Monthly Archives: December 2008
Two articles in the Guardian/Observer this weekend seem to have stretched reports produced by conservationists to effect the maximum possible alarm.
On Saturday, the Guardian reported that the National Trust had produced an audit of climate change effects on wildlife in the UK.
British wildlife may not survive third wet summer, warns National Trust
A third miserable summer in parts of the UK could spell disaster for many species of insects, bird life and mammals, the National Trust warns today.
The charity says three wet summers in a row in many regions could mean that creatures – ranging from crane flies (often called daddy-long-legs) to species of butterflies, members of the tit family, puffins and bats – may struggle to survive in some places.
Matthew Oates, a nature conservation adviser for the trust, said: “After two very poor years in a row we desperately need a good summer in 2009 – otherwise it’s going to look increasingly grim for a wealth of wildlife in the UK.
“Climate change is not some future prediction of what might happen. It’s happening now and having a serious impact on our countryside every year.”
The warning comes in a yearly audit produced by the National Trust of how the weather in 2008 affected wildlife.
The year began curiously, according to the audit, with sightings of red admiral butterflies and white-tailed bumblebees in January and February. Many naturalists think it is probably a bad idea for such creatures to be out and about so early. The bees were badly hit by snow and frost in April.
As we reported at the time, it is not unusual to see red admiral butterflies in January. According to the audit “snowdrops and crocuses emerge earlier than normal” in January. But as we also reported, the timing of snowdrops is determined not by the prevailing conditions of the winter, but of the previous Autumn. As for bees, the Natural History Museum website informs us,
In towns and cities in the south [the white tailed bumble bee] commonly continues to forage through the winter where suitable flower resources are available.
Heavy rain during mid-May meant hard times for early-summer insects, which in turn meant many blue tit and great tit nests failed. In June, coastal birds such as choughs, kittiwakes and razorbills bred late and reared few young. In July, puffin numbers on the Farne Islands were down 35% in five years.
The audit printed in the Guardian echoes the article:
• Heavy rain makes life hard for early-summer insects, such as the marsh fritillary butterfly.
• Many nests fail, including those of great and blue tits [...], due to the lack of insects and foul weather.
Heavy rain in May? Not according to the UK’s Met Office, who report that rainfall in May across the UK was just 73% of average. In England, it was higher at 109%, and Southern England it was up still at 145%. This was a local effect. And an increase of 45% is not what you’d call ‘heavy rain’.
The audit continues to say of June that it was a “poor summer for insects such as butterflies, moths, hoverflies, ladybirds and dragonflies”. But the Met Office says that June was 0.4 degrees warmer than average for Southern England, and similar throughout the rest of the UK. The month brought an entirely average amount of sunshine, and less than average rainfall for the South (78%), and slightly above average (110%) for the UK. How can an average month be a poor summer for insects?
On to August. The audit claims
• Few wasps around as the poor weather hinders nest building.
• Two types of cabbage white butterfly, the large white and small white, are unusually plentiful as their predators are depleted by poor weather.
• Crickets and grasshoppers scarcely sing all month. Bats’ staple food, insects, are seriously affected by the heavy rain.
August was a disappointing month. But the Met Office shows that the UK experienced just 54% more rainfall than ‘usual’. This might mean nothing more than it rained one day out of every two more than it would ‘normally’. The UK average rainfall for August is around 90mm. It got 140mm. That makes for a boring Summer, but it’s no torrent of biblical proportions. Hardly a harbinger of doom in a series which is just 31 days long. There were also significant regional differences. Northern Ireland, for example, saw 213% of the rain it ‘usually’ gets according to the MO’s climate statistics. The South of England saw 152%, but the South East (part of the South) saw 125%, while the South West (also part of the South) got 171%. Temperatures in all regions were above average. The only remarkable thing was that it was the ‘dullest’ August in the record, since 1929 at 67% of normal, or 115 hours of sunshine. It is fair to say then, that it was a cloudy August, but that’s not consistent with any observable trend, or change that can be attributed to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’.
As a graph comparing the August sunshine, temperature and rainfall anomalies in England over the last century shows, August 2008 is generally unremarkable. In fact, looking at this graph, it’s hard to say anything about England’s climate that would be consistent with the claims that it is changing, or becoming hostile to wildlife – it is a very variable graph. So it’s even harder to know what Matthew Oates, a nature conservation adviser for the National Trust means when he says,
Climate change is not some future prediction of what might happen. It’s happening now and having a serious impact on our countryside every year.
In what way is climate change happening now? And how can it be having an effect on our countryside?
On Sunday, the Guardian’s Sunday paper, the Observer, ran a similar story. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/28/wildlife-animals-conservation]
Third of Britain’s mammals ‘at risk’
Oh No! We’re mammals!
Climate change and habitat loss have led to a dramatic increase in the number of mammals whose future survival is a cause for concern among conservationists, the study commissioned by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species concludes. The Bechstein’s bat, one of the country’s rarest mammals, has shown a marked decline while the number of soprano pipistrelle bats has fallen by 46% in six years.
A visit to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) website doesn’t lead us to this study. They don’t seem to have published it yet. Which is odd, isn’t it, given the dramatic headlines it has generated. We’ll try and get hold of it. Meanwhile, the Observer article continues,
Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions, combined with hotter, drier summers and wetter winters, were causing changes in the distribution and behaviour of some species, such as the hazel dormouse, the study finds.
‘Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions’? Does this mean that the poor bats and mice have declined in numbers because they got caught in a rainstorm they weren’t ‘expecting’? What does ‘unpredictability’ have to do with population decline? And when was UK weather ever ‘predictable’? As the graph above shows, there is a great deal of variation in England’s weather. But ‘extreme’ it has not been.
We hear a lot about hotter, drier summers, and wetter winters. But how true are the claims made about them? We took the statistics generously supplied by the Met Office, and put them into Excel. The following graph compares temperatures for each season in England, between 1915 and 2007, with 10 year moving averages.
What strikes first is that it isn’t the Summer in England which shows the greatest change, but the other three seasons. There is a fairly substantial year-to-year variation of average temperature. If the moving average represents a trend, it doesn’t lead to anything we could safely regard as ‘extreme’.
Spring and Autumn exhibit much more significant recent warming trends, which might lead us to imagine that they could represent ‘extremes’. Except that, as transitions between states, they cannot be ‘extreme’ any more than a middle can be an end.
Winters look as though they may have been getting warmer recently, but by the standards of Winters in the 1920-30s, they look fairly normal, having gotten colder between 1930 and the 1970s, then warming up again.
Next, we looked at the amount of rainfall in the winter and summer.
Winters have been getting wetter, according to the moving average. But there is also a great deal of variation. So it is hard to imagine what recent ‘extremes’ would would consist of. It could be said that wetter summers were getting slightly more frequent, but again, in what sense does this constitute ‘extreme’ weather, rather than more frequently ‘slightly worse than mild’? And what does it say about the claim that summers have been getting drier?
Summers since 1980 have not been getting any drier, according to the moving average. They did get drier in the ’70s and ’80s. Clearly, then, there is no substance to the claim that England is experiencing drier summers because of climate change.
