Monthly Archives: February 2009
Goodbye Hockey Stick, hello Burning Embers? A paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences resurrects and updates a fancy graphic published in the IPCC’s TAR in 2001, but which was omitted from AR4 in 2007, and finds – guess what – that global warming is more serious than previously thought.
Gosh, yes, that does look much worse, doesn’t it? The dangers are much more red than they were eight years ago. As Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin puts it:
It vividly shows how, in many areas of concern, the transition to big problems is much closer than research implied eight years ago.
‘Vividly’ is the word. You certainly couldn’t describe it as scientifically informative. For all of the faults of the hockeystick graph, at least it doesn’t substitute numbers with colours of the rainbow.
The study re-assesses vulnerabilities to small rises in Global Mean Temperature (GMT). From the abstract:
Here, we describe revisions of the sensitivities of the RFCs to increases in GMT and a more thorough understanding of the concept of vulnerability that has evolved over the past 7 years. This is based on our expert judgment about new findings in the growing literature since the publication of the TAR in 2001, including literature that was assessed in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), as well as additional research published since AR4. Compared with results reported in the TAR, smaller increases in GMT are now estimated to lead to significant or substantial consequences in the framework of the 5 “reasons for concern.”
Expert judgement is a Good Thing, of course. (Although it’s interesting that in fobbing us off with a fancy colour chart, it asks that we suspend ours.) And here we have the judgement of fifteen experts, including some authors of AR4. But we would suggest that it is perhaps a tad early for co-author Hans-Martin Füssel to claim that it follows from this one study – or consensus within a consensus, if you prefer – that
Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago
Revkin provides some interesting background on why the Burning Embers diagram didn’t make it into AR4:
An updated version of the diagram was created for the panel’s momentous 2007 report on climate, but it met resistance from some scientists who thought the color bars were too vague or subjective and from some governments, which thought the artwork was too unnerving, according to interviews with the lead authors.
In a follow-up post yesterday, Revkin publishes an email from co-lead-author of the paper, Stanford University climatologist and activist Stephen Schneider, which sets out his take on why it was omitted:
We first presented the revised figure at the WG 2 Plenary and it attracted great interest and many calls to include it. Unfortunately governments of 5 fossil fuel dependent and producing nations opposed it. It was never debated in the Plenary since Chapter 19 materials didn’t get into Plenary debate until 9AM the last day after an all night session and a press conference due in one hour and still the Report hadn’t been finished — nothing controversial was possible as there was no time for a contact group. SO in essence it was a casualty of time.
At the Synthesis Plenary there was no time issue, as many countries in writing in advance asked to have it brought back since it was synthetic, and thus even if not appearing in the WG 2 Report, it was still appropriate for the Synthesis, and in addition it was the author’s judgments for graphing what was already approved text — the “reasons for concern” update in words. That did get a floor fight to my memory, and this time if my memory serves, 4 fossil fuel dependent countries accepted the text but refused the figure. Remember, at the UN, consensus means everybody, so a few countries constitute in effect a small successful filibuster. No matter how much New Zealand, small islands states, Canada, Germany, Belgium and the UK said this was an essential diagram, China, the U.S., Russia and the Saudis said it was too much of a “judgment”. But in the TAR it also was a judgment and this was just an update using some of the same authors and the same logic, so their logic was faulty–but their filibuster successful. Hope that helps.
It’s always funny to hear complaints from climate activists that IPCC documents are too conservative as a result of political influence. Because politics is precisely what they are very quick to say the IPCC is not influenced by should anyone suggest that it overstates evidence, or that ‘the consensus’ is rather less scientific than they would have us believe.
Revkin also quotes the IPCC chair:
In an email, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the intergovernmental panel, said he was glad the diagram has been resurrected. “Some of the scientists (including some senior functionaries) involved” in the report “were dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram, and I just could not push it through,” he said. “I am glad that there is a revival of this characterization, which I hope will lead to some discussion and debate.”
‘Push it through’? So that’s what the IPCC chair is there for.
It is entirely appropriate that it is Schneider who should be resurrecting a diagram that was considered by scientists as ‘too vague or subjective’ for AR4, but which nevertheless ‘vividly shows’ how close to disaster we are. After all, in a notorious unguarded moment, he did once make this telling comment to a reporter:
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both. [Quoted in: Schell, J., “Our fragile earth,” Discover, 10(10):44-50, October 1989.]
If Schneider was thinking that the burning embers diagram might achieve the sort of influence enjoyed by the hockeystick, he’ll be disappointed with its impact so far. Apart from Revkin’s coverage, the paper has received scant attention in the press. Even the BBC didn’t cover it! Which is doubly surprising given the press release:
Risks of global warming have been underestimated
“Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago,” says Hans-Martin Füssel from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK)
It’s just the sort of presser that can be pasted directly into a new document and called a news report. And since when has the BBC been able to resist that sort of thing?
So what’s going on when the media turn their noses up at good old-fashioned climate catastrophe when it’s handed to them on a plate? Perhaps journalists spotted the following line of small print under the authors’ names and affiliations on the paper:
Contributed by Stephen H. Schneider, December 9, 2008
This indicates that Schneider himself has administrated the peer review process including selection of reviewers. (A privilege that PNAS grants to members of the US National Academy of Sciences.) It’s probably fairly safe to assume that he didn’t pick any of those IPCC scientists who were ‘dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram’.
But we doubt that is the reason somehow. It might be explained in part by the fact that PNAS for some reason did not include the embers paper in its weekly publicity material. But there has to be more to it than that.
