Monthly Archives: March 2009
It’s always fun to trace the chain of Chinese whispers between primary research and scary news stories about the ravages of climate change. Many BBC science stories are particularly easy to trace back to source, based as they are on a single scientific paper, from which they are separated by only a single press release. But even when the whisper chain is a short one, there is plenty of room for the distortion of sobre science to alarmist headline, especially when the press release contains everything you need for the job. So it was with the BBC’s ‘Bid to aid daddy longlegs numbers’ published on Thursday:
Climate change is killing off cranefly and in turn threatening the survival of upland wild bird species that feed on them, RSPB Scotland has warned.
The Telegraph also reported the story:
Daddy longlegs decline could spell extinction for golden plover
So did the Daily Mail, which isn’t even supposed to believe in this new-fangled climate change business:
Warmer summers ‘killing off daddy long legs and beloved British birds’
And Science Daily:
Drop In Daddy Long Legs Is Devastating Bird Populations
All the stories drew entirely from a press release issued by RSPB Scotland, which they have simply condensed and bolted on their own introduction and headline. (Science Daily also spliced in an extra quote from a co-author of the research paper). Here’s the headline of the presser:
Warmer weather pummels plovers
Craneflies – better known in the UK, at least, as daddy longlegs – are gangly insects that appear en masse in temperate regions for a few weeks in spring, providing a bonanza food source for breeding birds and other predators. Judging by the news stories, climate change is killing them off by drying out the soil in which their larvae live, which is in turn killing off the birds that rely on them.
But according to the research paper, published in the journal Global Change Biology, it is far from clear that golden plovers are even declining, let alone being ‘killed off’, ‘pummeled’ or ‘devastated’, as shown in the paper’s Figure 5:
The data represent just a single, small population. But neither is there much evidence that golden plovers are undergoing a national, European or global decline. Lead author of the paper, Dr James Pearce-Higgins of RSPB Scotland, confirmed this when we spoke to him on the phone.
The population studied by Pearce-Higgins and his colleagues sits on the southern edge of the species’ range in the English Peak District. This was by design, in that the intention was to examine how global temperature rises might affect species distributions. While evidence is accumulating that many species expand their ranges northwards in response to a warming trend (in the Northern Hemisphere), evidence for predicted contractions at the southern limit of species’ ranges is sparse. But even in what might be expected to be a particularly sensitive population, there is no downward trend in plover numbers over the last 35 years, despite a local rise in mean August temperatures of 1.9C over that period.
That is not to say, however, that temperature rises are not having an effect on the population. Pearce-Higgins et al have developed a model that does seem to explain much of the variation in plover numbers over the 35-year period. The model integrates previous work by the group, which found that plover mortality rises in cold winters, with new data showing that high August temperatures kill off cranefly larvae leading to fewer adults emerging the following spring when the birds are feeding their chicks. So, rising temperatures are a double-edged sword for plovers. Mild winters increase survival, but hot summers reduce breeding success. The model suggests that there might have been a switch in the relative importance of these two effects in recent years, with spring food availability becoming a more important determinant than winter temperature of population size.
There remains, of course, a lot of unexplained variability in the system, and Pearce-Higgins is reticent to attribute any short-term population fluctuations to specific effects:
From about the mid-’90s to mid-2000s, when the time series stops, there’s actually – although we don’t put this in the paper – there’s actually a significant decline in golden plover numbers […] I guess I was being cautious really, in terms of attributing the decline to what’s going on, particularly as, if you look across the whole of the UK, there isn’t much evidence of a golden plover population decline, and I’m very well aware that lots of other factors are affecting their population […] If you take the trend from the mid-90s through to when we finish about 2005, there is a decline there, but obviously that’s an arbitrary cut-off.
So, all the news stories – and, indeed, the RSPB’s own press release – are wrong to suggest that climate change is reducing plover populations. While they all treat the issue in the present tense, as if golden plovers are being devastated by climate change in the here and now, the only evidence of population decline presented by paper comes from the application of the model to future population trends.
The researchers take the 1.9C local temperature rise over the past 35 years and extrapolate it over the next 100 years. The resulting rise of 5.2C above the 1971-2005 mean would, according to their model, result in a 96% chance of extinction of the population. A 1.9C local rise in August mean temperatures would seem very large, however, when global temperatures have increased by 1C over the past century, and it’s certainly much bigger than the rise in temperature experienced by central England over the same period.