So, England’s climate is no less ‘predictable’ than it ever has been. It is no more ‘extreme’ than it ever has been. Winters have been getting slightly wetter, and the summers slightly warmer. But it would be an over statement to say they are getting ‘hotter’.
Back to the animals. We were wondering at this point: fluffy creatures don’t live in abstract climates such as ‘the south’ of England, so what sense does it make to use data about the whole of England, or large parts of it? If we want to know why, or how, animals have responded to climate in a given area, there is little point in looking at aggregate data – averages of averages of averages. Whether or not global warming is happening, the effects that local populations will experience are local. We ought to look at data from a single station. After all, the Guardian’s article explained…
The weather was not terrible across the country all year – some areas such as the north-west, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland got some rather good conditions. But in places such as the Cotswolds and parts of the Thames Valley and south-east, Oates said there was an awful lot of very bad weather for wildlife.
It is the cumulative effect of bad weather that can be so damaging. If there is one poor summer a species might be lost from a parish here and there. If there are two, the loss is likely to be across two or three parishes. But if there are three consecutive washouts, whole counties could lose species.
(Notice that according to the article, Northern Ireland ‘got some rather good conditions’. But according to the Met Office, it got 213% of the rainfall it normally gets in August, while the Thames Valley was characterised as having ‘ awful lot of very bad weather’ and only got 125%. This makes no sense whatsoever.)
We decided to look at the data from one station near the locations mentioned in the quote above: Oxford. Oxford is just beyond the edge of the Cotswolds, in the Thames Valley, and in the South East. We should be able to see something in the data from this station, which might explain why things are getting hard for wild animals there.
First, rain. Have winters been getting either wetter or drier for animals in Oxford?
Not much. And certainly no where near as much as in the early part of the last century. But the bunny rabbits, the dormice, and all things great and small survived. So how about the summers – has there been any recent change in Oxford’s summer rain?
Curiously, it seems that ‘climate change’ has brought some stability to the levels of rain in Oxford since about 1980.
From now on, said director-general Fiona Reynolds, the trust will advise people how to adapt their lifestyles to climate change and challenge government to be more ecologically aware. “If we think that public policy is not right, then we will say so.”
When we spoke to the National Trust about their ‘audit’, we were expecting to be pointed to a long dry, boring document of facts and figures. But no such research existed”It’s on our website” they said, and it was fairly similar to the one printed in the Guardian. It seems that there’s a reluctance to challenge statements issued by organisations such as the National Trust, and an inclination to turn them into dramatic headlines.
The Observer (the Sunday Guardian) welcomes the appointment of a Gaia-botherer to Obama’s team.
The decision by Barack Obama to appoint John Holdren as his chief scientific adviser deserves widespread welcome. The Harvard academic and former energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, commands international respect among physicists, climate experts and other researchers. He is an able scientist and is also a vociferous critic of those who still deny our planet is overheating because of humanity’s industrial activities.
Holdren’s perspective on the climate debate is no more sophisticated than George Monbiot’s:
The few climate-change “skeptics” with any sort of scientific credentials continue to receive attention in the media out of all proportion to their numbers, their qualifications, or the merit of their arguments. And this muddying of the waters of public discourse is being magnified by the parroting of these arguments by a larger population of amateur skeptics with no scientific credentials at all.
As John Tierney argues in the NY Times, Holdren confuses politics with science.
Dr. Holdren is certainly entitled to his views, but what concerns me is his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions. Even if most climate scientists agree on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, that doesn’t imply that the best way to deal with the problem is through drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. There are other ways to cope, and there’s no “scientific consensus” on which path looks best.
And the Observer does much the same thing. The editorial continues:
Thus Obama, who takes up office on 20 January, has made it clear through Holdren’s appointment that global warming is going to be dealt with robustly by his administration. There is no longer room for doubt. Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making. Accepting this point is heartening news for the US – and for the rest of the world which, until now, has looked in vain for strong leadership from America in combating global warming. It was in part the hope of a change in US climate policy that helped give last November’s presidential elections such keen global interest.
The claim that “Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making” lacks scientific foundation, as Professor Mike Hulme explained to the BBC in 2006:
To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. […] The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.
Even if we take it for granted that a ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change exists, it only speaks about a possible influence of anthropogenic CO2 on the climate, not the outcome of that influence, let alone the best policy response. The remainder is projection and speculation. That is to say that the catastrophic scenarios offered by climate alarmists are not constructed from ‘science’ by scientists, but from projections by a rag-bag of social scientists, economists, political activists, and any old Tom, Dick or Harry who cares to speculate, under (at least) two very significant (but always omitted from the discussion) assumptions.
The first is the precautionary principle. This allows any superficially plausible scenario to have weight in the climate debate by amplifying any possible risk to its maximum; what-if stacked upon what-if stacked upon what-if. The second is environmental determinism – the idea that society’s future (and its history) is determined by climatic factors rather than our ability to adapt and innovate.
These two principles are not science. They are politics. What they create is indistinct from science fiction: catastrophic story-lines are constructed from only superficially plausible projections. Ruling out our ability to adapt to these projections gives the stories political significance – ‘something must be done’. Normal politics is suspended in order to avert the fictional crisis.
The Observer editorial continues:
However, there is more to the elevation of Holdren, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, than the boosting of US climate action. In selecting a scientist of his stature, Obama is signalling clearly that he will be ending policies, introduced by George W Bush, that saw science sidelined and the advice of its practitioners ignored and sometimes distorted by the White House.
It is unclear what ‘scientific stature’ Holdren is supposed to have that is so remarkable. He might have started out as a scientist, but he’s made a career out of science policy. We couldn’t spot any science in list of publications. He’s not particularly noted for his commentary outside of the climate debate, famous only really for getting things wrong when teaming up with the Godfather of neo-Malthusianism, Paul Ehrlich.
But there’s something even more curious about the Observer’s commentary – that Holdren’s appointment is supposed to be some kind of victory for ‘science’ after the Bush administration. This highlights the vacuity of Bush’s critics (that’s no defence of Bush, by the way). As we can see, this ‘science’, isn’t science. It is catastrophism (via environmental determinism and the precautionary principle), with almost no scientific basis. Yet the idea of catastrophe is the only ‘hold’ Bush’s critics have over him. So it’s not science the Observer is talking about at all. If it is a victory for anything, it is a victory for fear-mongery: exactly what critics (many in the Observer) of Bush (and, for that matter, Tony Blair – ‘dodgy dossier and sexed-up documents) criticised Bush for – for his War on Terror: the use of fear to further his political agenda.
In other words, all that separates Bush from his successors is a fiction. They are at least as remote from science and its rational treatment as he was.
Hundreds of instances of political interference in the work of government agency researchers have been recorded over the past eight years, a shameful state of affairs that led to the demoralisation of thousands of US scientists. With Holdren, Obama has indicated this will now be brought to an end.
Or has it only just begun? If the only weapon that exists in the anti-Bush arsenal is a fiction, which is defended by contempt for scientific debate, what free debate – let alone scientific research – can we expect? Climate science has been thoroughly colonised by political interests.