Could it be that, following a barage of criticism from the likes of the MET office about catastrophe-mongering by scientists and the media, and following a bout of outlandish claims of the worse-than-previously-thought variety from the likes of Chris Field, James Hansen and James Lovelock, journalists are counting to ten before regurgitating such empty rhetoric? Or is that just wishful thinking?
Then again, now that the UK has its Climate Change Act and the USA’s is well on its way, and with the climate Satan out of the Whitehouse, perhaps there is just less demand or need for salacious news items about our imminent doom.
According to an article at the Register by Andrew Orlowski:
Japanese scientists have made a dramatic break with the UN and Western-backed hypothesis of climate change in a new report from its Energy Commission.
Three of the five researchers disagree with the UN’s IPCC view that recent warming is primarily the consequence of man-made industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. Remarkably, the subtle and nuanced language typical in such reports has been set aside.
It would be unfair to extrapolate from this one report from a single institution to Japanese science in general. But something interesting happens if you look at the representation of experts from Japanese institutions in the IPCC process. Here’s a comparison of the number of Japanese contributors to the IPCC’s AR4 with those from the UK and USA (for which we happen to have the data to hand):
Japan, a country twice as populous (127m) as the UK (60m) and twice as rich (GDP $4.487 trillion vs $2.279 trillion for the UK), contributes less than half as many experts. The USA’s GDP ($14.58 trillion) is 3.2 times Japan’s and it is 2.4 times as populous, and yet it contributes 6.5 times as many experts over all than Japan, and 8.4 times as many in Working Group I, which reviews the physical science basis for climate change. Neither does Japan’s contribution to the IPCC process reflect its position in the scientific premier league.
The IPCC, we are told, represents ‘the consensus’. It seems it does not, however, include the judgement of many Japanese scientists. Perhaps it’s just that climate is not high on Japan’s research agenda. But then again, perhaps they have good reason for why it isn’t. Either way, the idea that just 55 of ‘the world’s top scientists’ hail from Japan stretches belief.
In November 2008, the UK’s Climate Change Act was passed, committing the country to an 80 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. Politicians, NGOs, journalists and activists welcomed the target, but to meet it many far-reaching changes in our working- and day-to-day lives will be necessary, the extent of which is rarely discussed.
To put it bluntly: is the carbon goal achievable? Earlier this month, the science policy researcher Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, gave a talk at Aston University in Birmingham, outlining his view that the goal is unreachable, and in fact has already failed.
In early 2007, the government’s Draft Climate Change Bill had proposed a 60 per cent emissions reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 (1), with ‘carbon budgets’ presented every five years by an independent panel. This proposal had its critics. The Conservative Party announced that, according to its research, the target ought to be an 80 per cent cut (2). Following on, the Liberal Democrats argued that by 2050 the UK should be zero-carbon and should have banned nuclear energy (3). The three main parties each claimed to have ‘the science’ on their side, yet produced substantially different targets.
In October 2007, the problem of this game of politics-by-numbers was resolved. An independent panel would decide what the UK’s commitment to emissions reduction should be (4). This panel – the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – was set up the following February. The CCC chair Lord Adair Turner was joined by two more economists, Professor Michael Grubb and Dr Samuel Fankhauser; the former president of the Royal Society, Lord Bob May; mathematical physicist, Professor Jim Skea; and the committee’s only climate scientist, Sir Brian Hoskins.
The CCC was asked to prepare advice for parliament by October 2008, ahead of the Climate Change Bill’s reading in the House of Commons. It took the unelected committee just seven months to decide the terms and targets of the next 42 years of UK energy policy. The committee’s report advising parliament to set targets of 80 per cent cuts by 2050, and between 34 per cent and 42 per cent by 2020, was published on 1 December, five days after the Climate Change Act was passed. MPs voting for the act could have had no idea what it was they were voting for.
The rate of decarbonisation required to meet these targets would, according to Roger Pielke, be ‘more aggressive than has ever been documented in any developed country at any time ever’. But isn’t this the ‘drastic action’ that environmentalists have been demanding, and politicians have been promising, for many years now? The problem is the difference between goals and action. ‘One of the implications is that the UK would have to be as carbon-efficient as France within the next decade’, Pielke tells me. France’s energy policy gives us a good benchmark for understanding the scale of the numerical goals in more practical terms. To become that efficient in that time frame is equivalent to building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015. ‘There’s a fine line between aspirational goals and fictional goals’, says Pielke, ‘but from a political and societal perspective, it’s just not going to happen. We should be rethinking the process that’s been put in place to achieve these goals.’
Pielke’s criticism is that the Climate Change Act has created targets without sufficient thought about how they will be realised. To demonstrate this, he returns to the numbers, and uses a mathematical formula known as the Kaya Identity to analyse the Climate Change Act’s targets. This model reveals the degrees of freedom at the government’s disposal with the expression:
CO2 Emissions = Population x Per Capita GDP x Energy Intensity x Carbon Intensity
Using this expression, we can examine each component to see what it tells us about possible policy options.
Population: Even among the greenest greens, there is recognition that the regulation of human fertility to control population growth is a non-starter. Members of the neo-Malthusian Optimum Population Trust, such as Crispin Tickell and Jonathon Porritt, stress instead the possibility of engineering social norms instead of laws. But that’s a difficult thing to incorporate into any emissions reduction strategy, and is unlikely to yield any result in terms of emissions over the next 100 years – it takes a while for the effect of people not having babies to get noticed.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): If population control is off the agenda, can emissions be controlled through economics? ‘I don’t see the restriction of economic activity as being on the cards’, says Pielke, ‘not in Britain. Not in the States. Not in China. Not anywhere.’
