Another sure sign that environmentalists are struggling to sustain a rational basis for their influence emerged last week. The pages of the Observer featured the opinion of NASA activist/scientist James Hansen in two articles [1 , 2] and an editorial.
Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen who last week warned only urgent action by the new president could halt the devastating climate change that now threatens Earth. Crucially, that action will have to be taken within Obama’s first administration, he added.
Of all the hopes pinned on Obama, ‘saving the world’ has to be the most revealing of the hoper, be it the Observer Journalist, the Observer, or Hansen.
As we pointed out last Thursday, the environmental movement’s only leverage is the prospect of catastrophe. It has no popular appeal in any real sense. So when it appears that governments are ‘on-message’, or in any way sympathetic to its concerns, the only way to sustain its undemocratic and unaccountable influence is to escalate the sense of urgency, or their function will become redundant.
This suggests that the hoper’s nervousness is owed, not to material facts about the state of the world – obviously – but their inability to explain the world, and their tenuous grip on the public agenda.
As an apparently sympathetic Obama steps to the fold, so we see the environmental protagonists escalating the sense of crisis.
“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead.”
After eight years of opposing moves to combat climate change, thanks to the policies of President George Bush, the US had given itself no time for manoeuvre, he said. Only drastic, immediate change can save the day and those changes proposed by Hansen – who appeared in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and is a winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s top conservation award – are certainly far-reaching.
So where did this ‘four years’ figure come from?
In 2006, the same Hansen had argued that
“I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most,” Hansen said Wednesday at the Climate Change Research Conference in California’s state capital.
Less than two and a half years later, the ten years is reduced to four years.
Shortly after Hansen made his ten year claim, UK and Dutch premiers Tony Blair and Jan Peter Balkenende wrote in a letter to the EU that
The science of climate change has never been clearer. Without further action, scientists now estimate we may be heading for temperature rises of at least 3-4C above pre-industrial levels. We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points. These would have serious consequences for our economic growth prospects, the safety of our people and the supply of resources, most notably energy. So we must act quickly.
The fact that science hasn’t – indeed, cannot – identify ‘catastrophic tipping points’ doesn’t bother politicians who use science in this way. The concept of a tipping point is only useful to politicians – it has little scientific meaning. It is a gun to your head. Do you trust the authority of the man holding it, or do you challenge it? If you don’t do as he says and you’re wrong, you might trigger the tipping point. You lose. But if you’re right to challenge it, the trust we have in politicians, and politics built around the myth of catastrophe itself disintegrates. You lose. Either way, the threat is that society breaks down, because either the climate will change, destroying our ‘fragile relationship’ with nature, or the myths on which authority is established are ripped from beneath it. This is the politics of fear.
Greens have presented themselves as radical alternatives to mainstream politics. But they use exactly the same language. In November 2007, we reported Caroline Lucas’s attempts to use ‘catastrophic tipping points’ to elevate herself.
Well, when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.
This was the second time we had picked up on Lucas’s claim that the planet had a deadline. Justifying her claim that climate change denial was equivalent to holocaust denial, she had said previously that
What’s prompted me is real concern that a recent opinion poll showed that half the population still don’t think that there’s scientific certainty about climate change; they still think there’s a real debate to be had there. And it worries me enormously because if we don’t have a population that really understands that 99.999% of international scientists do believe that climate change is happening and do believe that it’s human caused, if people don’t understand that then they’re not going to put the pressure on the politicians that is so desperately needed and so urgently needed because we’re being told we’ve literally got between five and ten years in which to put in place a proper policy framework to address climate change. And unless people are really convinced that it’s a problem they’re not going to act to change it.
Last year, vulcanologist Bill McQuire announced that we had just ‘seven years to save the planet‘ in a book of the same name. Amazon describe it thus,
‘Bill McGuire succinctly tackles a series of green queries… the book is an excellent first stop for getting clued up about climate change. ‘ METRO ‘..author Bill McGuire points out that to salvage a civilisation capable of maintaining a semblance of organisation approximate to what we have now, we must achieve a near-zero carbon economy by 2050’. GREENEVENTS ‘McGuire makes telling points about the size of the challenge we face if we are to escape some of the nastier effects of climate change. And his sense of urgency is well-placed.’ FOCUS
(Where would McGuire be, if it weren’t for the end of the world? Certainly not making numerous appearances on TV shows, or selling books. Doom is big business.)
