Yearly Archives: 2009
Nothing can surprise about the climate debate any more. First, UK homeopath-slayer Dr Ben Goldacre lays his climate cards on the table. Now his comrade in arms across the pond, James Randi, has done the same – only completely differently. Get this:
Happily, science does not depend on consensus. Conclusions are either reached or not, but only after an analysis of evidence as found in nature. It’s often been said that once a conclusion is reached, proper scientists set about trying to prove themselves wrong. Failing in that, they arrive at a statement that appears — based on all available data — to describe a limited aspect about how the world appears to work. And not all scientists are willing to follow this path. My most excellent friend Martin Gardner once asked a parapsychologist just what sort of evidence would convince him he had erred in coming to a certain conclusion. The parascientist replied that he could not imagine any such situation, thus — in my opinion — removing him from the ranks of the scientific discipline rather decidedly.
History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds […]
as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…
It’s easy enough to believe that drought, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes are signs of a coming catastrophe from global warming, but these are normal variations of any climate that we — and other forms of life — have survived. Earth has undergone many serious changes in climate, from the Ice Ages to periods of heavily increased plant growth from their high levels of CO2, yet the biosphere has survived. We’re adaptable, stubborn, and persistent — and we what other life forms don’t have: we can manipulate our environment. Show me an Inuit who can survive in his habitat without warm clothing… Humans will continue to infest Earth because we’re smart.
In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.
…reigning supreme, is the “zombie argument”: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down[http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462]. “Homeopathy worked for me”, and the rest.
Zombie arguments survive, they get up and live again, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at realclimate.org, with refutations. There are huge lists[http://scienceblogs.com/illconsidered/2008/07/how_to_talk_to_a_sceptic.php] of them everywhere[http://scholarsandrogues.wordpress.com/2007/07/23/anti-global-heating-claims-a-reasonably-thorough-debunking/]. It makes no difference.
“CO2 isn’t an important greenhouse gas”, “Global warming is down to the sun”, “what about the cooling in the 1940s?” says your party bore. “Well,” you reply, “since the last time you raised this, I went and checked, and it turns out that there were loads of suphites [sic] in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had back then, and the odd volcano, so that’s sort of been answered already, ages ago.”
Goldacre’s sulphites example is very poorly chosen, and for a professional sceptic, he appears remarkably willing to defer uncritically to zombie lists of zombie arguments. Moreover, if zombie arguments are what bothers him, what about those deployed by the living dead of the climate orthodoxy? Here are some of the claims repeated ad nauseam by and in support of the climate change orthodoxy, along with our responses:
1. Climate change will be worse for the poor.
Everything is worse for the poor. The issue is poverty and inequality, then, not climate. Small differences in climate that produce negative human effects do so because of a lack of wealth or otherwise a lack of civil infrastructure. The outcome of policies and international agreements to limit productive activity and development can therefore only increase inequality and decrease wealth, putting poorer people closer to their environment, for a marginal – if any – positive change in the weather. Environmentalism will be worse for the poor.
2. An organised and well-funded network of climate change deniers has distorted the public debate.
The environmental message has been faithfully and sympathetically reproduced by the UK’s media. The BBC’s output is predominantly green, and its news rarely covers the climate debate critically. The few hours of programming that have been broadcast on UK television networks that have given an airing to scepticism have become the object of anger. But you can probably count the number of such programs broadcast in the last decade on one finger. Meanwhile, there are many hours of programming each week, reflecting the orthodox, consensus position, within lifestyle, current affairs, science, and ethics programming.
Print media is more divided, with all papers occasionally featuring sceptical perspectives. In the case of UK newspapers, the Guardian, Independent have clearly climate-orthodox editorial agendas – climate change is anthropogenic and a looming catastrophe, and we must all reduce emissions now. The Times and Telegraph are more sceptical, but not (Christopher Booker aside) of the idea that the planet is warming and much of that is anthropogenic. The Daily Mail does take a more sceptical view of the basic science, to the fury of environmental activists. The Sun, Mirror and Express are widely assumed to push a sceptical line, but they clearly do not – see here, here, and here.
The three main political parties embraced the green agenda comprehensively, each promising to take it more seriously than the last. Yet the principles these parties have taken up have not once been tested democratically. No party has dared to step out of line on the climate issue.
The public debate has been entirely dominated by the orthodox position. If there has been an attempt to distort the public debate it has been entirely ineffectual. It does not get airtime. It has not bought politicians. It has failed to establish an organised, institutional response. The media is dominated by the environmental message, companies go out of their way to demonstrate their environmental ethical credentials, politicians rarely ever dare to challenge environmental issues. The image of the climate sceptic remains one who speaks for himself rather than one who speaks from within the academy, party, corporation, and against the majority of his peers. Yet the public have not been convinced. This can’t be explained as the consequence of a new trust in mavericks, and the influence of a conspiracy to distort the debate.
As for the ubiquitous claim that the debate has been skewed by corporate funding – especially oil money – what tends to be forgotten are the much larger sums available to the likes of Greenpeace and WWF to push their own exaggerated alarmist line.
3. There are just N years/months/days left to save the planet
Or in the words of Susan Watts, science editor of the BBC’s prestigious Newsnight, ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.’ The argument for action to mitigate climate change has always depended on generating a sense of urgency to get itself heard above the background noise of apathy, disinterest and disengagement from contemporary politics. The comprehensive change in our political, economic, and industrial mode of existence that greens want to create will take some persuasion. Accordingly, those riding the climate change bandwagon have had to illustrate their narratives with claims about when climate change will reach its ‘tipping point’, when we can expect disaster to arrive, and at what point we will pass the deadline for creating the comprehensive legal and institutional response to climate change. As there is a perception that the public conceive of climate change as some far away distant prospect, this strategy is perhaps intended to bring the realities of climate change closer to our imaginations. Yet it depends on myth-making, and overstating the predictive abilities of climate science.
4. The vast majority of scientists agree that…
The ‘scientific consensus’ that late 20th century warming can be attributed to human activity is routinely confused with the putative consequences of climate change – particularly social effects – and the political arguments for climate change mitigation. But even if there exists a consensus about the temperature record and its cause, there remains less of a consensus about what the first, second, third, and Nth-order effects of climate change will be. There is, for instance, much less agreement about how global warming will turn into sea level rise, species extinction, and human effects. The consensus on attribution cannot reasonably extend to represent an agreement about what the effects of climate change are, and what is the best policy response is. The failure to delineate the principle cause and its effects, and the effect of its effects, is a mistake that leads to the unhelpful polarisation of the climate debate, opening up proponents of climate change mitigation policies to the criticism that they have hidden prejudice and bad faith behind ‘science’.
5. The IPCC consists of N-thousand of the worlds top climate scientists who all agree…
It is frequently argued by scientist activists, politicians, and campaigners that the IPCC represents thousands of the worlds top climate scientists. This is a misconception of the IPCC, of its contributors, function, purpose, and process.
The IPCC does little science itself, and does not measure the opinions of the contributing authors. It is divided into three working groups, focusing respectively on the physical science basis (WGI), impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (WGII), and mitigation of climate change (WGIII), each reviewing the existing literature in their fields. Each of these working groups is further divided into chapters, and again into sections. A contributing author to chapter 3 of WGI may never enter a working relationship with a contributing author to chapter 4. They may have very little to say about each other’s work, and are not asked to agree or disagree with it.
WGII and WGIII cannot be characterised as populated entirely by scientists, as the zombie argument claims. Instead, these working groups consist of social scientists, economists, and other non-climate and social-scientific disciplines. Moreover, as their task is to understand the impact of climate change on human society, we have argued that this process requires political and subjective precepts which assume a relationship between society and the climate/environment. These precepts and assumptions are not necessarily well-grounded in science, and take as their premises the conclusion to their own study: environmental determinism, and the inevitability of catastrophe. Worst still, these prejudices are the tenets of political environmentalism. That is to say that the IPCC’s work is ‘institutionally environmentalist’, and has been established to fulfill a political need: not simply to provide the political process with evidence with which to make decisions, but to give moral authority to governments embracing the same environmental agenda.
7. The politics flows from the science
The implication of the argument that ‘the science’ attributing global warming to human activity is settled is that this creates imperatives to cease such activity, and to reorganise life around the principles of environmental sustainability. Frequently, politicians making arguments for mitigation express their adherence to ‘the science’, and that ‘the science is clear’. Creeping lines on charts representing the loss of Arctic sea ice return each summer, and are held each summer to speak for themselves as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ signaling our imminent demise.
But the environmental argument in fact posits a political claim prior to science. It holds that human society can only exist within unchanging environmental circumstances, and that the normal process of politics must therefore be suspended in order to balance the concentrations of gases in the atmosphere. ‘The science’ merely serves to confirm that the world is changing, rather than to substantiate the basis of environmental determinism. As we argue often here on CR, ‘the politics is prior to the science’ in the climate debate, and the emphasis both ‘sides’ in the debate place on science impedes any progress on understanding the political claims either side are making. As we also often say, in order to understand what ‘science says’, it is necessary to understand what it has been asked.
As Goldacre observes, the same arguments return to the climate debate. But his perspective is too narrow, and he neglects to scan his critical eye over the substance of the claims made by the camp he seemingly attaches himself to. In the process, he has summoned up an inconvenient metaphor.
Environmentalism is zombie politics. It is oblivious to human ambitions, desires and development, other than it seeks to devour them as it turns humans into copies of itself: lifeless, purposeless, walking corpses that would be better off dead. Human life is reduced to meeting necessity and politics becomes the process of managing subsistence rather than contesting ideas about possible futures. It turns humans against humanity.
Except he doesn’t. He comes up with an answer alright – 15 billion if we all live like the average Indian, 2.5 billion if we all live like we do in the UK, and 1.5 billion if we all live like fat, horrible Americans. It’s all derived entirely from standard ecological footprint stuff.
Attenborough tells us that:
Malthus’s principle remains true. The productive capacity of the Earth has physical limits. And those limits will ultimately determine how many human beings it can support.