Is GDP the best way to measure economic progress? Greens have argued for some time that there are better ways to measure progress than GDP growth, for instance by redistributing wealth within an economy limited by environmental regulations and improving measures of ‘subjective wellbeing’, rather than expecting growth to deliver marginal material improvements at the bottom.
But while this kind of ‘happiness agenda’ advocated by Green MEP Caroline Lucas, and by the New Economics Foundation, achieves prominence within debates about climate change, such ideas have yet to have much of an impact in mainstream politics and the public’s imagination. Such radical proposals, in spite of the urgency of arguments in favour of action to prevent an ecological apocalypse, remain deeply unpopular. ‘There’s not going to be any success in long-term emissions reductions that have a basis in dramatically limiting economic growth’, says Pielke. ‘It doesn’t pass the reality test.’
Energy and carbon intensity: The two remaining factors – energy and carbon intensity – present similar obstacles to any emissions reduction goal. We could reduce energy intensity by limiting the opportunities available to people, equivalent to increasing dependence on manual labour. This has been proposed. Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Arts published details of its three-year feasibility study of ‘personal carbon budgets’ (5) – politically correct vernacular for ‘carbon rationing’.
But before the RSA’s study had concluded, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) headed off fears that the government was considering such a retrogressive and unpopular policy. Defra announced that because it was expensive, rather than because the policy was wrong, ‘we will not be pursuing this option further at this stage’ – even if the government reserves the right to revive the idea later on (6). ‘Policymakers recognise that technology alone isn’t going to do the job’, says Pielke. ‘They’re going to have to look at putting restrictions on economic activity.’
In setting targets, Pielke says, we have got things backwards, focusing on top-down policy, rather than bottom-up technology. There is no precedent for achieving the rate of decarbonisation to which the UK is now committed. And while the target of 80 per cent reduction on 1990 levels of emissions satisfies the need for a goal, questions about its legitimacy arise when we consider that population is variable. What’s right and proper for a population of 60million isn’t necessarily right or proper for a population of 70million. Like population, GDP is also variable. If emissions are related to GDP, then, necessarily, we might be forced to abandon potential growth for the sake of meeting targets if Britain, perhaps miraculously, were to experience a period of growing wealth. Conversely, why should policymakers take credit for reducing emissions during an economic recession?
Moreover, the Climate Change Act will, according to the CCC, ‘only’ cost between one per cent and two per cent of GDP. That is relatively unproblematic if the economy is growing at five or six per cent per year, but it could make the difference between growth and contraction, or between recession and full-blown depression.
Pielke says: ‘For us to best deal with challenges of policy, we’ve got to know what kind of problems we’re up against. We know how to start the process of decarbonising the economy. But we don’t know how fast we can go, and we don’t know what the end point is. The Climate Change Act is exactly the opposite way that we should think about decarbonisation. It starts with the targets and timetables, and then says “well, how do we do that?” Instead it should start with “what can we do and how fast can we go, and what does that imply for targets and timetables?”’
It is interesting to note that Pielke has already outlined a possibility for decarbonising the UK economy. We could, if the will existed, build the 30 nuclear power stations that he has pointed out would make us as carbon-efficient as France. But the will doesn’t exist, and neither does the political imagination. This throws into relief the disparity between the two approaches – bottom-up and top-down. A programme of building and extending the UK’s energy infrastructure doesn’t require a huge imaginative leap, whether it is argued for as a good thing in itself, or as a response to climate change. Instead, the climate change debate is dominated by negative slogans about needing to change our behaviour, and that we face a difficult, unpredictable and dangerous future.
Given this disparity, we might ask if the Climate Change Act speaks less about rising to the challenge of a changing climate, and more about the political establishment’s need to manage the public’s expectations in the face of its own lack of imagination. It is as if the only way a policy can be for something is if it is set against the backdrop of something more pressing and important than trivial matters of meeting human needs and ambitions. In this limited way of looking at things, these needs and ambitions become the problem that the political establishment is focused on addressing.
I ask Pielke if his analysis of the Climate Change Act might take for granted the imperatives that it is a response to, without considering these wider factors that might give rise to ill-considered policies: ‘My focus is to talk about [the Climate Change Act] from a fairly technical perspective; from a policy evaluation standpoint. Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects the goals, or the process which led to the generation of the goals, the question is “can the policy succeed as established in legislation?” That sets the basis for asking further order questions: Are they the right goals? Is the process that’s been used to set the goals or policy a legitimate process? But seeing that I find a first-order failure in the ability of the policy to succeed in legislation, it renders some of those questions fairly moot. If you accept the argument that it can’t succeed, then the question is “what happens next?”’
My concerns that Pielke’s analysis might miss the point are again raised after his talk at Aston University. Professor Julia King, who is both chancellor of the university and a member of the Climate Change Committee, raised an objection to Pielke’s analysis: ‘Before you make statements about timetables and targets which don’t ask “can this be done?”, I think you really do need to take due account of the fact that most people who are putting together targets and timetables are doing this on the basis of a lot of research into potential scenarios. It’s another issue turning that into policy, for governments, and it’s very easy for all of us who don’t have to be elected to say “this is how I would do it”, and I have a lot of sympathy for our politicians, because they are dealing with extremely selfish populations.’
King was further irked by Pielke’s answer that the target could be met by building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015, and that the CCC’s advice on how to realise the targets was no less aggressive in magnitude. The CCC’s ‘scenarios have been tested for do-ability’, she told Pielke, arguing that he simply doesn’t understand their advice. ‘The good news about the Climate Change Act’, replies Pielke, ‘is that we don’t have to wait very long for this debate to be resolved by events in the real world’.
