the idea that, since the whole debate began, sceptics have lost arguments to the scientists. But as the very footage he shows reveals, it is not the case that scepticism ever rested on the scientific argument. Of course some sceptics may have focussed on some scientific aspects of the discussion exclusively. But Stewart, like Oreskes, needs to make the case that scepticism is one idea, with one purpose, akin to an ideology, because setting up strawmen is the only way these two can challenge arguments they clearly do not understand. They falsely cast the debate as opposed sides, without any nuance of argument or position. They falsely casts sceptics as those who disagree with the science, whereas many sceptics raise questions about the equally questionable politics, ethics, and economics of the argument for action. They seem to be advocating action to mitigate climate change on the basis that a correlation between CO2 and global temperature is sufficient to make the political and moral case. And they are unreflective about their own political stance on the issue, appearing to believe that theirpolitical position is legitimised by the climate science.

As Stewart told the BBC in an interview for the press release announcing the film, he has a clear agenda, and it ain’t informing the public:

If society is to make any progress on effectively dealing with climate change at a regional or global level, what is imperative is that ordinary people help build a political climate at grass-roots level that accepts the problem exists and demands some serious actions by business and government. For me, that begins with people accepting that there is no hiding place left in the science – the overwhelming consensus of the vast body of scientists that study climate is that the trends we are seeing in the air, the oceans and in our ecosystems are entirely consistent with the theory of global warming, while the alternatives offered by sceptical scientists – even the much heralded role of the Sun – so far fail that test.

Blaming scientific uncertainty is now not an option to delay action. Sure, actions by individuals can make a difference, but real progress will only come when individuals come together with a strong, common voice to demand that rhetoric turns into regulation. And that’s where I see my role – in convincing ordinary folk that this is an issue that they should care about, not because it will affect them but, more insidiously, it will be their legacy to their kids and grandkids.

The same, self-aggrandising, alarmist nonsense can be found anywhere. And to find the arguments which debunk it, and are sceptical of it, you don’t have to seek out some dark, nasty, politically-motivated organisation. They can be found in the very words offered to us by non-sceptical climate scientists.

We’ve been citing Professor Mike Hulme (Tyndall and UEA) a lot recently. But his contributions to climate debates demonstrate perfectly the discrepancy between the shrill cries for action, such as those of Stewart, and what actually emerges from the scientific process, when those scientists aren’t engaged in political activism. Compare Hulme’s words to Stewart’s:

[youtube XuxDkXwhtSo]

On the Horizon

1) Battle of Ideas, 1-2 November, Royal College of Art, London

If last year’s event is anything to go by, it will be very good indeed. Here’s Professor Mike Hulme, School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and founding Director (2000-2007) of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, speaking at last year’s Battle at the session The Science and Politics of Climate Change, ten days after Al Gore and the IPCC got their Nobel Peace Prize:

To me it seems implicit that good science, as represented by the IPCC, plus good communication, as represented by Al Gore, will deliver peace on Earth. [But] it is not the case that, we have the scientific debate, then once we agree what the scientific evidence is, we simply have to communicate it, peace will break out, the world will act, and the problem would be solved. That is not what science’s role is; it’s not how most public political issues are resolved; and it’s certainly not the way climate change is going to be tackled […] The real issues are why we disagree about what to do about climate change. And science cannot provide us with the script that we all read from.

And if you have a spare 10 minutes, the rest is good, too:

[youtube XuxDkXwhtSo]

As are the other three speakers (90 minutes)

A couple of events jump out at us from the 2008 programme: Is our behaviour determined by our evolution?

Is the renewed interest in the evolutionary, genetic and psychological basis of human behaviour inspired by new evidence, or a diminished view of the human condition? Are social and cultural phenomena beyond the proper scope of natural science, or have we just become less hysterical about turning the microscope on ourselves?

Which makes us think of Andreas Ernst, Steven Moffic and Richard Louv. They aren’t on the panel. But the excellent Raymond Tallis is.