We were looking forward to hearing a good argument for why that might be. It’s Sir David Attenborough, after all. There wasn’t one. Just lots of footage of people without access to enough food, water etc. No historical or political context. Just lots of simplistic environmental determinism. Apparently even the Rwandan civil war/genocide/whatever you want to call it was the result of too many people. Nice. And of course…
But the picture may be even worse than this. These figures are based on rates of consumption that many think are already unsustainable.
Happily, for anyone wanting arguments for why Malthus, Attenborough and sustainability are wrong, here are some we prepared earlier:
In Friday’s Independent, Johann Hari has achieved a quite remarkable feat.
How I wish that the global warming deniers were right
Are you prepared to take a 50-50 gamble on the habitability of the planet?
In just 1400 words he manages to cram in just about every fallacy from the environmentalist’s handbook: he appeals to the dodgiest of authorities, sells politics, catastrophism and factoids as scientific truth, misrepresents his opponents’ arguments, cherrypicks data, explains human behaviour in biologically deterministic terms and politics in environmentally deterministic ones, and resorts to the green equivalent of Pascal’s wager while accusing ‘deniers’ of religious zeal.
So let’s start at the very beginning, where he ploughs straight in with the ultimate in appeals to authority:
Every day, I pine for the global warming deniers to be proved right. I loved the old world – of flying to beaches wherever we want, growing to the skies, and burning whatever source of energy came our way. I hate the world to come that I’ve seen in my reporting from continent after continent – of falling Arctic ice shelves, of countries being swallowed by the sea, of vicious wars for the water and land that remains. When I read the works of global warming deniers like Nigel Lawson or Ian Plimer, I feel a sense of calm washing over me. The nightmare is gone; nothing has to change; the world can stay as it was.
That’s right – the authority he cites is himself. The insufferably misanthropic and self-important ‘comedian’ Marcus Brigstocke, who has also been to the Arctic to see melting ice – twice – so you don’t have to, did the same thing on a recent edition of the BBC’s Question Time (available in the UK only):
I’ve visited the Arctic twice, and the ice is disappearing. I can tell you that the Inuit people that I met in Greenland, who are not part of some grand conspiracy as Melanie [Phillips] might have it, will tell you, year on year, they are seeing dramatic changes. The ice is reducing significantly. You know, I helped a team of scientists from the National Oceanography centre to carry out their experiments [etc]
We should believe Hari and Brigstocke, their argument goes, because they have access to information that we do not. It’s the very stuff of dodgy dossiers. (Talking of which, Hari initially supported the invasion of Iraq, so we look forward to another article at some point where he confesses how ‘terribly wrong‘ he has been on climate change, too.) What’s more, merely witnessing melting polar ice for yourself is merely evidence that polar ice melts when it’s warming enough. There is a gaping crevasse between what Hari and Brigstocke have seen and what they think it is evidence for – which is that catastrophe beckons. Hari and Brigstocke’s personal investments in the plight of the Arctic means we should be less, not more willing to believe them.
Back to Hari:
But then I go back to the facts. However much I want them to be different, they sit there, hard and immovable. Nobody disputes that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, like a blanket holding in the Sun’s rays. Nobody disputes that we are increasing the amount of those greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And nobody disputes that the world has become considerably hotter over the past century. (If you disagree with any of these statements, you’d fail a geography GCSE).
The funny thing here is that Hari is correct that nobody would dispute any of these statements, to the extent that even those he has just introduced as ‘deniers’, Ian Plimer and Nigel Lawson, do not dispute them. We can only assume he has read neither of them. Plimer and Lawson hold variously that such statements do not lead inevitably to planetary disaster, that the human influence on warming trends is overstated, that other influences are understated, that the climate system is rather more complicated than such a one-dimensional portrayal would suggest, and that a single-pronged attack on CO2 emissions is undesirable – not that the greenhouse effect is not real or that the world has not been warming. He continues:
Yet half our fellow citizens are choosing to believe the deniers who say there must be gaps between these statements big enough to fit an excuse for carrying on as we are. Shrieking at them is not going to succeed.
What Hari cannot imagine is that large swathes of the public are choosing not to believe the pseudo-scientific hyperbole of alarmists like Hari, even though his very article provides them with all the reason they need. Indeed, in his next breath he resorts to writing off public opinion as the product of primaeval biological urges rather than the result of considered judgement of the available evidence and arguments:
Our first response has to be to accept that this denial is an entirely natural phenomenon. The facts of global warming are inherently weird, and they run contrary to our evolved instincts. If you burn an odourless, colourless gas in Europe, it will cause the Arctic to melt and Bangladesh to drown and the American Mid-West to dry up? By living our normal lives, doing all the things we have been brought up doing, we can make great swathes of the planet uninhabitable? If your first response is incredulity, then you’re a normal human being.
Talk about a backhanded compliment. But as a ‘normal human being’, you are a slave not only to your pre-programmed selfish desires, but also to the mind-controlling propaganda of big business:
It’s tempting to allow this first response to harden into a dogma, and use it to cover your eyes. The oil and gas industries have been spending billions to encourage us to stay stuck there, because their profits will plummet when we make the transition to a low-carbon society. But the basic science isn’t actually very complicated, or hard to grasp. As more carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, the world gets warmer…
Meanwhile, normal human beings are apparently impervious to the onslaught of PR from green pressure groups. As we’ve shown elsewhere, the funds available to the likes of Greenpeace and WWF are orders of magnitude greater than that spent by the ‘well-funded denial machine’.
And there’s more cherry-picking where that came from:
…Every single year since 1917 has been hotter than 1917. Every single year since 1956 has been hotter than 1956. Every single year since 1992 has been hotter than 1992. And on, and on. If we dramatically increase the carbon dioxide even more – as we are – we will dramatically increase the warming. Many parts of the world will dry up or flood or burn.
According to the Met Office’s annual global data series 1850-1998, 1917 and 1992 were exceptionally cold years: there were only 5 years cooler than 1917 in the preceding 66 years; after 1992, the next coldest year was 1878. And we can all play Hari’s game: every year since 1998 has been cooler than 1998, for example.
Moreover, all Hari has achieved here is to restate his initial uncontested premise that the world has been warming over the last century. Just saying it a bit louder this time doesn’t make it any more important or dangerous, or informative as to how to respond. Which is why he has also had to escalate the alarmism.
This is such an uncomfortable claim that I too I have tried to grasp at any straw that suggests it is wrong. One of the most tempting has come in the past few weeks, when the emails of the Hadley Centre at the University of East Anglia were hacked into, and seem on an initial reading to show that a few of their scientists were misrepresenting their research to suggest the problem is slightly worse than it is. Some people have seized on it as a fatal blow – a Pentagon Papers for global warming.
But then I looked at the facts. It was discovered more than a century ago that burning fossil fuels would release warming gases and therefore increase global temperatures, and since then, hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently reached the conclusion that it will have terrible consequences…
By now, Hari has drifted far from his reference point of the physics of the greenhouse and is bobbing around helplessly in a sea of catastrophism. The gap can be bridged only by a blatant untruth. Having started the paragraph with the statement that what followed were the true facts, he just makes it up. ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists’? And there we were thinking that the ‘2500 scientists of the IPCC‘ claim was overstating things. All the scientists, in all the world, across all the scientific sub-disciplines, probably only amount to hundreds of thousands. And it gets worse with almost every additional word: ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently‘ reached the same conclusion? Is that even humanly possible? Does he think that each scientist has their own personal ivory tower or something? ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently reached the conclusion that it will have terrible consequences‘?
A good argument made by just a single scientist trumps even hundreds of thousands of scientists that exist only in someone’s head. So let us quote the University of East Anglia climate scientist, and former director of the Tyndall Centre, Mike Hulme, who is concerned that science is being used to provide certainty over big, complex political issues:
The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.
Meanwhile Hari hasn’t even got to the end of his paragraph:
…It would be very surprising if, somewhere among them, there wasn’t a charlatan or two who over-hyped their work. Such people exist in every single field of science (and they are deplorable).
So let’s knock out the Hadley Centre’s evidence. Here are just a fraction of the major scientific organisations that have independently verified the evidence that man-made global warming is real, and dangerous: Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, L’Academie des Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, the UK’s Royal Society, the Academia Brasileira de Ciencias, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the US Environmental Protection Agency… I could fill this entire article with these names.
Well, at least he’s not citing citing himself this time. But he is wrong to say that these institutions have independently verified the evidence. Research bodies such as NASA and NOAA do, like Hadley, collect and analyse data, and test hypotheses, but Hari is lumping these together with scientific academies and professional bodies that represent their membership politically, which have simply issued position statements to the effect that the world has been warming, that anthropogenic greenhouse gases probably have much to with it, and that this presents problems. To ‘knock out the Hadley Centre’s evidence’ is to write off, among many other lines of research, its global surface temperature record (HADCRUT), which, along with NASA’s GISTEMP, is perhaps the most scientifically important and politically influential climate datsets in existence.
A further sign of Hari’s ignorance on the matter is that it was the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Centre (CRU) that was hacked, not Hadley. And Hadley is part of the UK Met Office, not, as Hari says, UEA. But Hadley produces HADCRUT in conjunction with CRU, so by Hari’s reckoning Hadley and CRU should both be ‘knocked out’. Which leaves him with a single temperature record, and a bunch of position statements from organisations that exist to represent their members’ interests. Last year, we took a look at the gestation of the statement issued by one of those professional bodies – the American Geophysical Union – and argued that these statements should be seen as political attempts to put science centre-stage of climate debates rather than objective appraisals of the state of knowledge.
And they haven’t only used one method to study the evidence. They’ve used satellite data, sea level measurements, borehole analysis, sea ice melt, permafrost melt, glacial melt, drought analysis, and on and on. All of this evidence from all of these scientists using all these methods has pointed in one direction. As the conservative journalist Hugo Rifkind put it, the Hadley Centre no more discredits climate science than Harold Shipman discredits GPs.