In August last year, policy director and head of the climate change programme at the New Economics Foundation, Andrew Simms announced that we had just ‘100 months to save the world‘.
So, how exactly do we arrive at the ticking clock of 100 months? It’s possible to estimate the length of time it will take to reach a tipping point. To do so you combine current greenhouse gas concentrations with the best estimates for the rates at which emissions are growing, the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases allowable to forestall potentially irreversible changes to the climate system, and the effect of those environmental feedbacks. We followed the latest data and trends for carbon dioxide, then made allowances for all human interferences that influence temperatures, both those with warming and cooling effects. We followed the judgments of the mainstream climate science community, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on what it will take to retain a good chance of not crossing the critical threshold of the Earth’s average surface temperature rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels. We were cautious in several ways, optimistic even, and perhaps too much so. A rise of 2C may mask big problems that begin at a lower level of warming. For example, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is more than likely to be triggered by a local warming of 2.7C, which could correspond to a global mean temperature increase of 2C or less. The disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could correspond to a sea-level rise of up to 7 metres.
Is it four years or is it six? Or is it ten or fifteen? The tipping point is being used by everyone. The only thing that differs is when this tipping point is supposed to occur.
The idea of a ‘tipping point’ began as scientific speculation that climate systems ‘flip’ from one ‘state’ to another, rather than change as one variable – the concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere – changes. This idea armed environmentalists with the threat that a changing climate would suddenly – rather than over the course of millenia – reach a point where climate change was so rapid that natural processes on which human society depends would in turn collapse, leaving us starved of resources, and unable to cope with the new conditions.
The problem for environmentalists is that no such ‘tipping point’ has been identitifed by climate science, and the social consequences of moving past tipping points remain poorly defined. The NEF, for example, cannot point to any scientific literature which identifies tipping points. Instead, their 100 month calculation is formed from a variety of headline statements and studies taken from here, there, and everywhere. (They invent a tipping point).
Take for example, the figure of 2 degrees which Simms says is the point which must not be exceeded. The more technical document accompanying his article and campaign website says that this figure,
… is the maximum acceptable level of temperature rise agreed by the European Union and others as necessary to retain reasonable confidence of preventing uncontrollable and ultimately catastrophic warming.
The report doesn’t say where the rationale behind the figure of 2 degrees can be located, nor why we should take the EU’s word for it. Moreover, what is the ‘reasonable confidence’ that the NEF want to ‘retain’ about the future? It implies that what lies beyond 2 degrees is not ‘reasonable confidence’ of there being a catastrophe, but less certainty about there not being one. In other words, it says nothing about climate – 2 degrees is not a tipping point, but an arbitrary point, beyond which we can be less certain about the end of the world than before it. We might just as well observe that ‘catastrophe’ is less likely before a 1000 degree rise in global temperature than after it.
We’ve pointed out before that this is ‘politics by numbers’. In this game, all you need to do to elevate yourself over your opponents is add one to their offer. This done by commissioning someone with the appropriate letters after their name to do back-of-an-envelope calculations using the figures which have already been ‘established’ by other players in the game. It is voodoo science, and it only means anything if you already actually believe it.
Once you have performed the ritual which establishes the new magic numbers, you can present your manifesto. And so it is with the NEF. Their ‘Green New Deal‘ document is
Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programme launched in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, this modernised version is designed to tackle our current crash: the interlinked crises of climate change, recession and energy depletion.
It goes on…
The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’: a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil. It is increasingly clear that these three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, with potentially devastating consequences.
As we pointed out recently, one of those three crunch factors – high oil prices – is already a non fact. Like Hansen, the NEF and the Green New Deal Group elevate themselves with these kind of statements. But soon their forecasts will catch up with them.
Following Obama’s inauguration, and the NEF’s attempts to cast their ideas as the contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal it seems appropriate to answer Hansen’s demands to the new president with words from Roosevelt’s inuagural address.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Obama himself mentions fear:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
If Obama is really to choose ‘hope over fear’, he will have to challenge the influence of the likes of Hansen. Can he do it? Well, we hope so.