‘I’m an engineer’, King tells me after the talk. ‘I’ve never seen an engineering or development programme work, unless you have timescales and targets.’ That may be so, but is the Climate Change Act really an engineering project? Where is the building, the development, the progress? ‘What gets measured gets done’, says King. ‘[Pielke’s] argument would suggest that we would engineer recession because it would give us the targets. But that assumes that it’s a pretty unintelligent group of people who are trying to develop the policy.’
So how does King, the not-unintelligent engineer and CCC member, imagine that the targets will get delivered? ‘The biggest challenge is actually behavioural change in my view. My particular area has been looking at how we can decarbonise road transport. It wouldn’t take much behaviour change to reduce by 30 or 40 per cent our CO2 emissions from cars.’
King appears to want to sustain her cake and eat it. On one hand, she argues that targets have been ‘tested for do-ability’, but on the other she emphasises that behaviour change is key to meeting them. These targets may well be ‘do-able’ in the sense that they are feasible – we could dispense with all electricity and transport problems simply by ‘changing behaviour’ such that nobody used transport or used electricity. But what kind of society would we have? ‘The social and political realities should be part of the “do-ability” test’, says Pielke. ‘Where is the test? No large economy has ever decarbonised at the rate that the UK is planning, so whether or not the targets are “doable” is simply a proposition at this point.’ Indeed, getting the ‘selfish population’ to change their behaviour is King’s and the government’s main problem.
Pielke’s analysis may not be able to explain what lies behind the political establishment’s desire to control behaviour, or the legitimacy of the process by which the Climate Change Bill became an Act. But his criticism stands out against the widespread failure of parliament, journalists and academics to subject this act to any scrutiny. Just six MPs voted against the Bill, and the few objections that were raised in parliament barely registered and were casually dismissed.
What Pielke’s approach ultimately reveals is not merely that targets – the preferred mode of the Major, Blair and Brown governments’ delivery and measure of progress – are fundamentally ill-conceived where there are no ideas about how to deliver them. It shows that the special politics demanded by environmental concerns are also unrealistic, because it fails to take into account the need for material progress. This need is waved away by the likes of King and environmentalists, as ‘selfishness’, but this assumes that we live in a country – never mind world – that doesn’t suffer from any kind of shortage.
‘There’s a good case to be made for a re-casting of the entire climate change problem in a way that leads to progress, not the impression of progress’, said Pielke, concluding his talk. He then displayed a slide showing satellite images of light emissions on the planet’s surface now, and what the same image would be, were everyone able to enjoy the same living standards as the USA.
‘Whether you think this is a nightmare scenario, or a dream scenario’, he said, ‘this is where the world is heading, and all efforts to develop, to bring electricity to people who don’t have electricity, to bring wealth to people who don’t have wealth, are going to lead to a world like this. The world is moving in the direction; let’s consciously plan for it in our climate policies.’
Governments that put environment before people and progress will worsen the already existing mutually cynical relationship between citizens and state. There is good evidence that the UK government’s ambition to be a world leader on climate change policy is concomitant with contempt for the public. But as Pielke’s arguments suggest, environmental problems do not demand special politics, or even special policies to control the desire for better and more. The main obstacles to meeting the challenge of a changing climate are the policymakers’ lack of imagination and commitment to the very idea of progress. The Climate Change Act says far more about the government than it says about the ‘selfish’ public.
(1) ‘Binding’ carbon targets proposed, BBC News, 13 March 2007
(2) Tories raise climate stakes, Observer, 8 April 2007
(3) Liberal Democrats reveal plans for zero carbon Britain, LIberal Democrats (retrieved from WebArchive.org)
(5) Carbon Limited, RSA, 31 December 2008
(6) Personal carbon trading, Defra
Ben has an article about Roger Pielke Jr’s criticism of the UK’s Climate Change Act on Spiked.
The rate of decarbonisation required to meet these targets would, according to Roger Pielke, be ‘more aggressive than has ever been documented in any developed country at any time ever’. But isn’t this the ‘drastic action’ that environmentalists have been demanding, and politicians have been promising, for many years now? The problem is the difference between goals and action. ‘One of the implications is that the UK would have to be as carbon-efficient as France within the next decade’, Pielke tells me. France’s energy policy gives us a good benchmark for understanding the scale of the numerical goals in more practical terms. To become that efficient in that time frame is equivalent to building 30 nuclear power stations by 2015. ‘There’s a fine line between aspirational goals, and fictional goals’, says Pielke, ‘but from a political and societal perspective, it’s just not going to happen. We should be rethinking the process that’s been put in place to achieve these goals.’
While you’re there, have a look at Frank Furedi’s piece on the Green rebranding of Lent.
The campaign for a carbon fast is a morally illiterate attempt to recycle the practice of fasting during Lent as a form of environmentally correct behaviour. The aim is to provide religious authority to the condemnation of everyday behaviour that green moralists find objectionable. So, the tips offered to those embarking on the carbon fast include: don’t drink water from a plastic bottle; forget about having your morning latte (it uses too much water apparently); turn down the lights; eat ‘slow food’ (fast food is too carbon-intensive); and give the dishwasher a break (1). Through rebranding these environmentalist rituals as moral obligations, campaigners hope to invest their cause with meaning.
Roger Pielke Jr reports that Al Gore is now presenting data from our favourite insurance company Munich Re to bolster his case that natural disasters are on the increase as a result of global warming.
Munich Re, if you remember, is a company that has rather a lot to gain from climate catastrophism, and that likes to interpret data rather more catastrophically when not constrained by the need for accuracy.
Compare, for example, Munich Re’s statements to the media…
“It is now very probable that the progressive warming of the atmosphere is due to the greenhouse gases emitted by human activity,” said Prof Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research.