Climategate may not discredit climate science, but neither does climate science uphold Hari’s apocalyptic vision.
A study for the journal Science randomly sampled 928 published peer-reviewed scientific papers that used the words “climate change”. It found that 100 per cent – every single one – agreed it is being fuelled by human activity. There is no debate among climate scientists. There are a few scientists who don’t conduct research into the climate who disagree, but going to them to find out how global warming works is a bit like going to a chiropodist and asking her to look at your ears.
The Science paper Hari refers to is this one by Naomi Oreskes. She does indeed find evidence for a consensus. But it is a consensus only that ‘the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling’. What Hari does not mention is that Oreskes concluded that:
The question of what to do about climate change is also still open
For Hari, the fact of climate change is equivalent to the moral imperative he thinks it produces. To say that ‘climate change is real’, is to say ‘what is to be done’. As with so many other activists, there is no argument about how to interpret climate change statistics to work out a sensible response. So any degree of scepticism, or any argument about how to respond to degrees of climate change with degrees of responses naturally returns Hari to the core, binary, fact: ‘climate change is real’.
Part of the confusion in the public mind seems to stem from the failure to understand that two things are happening at once. There has always been – and always will be – natural variation in the climate. The ebb from hot to cold is part of Planet Earth. But on top of that, we are adding a large human blast of warming – and it is disrupting the natural rhythm. So when, in opinion polls, people say warming is “natural”, they are right, but it’s only one part of the story.
What worries Hari is that the ‘public mind’ has coped with the nuances of the debate. The idea that the extent of climate change and its effects might have been exaggerated is dangerous.
Once you have grasped this, it’s easy to see through the claim that global warming stopped in 1998 and the world has been cooling ever since. In 1998, two things came together: the natural warming process of El Nino was at its peak, and our human emissions of warming gases were also rising – so we got the hottest year ever recorded. Then El Nino abated, but the carbon emissions kept up. That’s why the world has remained far warmer than before – eight of the 10 hottest years on record have happened in the past decade – without quite reaching the same peak. Again: if we carry on pumping out warming gases, we will carry on getting warmer.
Hari wants to claim that ‘two things are happening at once’ – which may well be true – but is not happy with the corollary that it may be more of the natural than the anthropogenic. No scientist could state with the certainty that Hari has that the persistence of post-98 temperatures can be attributed to increases in CO2. ‘That is why…’ Hari claims, but it is premature. It may well turn out to be true, but the point is not that science can or has said anything about global temperatures, the point is that the ‘scientific’ account that Hari gives is intended to make statements about those who would interpret things differently. The scientific account is used to diminish the moral and intellectual character of ‘deniers':
That’s why I won’t use the word “sceptic” to describe the people who deny the link between releasing warming gases and the planet getting warmer. I am a sceptic. I have looked at the evidence highly critically, desperate for flaws. The overwhelming majority of scientists are sceptics: the whole nature of scientific endeavour is to check and check and check again for a flaw in your theory or your evidence. Any properly sceptical analysis leads to the conclusion that man-made global warming is real. Denial is something different: it is when no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, could convince you. It is a faith-based position.
Which is rather rich coming from somebody who has just demonstrated that he doesn’t know what those he calls ‘deniers’ are denying, or what ‘science says’, let alone somebody who has to make up what ‘science says’ in order to make moral arguments about ‘deniers’. Also on Friday, Hari popped up on the BBC’s Newsnight Review for a discussion on climate change and culture:
Talking about the Arctic, you know, I was out there this summer to report on this. You know, the Arctic in my lifetime has lost 40% of its summer ice. By 2012 the North Pole will be a point in the open ocean
We have no idea where he plucked these figures from. Hari was born in 1979, which, as luck would have it, is when the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) satellite records begin. According to those records, Arctic summer ice has declined by about 30% since then. We wouldn’t want to be too hard on him for what might well have been an honest slip of the tongue. His prophecy (note the certainty of his statement) about an ice free Arctic summer, is far more malignant. The IPCC’s AR4 estimates it will take 50 to 100 years for that to happen. But there was a record melt after AR4 was written, so NSIDC has come up with a ball-park date of 2030 based on extrapolation from recent melting trends. Other estimates range over many decades and well into the next century. We assume Hari must be referring to Jay Zwally’s study, which is mentioned here. If so, he is missing a trick; if he wants a single scientist’s estimate to speak for science, he could have quoted David Barber of the University of Manitoba who predicted an ice free Arctic summer by last year.
At issue is not really ‘what science says’ about the world’s temperature, nor even speculation about the date at which we can expect the Arctic to be free of ice in summer. The majority of climate scientists could easily take issue with Hari’s silly claim, but it wouldn’t be a very interesting read. What is at issue is the way in which Hari carries on not only making up stats such as this, but wielding them as some kind of talisman, which gives him moral authority. His wild speculation about the future of Arctic ice speaks more about the way in which ‘the science’ exists as a means by which Hari can express his shrill internal dialog. He makes stuff up to give himself a voice, and defends it by claiming to be the vessel through which science speaks. He, like the vast majority of scientists, is the sceptic, he announces. Pity that he’s not such a sceptic that he ever checks his own argument. As we’ve said previously, this inability to self-reflect is the symptom of the angry, shrill, non-scientist, moralising, and disoriented journalist-activists such as Monbiot, Lynas, and now Hari. What they write is science fiction. They incautiously assemble scientific factoids, removed from their scientific context, to construct terrifying narratives about the future. This elevates them to the status of planet-saving super-journos, and from this platform their bizarre stories become the device through which they interpret the world. But they are merely peering into their own arseholes, not, as they claim, through the prism of scientific objectivity. What they see is chaos and catastrophe, but what they do not recognise in what they see is that it is entirely their own confusion staring back at them.
Throughout this blog, and in our last two posts in the context of Climategate, we have argued that environmental politics, not environmental science, underpins the war on climate change, and that at the centre of that politics sits the precautionary principle. We are grateful to Hari, then, for supporting our thesis. He ends his article by casting aside all that science and appealing to the precautionary principle in the form of Pascal’s wager:
So let’s – for the sake of argument – make an extraordinary and unjustified concession to the deniers. Let’s imagine there was only a 50 per cent chance that virtually all the world’s climate scientists are wrong. Would that be a risk worth taking? Are you prepared to take a 50-50 gamble on the habitability of the planet? Is the prospect of getting our energy from the wind and the waves and the sun so terrible that’s not worth it on even these wildly optimistic odds?
We’ll leave aside Hari’s claim that ‘virtually all the world’s climate scientists’ agree that climate change is set to render the planet uninhabitable, other than to say that he seems to be confusing ‘virtually all the world’s climate scientists’ with the singular James Lovelock.
So, first, Hari extrapolates from a handful of rather mundane consensus statements about atmospheric physics in order to conclude that there is only one way forward politically. And now he’s telling us that there’s still only one way forward politically even if those consensus statements are wrong. He presents the future as a stark choice between two competing visions – zero carbon or an uninhabitable planet. Environmentalism or death. He reinforces the point with a story:
Imagine you are about to get on a plane with your family. A huge group of qualified airline mechanics approach you on the tarmac and explain they’ve studied the engine for many years and they’re sure it will crash if you get on board. They show you their previous predictions of plane crashes, which have overwhelmingly been proven right. Then a group of vets, journalists, and plumbers tell they have looked at the diagrams and it’s perfectly obvious to them the plane is safe and that airplane mechanics – all of them, everywhere – are scamming you. Would you get on the plane? That is our choice at Copenhagen.
Hari’s little story is intended to be a cautionary tale about which kind of expertise is pertinent, but it fails, as so many dumbed-down analogies fail. In his striving for simplicity, he not only patronises his readers, but he loses any purchase on the arguments in the debate that is taking place. We picked up Andrew Dessler for the same mistake a couple of years ago. Dessler – a former scientific advisor to Clinton – had asked us to imagine the warming world as a child sick with cancer. Would you take the child to the best pediatric cancer specialists, or to non-specialists, he asked:
So Freeman Dyson makes lists. While I’m certain he’s a smart guy, I would not take a sick child to him, and I won’t take a sick planet to him either. In both cases, he simply does not have the relevant specialist knowledge. That also applies the large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem. The bottom line is that the opinions of most of the skeptics on the list are simply not credible.
Unfortunately for Dessler, we tested his claim that the IPCC were the specialist doctors in his analogy by counting the specialisms of the latest IPCC report’s contributors. It turns out that many of them were precisely the ‘social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem’ that he had complained about. (You can read about WGI here, WGII here and WGIII here). Our detractors argued that we had been disingenuous, and that only IPCC WGI counts, the other two groups – which comprised a much larger proportion of ‘non-expert’ opinions – being less concerned with the ‘Physical Science Basis’, and focusing instead on ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, and the ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’. This misses the point that the arguments about what kind of problem climate change is and what to do about it emerge almost exclusively from WGII and WGIII, not from WGI, yet the putative scientific authority of the IPCC emerges exclusively from WGI.
What Hari, like Dessler, forgets is the difference between the sensitivity of climate to CO2, and the sensitivity of society to climate. Or to put it more broadly, there is a difference between the natural world’s sensitivity to CO2, and human society’s sensitivity to changes in the natural world. Hari and his ilk like to stress the equivalence between the environment’s and society’s sensitivity. They seem to feel that once the scientific case has been made, the political and moral argument has been had and won. This environmental determinism, we have argued, reflects the hollowness of their own outlooks, hence the interminable screeching, hectoring and ranty tone of commentators like Hari, and our favourite, George ‘air travel is like child abuse‘ Monbiot.