Five months is a long time in climate politics. The arguments change with the seasons. Back in the hazy days of July and August, the eco-newswires were dominated by stories about ‘record-breaking’ arctic ice extent – even though it wasn’t record-breaking, and the record is only 30 years long. Now, they are more likely to be stories telling us that 2008 hasn’t been all that warm, but that global warming is still happening.
The other dominant story was the genuinely record-breaking oil prices. Every time you filled your car with petrol, the price had gone up by several per cent. The environmental movement was keen to interpret this as another harbinger of the beginning of the end, and used it to demand that we change our ways. It seemed to prove that we were in the grip of what they said peak-oil theory had predicted. Here is Caroline Lucas, Green Party MEP on BBC TV, in June.
‘The days of cheap oil are over’, she says. ‘A look at the figures’ (what ‘figures’?) would demonstrate that we’re past the ‘half way point of all oil’, meaning that it would get more and more expensive, she claims. Demand outstrips supply. Lucas must be disappointed then, that OPEC have announced that they are cutting production by 2.2 million barrels a day in an order to rescue the price from its current plunge. In July, a barrel cost $147. Today, it costs just $41.53. If ‘the days of cheap oil are over’, why is it so cheap? Why is it necessary to create the scarcity which Caroline Lucas said existed in order to create the higher prices she demanded?
It could still be argued that the price drop reflects the current economic climate. And indeed, there is some sense in the argument that as demand has dropped so too has the price. But this doesn’t explain the peak. Because, back in June and July, it’s not as if the world was experiencing an economic boom. Another major story – you may have noticed – of the last two years has been the ‘credit crunch’ that began in early 2007. Yet these two years of worsening economic affairs saw the price of oil rocket upwards. Just as we know house prices can ‘bubble’, so too can commodity prices. The upward prices were driven, in part, not by imminent scarcity, but by the idea that they might continue. After all, many – not just Greens – were lining up to make this drama a crisis. And who wouldn’t invest in oil, if they thought it was running out? And here’s the funny thing… It’s not in oil producers’ interests for people to believe that there is an abundance of oil. The idea of scarcity makes their product more valuable. Who are these Greens working for? On this basis, too, there is no real incentive for companies to invest in new exploration. New extraction facilities are hugely expensive. Invest prematurely, and you alter the market, price, and of course, politics. Imagine that in July 2008 you had invested your capital on the basis of reports that…
Some analysts have raised the possibility of prices rising as high as $200 a barrel during the next 18 months. … “You really cannot forecast how much further the market will rally now,” said Tatsuo Kageyama from Kanetsu Asset Management in Tokyo. “All I can say is the market will continue to rise.“
… you’d be feeling the pinch now.
Search the web for charts showing oil prices, and what they reveal is that upward surges in oil price reflect political events. Regional conflict in the Middle East, and Africa, the War on Terror, assassinations, strikes, and so on, litter the upward progress of curves. Yet environmental doom-sayers are quick to tell us that there is something fundamentally wrong about our relationship with the natural world, and that we stand on the brink of a precipice. Nothing could be more arse-about-face. Oil prices were high for very human reasons.
The ‘half way point’ between what was in the ground and its depletion has been given incredible significance by various alarmists. It is yet another ‘tipping point’ that is used to manufacture drama from dull statistics, in much the same way as Arctic ice progression is used to manufacture drama from dull statistics. Once this fictional point is passed, we are supposed to enter some dark new epoch, in which a society that has foolishly been predicated on some ‘unsustainable’ relationship with the natural world begins to collapse. The search for these points-of-no-return represent a religious mission to look for ‘signs’ from Gaia. So convinced are people that such algebraic maxima exist, which give mathematical identity to society’s relationship with nature, that anything and everything becomes a ‘tipping point’ at the expense of understanding the world more deeply; understanding the increasing price of oil as a shortcoming of the market in the face of events in the human – rather than geological – world, for example. The idea of the ‘tipping point’ then assumes political significance. Rarely a day goes by without it being applied to something – gun crime, obesity, you name it. Where there is a moral panic, you will find the ecological metaphor – the “tipping point” – being used to paint a picture of inevitable decline into social chaos.
The invocation of social chaos is a demand for social control. Like alienated weirdos who once stood in public places wearing ‘the end is nigh’ placards, the people making these statements cannot explain the world – it’s already chaotic for control freaks. For example, they can’t explain oil prices in terms of political events. Curves representing Arctic sea ice approach ‘tipping points’, which they argue represent movement towards ‘runaway climate change’. ‘We’ve got to change the way we live’, they say. While they so comprehensively fail to explain the social world, we should ignore them, just as we walked past those men in their placards. They deserve only a bit of sympathy, at arms length.
There is a problem for people making these statements. Their luck runs out. Nature takes a different course. So…
As the environmental movement emphasises our relationship with nature, how about we treat doom itself as a ‘natural resource’ which is exploited for political capital? It is a resource that is depleted in two ways. First, let’s assume that it is finite – nature cannot continue to provide alarmists with these resources forever, and so their jumping on everything as the sign of ‘the end’ is unsustainable. Second, the utility of these resources becomes diminished as an increasingly credulous public tire of them – demand for more and more doom grows. Hence, climate change alarmists leap on sea ice extent one year, floods the next, heatwaves the next… and so on. Each new trend constitutes a new deposit of resource, that will be depleted, flogged to death, over the season.
Let’s call this theory the peak peak-oil-theory theory. So far, environmental alarmists have been able to avoid reaching the peak because they have been able to locate new trends, and invent new ways of telling stories about the progress of little blue lines which, for that season, appear to make sense. But now, there is clear evidence emerging that the tipping points have been passed.
Doom does not carry over from one season to the next. Arctic sea ice recovers from its ‘historic low’ in a year that climate-activist-meteorologists admit that global warming is postponed. The commodity price bubble of doom bursts. In order to prevent a crisis, alarmists pump ever more doom into the market, promising a bleaker future, but it just makes them look sillier and sillier. Confidence in the doom market crumbles still further, as the value of doom approaches nil.
The world’s doom-shale deposits, previously thought to contain enough pessimism to fuel the green project for centuries to come, don’t. The idea that technological developments will allow these reserves to be tapped is mere propaganda. The days of cheap doom are over.
Even the curmudgeonliest of climate realists need a break from complaining once in a while. So, no moaning about how BBC2 somehow managed to force a lesson in sustainability into a documentary about the behaviour of pygmy marmosets. No grumbling about how BBC R4’s PM show chose to mark the death of animator Oliver Postgate (who, having enchanted children for decades with such classics as The Clangers and Bagpuss, ended up trying to petrify them with green scaremongery) with an uncritical piece about his tin-pot ecopocalyptic prophesies. And no wingeing about BBC R4’s Open Book in which Adam Roberts, professor of English literature at London University and sci-fi author, addresses a question from listener Elizabeth Thorne:
In the past two years, I have had an eco-house built and have joined organisations here in Winchester which encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint, water use, etc. Please can you suggest any books which give a picture of how the planet might be in fifty to a hundred years time if overpopulation and over-use of the world’s resources continue as they are now? It could be a fictional account, as long as it’s based on scientific facts.