The researchers also apply their model to a range of other temperature scenarios:
In other words, things have to get pretty warm before even a small population on the edge of the species’ range starts to feel the heat. And yet it is only the extrapolation of the 1.9C rise that makes it into the press release and, therefore, the news stories.
Not only have news reports confused current declines with possible declines in the future, but they deal only with an apparently unrepresentative worst-case scenario, and they apply data from a single population at the southern extremity of the species’ range to the species as a whole to announce that a species that isn’t even declining is being driven to extinction.
Given that all the news coverage of the paper was based almost verbatim on the press release, it is perhaps surprising that Pearce-Higgins is happy with how the RSPB presented the research:
I don’t think the press release is particularly misleading really
‘That’s the challenge’ he says,
to try to get across what is quite a complicated message, but with an important underlying message, in a way that is acceptable to the media, but that also does justice to the science.
Readers can make up their own minds whether the RSPB press release does justice to the science. But it certainly seems to have been acceptable to the media, who didn’t need to look any further to get their alarmist climate stories. One particular quote in the RSPB press release proved particularly attractive, being used by the BBC, Telegraph and Daily Mail. It’s from Pearce-Higgins:
This is the most worrying development that I have found in my scientific career to date.
Perhaps that’s what he means by the ‘important underlying message’.
Hats off to the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s answer to the miserablist’s ‘Earth Hour’.
Human Acheivement Hour is a celebration of our progress.
What’s curious about this is that the CEI are frequently criticised for their right-leaning economic perspective. Yet, arguably, in contrast to greens who would identify themselves as ‘progressive’, the CEI are much more interested in progress. Environmentalists instead call for more laws, and less freedoms. They will say that the progress depicted in the CEI’s video is false, and that those who fall for it are deluded.
This, we think, shows how environmentalism has transformed or corroded old concepts and categories. Who are the conservatives, and who are the progressives?
Those who still protest that it is the CEI’s capitalism which drives their vision (well, d’uh) ought to ask themselves why the same, positive images of human acheivement couldn’t be presented by a more Left perspective. Eco-centricism is anti-humanism. Keep the lights on!
At Climate Resistance, we are quite often to be found making connections between environmentalism and the War on Terror. So we were a little surprised to find an environmentalist (and it’s probably fairly safe to assume that an environment correspondent at the Guardian is an environmentalist) apparently doing the same today.
The line that Suzanne Goldenberg draws between the respective wars on terror and CO2 is, however, rather different from our own. The story’s headline gives it away:
Serving 22 years: the environmentalist who fell victim to US anti-terror laws
In fact, it gave away so much that the paper replaced the headline in the online edition with:
Activist or terrorist? Mild-mannered eco-militant serving 22 years for arson
The Guardian’s moral compass points only to melting ice caps. The title may have changed, but it is still clear that they can’t tell the difference between an ‘activist or terrorist’, or seem to think that being an ‘activist’ qualifies an arsonist for special treatment.
The explosive fire Mason and Ambrose set at Michigan State University on 31 December 1999 caused nearly $1m (£680,000) of damage to buildings and equipment, but no death or injuries. The target was the office of the director of a genetically modified crop research programme into moth-resistant food crops for Africa, funded by the US Agency for International Development and the biotechnology company Monsanto.
Marie Mason is clearly an activist, and probably a terrorist. The Guardian doesn’t seem to think that one can be both. It is is as though sympathy for the ends, if not the means, is enough to transform violence into mere protest.
The story hinges on the claim that the sentence is too stiff:
However, Mason’s lawyer, John Minock, who filed an appeal against the sentence last week, argues that 22 years is excessively harsh. Mason got a much longer sentence than several militants recently convicted of setting fire to logging camps and vehicles in Oregon and Washington states – including Stanislas Meyerhoff who received 13 years for setting 11 fires and causing $30m in damage.
And that the reason it is too stiff is that ‘the courts have used domestic terrorism laws to stiffen the punishment for politically inspired violence’.
Mason is a prime example. “We are definitely seeing more severe sentences post-9/11, no doubt about it,” said Heidi Boghosian, the director of the National Lawyers Guild. “We have seen a trend of using the terrorist label and federalising a lot of criminal activities that would have gotten a far less stringent sentence before.”
Lauren Regan, an Oregon lawyer who defends environmental militants, calls it the “green scare”.