We can all tell stories. You’re about to get on a plane with your family. A group of shrill and sanctimonious journalists from the Guardian and Independent newspapers tell you that, if you take the journey, poor people all over the world will die wretched, horrible deaths. They show you statistics showing how many people have died already, and how many more will die in the future. ‘You will be culpable for their deaths’, they say. ‘Do you want their blood on your hands?’ they ask. Then another group of non-experts arrive. They say that there are many ways to understand the poverty that kills people, and that not taking the journey won’t make such lives any better. The journalists return, they say that the other group are funded by huge corporate interests, and cannot be trusted because they are either mad or bad. They tell you that they have science on their side, that climate change is real and is happening, and that they have witnessed its ravages for themselves. Who are you going to trust,’ they demand, ‘us, or the other group?’ Shouldn’t you take the cautious route, just in case? After all, they might be right. You step down from the plane. But as you walk across the tarmac, you notice that the journalists are now getting on the plane. Some of them are going to Copenhagen. One is heading across the Atlantic to lecture Canadians about their climate responsibilities. Another is off to the Arctic, to see some climate change.
One event, seen by two environmental activists called George, produces two, contradicting stories in the Guardian.
George Marshall, suggests that CRU email hacking was ‘orchestrated smear campaign’, but one which yielded no evidence of anything questionable, but that ‘an application of dirty political tactics to climate change campaigning’ seeks to undermine the upcoming Copenhagen conference. Innocent scientists, who know little about communication, have unwittingly handled the affair badly, causing a PR disaster for themselves.
George Monbiot, on the other hand, is uncharacteristically reflective, and ‘dismayed and deeply shaken by’ the emails. ‘There are some messages that require no spin to make them look bad’, he says.
There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released, and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom of information request. Worse still, some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate sceptics, or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Monbiot then calls for head of the CRU, Phil Jones, to resign. Nonetheless, this doesn’t support the conspiracy-theories about the hockey stick and widespread scientific fraud, he concludes, before giving a ‘satirical’ example of what it would take to convince him that such a conspiracy did exist. Most notably, however, he answers a commenter to the site:
I apologise. I was too trusting of some of those who provided the evidence I championed. I would have been a better journalist if I had investigated their claims more closely.
This is, of course, what we’ve been telling Monbiot for several years now.
The point here is that the two Georges seem to have very different takes on what the CRU hacking has revealed. Marshall believes that the attempt to prove a conspiracy reveals a conspiracy. Monbiot says that the hacking has not substantiated the conspiracy-theory, but that certain scientists are culpable. It’s worth pointing out that, although Marshall and Monbiot accuse sceptics of conspiracy-theorising, their own arguments about ‘deniers’ and ‘well funded denial machines’ are also conspiracy theories.
We have argued here on Climate Resistance that it is a mistake to see the ascendency of environmentalism’s influence as the fruit of a conspiracy. This, we have argued, credits the environmental movement with too much. What we have said is that environmentalism has become mainstream because of the failure of the political parties, individuals, organisations, and institutions to sustain coherent political ideas and to share them with the public. The environmentalist’s tendency to see scepticism as the expression of a conspiracy owes itself, we think, to this same symptom. Climate change denial is discussed in terms of secret deals between trans-national corporations and think-tanks to subvert the public’s understanding of ‘the science’. Whereas such networks that they do manage to ‘expose’ turn out to be barely funded at all (especially by contrast to green lobbying and PR efforts), not at all hidden from view, and entirely consistent with the way the business of politics is done in today’s world. The point is that it is because environmentalists start from a position of disorientation that they tend to see any political relationship or connection as evidence of a conspiracy. The 9/11 ‘truthers’ offer us a useful metaphor: it is what isn’t said that often counts for more than what is said.
But let’s be fair. It isn’t just environmental activists who are conspiracy-mongering. The increasingly prominent climate sceptic Christopher Monckton wrote yesterday:
This is what they did — these climate “scientists” on whose unsupported word the world’s classe politique proposes to set up an unelected global government this December in Copenhagen, with vast and unprecedented powers to control all formerly free markets, to tax wealthy nations and all of their financial transactions, to regulate the economic and environmental affairs of all nations, and to confiscate and extinguish all patent and intellectual property rights.
Monckton is right that this is a phenomenon relating to the ‘classe politique’, but he again makes the mistake of attributing to it far too much intentionality. The objectives of environmentalism are not deliberate, nor about purposively engineering a social order as such. They are not ‘about’ realising any political project. There is certainly a concerted effort to build supra-national institutions that will control, regulate and manage every level of public and private life. But the ‘classe politique’s’ desire for these institutions is unfocussed, and the result of its attempting to manage its own crises. What Monckton sees as an attempt to establish a ‘global government’ are the desperate attempts of governments to rescue themselves from their own failure of purpose. As we are fond of saying, ‘the crisis is in politics, not in the skies’. Politicians and political movements project their own failures – their loss of identity, and their inability to communicate with constituencies and to explain the world – out into the world. They respond to their own failure, by creating institutions that are ‘above’ them, to which they defer.
The unconscious logic is this… Politicians (and movements, etc) borrow authority from science, because they cannot create their own. As such, any political project that this process produces is necessarily negative – the avoidance of catastrophe, terrorism, epidemics, etc. In short, politicians borrow ‘objectivity’ from science because of a lack of faith in the inherently subjective nature of democratic politics – the need for political engagement and discussion. But the loan of credibility from science to politics is not sufficient to sustain the legitimacy of political institutions, because of the problem of democratic accountability and legitimacy. As we can see, this form of politics has failed to connect with the public. So, on the basis of the looming catastrophe, institutions are established above politics, which it putatively ‘answers to’. Contemporary politics (ie, politicians) cannot cope with accountability, and so defers sovereignty away from ‘the people’ (to whom they are accountable) to a higher agency, such that it can be made ‘necessary’ to meet ‘international obligations’ (and to avert catastrophe) before meeting demands ‘from below’. In short, this is about managing people’s expectations of politics and politicians.
Monckton’s criticism is expressed as concern about the vulnerability of ‘free trade’ to environmental institutions, taxation, and regulation. But it is during an era in which the idea of free markets have become orthodoxy that the conditions for environmentalism’s ascendancy have been created. In that same era, communism has virtually disappeared, socialism too. What remains of the ‘left’ – social democracy – has embraced market principles. Moreover, it is as much conservatives as ossified leftists who have attempted to reinvent themselves as ‘green’. The climate debate simply does not divide on either left/right or pro-market/anti-market lines. The UK conservatives have fully embraced the sustainability agenda, and its emphasis on localism. Moreover, schemes such as cap-and-trade, albeit while regulating a market, nonetheless use the market to provide putative solutions to putative climate problems. And it should not be forgotten that it was Monckton’s former boss, Thatcher, who was instrumental in bringing climate change to the attention of the world’s governments, and the creation of UK and international institutions to combat climate change. As the website of the exposed CRU itself explains:
The UK Government became a strong supporter of climate research in the mid-1980s, following a meeting between Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher and a small number of climate researchers, which included Tom Wigley, the CRU director at the time. This and other meetings eventually led to the setting up of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, within the Met Office. At the same time, other governments were also taking notice and wanted more information. As this need was not being met by international scientific bodies and institutions at the time, they set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This was under the United Nations Framework (later the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC) and led to assessments being produced in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007. CRU staff have been heavily involved in all four assessments, probably more than anywhere else relative to the size of an institution (see IPCC AR4 Authors).
The ‘classe politique’ began its greening, and its borrowing from scientific authority more than 25 years ago – during which time Monckton himself was an active member of that same ‘classe politique’ he now shouts at. Yet he spoke to it, and influenced it. He cannot have it both ways. The history of contemporary environmentalism is as much the history of contemporary conservatism as it is the history of the contemporary, yet now equally defunct, Left. That it has taken him this long to see what kind of monster has been created is surely something on which he needs to reflect a little more deeply than he has done. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters… It is not enough to say ‘environmentalism is communism’, because he must know it is not true – he was there at the former’s birth, if not its conception, and the latter’s comprehensive death. Such an ahistorical perspective is precisely the symptom of the Georges, and their paranoid conspiracy-mongering. Yet the Georges can be let off the hook – slightly – because it cannot be claimed that they were there, at number 10 Downing Street, as environmentalism’s seeds were being sown.
Our argument thus far, then, can be summarised as follows. It is disorientation that causes debate to be seen as consisting of good guys beset by political conspiracies. The loss of historical perspective causes attempts to give a coherent account of the opposing argument to fail. Both ‘sides’ lack the means to explain the other, and to positively express themselves. Thus each side becomes the side that wants to save the world, the other the one that intends to destroy it. Yet, no doubt, both sides act out of conviction, and in good faith, even if they would deny the other. Their problem is their inability to self-reflect.
Curiously, the responses to the ‘Climategate’ mess similarly do not divide according to ‘sides’ taken in the debate. Monbiot thinks that those involved need to be punished:
I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed.
Bob Ward, director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, believes that ‘only a thorough investigation could now clear [the CRU researchers’] names.’
The selective disclosure and dissemination of the messages has created the impression of impropriety, and the only way of clearing the air now would be through a rigorous investigation.
Nigel Lawson, another conservative-from-the-Thatcher-administration-turned-climate-sceptic similarly feels there is a need for such a process:
The integrity of the scientific evidence on which not merely the British government, but other countries, too, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, claim to base far-reaching and hugely expensive policy decisions, has been called into question. And the reputation of British science has been seriously tarnished. A high-level independent inquiry must be set up without delay.
On each side of the debate, there are those for, and those against such an investigation, and those who think that the CRU researchers need to be either punished, or exonerated. No clear lines emerge.
Ward, characteristically, presupposes the findings of any such investigation. If it’s green, it’s right, in his view of the world. Monbiot and Lawson, to different extents, believe that clarity needs to be recovered. Marshall takes a different view, saying that:
Jones should speak to every journalist who calls, go on the offensive and defend his science.
Before we agree with Marshall, we shall point out that if Jones had taken this advice years ago, there would be no Climategate now. It’s a bit late to start being ‘transparent’, now that it is clear that he has gone out of his way to be opaque.
The Guardian article from which many of these quotes were taken, goes on to cite another opinion.
Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth’s executive director, also dismissed calls for an inquiry. He said: “Calls for an inquiry look suspiciously like an attempt to cast doubt on the science of climate change ahead of crucial UN negotiations. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is happening, that it is man-made, and that it poses a major threat to people across the planet. We can’t afford to be distracted from the need for urgent action to combat global warming – rich countries must lead the way by agreeing to slash their emissions when they meet in Copenhagen next month.
… In other words, the stakes are too high to allow an investigation to create the idea in the public mind that there is any reason to doubt the certainty that the CRU have seemingly produced.
If there were such an inquiry, it would certainly not be the first of its kind.
Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist attracted much angry attention earlier this decade, prompting an investigation by the Orwellian-sounding Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). They found Lomborg guilty of ‘dishonesty’ in 2003, but later that year, the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation overturned the ruling, finding it dishonest itself.
After McCintyre and McKitrick’s efforts to replicate the methodology of the iconic ‘hockey-stick’ graph and subject it to the scrutiny it deserved, the US congress asked the National Research Council (NRC) of the United States National Academy of Sciences to investigate the plausibility of such historical reconstructions (the North Report). Simultaneously, another report was instigated by Congressman, Joe Barton, focusing more specifically on the work behind the Hockey Stick (the Wegman Report).
Speaking in the aftermath of the recent leak (but before the discussion of an inquiry), Bob Ward brings up what he presents as ‘attacks’ on the Hockey-stick’s authors.
The attacks on the hockey stick graph led the United States National Academy of Sciences to carry out an investigation, concluding in 2006 that although there had been no improper conduct by the researchers, they may have expressed higher levels of confidence in their main conclusions than was warranted by the evidence.
In fact, the reports and their meanings are far less easy to parse than Ward claims. For McIntrye’s perspective on the reports and their findings, read here.
The fact is that institutional modes of ‘clearing up’ controversies fail comprehensively. Critics of Lomborg will cite the initial DSCD finding, rather than its parent organisations retraction. Similarly, the reports that followed in the wake of McIntyre and McKitrick are not as conclusive as their detractors (or their supporters) often claim. Arguably these kind of reports merely muddy the waters, entrench positions, demonstrate the paucity of clear evidence, and, far from convincing the public of the stainless character of those implicated, such inquiries just generate suspicion about the execution of the process, and alienate the public from the debate. Lack of facts provoke an argument, and rather than drawing a line under sordid affairs, inquiries have a tendency to amplify them.
Moreover, an inquiry into Climategate would be truly Kafkaesque. Politicians, deferring the business of democratic politics to scientific and supra-national institutions, commissioning inquiries when that process generates controversy… It’s easy to imagine an infinite regress of deferments… commissions, inquiries, reports, organisations… none of which ever resolve the increasingly surreal problematic created by the previous layer of spin, intrigue, sleaze and abrogations of responsibility.
No, the problem begins with this. There is no need for an inquiry into the behaviour of the CRU staff, because what is really at issue is not ‘is the world really warming, and is it our fault?’. Creating institution after inquiry after organisation after report after commission after committee, after international treaty, after ‘science’ to answer this question is the reason this whole debacle stinks. The farce began with politics being deferred to ‘science’. Instead of a public contest of values and ideas, vapid and gutless politicians outsourced their responsibilities to scientific academies, hoping that it would rescue their own legitimacy. It failed. An inquiry will shed no light on the matter as much as it would extend the symptom, because, as we said in our previous post:
There is no need for sceptics to attempt to locate conspiracies, fraud, or deception. Because the reality is that environmentalism has thrived in an era in which any purposive political action – least of all the execution of a conspiracy – is impossible. Environmentalism has influenced public policy not because of fraud, but because of the intellectual vacuity of politicians. And it is beyond the ken of most commentators, journalists, and eco-PR bods such as Ward to deceive the public, because they don’t even reflect on the coherence, consequences, or political character of their own ideas. Fecklessness is rife, and that is why the world is greening.
Unless you live a fully sustainable life in a cave without any internet access, you will no doubt be aware of the hacking into a UK climate research institution’s computer system, and the release of emails between prominent figures in the small world of climate science.
This is, of course, immensely good fun, and intriguing, and is already leading to questions being asked about what the small group of individuals involved were up to. The question in the sceptic’s mind is naturally whether this data will reveal the smoking gun, leading to the discovery that liberties have been taken with certain facts. Certainly, some embarrassing prose has been exchanged, and now exposed. But it requires a degree of interpretation to make it stick. It is highly unlikely that this will render the entire climate debate over and done. But let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there was something terribly damaging in the emails that have surfaced. Would it bring the house of cards down?
We don’t think it would.
The putative certainty that the ‘hockey stick’ provided for climate politics has not yielded the momentum the environmental movement et al think it entitles them to. Domestic climate politics has not won either the hearts or minds of the public, and climate policies remain the object of much scepticism, suspicion, and cynicism. The institutions that have been created seemingly in order to ‘deal with climate change’, at local, national, and international levels, have not been created though normal political processes, nor after having their objectives or principles tested democratically. As we argue here, these institutions have more likely been created because of a lack of public sympathy for environmentalism, than merely in spite of it. (If the greens had really won the argument, why would they not try to give the institutions that have been created in its name the legitimacy of a popular mandate, as well as blessing it with scientific authority?)
Environmentalists naturally seek to explain their political failure as a deficit between the public’s understanding of the issues and ‘the science’. Politicians, too, enjoy appearing to be responding to a crisis that exists above and beyond politics than responding to anything within it. Politics is suspended in order to ‘save the planet’ at the politicians convenience. Democracy is postponed until further notice. But not because of the hockey stick. In fact, the document that has been central to the ascendency of environmental politics owes little to scientific certainty:
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. – Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
Published nearly a decade before the hockey stick’s appearance, this agreement, which is even signed by George Bush Sr, aims to be the framework which will lead to:
… international agreements which respect the interests of all and protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system
The foundation for this framework is belief in the ‘integral and interdependent nature of the Earth, our home’, and that:
Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.
Piecing these together… First, it is not necessary for there to exist a coherent argument that the Earth’s nature is ‘integral and interdependent'; the precautionary principle waves the Rio Declaration’s first premise past any scrutiny. Second, its unstated conclusion – the corollary to human beings’ entitlement to ‘a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature’ – is that humans aren’t entitled to a life that is not ‘in harmony with nature’ as it is conceived according to the tenets of ‘sustainable development’. By virtue of the ‘integral and interdependent nature of the Earth’, any life that is not ‘in harmony with nature’ is depriving another of its right to exist ‘in harmony with nature’. Never mind that ‘nature’ and ‘harmony’ are, at best, entirely nebulous, if not mystical concepts, this is environmentalism’s Bill of Rights or Magna Carta, only it leaves us humans with very little.
What’s this got to do with the CRU hacking, you say? Well, the point is that it is not necessary to peek behind the firewall to get an understanding of what kind of beast environmentalism – or any form of eco-centric political philosophy – is. What research such as that produced by the authors of the exposed emails does is supply the kind of framework expressed by the Rio Declaration with some parameters, merely so that it can narrate itself. That is to say that the politics of the Rio Declaration are prior to the Hockey Stick. Moreover, by virtue of the deployment of the precautionary principle, the conclusion of the Rio Declaration is its own premise. It’s got its head up its own arse.
The point is that any detected or projected rise in temperature does not speak for itself, no matter how sound the science behind it actually is. Any such data needs to be interpreted. That is to say that before you know what ‘science says’, you have to know what has been asked of it. As the Rio Declaration demonstrates, the question of what a rise in temperature means has already been given, or rather assumed. In the logic of environmentalism, the sensitivity of climate to CO2 is held to be equivalent to the sensitivity of society to climate. But this, again, has no basis in science. Instead it is an entirely political, or ethical precept, centered on the concept of ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ with ‘nature’. The function of ‘science’, in what follows from environmental logic, is the search for ‘evidence’ of the status of this mythical balance. But, again, ‘evidence’ does not speak for itself, because, again, it requires interpretation. Anything that is not ‘normal’, implies ‘imbalanced’ in this way of thinking.
The mistake many sceptics have been making appears to be the mirror of the mistake that environmentalists have been making – they both assume that the argument for environmental politics emerges from environmental science, either correctly as a process that produces objectively sound analysis, or as an institution prone to corruption. It doesn’t. It is only recently that arguments emerging from the environmental movement have attempted to give themselves weight by appealing to what ‘science says…’ and that from this scientific fact emerge an array of ethical imperatives and its special form of politics. Previously, environmental arguments were expressed in terms of ‘precaution’. As we can see, the Rio Declaration posits a prior relationship with nature before a scientific conception of that relationship, making an institution of the precautionary principle well in advance of putative certainty.
Of course, the emergence of the hockey stick in IPCC TAR began to alter the language of the discussion away from precaution and towards scientific certainty. As such, it has become the focus of sceptics and of warmers, for a variety of reasons. And there are very good reasons – relating to both the scientific methodology, and owing to the behaviour of those that produced it – to doubt the hockey-stick’s prescience, never mind its hindsight. As a purely scientific exercise, it may well have its own merits. But those involved in its creation, and its uncritical reproduction across the climate discussion – the politicisation of climate science – brought the hacking-attempts upon themselves. Because once this graph was given such totemic significance to the political process – ie, once so many arguments about so many futures were seemingly based on this document – its authors should have either managed expectations of science, or fully opened up every aspect of their research to scrutiny. There is no legitimate reason for hiding any aspect of an argument which demands a course of action to ‘save the planet’.
In spite of the apparent certainty offered to the debate about climate change, however, the debate was not over. Even if the Hockey Stick graph really did demonstrate anthropogenic climate change, the argument about its consequences remain unresolved. As we have discussed in recent posts, the premise that the sensitivity of both human society and the climate are equivalent is unsound. For instance, it is claimed that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’ in an attempt to naturalise the phenomenon of poverty. This assumes that not driving our cars will do anything to change the plight of the world’s poor, and fails to address the matter of poverty. The point here is that the environmentalist’s conception of humanity’s relationship with nature is not premised on material evidence.