Professor Roberts does not let her down. His response must be music to the ears of anyone who has made sacrifices trying to save the planet and is in need of reminding why they should feel very pleased with themselves. His non-fiction recommendations are Alastair McIntosh’s Hell and High Water and Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees, both of which are, he assures Ms Thorne, ‘very scientifically rigorous’. We’ve mentioned Six Degrees before. Re Hell and High Water, we’ll just say that it’s hard to imagine how a book that the publishers describe as
A fascinating journey through early texts that speak to climate change – including the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Plato’s myth of Atlantis, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth – McIntosh reveals the psychohistory of modern consumerism. He shows how we have fallen prey to a numbing culture of violence and the motivational manipulation of marketing. To start to resolve what has become of the human condition we must get more real in facing up to despair and death. Only then will we discover the spiritual meaning of these our troubled times. Only then can magic, new meaning, and all that gives life, start to mend a broken world.
and which is written by fellow and erstwhile director of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology, a ‘network for ecological and social transformation’ that insists that you remove your shoes at the door (no, really, we’ve been there) and offers
challenging courses for people who want to “be the change,” help organisations pursue greener, more ethical practices, and work towards tackling the root causes of global issues. Drawing on a holistic understanding of environmental and social systems, we develop practical solutions and influence new thinking. Committed to enduring, systemic change, our approach engages head, heart, and hand – integrating reason, passion, and action for a better world.
can have much to do with science at all.
Host Mariella Frostrup steers the discussion to fiction:
It’s funny, because they sound like the kind of books science fiction writers like perhaps yourself read before they start writing their books. Because of course increasingly science fiction books are based on the latest research, are they not?
Roberts does not let her down either:
Steve [Baxter, author of Flood] is one of the most famous of the contemporary science fiction writers on the science fiction scene. And one of the things he does is he roots his fiction very rigorously in the science. There are hard science fiction writers and there are soft science fiction writers. And Steve is one of the former. What happens in Flood, which is published this year, is that the sea levels start rising, and then continue rising. There’s a horrible inevitability about it as the waters get higher and higher. And in the early sections of the novel, the characters think, well, this will eventually even out and we’ll just have to live on the high lands, but of course – and again, not to give anything away – it becomes apparent as the book goes on that the waters are just going to rise until they’ve gone higher even than Everest, and people have to make the best they can out of their situation.
Everest! Gosh, even Hansen doesn’t go that far, and nobody can accuse him of being rooted ‘very rigorously in the science’.
So instead of complaining about all that, here’s a jolly post about a conspicuous and refreshing absence of sanctimonious environmentalism on the BBC where there could so easily have been so much.
BBC3’s Last Man Standing is now well into its second series. The idea is that six fit young chaps from Britain and the USA, each endowed with more than their fair share of abs and serotonin, travel the world to compete with remote tribes on their own turf and at their own sports.
Ed is an Eton and Oxford graduate and modern pentathlete with floppy hair; JJ is a US traffic cop and cage-wrestler (like wrestling, but in a cage); Jarvis is, we are told, ‘used to winning’ despite his being a US rugby international; Joey plays soccer, loves his mom, and says he used to be a street-fighter; Wolé is a London fireman, amateur boxer and brick shithouse; Murray is a kite-surfing hippy with more serotonin than all the rest of them put together.
So, the Village People take on some people from a village. In Nepal, they run a high-altitude endurance race with a 25kg rock strapped to their backs, in India they wrestle in a sandpit, in Ethiopia they try to knock out their opponents with big sticks, and in the Philippines the aim is to kick each others’ lights out. Our heroes’ nutritional advantage – they tend to tower over their hosts – is balanced by the fact that they have only a week or so to learn the moves, or to quite literally acclimatise, to what the locals have been doing all their lives. Blood is spilled, ribs, fingers and knees are broken.
In Series 1, New Age fitness guru Rajko puts an axe through his foot while helping his hosts slash and burn a patch of rainforest. And still not a mention of sustainability. Slash and burn is just something else that needs doing around the village, not a sign that humans are trashing pristine rainforest. Viewers are free to make their own minds up on that. As are the competitors, whose ambivalence on the issue suggests that they are not expected to toe some directorial party line. These tribes are not portrayed as noble savages living in harmony with nature, whose livelihoods or very existence is under threat from encroaching western civilisation or climate change, but as fellow humans whom it might be interesting to get to know.
In true boys’-own style, Rajko ends up slogging his cricket team to victory while wearing a comedy foot bandage. Yep, cricket, Papua New Guinea-style, introduced by colonialists not so long ago, and now involving a very hard carved wooden ball, and about a thousand singing, dancing fielders, and who knows, perhaps the inspiration for Twenty20. One World, eh.
While Last Man is about what people have in common, its sister show Tribal Wives is all about our differences. Here, the premise is that unfulfilled western women – they variously have troubles with boyfriends, alcohol, low self-esteem (although not so low that they’re ashamed of flaunting it on national TV) or general doubts about the point of Western civilisation – are packed off to the sticks to find meaning through immersion into a simple tribal life, where a lack of corrupting commercialism leaves them free to walk miles daily to fetch water and firewood, run away from spiders and scorpions, and get their tits out. And find meaning they do, of course. It’s the least that’s expected of them. As is their distaste for female circumcision, which all the tribes seem to practise, but which the producers dare not suggest might also have something to do with a lack of development. Once restored, they all seem quite relieved to be going home, but promise to come back and visit one day. (TV critic Charlie Brooker lays into these ‘mission documentaries’ hysterically in the latest edition of his Screenwipe series).
Last Man Standing doesn’t have a moral mission. It’s only mission is to entertain. Which is why it is so entertaining. All it expects from its participants is to try and win. It is about nothing more than a bunch of people from very different backgrounds meeting up and doing something they all love, and for which they are all prepared to suffer. The result is that it’s about much more than that, while Tribal Wives is about very little at all.
Next week, a 40km ocean canoe race off Papua New Guinea. It’s the last of the series, but they’re all still available on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK). And then maybe there’ll be a third series, in which athletes from remote tribes around the world compete with us on our own turf at our own minority sports – make-do-and-mend, Razor Wars, reduce-reuse-recycle, tread-lightly-on-the-Earth, that sort of thing.
This post is a spillover from the discussion on a recent post which lost its direction.
How long has it been since we last mentioned George Monbiot? The truth is that we simply got bored of his predictable column in the Guardian. Furthermore, we aren’t convinced that anyone actually takes him at all seriously, apart from the people who book him for media appearances. After all, his earnestness excites the vapid newswaves with the prospect of the end of the world. And there’s nothing more exciting than the end of the world, especially when the rest of the news is so mundane. But this week, George has surprised us.