We find it hard to find sympathy for Mason, however. And her complaints that her sentence is harsh need to be seen in the context, not of sentences passed on other ‘activists’, or ‘terrorists’, but to other people convicted of arson.
It was only last Thursday that the Guardian was reporting on a Californian jury’s recommendation of the death penalty for a man who started a series of wildfires that resulted in the deaths of five firefighters:
Of course, Mason didn’t cause any deaths, but that is owed to luck, not design. She may claim that she didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but the arsonist loses the right to make that claim when they strike their matches against the matchbox. Mason complains that the harsh sentence is owed to the fact that ‘the government is trying to send a message’. But isn’t that what she was trying to do when she was, harshly, trying to assert her message by burning stuff to the ground, and risking lives? Harsh messages are answered with harsh messages.
If this were any other violent criminal, Goldenburg would not have a story. It is because Goldenburg and her employers are sympathetic to the aims that these perpetrators of this mundane act of destruction claimed to have in mind. But what did they really have in mind?
No sooner was Mason’s partner, Ambrose, caught, than he confessed, and allowed the authorities to pursue her. Some kind of solidarity. Contrast that with perpetrators of political violence, or even just political prisoners elsewhere in the world. That such a lack of honour exists between these arsonists surely indicates the hollowness of their cause. Ambrose acts in his self interest, to reduce his sentence, and Mason appeals that the sentence was too harsh. Clearly, neither of them really have the courage of their convictions that political prisoners in the past have possessed. They don’t bravely face their sentences. They apologise, and ask to be treated nicely.
Such a lack of conviction surely emphasises the nihilism of deep ecologists. Behind bars, such nihilism loses all its potency. Apart from those hurt by their actions, few on the outside will remember them. There are no movements on the outside, waiting for their return, to rejoin the struggle for liberation. Mason and her ilk have not campaigned for liberation. The conflagrations they caused were nothing more than the selfish acts of people lost in the world, who have comprehensively failed to touch other people with their message, and to establish a movement. This is the philosophy that the Guardian believes muddies the distinction between an ‘activist’ and a ‘terrorist’.
Perhaps Mason is neither an activist or a terrorist. She is like any other sad criminal, whose confusion about the world is expressed as a desire to destroy it. Like Raymond Lee Oyler, her acts are hard to explain. It is bizarre then, that the Guardian thinks that it’s the harsh sentence that needs explaining.
To those in Mason’s home city of Detroit who know her, her elevation to the ranks of America’s most dangerous criminals came as a shock. A fixture in activist circles, she was bright and charming, but unfocused – a woman who had an advanced degree in chemistry but lived near the poverty line.
The Guardian’s reporting on this issue is, as ever, informed not by an understanding of why it is wrong to set fire to things to get your message heard, nor by coherent ideas about jurisprudence… It’s not ‘fair’, because Mason was ‘nice’. It is informed by the same nihilistic and disorientated philosophy that afflicts Ambrose and Mason.
We have argued previously that environmentalism is an ideology. Indeed it is, in the sense that it wants to reorganise the world around its principles, by force and coercion if necessary. But those principles are confused and arbitrary because at its heart, there exists a void.
CR commenter Robert Wood commented on our recent post about James Hansen’s understanding of ‘democracy’ that Hansen ‘thinks he is one of Plato’s philosopher kings’. But the strangest thing about Hansen’s rise is that he has been crowned by nihilists. The argument for the philosopher king is being made by ignorant philistines. It is their own empty outlook they are evincing, not their commitment to a particular philosophy, or even the supremacy of the philosophical method. They want to be told what to do, how the world should be organised, and what ‘science’ says is right. This is because they cannot work it out for themselves. Environmentalism, whether it is setting fire to laboratories (so much for science then) or campaigning for laws to restrict human freedom, is a desperate search for meaning, in the same way that setting fire to things is a desperate attempt to assert control over a confusing world.
So environmentalism, in both its extreme expression of igniting fires, and it’s more mundane expression of elevating climate scientists to moral and political heroes and saviours, and its downright banal defence of criminal insanity in the press, shares just one thing: nothing.
Our last post was about Guardian journalist, David Adam, and his inability to reflect critically and impartially on the climate debate. That’s not to say he’s biased… That would miss the point. Which is precisely what Adam does. Adam believes that ‘the science’ is instructive – it tells us what to do.