“The logic is clear: when temperatures increase there is more evaporation and the atmosphere has a greater capacity to absorb water vapour, with the result that its energy content is higher.
“The weather machine runs into top gear, bringing more intense severe weather events with corresponding effects in terms of losses.”
with its statements in the scientific literature regarding the same data…
According to data collected by Munich Re, global weather-related economic losses (inflation adjusted, 2006 dollars) have increased from an annual average of U.S.$8.9 billion from 1977–1986 to U.S.$45.1 billion from 1997–2006. However, because of issues related to data quality, the low frequency of extreme event impacts, limited length of the time series, and various societal factors present in the disaster loss record, it is still not possible to determine the portion of the increase in damages that might be attributed to climate change brought about by greenhouse gas emissions (S1). This conclusion is likely to remain unchanged in the near future.
Gore switched to the Munich Re data in his lectures following criticism by Pielke and Andy Revkin that the data he had been using (from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Belgium) to make the same point about human-induced natural disasters, did not actually support his case – criticism supported by CRED itself:
justifying the upward trend in hydro-meteorological disaster occurrence and impacts essentially through climate change would be misleading. Climate change is probably an actor in this increase but not the major one — even if its impact on the figures will likely become more evident in the future.
The strangest part of the story is that even senior scientists seem to have been taken in by Gore’s disaster porn. Writes Pielke:
Now that Gore has admitted that including the slide based on CRED data was a mistake, it raises a more fundamental [question]: How could it be that Al Gore presented obviously misleading information before a large audience of the world’s best scientists, which was then amplified in a press release by AAAS, and none of these scientists spoke up?
As climate catastrophists have been fond of saying of late:
One of the oldest public relations trick in the book is called the “echo chamber” and it plays off the idea that if you repeat something often enough it becomes the truth
Our previous post, and one the week before looked at the arguments emerging from climate activists about what to make of the existence of an email news circular, operated by Marc Morano, the Communications Director at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, under Republican Senator James Inhofe. They say it’s evidence of a sinister network intent on distorting the climate debate for oil interests. We say it’s just politics, and that there are many email lists on both sides of the debate, distributing news and opinion to people – even if we happen to disagree with (probably a lot of) Sen. Inhofe’s politics.
One of our favourite readers has sent us a link to a similar conversation going on at ‘The Reality Based Community’ blog – a misnomer. Mark Kleiman has posted an article there called ‘Global-warming denialism as a conspiracy theory.’ Hmm.
One largely unremarked aspect of global-warming denialism […] is that it amounts to a conspiracy theory. All of the world’s actual climate scientists, and everyone in an a allied field capable of understanding their models, would have to be co-conspirators in the plot, with only a rag-tag group of economists, meteorologists, petroleum geologists, astrologers, and political pundits capable of seeing, and willing to say, that the emperor has no clothes.
All of the world’s actual climate scientists? Really? And everyone in an allied field capable of understanding the models? Really?
Of course, it’s nonsense. Kleiman doesn’t know how the scientific community divides on climate matters, because no decisive poll has ever been taken. Neither does he know how so-called deniers divide on matters of climate science. He takes one case of an (admittedly rather silly) opinion piece in a newspaper to identify a phenomenon of ‘denial’. The interesting part of his claim is that this phenomenon – a ‘movement – of ‘denial’ can be explained as a ‘conspiracy theory’.
Most of the glibertarians, cultural conservatives, and gadget-heads who constitute the useful idiots around the core oil-and-coal-company global-warming denialist constituency would be horrified to imagine themselves playing the role of 9/11 Truthers, or RFK Jr. pumping the thimerosal/autism link, or Thabo Mbeki claiming that AIDS isn’t caused by HIV. But all four “movements” are alike in depending on compete mistrust of actual scientific experts. (Holocaust denialism is similar in that respect, but different in being almost entirely insincere: the Holocaust deniers seem to be saying, “Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, and I’m glad he did.”)
We pointed out previously that there is an irony about David Roberts and a network of activists complaining about misinformation and distortion spread through a network of activists operating on the blogosphere on the … erm… blogosphere. (If you still don’t get it, imagine if the Governor of California were to start complaining about vapid Hollywood actors using their celebrity to achieve political influence – it’s a bit like that).
And with the words ‘the useful idiots around the core oil-and-coal-company global-warming denialist constituency’ Kleiman demonstrates exactly the same failure of logic. His conspiracy-theory-theory is just a conspiracy theory. He continues:
Global-warming denialism is a special case, of course: the policy implications of the facts about climate change threaten some very large economic interests and some dearly-held political beliefs. So global-warming-denialist brochures are printed on glossy paper. Other than that, though, it’s fairly standard-grade fringe pseudoscience, not much different from the folks who write endless papers full of gibberish proving that Einstein was wrong.
There is a palpable failure on Kleiman’s behalf to test his own argument by the logic he’s applied to others’. Pots calling kettles black, and all that. Such unreflectively is par for the course in normal discussions. We kind of expect comments on our posts linked to from activist sites (such as this one) to vary in their sophistication. Some of our critics have been barely worth responding to. Others have made us think hard, at least about how we’ve presented our argument. Some even cause disagreements here at Climate Resistance HQ.
But Kleiman’s words aren’t the frothing of any old internet troll. According to the site’s About page…
Professor of Policy Studies at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, Kleiman teaches methods of policy analysis, political philosophy, and drug abuse and crime control policy. He is also the Chairman of BOTEC Analysis Corporation, a Cambridge, Massachusetts firm that conducts policy analysis and contract research on illicit drugs, crime, and health care. Previously, he held teaching positions at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the University of Rochester.