Speaking for himself, as ever, George attempts to convince us that ‘online, planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’ and begins his argument by telling us that,
We all create our own reality…
Hmm. Not a good start. At this point, it’s hard to tell if George is giving us some kind of excuse for losing a grip on the objective world… a kind of my-truth-is-as-valid-as-your-truth caveat to everything he’s about to say, so that when challenged, he can smugly refer you to this relativistic axiom. Or is it just an apology for being a nutcase?
George certainly does create his own reality. It’s one in which his failure to make his reality yours is explained as the malign influence of other people, paid for by dark forces, distorting your reality. The bastards! This is a good definition of denial: what George can’t reflect on is the idea that his failure is the consequence of the shallowness of his own argument – you must be deluded. George continues,
…and shut out the voices we do not want to hear.
Of course. We’re the mad ones, George. Keep shutting out those, erm, voices.
Only the Plane Stupid protesters who occupied part of Stansted airport yesterday appear to have understood the scale and speed of this crisis. In cyberspace, by contrast, the response spreading fastest and furthest is flat-out denial.
That’s right, the self-indulgent teenage eco-toffs at Stansted know more about ‘The Realty’ than us hoi-polloi. But what is the substance of this reality?
The most popular article on the Guardian’s website last week was the report showing that 2008 is likely to be the coolest year since 2000. As the Met Office predicted, global temperatures have been held down by the LaNiña event in the Pacific Ocean. This news prompted a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy.
George is constructing his own reality again here, and rewriting history. At the beginning of the year, the Met Office ‘predicted’ world-record higher temperatures for 2007, with an error margin of just 0.06C. At the time of the ‘prediction’, the El Nino/La Nina oscillation was positive, having been climbing from negative over the course of the preceding year, and seemed to be continuing on its trajectory (indicating that an El Nino event was underway, and getting stronger). But by August 2007, the El Nino/La Nina oscillation had changed direction, and gone negative again, and global temperatures had diminished. The Met Office issued a new ‘prediction’, temperatures wouldn’t rise. Except that it’s not a prediction: it was already happening, and it is known that a consequence of La Nina is cooler global temperatures. Anyone who knows this could have made the same ‘prediction’, and it says absolutely nothing about the Met Office’s ability to make statements about climate change which are consistent with reality.
We wrote recently about the Guardian article Monbiot refers to, and the problems with it. Here.
George forgets the Met Office’s wrong prediction, to focus on the other, non prediction, which is equivalent to backing every horse in a race to sell yourself as a master tipster by telling people how often and how much you’ve won without revealing your losses.
George uses his fraudulent claim to have ‘facts’ on his side to make statements about the quality of comments to Guardian articles on the newspaper’sCommentisfree pages. Monbiot sees this as ‘a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy’. But judging the human world on the basis of comments to blogs makes about as much sense as judging the physical world on the bogus (yes, bogus) predictions made by the Met Office.
The new figures have prompted similar observations all over the web. Until now, the “sceptics” have assured us that you can’t believe the temperature readings at all; that the scientists at the Met Office, who produced the latest figures, are all liars; and that even if it were true that temperatures have risen, it doesn’t mean anything. Now the temperature record – though only for 2008 – can suddenly be trusted, and the widest possible inferences be drawn from the latest figures, though not, of course, from the records of the preceding century. This is madness.
King George lectures us on madness? He ought to know, after all. He’s taken one of two, contradicting predictions to make it appear that he is armed with the facts, against an enemy whose position he has constructed from comments on the Guardian’s site, that in fact bear no resemblance to the arguments you will find here, for example, or (and we apologise for presuming to lump ourselves in with the them) William M Briggs’s excellent blog, or Steve McIntyre’s, or Anthony Watts’. Monbiot constructs a fictitious argument against which he battles. What a brave hero. But Saint George has not yet slayed the dragon in his fantasy.
Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian’s forums, you’ll find endless claims that thehockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world’s glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn’t matter. The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible. To judge by the Comment threads, they have succeeded magnificently.
Memes, for readers who are not acquainted with the, erm, meme, were conceived of by Richard Dawkins. His theory, outlined as an afterthought in The Selfish Gene, was that ideas, or ‘units of cultural information’ are transmitted from host to host in a process that is analogous to genetics. An imperfect copying mechanism means that memes are subject to ‘transcription errors’ and so mutate, which according to this theory, might account for the creation of new ideas, or memes.
But the theory has an unavoidable and terrible consequence. If it is correct, it means that you – the thinking subject – are neither thinking, nor a subject. You are an unthinking object, merely responding to the memes that you are exposed to, like balls on a pool table. You might think that you’re thinking for yourself, but it’s just a clever illusion, perpetrated by complex systems of memes -memeplexes – for their own advantage in their competition to propagate themselves.
This theory – abandonded by many of its original proponents – has persisted in certain ‘rationalist’ circles (in spite of it being a wholly unfalsifiable theory that has made no progress in the 32 years since it was proffered), particularly amongst angry atheists and biologicaldeterminists who struggle to understand why their scientism hasn’t been absorbed into the political mainstream. Like Dawkins . It allows them to explain their own failure to create convincing arguments in pathological terms. Let us not mince our words about this theory, using it to explain anything about the social world is sheer pseudoscience. Ironically, it has greatest currency in the strange world of Internet conspiracy theorists, who are convinced that ‘the truth is out there’, but that ‘They’ don’t want you to know about it.
Monbiot is highly selective about what obstacles in his battle for the truth are ‘memes’. After all if the idea that ‘the hockeystick graph of global temperatures has been debunked’ is a ‘meme’, why isn’t the idea that it hasn’t been debunked a ‘meme’? The problem with memes is that you can never arrive at the truth, because you’ve undermined the very notion of ‘truth’ – it’s just a meme – andrelativised it into meaninglessness. Any application of ‘logic’ – which must be a meme – to the ‘facts’ – which must also be memes – simply reduces to a competition between memes for the resources in your head.
And what about the environmental ‘memes’ that we know to be false, or wildly exaggerated – for example the lie continually propagated by Monbiot that he’s absorbed from Greenpeace’s exxonsecrets.org website?
After consistent campaigning by Greenpeace through ExxonSecrets, ExxonMobil was forced, in 2006, to drop funding to some of its key allies in the campaign to deny climate science and delay policy action The Competitive Enterprise Institute was the key group dropped – it had received $2.2 million fromExxonMobil since 1998, more than any other thinktank. But the relationship continues as CEI’s climate operatives continue to work closely with the other think tanks funded by Exxon.
As we pointed out last year, if the biggest recipients of ‘fuel lobby’ funding was the CEI, which received just $2.2 million dollars over the course of 8 years ($275,000 a year – hardly big money), in return for generating ‘memes’, then it needs to be seen in the context of the environmental movement’s budget formemetic engineering. As we revealed, Greenpeace, the engineers of the exxonsecrets.org memes, had at their disposal over $2 billion over the same time frame. Conservation NGO, the WWF between 2003-7 recorded income of $2.5 billion. If cash buys you memes, then why are the poorly-funded sceptics so much better at creating them?