Adam now produces an article with the headline:
Leading climate scientist: ‘democratic process isn’t working’
Let’s not look at the article for a moment, but just consider the headline (which we accept is not necessarily Adam’s responsibility). It is a scientist’s view that the ‘democratic process isn’t working’. So what? What does a scientist know about democracy that anyone plucked off the street doesn’t know? You might be lucky and pluck a professor of political theory off the street, and he might be able to give you a detailed account of theories of democracy. But could he tell you that democracy was working? What would it mean?
Luckily, the next man walking down the street is a climate scientist. He can tell you whether democracy is working or not. He takes out his laptop, and shows you a Hockey-Stick graph. This proves that democracy is not working.
Or does it? The Penguin Dictionary of Politics begins its definition of ‘democracy’ like this:
Democracy is the most valued and also the vaguest of political terms in the modern world.
Useful, eh? The point here is that ‘democracy’ by itself isn’t a term that carries a lot of meaning, but that we’re all supposed to value. It can be weilded by someone ignorant of its many possible interpretations. Indeed, it can be an entirely meaningless concept. ‘Democracy is under attack’ is suposed to rush us to action, in the same way that the ‘cat is drowning’ is. But while we all know what a cat is, and we can all call a cat a cat, do we share the same understanding of ‘democracy’?
That is not to relativise the concept of democracy, but to point out that that its use in this case is desperately hollow. In this way, environmentalists have sought to hide their ideology behind the objectivity of ‘science’. For instance, according to many greens, climate change creates moral imperatives. Failure to act to prevent climate change by reducing your ‘carbon footprint’ makes you ‘unethical’. In this view, the morality of an action is calculated according to its consequences, not as they are experienced by humans, but to or through the ‘environment’. The environment is like a kind of karmic aether, through which moral acts are transmitted.
As with ‘democracy’, this is a much degraded form of ‘ethics’. For instance, if a person was to generally behave badly – let’s say they were inclined to assert their will violently – we can understand this ‘ethically’ in terms of the relationship that person has with others. We could say his actions prevented others from expressing themselves, or made them unhappy, or that there is something wrong in principle with violence. But we cannot do the same with CO2. A moral actor might use a gas guzzling 4×4 to make an ‘unnecessary journey’. On the other hand, he or she might use it to save a life. But both, according to the logic of environmental ethics, are as bad as the other. They leave a legacy, which will be visited on our children’s children’s children’s children. The moral actor is removed in space and time from his victim. The ghost of his action may strike thousands of miles away, hundreds of years into the future.
In other words, environmental ethics are utter bullshit.
The environmentalists’ need to naturalise ethics with climate science speaks about their inability to construct a coherent ethical perspective in human terms, with human values. It is a lack of self-confidence which forces them to seek authority in a greater force or power than humanity itself. It’s not enough to talk about how humans ought to relate to each other… the environmentalist wants to say how we should relate to the environment. That’s not because we understand how to relate to each other, it’s because the environmentalist believes that the environment exists between us as a moral fact.
What has this got to do with politics?
The same is true of ‘democracy’ as it is with ‘ethics’. Environmentalists simply don’t understand what they mean by the term. Just as the term ‘unethical’ is interchangeable with the word ‘wrong’ in environmental rhetoric, so too the term ‘democracy’ does not refer to a system of values and principles in which ideas are negotiated. It just means ‘my way’. To the article:
James Hansen, a climate modeller with Nasa, told the Guardian today that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. “The democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working,” he said.
What does James Hansen know about which corporate lobbying? Is it something that only the ‘other side’ do? Forget the vast lobbying power of dedicated green multinationals such as Greenpeace and WWF, do corporate interests – <cough>Enron</cough> – never lobby for environmental policies?
Speaking on the eve of joining a protest against the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, Hansen said: “The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.
“The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I’m not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time.”
What money is talking louder than which votes? Votes for whom? Votes for which party? Did someone launch a James Hansen Party, while we weren’t looking?
Hansen’s unsuitability for commenting on matters of democracy is reinforced throughout Adam’s article – even if the author himself doesn’t realise it:
“I think that peaceful actions that attempt to draw society’s attention to the issue are not inappropriate,” Hansen said.
So is it democracy that has failed the environment, or environmentalism that fails democratically? Hansen doesn’t seem to know. Why the need to draw attention to a problem that the electorate is supposedly pushing for? As we’ve argued at length on this site, there is no popular environmentalist movement, and the problem for democracy is that there is nobody for the non-environmentalist majority to vote for.