Maybe Kleiman has been taking his drug abuse research a little too far into the field, and it has adversely affected his judgement. Shouldn’t we expect a Professor of policy analysis and political philosophy to make just slightly more robust and sophisticated criticisms of the players and sides in the climate debate, rather than reduce these putative camps to cartoonish heroes on the one hand, and evil villains on the other?
His blog’s slogan states that ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts’. But Kleiman just makes his own ‘facts’ up while accusing others of ‘denial’. We’ve pointed this sort of thing out often enough that we no longer believe this is just a mistake, or mere hyperbole. This is a phenomenon far more widespread that ‘denial’. This kind of argument is rife amongst people who seem to feel the need to explain their lack of success in convincing the world of their politics. Blame the conspiracy.
But what kind of phenomenon is it? If we were only able to think about it only as deeply as Kleiman has, we might say that there is a deliberate attempt to distort the public’s perception of the debate. In other words, we would be inventing a conspiracy theory. So we’re not saying that, because we have no reason to doubt that Kleiman doesn’t believe his own words. he just hasn’t thought very hard about what they are supposed to mean.
What we think is going on is that the reality that the likes of Kleiman think they are in touch with isn’t as real as he imagines it to be. His slogan protests too much about being ‘reality-based’, which only serves to demonstrate that he lacks confidence in subjectivity. ‘The science’ plays a similar role in the arguments that emerge from environmental activists. The ‘science says’… The ‘science is in’… ‘According to the majority of the world’s top scientists’… We know the script. We’re asked to engage with moral and political arguments not on the basis of human values, but by appeals to climate science. Necessarily then, environmentalism rests on the authority of climate science. Demands for political action on climate change sit behind claims about climate science, and are assumed to flow from it, a priori.
Climate science seems to act as a kind of metaphysics in today’s political arguments. It serves to orientate the frameworks through which the world is seen and gives structure to the arguments about what is good/bad, right/wrong, forward/backward, and in the case where climate scepticism and denial is judged to be equivalent to Conservatism, Left/Right. To deprive environmentalists of this framework would leave them disoriented, a bit like if one were to rob Catholics of the Holy Trinity. Kleiman is just as vulnerable without climate science. How would he be able to criticise his opponents without it?
Kleiman might well respond by claiming that he is applying the label of denialism to those who, by definition, reject the science outright. Indeed, he compares his climate deniers to those ‘pumping the thimerosal/autism link, or Thabo Mbeki claiming that AIDS isn’t caused by HIV’. But for every such ‘nutjob’ in total denial of ‘the science’, there is at least one environmental campaigner/politician, exaggerating ‘the science’ beyond recognition. The problem is the centrality of the ‘scientific’ claims to the debate – and it’s not the deniers who are putting it there.
For instance, if we accept that there is a phenomenon of ‘denial’ in the climate debate that is a factor in the outcome of the debate, then we can agree that this is a problem. But it is a problem because it states that the science – real or not – is decisive in the question about ‘what to do about climate change’ in exactly the same way environmentalism does – it expects science to be instructive. We can agree, furthermore, that even if we accept that (i) the climate is changing, and that (ii) we have caused some of this change, and that (iii) this will cause a problem of some degree, we don’t necessarily have to agree that these three premises safely take us to a conclusion that demands special politics and ethics, moreover, that it creates any unassailable moral imperatives. We might argue, for instance, that the plight of the poor doesn’t need climate change to be recognised. Yet nearly all the major UK poverty and development NGOs, for example, have absorbed the language of climate change ethics into their discussions – at the expense of ambitious large-scale development projects, in favour of ‘sustainability’. As we have argued previously, this represents a failure to develop a substantive understanding of poverty and development and a criticism of what causes them to happen. Environmental metaphysics fills the void. It is used to explain that moral actions are transmitted through the biosphere. This phenomenon is a much wider, much deeper, and much bigger problem than ‘denial’.
Last week, we posted about David Roberts’ conspiracy mongering about the email list operated by Marc Morano, which like its many green counterparts, serves to keep people in touch. Roberts said:
Morano’s entire job is to aggregate every misleading factoid, every attack on climate science or scientists, every crank skeptical statement from anyone in the world and send it all out periodically in email blasts that get echoed throughout the right-wing blog world and eventually find their way into places like Fox News and the Weekly Standard. From there they go, via columnists like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, into mainstream outlets like Newsweek and the Washington Post. [Our emphasis]
In our view, there’s nothing spooky, or illegitimate about people – even people you have political differences with – talking to each other.
Unless you’re paranoid.
That’s politics. In fact, it’s democracy, and as we pointed out, Roberts’ objection seemed to be that people were actually allowed to talk to each other. There’s clearly something up with Roberts, who seems to believe that, without Morano’s list, the climate-sceptic argument in the news, and on the blogosophere, would disintegrate.
Roberts’ story made its way today to the Wonk Room blog, where Brad Johnson wrote…
Morano’s “entire job,” Gristmill’s David Roberts explains, “is to aggregate every misleading factoid, every attack on climate science or scientists, every crank skeptical statement from anyone in the world and send it all out periodically in email blasts” to the right-wing echo chamber. The Wonk Room has acquired Morano’s email list, and we can now reveal the pack of climate skeptics, conservative bloggers, and corporate hacks who feed the misinformation machine. [Our emphasis]
Echo chambers, eh?
Over at Desmogblog Kevin Grandia had this to say in reply to Brad Johnson:
One of the oldest public relations trick in the book is called the “echo chamber” and it plays off the idea that if you repeat something often enough it becomes the truth
Senator James Inhofe’s political spindoctor Marc Morano knows this technique well and he has been using for years to shotgun blast out misinformation on global warming to right-wing media and bloggers for years.