The idea that Exxon have ‘bought’ the debate does not stand up to scrutiny. Yet the lie persists. That’s not because it’s a successful ‘meme’, but because it’s a convenient way of moralising the debate, and robbing it of any nuance. Lying is the only way people likeMonbiot can clothe themselves in moral fibre.
Monbiot then explores a new idea about why his message hasn’t gone mainstream.
In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix.
Yeah? Where did you hear that, Georges?
According to this logic, then, it can be no accident that Marshall and Monbiot, and for that matter Mark Lynas and Oliver tickell all think alike, because they all lived very near to each other in Oxford – where Caroline Lucas, Green MEP rose to prominence. Their views must have homogenised as they smugly quaffed organic wine at eco-parties, and rubbed minds as they rubbed shoulders. Monbiot continues the nauseating double entendre of memetic procreation:
Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we’ll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.
But again, this concept of our being the mindless vessels of ideas reduces our subjectivity, and leaves the Oxonian circle-penetrators with no greater claim to objectivity than the rest of us. Even if we seek ideas that yield a ‘reward’, it’s not hard to see what rewards have been sought byMonbiot and his circle, all of whom have elevated themselves into the limelight on the back of their ethical claims. They’ve sold many books. They are on TV. They have risen to positions of influence over the British establishment. They make money from the ‘ethical’ businesses they are involved in. And so on.
Monbiot seems to be making a claim that our weak wills leave us vulnerable to convenient conspiracy theories. And yet what argument has he been trying to sustain? Ah, yes, the idea that ‘planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction’.Monbiot’s theory is that there has been a conspiracy to create a conspiracy theory.
Marshall is right: we have to change the way we talk about this issue. You don’t believe me? Then just read the gibberish that follows when this article is published online.
Monbiot is frustrated that he has failed to convince people of his perspective. But rather than reflect on his own argument, which, as we can see is constructed out of sheer bullshit, he finds ways to show faults with people – ordinary, normal, everyday people, not just ‘bloggers’ – and damns the entire human race in the process. We are unthinking automata, objects, blindly obeying the forces that surround us. Only he knows the truth. But the truth that most people can sense is that Monbiot uses the status of scientific factoids, such as the Met Office’s dubious ‘prediction’ to convince people in the same way that a caveman seeks to persuade people with a club. Second, it is transparent to most people thatMonbiot is mischaracterising the arguments of the people he sets himself up in opposition to – he doesn’t answer objections, and he makes straw men out of the flame-war battlefield that is the comments section oncommentisfree instead of picking up on the arguments that are actually being made. Third, he clearly overstates the relationship between these messages and a conspiracy of vested interests. Fourth, he diminishes the moral character of anyone who takes a different perspective to him. Fifth, he diminishes the intelligence of anyone who sees things differently to him. But the biggest problem for Monbiot is that the second, third, fourth and fifth are, he seems to believe, logical and necessary consequences of the first. He seems to think that, because the Met Office ‘predicted’ the 2008 temperature record (and they didn’t), then he is right to characterise his opponents as he pleases, he is right to think that silly comments on blogs represent the influence of an oil-industry conspiracy, and so on.
And we can see why Monbiot fails to reflect on his own argument. Because if he could, he would realise what an embarrassing lunatic he has turned himself into.
Ridiculous, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-righteous, and self-important protest outfit, Plane Stupid broke into Stansted Airport today, to delay the reopening of a runway.
“We’re here because our parents’ generation has failed us and its now down to young people to stop climate change by whatever peaceful means we have left. We’re afraid of what the police might do to us, we’re afraid of going to jail but nothing scares us as much as the threat of runaway climate change. We’ve thought through the consequences of what we’re doing here but we’re determined to stop as many tonnes of CO2 as we can.”
Tilly might as well be 12. As might Daniel, 24.
“We fully appreciate the scale of what we’ve done here today and we know many people will struggle to understand why we’ve done it, but the Arctic ice cap is disappearing, the seas are rising and our last chance to save our future is vanishing. With people taking more flights in Britain than anywhere else on earth, we have a unique responsibility to tackle emissions from flying.”
Daniel is aware that ‘ many people will struggle to understand why [they]‘ve done it’, which raises a question about what kind of protest this is. What is the point of a protest if the people you inconvenience – one of whom was a woman travelling to her father’s funeral according to a BBC Radio new item – are none the wiser as to what you’re doing?
Tilly’s reasons for the protest – ‘ to stop as many tonnes of CO2 as we can’ – are equally confused. If it’s just CO2 she’s worried about, there are a number of less irritating avenues she might have explored.
The protest is in many ways equivalent to an infantile tantrum. The protesters clearly have problems articulating their message to the generation they feel are responsible for their emotions. The sense that they have failed to get the message across results not in some self-reflection, but a loud, obnoxious and pointless remonstration. And like a small child, these protesters cannot make a sensible distinction between their failure to assert their will over the world, and the end of the world. The rhetoric of Armageddon ensues. Tilly again,
And here is something even more bizarre about the protest: they have actually got their way. Two weeks ago, Parliament committed the UK to an 80% cut in emissions by 2050, including shipping and aviation. Yet Tilly believes that the Government has failed to respond to its own climate change rhetoric. Just like a toddler, the concept of deferred gratification is beyond her.
We’ve often wondered what the difference between the Government and the environmental protest movement is. Who are the establishment, and who are the revolutionaries? They often seem to be saying exactly the same thing. Neither can claim that their actions represent the will of the general public – most people still want to fly, use cars, and so on. But both are committed to preventing people from expressing this desire. Both use the prospect of catastrophe to justify their self-importance, even though there is virtually no scientific argument that catastrophe is a possibility.
There is also more than a symbolic similarity between the way that protesting infants and the 9-11 plotters choose to make their mark on the world. So impotent are their ‘radical’ (for ‘radical’, read deeply socially conservative and retrogressive) ideas, that they impose them on the world in grand stunts. Both are indifferent to the trouble their self-righteousness causes others. In spite of their failure to generate mass support, they want to change the world, and believe that their actions are warranted by a higher purpose than the trivial concerns of mere humans.
The Government is left in a curious position. What can it really say to these spoilt children? It has indulged their every tantrum.
When is a short term trend not a short term trend? When it’s an upward anomaly.
James Randerson in the Guardian tells us that,
This year is set to be the coolest since 2000, according to a preliminary estimate of global average temperature that is due to be released next week by the Met Office. The global average for 2008 should come in close to 14.3C, which is 0.14C below the average temperature for 2001-07.
But just when you thought it was safe to rush out to buy a guilt-free 4×4… <scary music>
The relatively chilly temperatures compared with recent years are not evidence that global warming is slowing however, say climate scientists at the Met Office. “Absolutely not,” said Dr Peter Stott, the manager of understanding and attributing climate change at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. “If we are going to understand climate change we need to look at long-term trends.”
Here’s a curious thing… Whether or not global warming ever existed, if ‘relatively chilly temperatures are not ‘evidence that global warming is slowing’, then what is?
That’s not to say that cooler temperatures ‘prove’ that there’s no global warming, but that cooler temperatures must be evidence that ‘global warming is slowing’. The difference is between ‘evidence’ on the one hand, and ‘proof’ on the other. Evidence can support contradictory hypotheses.