Hansen said: “What’s being talked about for Copenhagen is a strenghening of Kyoto [protocol] approach, a cap and trade with offsets and escape hatches which will be gauranteed to fail in terms of getting the required rapid reduction in emissions. They talk about goals which sound impressive, but when you see the actions are such that it will be impossible to reach those goals, then I can understand the informed public getting frustrated.”
That ‘informed public’ is perhaps the most telling of Hansen’s democratic ideals, especially when set against his complaint that corporate lobbying swamps the power of ‘one person one vote’.
Hansen’s understanding of democracy seems to be limited to the idea that a society that doesn’t get what he wants is undemocratic. And yet, Adam has again reported the mere opinion of one vociferous climate scientist, as though it automatically had authority – even on matters completely outwith his field of expertise. This is surely only possible in an arena such as climate change, where ‘the science’ not only determines policy, but also, apparently, the very definition of democracy.
Adam also simultaneously ignores the context in which that opinion is expressed. This is the same James Hansen who has, since 2007, publicly stated: A) that he has been muzzled by his superiors; B) that nobody listens to him; C) that he thinks he should perhaps try to refrain from spouting his mouth off so much in the media; D) that we have only four years left to save the planet; E) that everything is much much worse than anybody else seems to think. To name but a few. And who is now, in the popular media, calling for an (un)popular revolution.
Individually, each of these claims is silly enough. Taken together, they map a spectacular act of scientific and political self-destruction. We can only hope that he also takes those who uncritically report his pronouncements down with him.
The climate conference in Copenhagen that ended this week produced a barrage of startling headlines, many of them from just one man.
On Tuesday, the Guardian’s junior climate alarmist, David Adam surprised us with an uncharacteristically non-doom-laden article:
Greenland ice tipping point ‘further off than thought’
The giant Greenland ice sheet may be more resistant to temperature rise than experts realised. The finding gives hope that the worst impacts of global warming, such as the devastating floods depicted in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, could yet be avoided.
That evening, David’s mood soured:
Global warming may trigger carbon ‘time bomb’, scientist warns
Even modest amounts of global warming could trigger a carbon “time bomb” and release massive amounts of greenhouse gases from frozen Arctic soils, a new study has warned.
By Wednesday, David’s gloom reached unprecedented levels:
Caught on camera: The Greenland tunnels that could speed ice melt
The Greenland ice sheet is riddled with channels that could quicken ice loss and speed sea level rise, a new study has revealed.
That afternoon, David’s gloom was worse than previously thought:
Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts
Global sea levels could rise much higher this century than previously projected, raising the threat level for millions of people who live in low-lying areas, new research suggests. Scientists at a climate change summit in Copenhagen say changes in the polar ice sheets could raise sea levels by a metre or more by 2100. The implications could be severe.
On Thursday, David’s gloom exceeded even the worst projections.
Severe global warming will render half of world’s inhabited areas unliveable, expert warns
Severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in, a US scientist warned today.
By that afternoon, things had passed a tipping point:
Europe ‘will be hit by severe drought’ without urgent action on emissions
Europe will be struck by a series of severe droughts that will make life “hell” for hundreds of millions of people unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, a new study shows. … Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, Greece and numerous other countries would be turned to semi-desert as climate change turned off their rainfall… Asked what life would be like there, Warren said: “Hell, I should think. It is incomprehensible to imagine adapting to that level of drought.”
Adam operates on the principal of one article per scientific paper. We’ve mentioned this ‘tyranny of the news peg’ before. It reduces the scientific process to a rolling news service devoid of context and analysis, allowing Adam to report, on consecutive days, that Greenland ice melt is, respectively, less and more imminent than previously thought. It is as if scientific truth equals the sum of all the papers produced on a scientific subject divided by their number, and that for truth and democracy to triumph, he just has to precis a sample of them, and distribute them between the categories of ‘worse…’ or ‘better than previously thought’, so that our minds can be made up by the law of averages. But if he does see his role as a passive conduit for information, he misunderstands both the workings and the function of both science and journalism.
A further caution that Adam throws to the wind is that much of the new research he reports on will not yet have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Conferences are like that. They are a platform for scientists to present more tentative results, hypotheses and interpretations. We could find no sign in the literature of any of the studies Adam mentions. And many of them will not make it through the review process, or will only do so having been revised beyond recognition in terms of their scientific and/or political content.