In turn, these bloggers and media outlets blast out their own rendition and before you know it the misinformation is bouncing around the internet and inboxes all over the world. [Our emphasis]
What these complaints seem to relate to is the existence of a mode of communication between climate sceptics, through which pointless and made up stories are passed, published, and, by repetition, the profile of these stories is raised in the public mind.
Without an echo-chamber network to propagate silly stories, Roberts, Grandia, and Johnson wouldn’t have much to talk about. But the irony of the nonsense they propogate is beyond their understanding.
Two Popes, two statements, two apparent U-turns:
1. The Vatican declares that evolution by natural selection is not incompatible with its teachings and that Intelligent Design is a ‘cultural phenomenon’ rather than a scientific or theological one.
2. Dr Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre warns against climate catastrophism and appeals to scientists to rein in misleading climate change claims:
News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted.
One, however, is more of a U-turn than the other. The Vatican’s statement is not news. It has been making similar statements for the past decade or more. Likewise, Dr Pope is not the first influential climate scientist to criticise climate porn. For example, Professor Mike Hulme has been saying similar things for a couple of years now. What makes Dr Pope’s statement newsworthy, however, is that it represents a U-turn not only for Dr Pope, but for the MET office itself.
Much of Pope’s article is rather sensible. For example:
Recent headlines have proclaimed that Arctic summer sea ice has decreased so much in the past few years that it has reached a tipping point and will disappear very quickly. The truth is that there is little evidence to support this. Indeed, the record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer sea ice increasing again over the next few years.
It’s certainly encouraging to see a MET office spokesperson debunking talk of tipping points regarding summer Arctic ice melt. She’s talking about James Hansen, but we highlighted that same problem back in September, in response to comments from NSIDC senior scientist Mark Serreze.
We could very well be in that quick slide downwards in terms of passing a tipping point
Serreze neither explains what this tipping point might be, nor why his NSIDC data suggests we might be passing it. In this sense, ‘tipping point’ is used simply as a sciencey-sounding synonym for ’something terrible might happen’. And reporters don’t even think to ask him what on Earth he is talking about.
More sense from Pope:
Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of the science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.
Although she spoils it rather with her next sentence:
Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades.
No. She would be equally (un)justified if she said that both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are up for debate. Of course, it is true that climate change poses problems that must be confronted. Just as it is true that our understanding of the effects of climate change is rudimentary. It is not the case that overplaying and underplaying natural variations in weather both undermine one of those more than the other. Both do, however, undermine the ability of society to make plans informed by the best available evidence.
Anyway, others have noted how Pope’s comments sit uncomfortably with her own statements in the recent past about the effects of climate change, and we have ourselves flagged up the MET’s over-interpretation of data for dramatic effect.
Pope herself is the principal source of the major recent apocalyptic prediction made by climate scientists — ironically in a December article in the Guardian [sic], “Met Office warn of ‘catastrophic’ rise in temperature”
Well, quite. Romm falls out with Pope because, in his world, the apocalyptic claims she refers to are not actually apocalyptic, but statements of fact.
If Pope wants to criticise climate catastrophism, that’s just fine with us. We hope, however, that she appreciates the enormity of the job she has taken on. It’s all too easy to cherry pick a handful of silly statements made by a few over-enthusiastic scientists and desperate reporters. But the fact is that such language is at the very core of environmental politics. So, by way of assisting her in her project, here’s a few bigger fish for Pope to get her teeth into…
Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister:
Mr Blair said the consequences for the planet of inaction were “literally disastrous”. “This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime,” he said. Investment now will pay us back many times in the future, not just environmentally but economically as well.”
Gordon Brown, UK Prime Minister:
David Cameron – Leader of the Conservative Opposition:
Lord Professor Sir Nicholas Stern:
President Barack Obama:
Today we’re seeing that climate change is about more than a few unseasonably mild winters or hot summers. It’s about the chain of natural catastrophes and devastating weather patterns that global warming is beginning to set off around the world.. the frequency and intensity of which are breaking records thousands of years old.
John Gloster, Met Office Research Scientist:
The arrival of Bluetongue disease in the UK in recent years is evidence that changing climate is already impacting animal health. The Met Office, working with other interested parties, is taking the lead in providing the advice and solutions government, veterinary experts and farmers will need to mitigate against the effects of climate change on animal and plant health in the future.
ATTENTION – VISITORS FROM CACC CAMPAIGN WEBSITES AND EMAILS. ALTHOUGH IT IS SPELLED OUT IN WHITE AND BLACK, MANY OF YOU HAVE FAILED TO REALISE THAT WE ARE NOT THE ORGANISERS OF THE EVENT. THE DEMONSTRATION IS ORGANISED BY MODERN MOVEMENT. Thanks, the Editors.
Modern Movement, who are mounting a stand to the bleak language of the environmentalists, are planning a demonstration in favour of the Heathrow Airport expansion, to counter a demo planned by opponents of the scheme.
Support Airport Expansion: Thursday 19 February, 17.30 -19.30 on Parliament Square, East Footway
The extension of flying to millions of people has been a liberation. Most of us can now afford to go on holiday and welcome the cheapening of air travel allowing us to fly abroad. The development of aviation infrastructure is crucial to allow ever more people to fly.
This is why Modern Movement will be holding a counter-demonstration at the same time as the anti-aviation groups to show our support for airport expansion and urge on the building of the third runway at Heathrow.
Join us in front of Parliament to argue for guilt-free travel, for ever-cheaper flights and for freedom of movement.
Modern Movement – Faster, Cheaper, Better Transport for All!