A conclusive debunking of the ‘hockey stick’ graph will not debunk the framework through which the environmentalist sees the world. It will not challenge the basis of environmentalism. And it will not disturb the foundations of the institutions that have been established in order to ‘save the planet’ (ie, to reproduce environmental ideology). Copenhagen will not be built on hockey sticks, just as Kyoto wasn’t. It, like the Rio Declaration, was created before the IPCC produced any claims regarding conclusive detection of an anthropogenic signal in the temperature record.
Our argument here on this blog has been that in order to understand the ascendency of environmental politics, it must be seen principally as a political phenomenon. The politics is prior to the science. It’s not as if environmentalism is new. Eco-centric ideas have operated in political ideas throughout history. They didn’t persist in Malthus’s era. Romantic forms of socialism such as Morris’s failed to thrive. The blood-and-soil environmentalism of the Nazis did not survive. Paul Ehrlich’s dire prophecies did not materialise. The question sceptics need to address is why this kind of thinking stuck in the era roughly spanning the late 80s to the present. Until we can do that, no amount of scandal and debunking of exaggerated scientific claims will substantially alter the debate.
There is no need to explain the phenomenon of environmentalism and its success in influencing political institutions throughout the world as a conspiracy between a small number of people. It is evident that the greening of Western governments has occurred almost entirely without the ideas pertaining to this transformation ever having been the subject of democratic testing. It is transparent that the institutions that have been established are not populated by accountable individuals, and have been located outside, above, or beyond the reach of normal domestic politics. Politicians who have been instrumental in creating the green future have emphasised the scare story, rather than openly discussed what kind of future it is that they are creating. Whatever failures of scientific methodology or fraud these emails represent, exposing them will not expose the phenomenon of environmentalism and its causes.
None of this is intended to pour water on the arguments made in the debate by those who are focussed on the science. It is essential to scrutinise the science produced in this debate in order to show that there are problems in the political argument that they seemingly support. The point is that no amount of science can sort the debate out, because it is not principally a scientific debate.
Environmentalists claim that their argument is grounded in scientific objectivity. But this is only possible because they fail to see their argument as political. Writing on Friday about the CRU hacking, our old friend, Bob Ward, wrote in the Guardian:
More importantly, these skeptics have not overturned the well-established basic physics of the greenhouse effect, namely that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and increasing its concentration in the atmosphere causes the earth to warm. They also have not managed to make melting glaciers and rising sea levels, or any other evidence of warming, disappear into thin air. But they have managed to confuse some of the public about the causes of climate change.
Those making scientific arguments for political action on climate change cannot complain about confusing the public, and ought to focus instead on their own confusion. What Ward and those engaged in making arguments like his haven’t overturned is the idea that small changes in climate are easily coped with by wealthy, industrialised, economies. The premise that they operate on is that they cannot, and this is the basis of their political and ‘ethical’ outlooks. As such, their environmentalism turns into an argument against development, and against humanity itself. They betray this much when they attempt to explain any failure of their political ideas to resonate with the public. Ward continues:
Over the past five years, Mann and Jones in particular have been subjected not only to legitimate scrutiny by other researchers, but also to a co-ordinated campaign of personal attacks on their reputation by ‘sceptics’. If the hacked e-mails are genuine, they only show that climate researchers are human, and that they speak badly in private about ‘sceptics’ who accuse them of fraud.
It is inevitable as we approach the crucial meeting in conference in Copenhagen in December that the sceptics would try some stunt to try to undermine a global agreement on climate change. There is no smoking gun, but just a lot of smoke without fire.
Ward neglects to offer us any idea about which sort of scrutiny is legitimate, and which isn’t. The implication is that the good guys want to save the planet, and the bad guys want it to be destroyed. In Ward’s view, goodies and baddies populate the debate. Any attempt to scutinise the basis of an agreement at Copenhagen is, in Ward’s view, illegitimate, and will be answered by Ward accusing people of fraud, or some such illegitimate interest.
What this betrays is the fragility of the environmental argument and its premises. There is no need for sceptics to attempt to locate conspiracies, fraud, or deception. Because the reality is that environmentalism has thrived in an era in which any purposive political action – least of all the execution of a conspiracy – is impossible. Environmentalism has influenced public policy not because of fraud, but because of the intellectual vacuity of politicians. And it is beyond the ken of most commentators, journalists, and eco-PR bods such as Ward to deceive the public, because they don’t even reflect on the coherence, consequences, or political character of their own ideas. Fecklessness is rife, and that is why the world is greening.
We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits … I have always been deeply suspicious of the grand claims made for consumer democracy: that we can change the world by changing our buying habits.
But then again, it’s not because his insight is all that profound…
A change in consumption habits is seldom effective unless it is backed up by government action. You can give up your car for a bicycle – and fair play to you – but unless the government is simultaneously reducing the available road space, the place you’ve vacated will just be taken by someone who drives a less efficient car than you would have driven (traffic expands to fill the available road-space). Our power comes from acting as citizens – demanding political change – not acting as consumers.
It seems that Monbiot is against consumer democracy because it seems to rob us of our power as citizens, and requires government intervention in order to make it work.
(Actually he means ‘ethical consumerism’. ‘Consumer democracy’ means treating the voter as a consumer, whereas ‘ethical consumerism’ means treating the act of consuming or buying as an act with the potential to create change. But we nit-pick here.)
This is interesting. George rightly draws a distinction between consumer demand, and demand for political change. The former is problematic, because it requires government action.
Seems George would only be happy if the government is responding to demands from citizens, rather than from consumers. Again, we find ourselves in agreement with Monbiot here. But since when was he against government action that didn’t enjoy popular support?
Last year, following the Climate Change Committee’s report, Monbiot criticised what he felt were targets that were inadequate.
My reading of the new projections suggests that to play its part in preventing two degrees of global warming, the UK needs to cut greenhouse gases by roughly 25% from current levels by the end of 2012 – a quarter in four years. But how the heck could this be done? Here is a list of measures which could be enacted almost immediately. They require no economic or technological miracles; but they do demand that the government is brave enough to govern.
His proposals for a ‘brave’ government were
1. Immediately renegotiate the European Emissions Trading Scheme
2. Use the money this raises for:
a. A crash programme for training builders.
b. A home improvement scheme like Germany’s, but twice as fast.
3. Announce that incandescent lightbulbs will no longer be sold in the United Kingdom
4. Increase vehicle excise duty for the most polluting cars to £3000 a year (from the current £400). Use the money this raises to:
a. Start closing key urban streets to private cars and dedicating them to public transport and cycling.
b. Increase the public subsidy for bus and train journeys.
c. Train thousands of new coach drivers and public transport operators.
d. Scrap the airport expansion programme.
5. Stop the burning of moorland
6. Stop all opencast coal mining and rescind planning permission for new works.
On the one hand, George wants a mass movement of people to demand the government acts. On the other, he wants the government to act ‘bravely’, ‘top-down’, in spite of the absence of demands ‘from below’.
This is something we’ve explored a lot on this blog. The green movement isn’t really a movement at all. At best, it is a phenomenon of individuals whose only thing in common is their sense of disconnect and disorientation. At worst, it is a self-serving elitist club. Yet their shrill demands for ‘action’ count for more than the disinterest of the vast majority, and virtually the entire political establishment has been remarkably sympathetic to the green cause. Hence, the very existence of the Climate Change Committee, whose report Monbiot didn’t feel was sufficient. It was created to set the UK’s emissions targets after the fiasco of attempting to set the target politically, in Parliament, democratically. The Labour government proposed that the Climate Change Act would commit the UK to a reduction of 60% by 2050. The Conservative Party responded, by claiming that they would reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. The Liberal Democrats said that they would create a 100% carbon neutral Britain by 2050, and ban the petrol engine and ban nuclear power. Each side in this game of politics-by-numbers claimed to have the very same science behind them. Yet it produced different results. The implication is stark: climate change has very little to do with responding to crisis, and everything to do with striking a pose. To recover from this embarrassing state of affairs, the government amended the bill, so that targets would be set by an ‘independent’ panel – the Climate Change Committee. The House of Commons, recognising its own impotence, voted overwhelmingly for the bill, with barely a hint of scrutiny, debate, or questioning. Except, of course, from environmentalists, who claimed that the new legislation didn’t go far enough.
Thus, democracy in the UK defers to imperatives issued by environmentalism, even though it has comprehensively failed to capture the imagination of the mass of citizens. And where democracy does still function in such a way as to represent their wishes, you can expect Monbiot to say something quite, quite different. ‘Why do we allow the US to act like a failed state on climate change?’ he asked in the Guardian, back in June.
It would be laughable anywhere else. But, so everyone says, the Waxman-Markey bill which is likely to be passed in Congress today or tomorrow, is the best we can expect – from America.The cuts it proposes are much lower than those being pursued in the UK or in most other developed nations. Like the UK’s climate change act the US bill calls for an 80% cut by 2050, but in this case the baseline is 2005, not 1990. Between 1990 and 2005, US carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose from 5.8 to 7bn tonnes.
Monbiot seems to have forgotten his desire for the people to demand from the government. He forgets that the Climate Change Act and its goals – which he doesn’t think is sufficient anyway – was not produced by a democratically accountable body, and was not the subject of democratic contest. He forgets that, just as in the UK, the green movement is not a popular movement. He forgets that the bill was not produced by a movement of citizens, but a clique of US politicians. Just as with the UK’s Climate Change Act, however, Monbiot nods his approval at it.
I would like to see the bill passed, as it at least provides a framework for future improvements. But why do we expect so little from the US? Why do we treat the world’s most powerful and innovative nation as if it were a failed state, rejoicing at even the faintest suggestion of common sense?
So we can see Monbiot comprehensively in contradiction with himself. If ‘consumer democracy’ is wrong because it requires the intervention of the state in lieu of autonomous political expression, then so too must the climate change act – and anything like it – be wrong. They are not the expression of ‘the masses’ rising up to demand change. Its precepts and values have not been tested democratically. Yet Monbiot approves, although reservedly, and disapproves of the lack of bravery shown by elected representatives in their face of their electors.