Of the hundreds of papers that were presented at the conference – many of them in poster sessions [PDF] – Adam has selected just a tiny handful: the most salacious, sensational, and terrifying (or that can be billed as such) at the expense of investigating the nuances to the arguments about what is or isn’t true, and what to do about it, and presented this highly polarised perspective as an account of what ‘science says’.
To pluck just one of Adam’s stories from the pile, on the Thursday he was claiming that ‘severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in’ and that ‘people will not be able to adapt to a much warmer climate as well as previously thought’. The story was based on a paper presented by Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, who adds human physiology into the climate models to suggest that ‘physiological limits of the human body will begin to render places impossible to support human life if the average global temperature rises by 7C on pre-industrial levels’. While predictions about the physiological constraints on our ability to tolerate high temperatures might be very useful, in itself, it says nothing about our ability to inhabit these places – and even less about our ability to ‘adapt to a much warmer climate’. After all, here in Northern Europe we wouldn’t survive the winter if we didn’t have homes to go to. We don’t know whether Sherwood made these claims, or if they are Adam’s own original contribution to ‘the science’, but either way it demonstrates a complete failure to scrutinise and question what are preliminary research findings.
By Friday, David had decided to speak for scientists on the Guardian’s podcast.
Climate change warning: ‘We’re sick of having our messages lost in political noise’
The message might sound familiar is that we have to act, and that we have to act now. But I think the scientists, they have been saying it for a while, and we’ve been saying it in the media for a while… but I think the scientists have lost a little bit of patience almost. I mean one said to me here that we’re sick of having our carefully constructed messages lost in the political noise. You know this is the scientific community standing up and saying enough is enough, we’ve lost patience, get your act together.
We have to take David’s word for it that he wasn’t one of those people losing the ‘carefully constructed messages’ in the political noise. We’ve said it before, the likes of David Adam, who aren’t scientists and clearly have a lot of sympathy with environmentalism, like environmentalists, don’t recognise their own noise as political. It is curious that none of the 2,500 attendees – natural scientists, social scientists, activists, dignitaries, corporates and journalists – had lost sufficient patience to go on the record to evince their frustration and impatience, and the only people he can get to confirm his message are Nicholas Stern and Rajendra Pachauri – neither of them climate scientists.
One climate scientist who does make a distinction between science and political noise is Professor Mike Hulme. Writing on Roger Pielke Jr’s Prometheus blog, Hulme wonders about the kind of ‘action’ that Adam was calling for on behalf of scientists:
What exactly is the ‘action’ the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions? I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognized as such.
David Adam might want to reflect on his own words more carefully. Perhaps the frustrated scientists he was taking evidence from were talking more about him, than to him. Hulme continues:
But then we need to be clear about what authority these political messages carry. They carry the authority of the people who drafted them – and no more. Not the authority of the 2,500 expert researchers gathered at the conference. And certainly not the authority of collective global science. Caught between summarizing scientific knowledge and offering political interpretations of such knowledge, the six key messages seem rather ambivalent in what they are saying. It is as if they are not sure how to combine the quite precise statements of science with a set of more contested political interpretations.
These six statements were issued after the conference by its organisers. Clearly they moved David Adam, but not Mike Hulme, who points out that the authors are not qualified to speak for the conference as a whole, and that no synthesis was produced, and nor was the conference capable of producing a synthesis.
It therefore seems problematic to me when such lively, well-informed and yet largely unresolved debates among a substantial cohort of the world’s climate change researchers gets reduced to six key messages, messages that on the one hand carry the aura of urgency, precision and scientific authority – ‘there is no excuse for inaction’ – and yet at the same time remain so imprecise as to resolve nothing in political terms.
It’s worth reading Mike Hulme’s post in full, rather than reading snippets that we’ve borrowed in order to illustrate David Adam’s ridiculous alarmism.
Hulme qualifies as neither a ‘sceptic’ nor a ‘denier’, and sensibly advises that science and politics are not the same thing. This nuanced argument is lost on David Adam. The problem is that throughout his prose is the theme that the images he presents and studies he cites are instructive… ‘we have to act, and we have to act now’. This urgency is also the theme of so many climate activists, politicians and commentators.
Adam’s alarm is premature, and it stems from an expectation of science that it simply cannot live up to. As Hulme puts it:
A gathering of scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change. But then why should it? All that can be told – and certainly should be told – is that climate change brings new and changed risks, that these risks can have a range of significant implications under different conditions, that there is an array of political considerations to be taken into account when judging what needs to be done, and there are a portfolio of powerful, but somewhat untested, policy measures that could be tried.