Banners, flags and posters welcome but not essential. Look out for the large Modern Movement banner. This demonstration has been authorised by the Metropolitan Police.
This comes in the wake of what seemed to be a call for movement to be rationed from the Climate Change Committee chair, Lord Adair Turner, who gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee last week,
If there has to be demand constraint, we will then bring in the analysis I mentioned earlier of where are these flights, and one of the questions we will ask is, “How many of the flights which occur are of sufficiently short distances either because they are domestic or they are London to the south of France, London to the skiing resorts, et cetera”, that there is a believable story that they do not have to be flights, they can be high-speed rail, or are quite a lot of them things where, realistically, it is never going to be competed by high-speed rail and, therefore, you actually have to say that we have got to constrain demand in an absolute sense and people just will not be able to make as many journeys as they would want to in an unconstrained fashion. That is the analysis that we are going to do.
If you’re near enough to London to be able to make it to the demo on the 19th Feb, please do.
Over at Gristmill, the angry David Roberts gets his knickers in a twist about an email list:
Barnes gets his information on climate change the same place everyone in the right-wing media world gets it: from Marc Morano, the in-house blogger/agitator for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
Morano’s entire job is to aggregate every misleading factoid, every attack on climate science or scientists, every crank skeptical statement from anyone in the world and send it all out periodically in email blasts that get echoed throughout the right-wing blog world and eventually find their way into places like Fox News and the Weekly Standard. From there they go, via columnists like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, into mainstream outlets like Newsweek and the Washington Post.
How did we know about Roberts’s latest blog post? Well, we got an email from Marc Morano about it.
Roberts finishes his otherwise pointless post with the very revealing words,
The conservative movement gets its information about climate science from the office of James Inhofe.
What more really needs to be said?
Well, quite a bit more really needs to be said. Such as what is supposed to be wrong with that, even if it were true? Which it isn’t, as there are a number of email list servers of interest to sceptics. And it’s not as if there are no green newswires spewing less than perfect information. And it’s not as if that transparently false information never comes from Grist.
As we discovered a year ago, for example, when Professor Andrew Dessler wrote on Grist that the IPCC consisted of thousands of climate scientists, all uniquely qualified to look after the sick planet, and that we ought to ignore social scientists and computer programmers. Unfortunately for him, we pointed out that the IPCC in fact consisted of a great number of social scientists and computer programmers – we counted them. Dessler was hoisted by his own petard. But he continued his tired analogy, just as Roberts and his ilk trot out the same old lines about oil-industry-funded-corporate-shills, the scale and the substance of the ‘scientific consensus’, and of course, the equivalence of climate scepticism and conservatism, all of which, many times, have been shown to lack foundation. They are myths. This makes it all the more a surprise that Roberts once uttered these words:
Long-time greens are painfully aware that the arguments of global warming skeptics are like zombies in a ’70s B movie. They get shot, stabbed, and crushed, over and over again, but they just keep lurching to their feet and staggering forward. That’s because — news flash! — climate skepticism is an ideological, not a scientific, position, and as such it bears only a tenuous relationship to scientific rules of evidence and inference.
Roberts’ inability to self-reflect is painfully obvious to anybody who is not him. As we pointed out, scepticism cannot be in itself ideological. On the other hand, Environmentalism – which, after all, demands that we reorganise the global economy, monitor every productive endeavour, and regulate lifestyle – is an ideology. But it hides its politics behind science. ‘Science’ is environmentalism’s fig leaf. Behind the green veneer is its shame.
What a cautious lifting of the fig leaf reveals is that the object of Roberts’ anger is democracy itself. He doesn’t seem to like people having email lists with which to communicate ideas. Just as he doesn’t like people being able to travel, or to consume according to their own needs and desires.
Accordingly, Roberts needs to turn democratic expression into a subversive, nefarious activity. In this fantasy, what are in fact normal forms of communication appear as sinister conspiracies. Two people knowing each other is an element… a cell… of a dark network standing against science…. truth itself.
But the reality is that the recipients of Morano’s emails are people who can see for themselves what an email from a – shock horror – Conservative actually consists of. We’re not conservatives, and you don’t have to be a conservative, for example, to know that when James Hansen says that there are just four years left to save the planet, he’s talking unmitigated BS. And yet it was an email from Marc Morano which first drew our attention to the story. It’s just a way of distributing news. Everybody who comments on the news is connected to many similar services. We get daily digests on topics from the newspapers themselves, from Government departments, NGOs, Quangos, political parties, charities, and from Google news alerts. Some of these sources are neutral. Some have a clearer agenda.
Of course, Sen. Inhofe is a Conservative. But his take on the climate issue is a little deeper than Roberts gives him credit for.
It is becoming increasingly clear that man-made global warming is not a partisan left vs. right issue. It is a scientific question and the promoters of global warming fears now realize they have significantly overreached.
Roberts frames the debate as ‘Science versus Conservatives’. But it doesn’t stand. Roberts can’t tell left from right, forward from backward, progressive from retrogressive, sceptic from conservative, liberal from deeply illiberal. As we recently said of George Monbiot, he
… emerges dizzy from his own spinning and thinks it is the world that’s confused about what direction it is moving in. And this is his fundamental problem. Everything he writes is a projection of his own inability to understand a world that fails to conform to his expectations. The ideas he uses to orientate himself fail to give him purchase on his own existential crisis; they crumble underfoot.
Like Monbiot, Roberts see a challenge to his perspective as a catastrophe. He cannot countenance dissent. It would be the end of the world. Roberts’ can only explain his objection to conservatism in terms of environmental catastrophe, because he doesn’t possess a principled, coherent objection. Fantasy takes the place of insight and shrill posturing the place of careful argument.