In order to wriggle out of this contradiction, Monbiot must find a way of explaining environmentalism’s total failure to create a popular mandate for itself. He goes on in the same article to say:
Thanks to the lobbying work of the coal and oil companies, and the vast army of thinktanks, PR consultants and astroturfers they have sponsored, thanks too to the domination of the airwaves by loony right shock jocks, the debate over issues like this has become so mad that any progress at all is little short of a miracle. […] A combination of corporate money and an unregulated corporate media keeps America in the dark ages. This bill is the best we’re going to get for now because the corruption of public life in the United States has not been addressed. Whether he is seeking environmental reforms, health reforms or any other improvement in the life of the American people, this is Obama’s real challenge.
That is to say that environmentalism is a failure because the public have bought the message given to them by powerful propaganda machines, working on behalf of oil companies, etc, etc, blah, blah blah.
This is another constant theme of Monbiot’s writing. In December last year, in an attempt to explain the same failure, he wrote that ‘online, planted deniers drive a blinkered fiction':
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. 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.
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 that Monbiot 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 on commentisfree 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.
In summary, Monbiot believes that the reason that the masses have not risen up to demand action on climate change is because they have been hoodwinked by a conspiracy to subvert the public understanding of the issues, paid for by vast corporate interests. The public are simply too stupid to have seen through this.
This creates a second problem for Monbiot. Now that he has explained the failure of environmentalism as the consequence of the public’s fecklessness, he can no longer make any claim to be at all interested in the public demanding anything from government. Any such political expression might be wrong – it doesn’t create, as it were, its own legitimacy by being a demand for government ‘by the people for the people’. Instead, it might just as well be the result of a corporate conspiracy. Mass action needs George’s approval before it can be considered as a legitimate expression of autonomous political organisation. He needs to check its credentials first. Meanwhile, he’s prepared to accept legislation that lacks such democratic legitimacy, because he knows what’s in the public’s best interests.
Anyway, so far this post has been something of a pre-amble. Albeit a rather long one. What struck us about the article referred to at the top of the thread, other than Monbiot’s misconception of ‘consumer democracy’, is that he points to research that apparently demonstrates scientifically that ethical consumerism does not work. Monbiot explains:
So I wasn’t surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments. First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.
The researchers call this the “licensing effect”. Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.
Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.
The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term “moral offset”, which I think is a useful one.
The title of the study is “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”. The abstract reads as follows.
Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.
(Read the whole study here)
The study appears to find that if you think you’ve done the right thing – buying green products – then you allow yourself to do more of the wrong thing – taking more money for your efforts than you were entitled to.
If it is true that buying ‘ethical goods’ makes you more selfish, then surely the lesson is that there’s something wrong with environmental ethics, rather than with its application in the form of ethical consumerism. Rather than ‘moral offset’, we might be talking here about an effect better described as ‘moral displacement’.
Because if it is true that people are receptive to ideas about morality, when ethical and moral values are grounded on environmental precepts, it is no surprise that people behave accordingly. After all, what would Gaia say about taking a few more pennies than you were supposed to have? Or for that matter, what would Gaia say about creating political institutions with control over people’s lives without their consent? Of course, She wouldn’t give a hoot, just so long as the polar bears are happy, and the sea-level remains static.
After all, what is ‘democracy’, when the planet needs saving?
What’s the point of having an argument, when you already know you’re right?
What’s the point of debate, if all it is going to mean is that the wrong ideas get an airing?
Why have a free media, if all it means is that poisonous conspiracies will be allowed to infect the minds of the masses?
The environmental imperative seems to destroy any principles that preceded it.
This is the problem with attempting to locate the basis of ethics without humanity. A few posts ago, we discussed the implausibility of ‘eco-humanism’. We argued there that the environmental conception of ethics puts the environment prior to humans – that their principle relationship was with the natural/biological order, rather than with one another. Furthermore, the prospect of catastrophe in the environmental narrative precludes any conception of ‘good’. All human action reduces to a quantity of bad, such that we can only speak about one action being less bad than another, using a carbon-footprint calculator, or something. This experiment, if it says anything at all, only shows us the redundancy of environmental ethics.
These are not, so to speak, ‘intuitive’ ethics. They are elite ethics. They are the basis of environmental politics, which constructs political institutions – organisations, laws, regulations and so on – to reproduce its objectives.
So it should be no surprise that, just as the subjects in the experiment felt entitled to lie and cheat, so it goes that politicians, journalists and other environmental activists do not feel bound by conventions and norms when they embrace environmentalism. The rotten heart of this philosophical framework allows them to act as though they were ‘above’ normal politics. For instance, environmental politics is not the subject of democratic scrutiny (e.g. the UK’s Climate Change Act, described above). International frameworks are being sought that will limit the potential of domestic politics, so that resistance – precisely the kind of ‘bottom-up’ demands that Monbiot claimed to desire – to eco-zeal can be ignored. The normal business of politics can be deferred in order to serve the greater good: ‘saving the planet’. Self-serving politicians and vapid moral warriors (Monbiot) can flatter themselves with a sense of purpose, while having nothing in fact to offer. Environmentalism really is immoral, anti-human, and elitist.
A few posts back we mentioned the Battle of Ideas debate festival organised by the Institute of Ideas.
Audio podcasts of the many debates are now available on-line. There’s something there for everyone.
However, we highlighted the series of debates that will be of most interest to our readers .
Ben spoke at one of the debates, part of the “Battle for Energy” strand, called “Solving the Energy Crisis: all about lightbulbs and lifestyle?” You can read more about the debate and hear the audio by following this link, or here
If you like your debates a bit more upfront, however… Abundant, Cheap, Clean… Contentious? Why is energy a battlefield today? provided some entertaining and very insightful discussion from James Woudhuysen, co-author of Energise! – a fantastic book for anyone interested in the climate and energy debates. [Click here to read more and listen to the debate]
In the same strand, A New Nuclear Age?, discussed the technical and political problems besetting atomic energy projects. [Click here to read more and listen to the debate]
As you can probably see, we have given the site a make-over.
We’ve opted for the most simple possible construction of the site this time, with fewer of the gadgets, widgets and gizmos that were cluttering the pages. We’ve also made it a bit easier for our more mature readers, who, we understand, didn’t like the white-on-black colour scheme.
However, the move may not have gone as smoothly as we hoped. If the site isn’t working properly for you, please let us know in the comments below or through the contact form above.
We’re also keen to make sure that everything is working with our RSS feeds, etc, for people automatically linking here, and using blog-reading web-apps, such as Google Reader.
The Save the Children Alliance purport to be
… the world’s largest leading independent children’s rights organisation, with members in 29 countries and operational programmes in more than 100. We fight for children’s rights and deliver lasting improvements to children’s lives worldwide.
Last week the organisation released a report, claiming that
Climate change could kill 250,000 children next year, and the figure could rise to more than 400,000 by 2030…
So many dead babies are, so to speak, an army on its way to Copenhagen to fight in the climate wars for a strong international agreement to mitigate climate change, as the campaign’s website reveals:
This report, published in advance of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, examines those vulnerabilities and identifies the adaptation measures that can be taken to benefit children.
It is interesting to see how, in the debate about the future of the planet, it is children that have lost their lives that carry greater weight than the discussion about what those lives could have been. It is a curious thing that to argue for development – rather than climate change mitigation – is to be the baby-hater in opposition to Malthusians such as Save the Children.
Because, as we have pointed out previously, with similar statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Humanitarian Foundation (GHF), the number of people who die from climate change is far, far, less than the number of people who die, or are affected by, poverty.
This was the argument of Ben’s presentation at York University, featured in the previous post. Here, again, are the figures from the WHO, showing the number of deaths attributed to a range of conditions across the world:
Here is the same table, modified to show how these rank, relative to climate change…
Yet, compare this figure to the statements made by Save the Children, in the executive summary of their report… (our emphasis),
Climate change is the biggest global health threat to children in the 21st century. Without concerted action, millions of children will be at increased risk from disease, undernutrition, water scarcity, disasters, and the collapse of public services and infrastructure. No one will be immune to the effects of climate change, but one of the largest groups to be affected will be children under the age of five.
It seems to us that there are 65 times the number of deaths attributable to the effects of poverty as there are deaths attributable to climate change. In terms of the years of life lost due to climate change (from the same WHO report), the effects of poverty claim 84 times as many.
So how can Save the Children make the claim that ‘Climate change is the biggest global health threat’?
More to the point, the WHO are entirely vague. It is not clear, for instance, if the table above includes deaths from diseases such as malaria. There are many more deaths from the effects of poverty not included in the WHO’s reports. Nor does it explain clearly how many of the figures were derived. All it says on the matter is this.
Climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, 6% of malaria in some middle income countries and 7% of dengue fever in some industrialized countries. In total, the attributable mortality was 154 000 (0.3%) deaths and the attributable burden was 5.5 million (0.4%) DALYs. About 46% this burden occurred in SEAR-D, 23% in AFR-E and a further 14% in EMR-D.
Estimated, how? Why isn’t there a more detailed explanation of how these statistics were estimated and distributed across the four factors, and presented in such a way that they could be compared to the total effect of each factor?
The basis for these claims doesn’t seem to appear from the WHO until its ‘Climate change and human health – risks and responses’ report published a few months later. These figures are attached to many caveats about the method, and there is good reason to doubt them. Yet it is worth taking them – for the moment – at face value, because, first, they are in contrast to other figures showing a much greater effect, and because it is after these figures were stripped of the caveats that they became currency in the political debate.
As discovered by Mark Bahner, and reported on Roger Pielke Jr’s blog, the GHF took these statistics and doubled them.
In order to produce their new statistic, Save the Children have simply multiplied the number of deaths attributed to climate change in the GHF report, by the ratio of child-to-adult deaths.Voilà… 250,000.