And for anybody intrigued by the uncanny similarities between environmentalism and the War on Terror, there’s Eco-imperialism?:

… Environmental concerns have joined terrorism and nuclear proliferation as key preoccupations in international affairs since the end of the Cold War. Free from the political constraints of the ‘old world order’, UN officials, Western politicians and NGOs frequently argue that the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of ‘rogue’ sovereign states.Should industrial pollution and the destruction of natural habitats be seen as ‘crimes against nature’ (ecocide), justifying ecological interventions similar to humanitarian ones? Is the use of force to prevent serious and immediate environmental harm something we should now seriously consider? Or would this amount to ‘eco-imperialism’, transgressing international legal and political norms and state sovereignty?

2) Beyond the Pole, at a cinema near you, maybe, one day:

the first carbon-neutral, organic, and vegetarian option… er… expedition to make the pole

Perhaps satire isn’t dead after all. Although real life did beat them to it.

All the World's a Cage

According to World Water Council‘s director-general Ger Bergkamp, Australia is ‘the metaphorical canary down the coalmine when it comes to climate change‘:

In Australia, what was projected to be here in 20 years from now, in terms of the drought, is already here as we speak.

Now where have we heard that one before? It’s not just Australia that is still clinging to its perch only because somebody has nailed it there. If climate alarmists are to be believed, there are as many ‘climate change canaries’ out there as there are canaries in the Canary Isles: penguins, migratory birds, the Antarctic, the Arctic, Tuvalu, sea turtles, Kenyan pastoralists, islands, polar bears, Australian ski resorts, US ski resorts, Australian vineyards, Napa Valley vineyards, Canada’s Inuit, Alaska, mountain ecosystems, tropical ice-caps, Greenland, pika, naturists, the Bering Sea, intertidal zones, coral reefs, to name but a few.

‘Climate canary’ is the perfect metaphor in the age of the precautionary principle. Especially when it can apply to anything you want it to. Because, when you’re watching everything for signs of catastrophe, it follows that you can’t do anything without at least one of your canaries karking it.

Trouble is, it doesn’t quite work. While actual canaries were once very useful for alerting miners to the presence of deadly gases – first they stopped singing, then they keeled over – there is little reason to believe that any of our climate canaries serve their putative purpose. Despite the ‘fact’ that ‘climate change is real and is happening’, none of them seem to have actually popped their clogs yet, or even to have stopped singing. All a climate canary has to do to justify an alarmist newspaper headline is hop metaphorically from one side of its cage to the other, or look at us in a funny way. Like that other favourite metaphor of the risk-averse, the ‘ticking time-bomb’, the climate canary is predicated on the idea that nothing terrible has happened yet, but you can’t rule it out.

The metaphor also fails on the basis that while canaries were used to make mining safer, the climate variety are deployed to encourage us to stop mining completely – and stop doing everything else for that matter – because it might possibly be harmful to canaries.

Its ubiquity means that even the likes of Gristmill have recognised that the climate canary is a dead parrot – that we need something bigger and scarier. We suggest that, next time, Ger Bergkamp might consider ‘Australia more like a climate change canary than previously thought‘.

Environmentalism or death: that's the choice?

The UK Green Party – formerly the Ecology Party (1975-1985), formerly PEOPLE (1973-1975) – once rejected the conventional party structure of ‘leader and followers’ in favour of a model of ‘participatory politics’, comprising six ‘principal speakers’.

But discipline soon became an embarrassing issue. David Icke, former footballer and TV presenter, famously failed to represent the party when he was one of its spokesmen, preferring instead to talk about himself as the Son of God. In 1992, the party compromised its idealism to settle on two principal speakers; one male, one female. In a referendum held last November, the party decided that not having a leader was impeding the job of saving the planet. Last week, on 5 September, Caroline Lucas, the party’s member of the European parliament for the south-east region of England, beat her election rival, Ashley Gunstock, by a wide margin, and became the first leader of the Green Party.

These compromises on its constitutional ideals reflect the Green Party’s inability to identify a coherent political perspective. The party has latterly been understood to be on the left, but as erstwhile male principal speaker Derek Wall’s surprisingly honest biography of the party reveals, its anti-growth agenda was established by former Conservatives during the post-industrial economic gloom of the 1970s. According to Wall, ‘the theme of survival marked the bleak evolution of Green politics’ (1). This same sense of urgency and necessity has since attracted various disorientated anarchists and socialists to join former conservatives and members of society’s upper-crust, such as Edward (brother of James, and uncle of Zac) Goldsmith, and Jonathon Porritt.