The rest is all politics. And we should let politics decide without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity.
It is striking that while – judging by his podcast – Adam seems to have picked up on the frustrations expressed by certain scientists about the lack of nuance, he hasn’t the faintest clue what it means. He hears murmurings about the messy overlap between science and politics, and yet seems so immersed in his model of the world as one that will be the death of us all that he doesn’t know what to do with that information. He ends up interpreting the frustration about lack of nuances as a signal that everything should be blacker and whiter – as if the nuance that has been lost from the debate is that we are all going to die. Adam wants science to settle the political debate, and he wants it now
And here is where we think Hulme’s otherwise excellent observations stop short. He doesn’t attempt to explain why politicians, activists and journalists like Adam have such expectations of science.
As we have argued previously, the dynamic driving the climate debate is less about what has emerged from climate science, and more about what appear to be political agendas. As Hulme observes, in many instances, politics is prior to science in the debate. But it might be truer to say that it is a lack of politics that is prior to the science. Science – or rather images of catastrophe given scientific credibility – fills the void. It re-orientates the disoriented, gives moral purpose in a world beset far less by climate problems than moral relativism, and gives political significance to causes that have long lacked rebels.
No field of science is immune to being used to fill politics-shaped holes. Science is seen less as a valuable tool with which to improve humanity’s lot and open our minds, and becoming a blunt instrument with which to beat the opposition. Campaigners on all sides of abortion debates increasingly fall back on science to make their moral case. The fact of evolution by natural selection has become almost synonymous with atheism. Depending on who you talk to, genetic technologies will feed the world or turn it to grey sludge. But it is environmental science – and its resonance with our sense of futility – that has gained by far the most political purchase.
David Adam’s work typifies this symptom. Being able only to see the world through the prism of climate change represents a failure to sustain a coherent analysis and a lack of confidence in even his own subjectivity – hence appeals to scientific authority. For Adam, climate change distinguishes right from wrong, left from right, good from bad. Just as each major UK political party has absorbed environmentalism into its manifesto, so too have journalists used it to inform the entirety of their own perspective on the world. This limited form of discourse is not about engagement with or criticism of the decision-making processes and the direction of society, it is about causal inevitabilities and moral imperatives issued by ‘the science’. ‘Science says…’.
The result is politics, ethics, democracy stripped entirely of their human meaning. Climate change rescues mediocrity and intellectual poverty from obscurity, and puts them centre stage, dressed as a super-heroes. As Adam shows, writing ‘worse than previously thought’ often enough turns you into a full time employee of the Guardian, and turns climatology into ethical and political science. If climate change didn’t generate moral imperatives, it would leave room for debate. And debate is for the ‘deniers’, who want to profit from the end of the world, or something.
In his most recent article, Adam entirely uncritically quotes the economist (and not climate scientist) Nick Stern:
Speaking after giving a keynote speech, Stern said he feared that politicians had not grasped the seriousness of the crisis. “Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. Looking back, the Stern review underestimated the risks and underestimated the damage from inaction.”
Just a few decades ago, World Bank economists, even ex-world bank economists (such as Stern) were just about the epitome of evil for radicals, liberals, and leftists. The World Bank served Western corporate interests at the expense of developing nations. Today, Stern is celebrated by radicals, liberals and lefties, while he advances the climate change cause, and positions himself to take financial advantage of the carbon markets created by the regulations that he was instrumental in devising, which foist ‘sustainability’ on both the developed and developing world. Stern knows full well that governments have not failed to act. His own government, for example, has committed the UK to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, and the US is on course to do the same.
With all countries apparently committed to ‘action’ on climate change, the rhetorical escalation emerging at this conference is perhaps puzzling. What country is standing against an agreement at the next climate talks in Copenhagen?
We have previously speculated that the preparedness for an international deal on climate change presents campaigners with a problem. If everyone agrees, what role do you play, as an activist/scientist? By achieving an agreement, you undermine your role. Adam, who saw the world through the prism of climate change, no longer has a footing. Like Stern, he therefore has to reinvent his position. It’s ‘worse than previously thought’ and ‘governments don’t understand’. Because in a world defined by, and seen only through the climate change debate, once the principal debate is over, you also lose your orientation and perspective. If everyone is committed, you cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong, because the debate is no longer polarised. Eyes that are filtered green, cannot see anything in a world that is entirely green. They are blind.