If this was mere journalistic oversight, that’s one thing – even though Randerson, one of the Guardian’s science correspondents, with a PhD in evolutionary genetics, really really ought to know the difference between evidence and proof, and what they stand for. But if the argument belongs to Peter Stott, then it surely raises questions about his partiality. ‘Absolutely not‘? Cooling temperatures absolutely are evidence for the hypothesis that there is no global warming underway, necessarily.
Prof Myles Allen at Oxford University who runs the climateprediction.net website, said he feared climate sceptics would overinterpret the figure. “You can bet your life there will be a lot of fuss about what a cold year it is. Actually no, its not been that cold a year, but the human memory is not very long, we are used to warm years,” he said, “Even in the 80s [this year] would have felt like a warm year.”
Allen is right to say that people have short memories, but he is wrong to think that it’s only sceptics who have them, and make a fuss about exceptional years. For example, Anderson continues,
The Met Office predicted at the beginning of the year that 2008 would be cooler than recent years because of a La Niña event – characterised by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It is the mirror image of the El Niño climate cycle. The Met Office had forecast an annual global average of 14.37C.
Anderson has a short memory. So does Allen. Scientists at the Met office are so keen to make a big deal out of unexpected temperatures that they ‘overinterpret the figures’ before they have even happened.
At the begining of 2007, a BBC article informed the world that
“The world is likely to experience the warmest year on record in 2007, the UK’s Met Office says.”
The global surface temperature is projected to be 0.54C (0.97F) above the long-term average of 14C (57F), beating the current record of 0.52C (0.94F), which was set in 1998.
The annual projection was compiled by the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre, in conjunction with the University of East Anglia.
Such ‘a fuss about what a hot year it is’… (even though it hadn’t happened yet).
We have actually run this forecast three times, updating it every month… and it is completely stable.”
But didn’t the Hadley Centre’s own Peter Stott just tell us that we ought to be looking at long-term trends? And yet, a forecast of a short term trend is considered newsworthy. Double standards are rife in climate science activism.
The Hadley Centre has been issuing the annual forecast for the past seven years and says it has just a 0.06C margin of error.
Eight months later, and the Met Office’s confident prediction was shown to be utter bunk. Temperatures were falling. They revised their predictions, saying that they had created a new, more powerful computer model for predicting the future.
Powerful computer simulations used to create the world’s first global warming forecast suggests temperature rises will stall in the next two years, before rising sharply at the end of the decade.
But as we suggested earlier in the year, the incautious statements issued by Met Office scientists looked less like the work of scientific enquiry, and more like post-hoc speculation about which way the weather would turn.
In January 2007, the Met Office backed the wrong horse – El Niño. When La Niña emerged as the favourite, they changed their bets. This wasn’t sophisticated computer modelling. This was gambling by gamblers posing in lab coats. It was a safe bet that La Niña’s effects would last until 2009.
In order to wrong-foot sceptics, activist climate scientists (for that is what they must be if they are not agnostic about global warming) have had to reinterpret the evidence. Any downward tendency is waved away as short-term ‘natural variation’, caused by La Niña. This creates a casuality for the alarmists – it means that the significance of the record temperature in 1998 is diminished – clearly it was caused by El Niño. But on the other hand, ruling out the ’98 El Niño as ‘natural variation’ allows the claim that temperatures have increased since 1998 to be made.
Such chopping-and-changing appears to be the stock-in-trade of climate scientists and Guardian hacks. But this is because so much political capital is invested in the direction of lines on graphs representing weather statistics. And this is particularly clear in the pages of the Guardian, who have, over the last 12 or so months been especially keen to remind us that cooling trends are ‘not evidence that global warming is slowing’. There’s Randerson’s article, for example. Then there’s an article by Ian Sample, also a science correspondent, who last year reported that
The forecast of a brief slump in global warming has already been seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence that the world is not heating. Climate scientists say the new high-precision forecast predicts temperatures will stall because of natural climate effects that have seen the Southern Ocean and tropical Pacific cool over the past couple of years.
A Germany study published earlier this month predicts the world will cool over the coming decade. British climate modellers at the Met Office don’t go so far. They think nature’s cooling will be more than counterbalanced by the warming effect of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
But nobody is sure. In any case, we can expect the deniers to make the most of this opportunity to pour cold water on the whole climate change narrative. No year has yet been hotter than 1998, they will say. True: it was a huge El Niño year. Now we are on the way back down, they will say. Nonsense. The underlying trend remains upwards; and as every decade passes, natural cycles can do less and less to counter the growing human influence on temperature.
As we pointed out about the dramatisation of the movement of Arctic ice extent recently, the progression of curves representing climate statistics are the dynamic driving political discourse. The unfolding, present-tense narrative of lines on charts fuels the commentary about the conflict between the bad-minded ‘deniers’, and the honest scientists, seeking to destroy or save the world respectively.
The twists and turns of little blue lines excite the audience, and provide superficially important news fodder. It fuels debates, but with wild speculation and utterly meaningless and inconsequential factoids that will be forgotten by the time the next climate record is set. Repeat ad nauseam. These artificial dramas are elevated to ludicrous heights by claims that our entire futures depend on them. Consequently, life imitates this art. The drama extends into our real lives. It becomes politics, ethics, laws. The more we look to little blue lines, the less we realise that whatever little blue lines do only determines what our existences will consist of if we believe that the direction of the little blue line is instructive. It isn’t.
As the comments supplied by scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) about sea ice extent and the Met Office’s scientists careless posturing demonstrate, they are complicit in the politicisation of the climate debate. That is to say they are not impartial. They are not agnostic about climate change. And they are not disinterested observers of nature. Climate science is not a value-free investigation of the material universe.
Climate scientists and science correspondents imbue statistics with undue political significance. Therefore, they have to resort to use combative rhetoric when the trends offer conflicting evidence they cannot yet explain. Rather than contradicting themselves about the significance of short term trends, and moving the goal posts constituting long terms trends, climate scientists ought to be distancing themselves from the political significance of their work. Because to do otherwise is to legitimise the very ‘deniers’ they seek to diminish. If ‘climate science’ is where politics happens, then it is not only reasonable to ask if changes in the direction of change do represent a weakness in the prevailing view, it is essential.
Of course, a trend of 0.14 below average does not represent a static climate, but neither does an anomaly of 0.54C represent the dawn of a new, hostile geological epoch. Fools rush in to make statements about what such small numbers mean about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Imagine an unpopular, impotent, and fragile UK Government, trying to make political capital out of a looming crisis. To avoid being embarrassed by criticism of its shallow policies, it appoints an independent panel of experts, to which it defers controversial decisions. Now imagine that the panel proposes measures from which its members and their associates will directly benefit.
It couldn’t happen here, you may think. Scandal and resignations would surely follow. Who could possibly allow vested interests to profit from the legislation they are instrumental in creating?