Unlike radical parties of the past, the Green Party did not emerge from a grassroots movement with particular interests and philosophy. It has instead represented those alienated from mainstream politics as the left collapsed, and as the Right lost contact with the values of its past. Thirty-five years on, the success of the party has been limited to capturing disillusionment with the politics of post-industrial Britain, rather than convincing the masses of their imminent demise.

Unable to form a synthesis from differences within the party and to develop a coherent and cohesive political vision, the Greens have been unable to move beyond being the party of catastrophe. As Wall explains: ‘The founders of PEOPLE believed that the collapse of society was imminent unless swift action was taken.’ In spite of Britain emerging from the 1970s doldrums, there has been little change in the party’s outlook and its arguments remain preoccupied with Armageddon.

Consider, for instance, Lucas’s position on European policy to restrict aircraft emissions, to which there is only one dimension: impending doom. ‘When you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here’, said Lucas. (2)

But is being tough on climate change and the causes of climate change enough to make Lucas a leader? How will she reconcile the differences within a party only unified by its sense of doom, and take its message to the public? After all, being committed to taking a stand against economic growth, Lucas is unable to make convincing promises to transform people’s circumstances for the better. Instead, she can only offer to stop our circumstances from getting worse.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth about the language of environmentalism, Lucas recently said: ‘I think we need to get much better at painting a really positive picture of what a zero-carbon future could look like. Because climate change isn’t essentially an environmental problem, it’s a problem of security. We need to be using language, I think, around security in order to mobilise the kind of resources and the kind of urgency that we would get if we were talking about some kind of foreign invasion into Britain.’ (3)

It is telling that the only way Lucas can construct ‘really positive’ language is by fantasising about an invasion – an allusion to the apocryphal ‘war footing’ of the Second World War, where the public was united by a common spirit and purpose. But Lucas’s desire for such powerful moral authority is beyond her means. Lacking an invading enemy, she has to invent one. As Alex Gourevitch argued last year in n+1 magazine, the environmental movement’s reframing of impending doom in terms of security is not so much an alternative, nor even challenge to the ‘politics of fear’, as it is a reinvention of it:

‘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.’ (4)

Although the Greens have failed to establish a political philosophy, they have managed to turn their anxieties about the future of the climate into a system of ethical imperatives. At the UK Observer’s 2007 Ethical Awards ceremony, Lucas was given the title ‘Ethical Politician of the Year’ on the basis that she ‘spent the last 20 years campaigning on ethical issues, from GM, climate change and localised food production to mobile-phone safety’ (5). All you need to do to be ‘ethical’ in today’s world is to stand against things. The consequence of this is that it precludes discussion on how GM might be used to benefit – rather than merely protect – humanity, and climate change adapted, rather than submitted, to; such nuances are anathema to environmental ethics, and, of course, raise questions that relate to politics. Thus the Green Party is a party with ‘ethics’, but without politics.

This ethical system, albeit divorced from human values, arms Lucas and her party with a moral purpose – ‘saving the planet’ – which the major parties have difficulty emulating with such sincerity and conviction. So with its new leader, what kind of alternative is the new Green Party to the old mainstream parties?

Asked whether the Labour Party was suffering a leadership crisis on BBC TV’s Question Time in June, Lucas replied: ‘It’s not just a leadership crisis; it’s a crisis of direction of the whole Labour project, quite frankly. It doesn’t know where it’s going any more. It’s lost its way. It doesn’t have any values. [Gordon Brown] is a man who has said, for example, that climate change is the greatest threat that we face, and yet this is a man who is giving a green light to a massive expansion of Heathrow Airport.’ (6)