Never mind the implication that more than 16 million children die from non-climate related effects. Instead, by the moral authority vested in them by a quarter of a million dead infants and back-of-an-envelope statistics, Save the Children issue their instructions to the world:
1. Donors and national governments should strengthen and ‘climate proof’ health, water and sanitation systems in developing countries with high levels of child mortality.
2. Donors, national governments and multilateral institutions should increase investment for and support to social protection strategies that have proven effective in tackling malnutrition and poverty among the poorest families.
3. Adaptation to climate change should involve children and support interventions that have been proven to respond to their needs and priorities. Children have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives, and as such, adaptation planning, particularly National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), must involve children in identifying appropriate interventions.
4. Donors, national governments and the UN should ensure that the humanitarian system is fit for purpose and ready to cope with increased demand.
5. Donors and national governments should put multi-hazard early warning systems in place to alert officials to both slow- and rapid-onset disasters, as well as epidemics, before they reach full emergency levels.
6. Investments in disaster risk reduction by donors, national governments, the UN and multilateral institutions should be child-centred and ensure that children participate in identifying appropriate interventions.
7. National governments must sign a binding agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
Two things strike us about these commandments.
First, why is climate change a greater problem if it is children who experience it disproportionately? It is, of course, children who always experience poverty most deeply, by virtue of being less able to either fight for, or otherwise change their circumstances, and their general vulnerability. But why is it that the fact of children experiencing poverty seems to be a greater moral imperative than adults experiencing it? Are the plights of these children so different to their parents’?
Second, there is the assertion that ‘Children have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives’. But do they? Isn’t the whole point of not allowing a child to make decisions about their future owed to the fact they they don’t understand what it is they are deciding?
This second point is not something that we in the West would accept. Children do not have the right to vote. They do not have the right to chose what schools they go to, what subjects they study, what kind of house they live in… and so on, because we know that adults make better decisions for them. Yet Save the Children seem to want to extend some form of democratic rights to infants, only in those regions where even the choices available to adults seem desperately limited.
This is absurd, not least because it seems to assume that the adults concerned wouldn’t do everything they could to protect the interests of their children. A further implication is that the options available – generally, not just to children – are so totally and unchangeably limited such that it creates a difference between the interests of adults and children that demands intervention.
Is this the politically-correct manifestation of the principle of ‘divide and rule’?
Last year, we wrote about Oxfam’s report, ‘Survival of the fittest – Pastoralism and climate change in East Africa’. The report argued that:
Climate change is having a destructive impact on many groups around the world. Pastoralists in East Africa have been adapting to climate variability for millennia and their adaptability ought to enable them to cope with this growing challenge. This paper explains the policies required to enable sustainable and productive pastoralist communities to cope with the impact of climate change and generate sustainable livelihoods.
Oxfam’s legitimacy on the world stage, and its role is entirely founded on the idea of there being an excluded voiceless people and forces in society which exclude them. There is nothing wrong with campaigning for change. But Oxfam would be impotent without voiceless victims to speak for. It needs a constituency, or it is redundant. Were the lives of the poor to be transformed such that they became politically and economically powerful, under the logic of Oxfam’s climate campaign, it would need to regard them as the criminals in the picture of the world they have painted. Instead of arguing for factories, roads, infrastructure (all the things which made Western lives better) Oxfam uses climate change to create the idea of victims and culprits, in an argument for ’sustainablity’ over development. The tragedy is that the only thing it will sustain is poverty… And Oxfam. It claims that natural disasters are happening because of Western lifestyles, when in reality, natural disasters happen because of a lack of development.
The same seems true today of Save the Children.
By identifying a unique constituency, NGOs can position themselves as their de-facto representatives. Members of Oxfam’s pastoral communities stand in contrast to other people from those countries who have urban, or semi-rural lifestyles. The children that are the object of Save the Children stand in contrast to the seemingly feckless adults who cannot take responsibility for them. Pastoral society generally lacks the sophistication and resources to participate in world-wide negotiations, as do children, so global NGOs rush to speak on their behalf.
It would be much harder to make this criticism of NGOs were they not so preoccupied with the climate issue. What this obsession speaks to is the difficulty NGOs have in understanding the phenomenon they purport to address – the need for development. They are in a bind because development itself seemingly creates the conditions which both ameliorate and cause poverty.
The process by which these arguments are made is tortured. The WHO produced a statistic in 2002, which was amplified earlier in 2009 by the GHF, and again, now, by Save the Children. Yet these statistics themselves must surely be subject to change.
We decided to try to find out for ourselves just how many people die from the causes mentioned, in UN/WHO data. It is not a simple process. It turns out, for instance, that causes of death, such as malnutrition cannot be easily represented as a single statistic. the WHO also changed the way they report things in their World Health Report after 2004. There is also no central place for such figures, as we might expect. If any of our readers know of any useful database, we’d be very grateful if you could direct us to it. Here’s what we gathered from the available information.
Deaths (1000s) recorded in WHO’s annual World Health Report.
* WHO, World Malaria Report, 2008
What probably needs to be said first is that it is clear that recording the number of deaths is no easy task, so there is good reason to treat many of the WHO’s statistics with a good degree of caution. They say as much, in a round about way. Nonetheless, it would be hard to argue that these statistics represent a situation which is worsening.
To the claims made by the GHF and the WHO themselves that there are 300,000 deaths a year attributable to climate change, we ought to generate some new statistics.
If the WHO are right, and 2.4% of deaths from diarrhoea are caused by climate change (ie, ~54,000 deaths out of 2,213,000), then, in 2004, there were nearly 11,000 fewer deaths from climate change induced diarrhoea than in 2000. If the GHF are right, and 4% of deaths from diarrhoea are caused by climate change, then, in 2004, there were 16,000 fewer deaths from climate change induced diarrhoea than in 2000. Similarly, the GHF’s claim that climate change causes 4.5% of malaria cases reveals that nearly 10,000 fewer people from malaria caused by climate change in 2008 than in 2000. Yet the GHF maintain that 2010 is twice as bad a year for the world’s poor as 2000.
You may well be wondering why we have included measles. It was hard to find statistics representing the effect of malnutrition. Yet measles stuck out as a trend that was more than likely the product of a positive form of human intervention. This demonstrates to us most vividly that it is wrong to conceive of diseases as ‘natural’ effects. Within a generation, the number of deaths from measles has diminished by three times the number of children that Save the Children say die each year from climate change. Similarly, there are fewer cases of malaria, and diarrhoea. These positive trends are reflected in statistics for infant mortality.
According to UNICEF, the global figures for infant mortality are as follows:
|Rate (per 1000 births)||62||60||54||48||16||45|
As a UNICEF press release explains:
“Compared to 1990, 10,000 fewer children are dying every day,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. “While progress is being made, it is unacceptable that each year 8.8 million children die before their fifth birthday.”
10,000 fewer deaths per day is likely a consequence of two things – positive interventions, and the increasing effect development.
Put that figure into context of the claims made about the number of people dying each year from climate change.
The WHO report claimed that 150,000 people died a year, from climate change. Every 15 days, that number of children survive their fifth birthday more than would have survived in 1990.
The GHF claim that 300,000 people a year die from climate change. In 1990, 300,000 fewer children lived past 5 years old, each month, than in 2009.
Save the Children claim that 250,000 die each year as a result of climate change. But this figure just doesn’t stack up, no matter how you look at it. By 2030 – nearly the same time that has passed since 1990 – it is not inconceivable that at least the same reduction could be achieved again. We do not think that it is even a stretch of the imagination to propose that infant mortality, malaria, diarrhoea and measles could be virtually abolished.
Another curious thing about the WHO and NGOs’ embracing of environmentalism is that the positive statistics must be owed to some extent to their own efforts. This ought to demonstrate that it is possible to create changes to what appear to be ‘natural’ phenomena. There is no more a ‘natural’ rate of malaria or diarrhoea such that we can say ‘climate change will increase their incidence’, any more than there is a ‘natural rate’ of measles. We have the ability to prevent these conditions. Yet these organisations seem to have, in the 21st century, an environmentally deterministic mindset. By controlling CO2, the claim seems to be, we can control the weather, and accordingly control the number of babies who develop diseases.
But ‘development agencies’ cannot take responsibility for all development and its effects. Most development is spontaneous. It is the result of people organising themselves, or the result of conventional political processes organising projects that improve lives and opportunities. This form of development accounts for the vast proportion of the improvements in human conditions throughout the world.
There is a debate to be had about the extent to which international efforts can be effective. It is hard to argue against projects such as large scale vaccination efforts and the like. But many development and aid agencies, it seems, possibly with the best intentions, may have interfered with the process of development. This seems to be increasingly the case with the reorganisation of the development agenda around the climate issue. It also seems increasingly the case that NGOs efforts are predicated on the premise of there being feckless and unable communities whose very survival is dependent on intervention – to tell them how to live, what their priorities ought to be, and what the parameters of development are. This, we feel, is consistent with environmental politics. It seeks international efforts to address ‘the problem’ outside of, and above, the normal political process. Simultaneously, people are held to be incapable of responding to environmental imperatives, and democracy itself is conceived of as analogous to consumer choice. Just as you can’t behave, as a consumer, ‘responsibly’, you cannot vote ‘responsibly’ for parties that have sufficiently strong environmental policies. It is on this basis that international agreements and the development agenda is constructed.
In order to arm that agenda with legitimacy, it seems that organisations have taken grotesque liberties with statistics. What appears at first glance to be an overwhelmingly numerical argument for a certain course of action (i.e. 250,000 dead children), when seen in its proper context, turns out to be an outright lie. Worst still, carrying out the imperative that these statistics seemingly present risks actually undermining development. Especially autonomous development. This can only precipitate the disaster that organisations purport to be saving their beneficiaries from. As we say often, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Restricting development, both in the industrialised world and in the more developed world will make people more vulnerable to climate. It has to be asked, therefore, what the agenda of NGOs really is. Is it development, or is it anti-development? Is it for the benefit of the world’s poor, or is it self-serving? Is this about ‘saving the children’, or about charities merely saving themselves