This week, an independent panel of experts called the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published the details of its recent advice to Parliament that the UK should reduce its CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
There’s no doubt there’s money to be made from this new legislation, which was passed last week. A recent conference, given the title ‘Cashing in on Carbon’ was, in its own words, “aimed squarely at investment banks, investors and major compliance buyers and is focused on how they can profit today from an increasingly diverse range of carbon-related investment opportunities”.
Amongst these bean-counters-turned-Gaia-botherers were representatives from IDEAcarbon, which offers carbon market intelligence, ratings and advice to governments, organisations and companies. Climate Change Committee member, Samuel Fankhauser, a former climate change economist for the World Bank, is the company’s managing director, strategic advice. IDEAcarbon’s parent company, IDEAglobal, appointed Nicholas Stern, author of the highly influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and former chief economist at the World Bank, as vice chairman, last year.
The group has its eyes on the carbon market, which it says “grew from $10bn to $34bn between 2005 and 2006″, and projects to be worth well over $100bn in the future.
A “carbon market” is built on the idea that, if greenhouse gas emissions are capped by law, then the legal right to emit these gasses becomes a commodity that can be traded. But without legislation, there can be no market, as IDEAcarbon (pdf) acknowledges:
The global carbon market is moving into a critical new phase of development. If it is to succeed over the long term, both in its role in reducing carbon emissions and as a financial market in its own right, legislators need to provide certainty of a regulatory framework that will be robust, flexible, and valid over the long term.
The company’s website is surprisingly candid about the influence it exerts over the UK Government:
Working with the key decision makers who are shaping the future of the market enables us to accurately predict market trends and provide tailored strategic advice to clients.
In other words, the interests of investors and national policy makers must be aligned. And it would be most fortunate if they were one and the same.
There’s gold in that there green
Prominent environmental campaigner, and author of Kyoto 2, how to manage the Global Greenhouse, Oliver Tickell protests of carbon trading schemes that, “Carbon fortunes are indeed being made, and many of them in the City of London, which dominates the global carbon marketplace”. Instead, he favours carbon offsetting – paying poor people not to develop their economies – rather than trading.
But Oliver’s eyes are greener than his mind; he too stands to profit from his environmental activism. His father, former diplomat and patron of the neo-Malthusian Optimum Population Trust, Sir Crispin Tickell, who made the first arguments influential for the greening of the UK Government in the 1970s with his book, Climatic Change and World Affairs, was appointed chair of a committee to check the integrity of carbon-offsetting firm, Climate Care, part of JPMorgan’s Environmental Markets group.
Oliver Tickell is a shareholder and is entitled to 0.3 per cent of royalties. Asked if there was a conflict of interest, his father told The Times: “Frankly, no.”
But, frankly, it seems increasingly the case that not far behind the characters and campaigns influencing the Government’s climate polices are private interests, waiting to cash in on climate legislation. They are dressed as superhero ‘social entrepreneurs’, saving the planet, but unless we take environmental doom for granted, they could be said to be cashing in on fear.
Former Greenpeace activist, and founder of alternative energy firm Solarcentury and the world’s first private equity fund for renewable energy, Bank Sarasin’s New Energies Invest AG, Jeremy Leggett, was, between 2002 and 2006, a member of the UK Government’s Renewables Advisory Board. The board, it explains.
“…aims to provide the Secretary of State with independent, impartial and authoritative advice on policies, programmes and measures, to improve Government understanding of the obstacles and opportunities for the development and deployment of renewable technologies in the UK”
Impartial? Independent? Buy a solar panel – from Leggett, perhaps – and the UK Government will stump up £2,500 of the costs. Schools, charities and the public sector can receive up to 50 per cent of costs up to £1 million in grants. The inefficient, expensive, and unreliable Green Energy Revolution®™ cannot stand on its own two feet, and is heavily subsidised.
Conflict? What conflict?
Chairman of the Climate Change Committee and former advisor to investment firm Climate Change Capital Lord Turner heats the swimming pool at his second home – the first is a mansion in Kensington – with solar panels, while warning that “growth has to be dethroned” for the sake of the planet.
Such lofty ideals come easily to millionaires such as Turner. But for the billions of people who lack such wealth, Turner’s words sound like a door slamming behind him. For, if Turner and his team get their way, every kilogram of carbon will be audited by carbon market firms, some of which will likely be managed by certain CCC members and their associates, at a price, making energy increasingly expensive.
We posed some questions to the government departments. First stop, the Climate Change Legislation Team at DEFRA. Did they see that there was a conflict of interests?
“You’re plucking stories out of thin air”, a DEFRA press officer told u.
We asked the Climate Change Committee itself to comment on the idea that there was a conflict of interest.
“You’ve got no evidence”, said their press officer.
But what evidence does one need to show that a conflict of interest exists, other than to point out where the interests lie? We wondered what steps had been taken to make sure that no conflict of interest existed?
“Committee members were asked to declare any conflicts of interest at the time of their appointment. None were declared”, they told us.
Asked if they were politically motivated, the CCC told us
“The CCC has been set up to independently advise Government on tackling climate change and as such does not adhere to any particular ideological agenda. Our analysis is based on factual evidence.”
We asked each department if there was any register of interests – shares, commitments to political causes, and son on – like there is for members of the House of Commons or House of Lords.
The CCC said there was no such register, simply that appointees were asked to declare anything at the beginning, and that they hadn’t.
So that’s that then. The extent of the scrutiny of appointments to public roles is to ask candidates if there is a conflict of interest. And we have to take their word for it.
Now imagine if it emerged that the panel of experts included a number of oil industry executives – and that the policy advice had recommended lower emissions targets. There would be outrage.
The Commmittee favours a narrow set of solutions, ignoring adaptation and biomass management in favour of carbon markets, from which the participants directly benefit.
(“The whole issue of adaptation needs to be taken off the back burner and receive a lot more serious attention,” the executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat Yvo de Boer now says, citing biomass management as an example).
The claim that the nefarious influence of dirty, dirty oil money has forced action to prevent catastrophic climate change is a mainstay of the environmental movement. It divides the world into villains and heroes. Typical is this broadside by Climate Change Commmittee member, and erstwhile president of the Royal Society, Lord May:
On one hand we have the IPCC, the rest of the world’s major scientific organisations, and the government’s chief scientific adviser, all pointing to the need to cut emissions. On the other we have a small band of sceptics, including lobbyists funded by the US oil industry, a sci-fi writer, and the Daily Mail, who deny the scientists are right.
May might argue that there had been a failure of due process. After all, if Parliament defers to the advice of a committee on the basis that it is not equipped to make good policy, it cannot scrutinise the findings of the committee, and so must accept their advice, or be seen to be acting contrary to the evidence that it has sought.
But shouldn’t we subject the real winners of the climate change debate to the same scrutiny that Lord May subjects climate sceptics?
Ben has another article about the Climate Change Committee on The Register today.
There’s no doubt there’s money to be made from this new legislation, which was passed last week. A recent conference, given the title ‘Cashing in on Carbon’ was, in its own words, “aimed squarely at investment banks, investors and major compliance buyers and is focused on how they can profit today from an increasingly diverse range of carbon-related investment opportunities”.