Lucas rightly points to the major parties losing contact with both their values and the public. But this is no stunning new insight. The defining feature of the major parties since the 1980s has been their indistinctiveness. They have reinvented their images, and searched for charismatic leaders and novel policy initiatives in the hope that they will help them overcome their political exhaustion. The Green Party is no different. In the debate about the party’s leadership, Wall, a Zen-eco-socialist, had argued that ‘top-down traditional politics turns voters off’. Lucas, the pragmatist, disagreed, arguing that: ‘Most people don’t relate to abstract concepts; rather they relate to the people who espouse and embody them.’ (7) She said that picking a leader was ‘not about weakening our principles; it’s about strengthening our effectiveness’. (8)

If Wall’s idealism could be described as naive, Lucas’s self-aggrandisement and cynicism of the public’s ability to engage with political ideas demonstrate contempt. But can you not imagine Gordon, Dave, and… er… the other one, saying much the same thing as Lucas? And might this cynicism of the electorate go some way to explaining the electorates’ growing cynicism towards politicians?

As the major parties have struggled to identify themselves and connect with the public, so they have dramatised and escalated the crises that the world faces in order to avoid facing up to their own. In April last year, the Labour Party committed Britain to a reduction in CO2 emissions of 60 per cent by 2050. Shortly after, the Tories upped the stakes to 80 per cent. Not to be outdone, the Liberal Democrats promised a carbon-neutral Britain by the same time. This is politics by numbers. And there is no challenge to this process in British politics, with each party only positioning itself to appear to be taking any given issue more seriously than the rest. Lucas, in spite of her prominence in the anti-war movement, does not challenge the dominance of ‘the politics of fear’, as much as she wraps herself in it entirely.

The Green Party’s environmental ethics are values that are estranged from human experience, and are premised, not on an understanding of how humans relate through social and economic structures, but through a fragile ‘biosphere’, to which human interests must take second place.

Doom is a stand in for the Green Party’s political vision, and environmental ethics are a stand in for its political philosophy. Rather than constructing a fresh new challenge to the failures of old political parties, the Greens have done little more than to make a virtue of them. And by abandoning politics altogether, in favour of a bogus system of ethics, they reflect today’s widespread disengagement from politics, and the mutual cynicism of politicians, the media, and the public. It is in this atmosphere that Lucas has been able to achieve such a high profile by pretending to be radical. Her rise to prominence in the European Parliament was granted, not by the will of a mass movement standing behind her, but by the votes of just 2.9 per cent of the electorate of her constituency in the south-east – 63.2 per cent of whom were not interested enough to register their vote. It seems that the proposition ‘Environmentalism or Death’ is not quite as rousing as Lucas and the Greens believe

(1) A short history of the Green Party of England and Wales, Another Green World, 9 October 2006

(2) Today, BBC Radio 4, 13 November 2007

(3) Word of Mouth, BBC Radio 4, 26 August 2008

(4) Whatever Happened to the War on Terror?, Alex Gourevitch, n + 1, 30 October 2007

(5) The Observer Ethical Awards in association with Ecover – winners revealed, Observer, 15 June 2008

(6) Question Time, BBC1, 28 May 2007

(7) Leading Edge, Guardian, 12 September 2007

(8) Green party decides it should have a leader, Guardian 30 November 2007

The Queen of the Greens

Ben has an article in today’s Spiked on our favourite Green, Caroline Lucas, who was elected as the Party’s leader last Friday. 

The UK Green Party – formally the Ecology Party (1975-1985), formally PEOPLE (1973-1975) – once rejected the conventional party structure of ‘leader and followers’ in favour of a model of ‘participatory politics’, comprising six ‘principal speakers’.

But discipline soon became an embarrassing issue. David Icke, former footballer and TV presenter, famously failed to represent the party when he was one of its spokesmen, preferring instead to talk about himself as the Son of God. In 1992, the party compromised its idealism to settle on two principal speakers; one male, one female. In a referendum held last November, the party decided that not having a leader was impeding the job of saving the planet. Last week, on 5 September, Caroline Lucas, the party’s member of the European parliament for the south-east region of England, beat her election rival, Ashley Gunstock, by a wide margin, and became the first leader of the Green Party.

These compromises on its constitutional ideals reflect the Green Party’s inability to identify a coherent political perspective.READ ON