It seems that the alarmism issued by the likes of Adam, Stern, and the conference organisers’ six statements represent a bizarre rear-guard action, not against prevailing forces of inaction, but their own blindness, and their own redundancy. They are fighting their own success.
There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches ? economic, technological, behavioural, management ? to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.
Previously, Professor Hulme has spoken about ‘climate porn’ – the tendency of activists, journalists and politicians to use the most distressing images, worst-case scenarios, and single studies stripped of their caveats and cautions. But there is another sense in which this expression illuminates the climate debate. Climate porn is to debate what porn is to human relationships. It simulates drama and engagement by crudely satisfying base lusts and fantasies with explicit images without the danger of rejection. But it is principally an inconsequential solo pastime in which understanding and negotiation with anothers is avoided. It achieves no resolution or synthesis, and objectifies humans, their ambitions and desires. Worst still, to paraphrase what the adage warns, climate porn will make you blind.
Last week, we mentioned an academic conference at the University of the West of England about the psychology of climate change denial, which appeared to be rather lacking on the academic front. It was a gathering of a handful of higher beings – Jungian analysts, climate activists and eco-psychologists – who, having shrugged off the shackles of the human condition, are now able to diagnose what is wrong with the rest of us.
The opening address was given by George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, and author of ‘Carbon Detox’, who popped up his week on Comment is Free to tell us just how sick we are:
The greatest obstacles to action are not technical, economic or political — they are the denial strategies that we adopt to protect ourselves from unwelcome information.
He sets out the problem with a superficial analysis of ambivalent responses to ambiguous surveys:
nearly 80% of people claim to be concerned about climate change. However, delve deeper and one finds that people have a remarkable tendency to define this concern in ways that keep it as far away as possible. They describe climate change as a global problem (but not a local one) as a future problem (not one for their own lifetimes) and absolve themselves of responsibility for either causing the problem or solving it.
Most disturbing of all, 60% of people believe that “many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing to climate change”. Thirty per cent of people believe climate change is “largely down to natural causes”, while 7% refuse to accept the climate is changing at all.
Pesky humans, making simple black-and-white issues so unnecessarily complicated.
How is it possible that so many people are still unpersuaded by 40 years of research and the consensus of every major scientific institution in the world? Surely we are now long past the point at which the evidence became overwhelming?
Cue the psycho-analysis:
Having neither the time nor skills to weigh up each piece of evidence we fall back on decision-making shortcuts formed by our education, politics and class. In particular we measure new information against our life experience and the views of the people around us.
Yes. And Marshall’s article is a warning of what you might start believing in if you choose to hang around with psychobabblers. Each of his diagnoses can be thrown right back at him. First up:
George Lakoff, of the University of California, argues that we often use metaphors to carry over experience from simple or concrete experiences into new domains. Thus, as politicians know very well, broad concepts such as freedom, independence, leadership, growth and pride can resonate far deeper than the policies they describe.
None of this bodes well for a rational approach to climate change. Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free market capitalism and distrust government interference. It is hardly surprising that political world view is by far the greatest determinant of attitudes to climate change, especially in the US where three times more Republicans than Democrats believe that “too much fuss is made about global warming”.
Marshall – like many political environmentalists – kids himself that he is informed only by cold, hard, rational, scientific reality. Ideology is what the deniers do. Which allows him to pretend that his own penchant for ‘broad concepts’ such as ‘restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention’ – and his distaste for freedom, independence and growth – are merely imperatives determined by the science. Who’s delusional here?
Dr Myanna Lahsen, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado, has specialised in understanding how professional scientists, some of them with highly respected careers, turn climate sceptic. She found the largest common factor was a shared sense that they had personally lost prestige and authority as the result of campaigns by liberals and environmentalists. She concluded that their engagement in climate issues “can be understood in part as a struggle to preserve their particular culturally charged understanding of environmental reality.”
Lahsen’s interviews with three high-profile and self-professed sceptical scientists are interesting. They reveal that they recognise precisely what Marshall does not – that scientific information can be interpreted in different ways, and that policy does not flow automatically from any science. Lahsen describes the interviews as ‘remarkably frank‘, and the interviewees certainly appear a lot more self-aware (and to have less to hide) than Marshall, who interprets Lahsen’s findings thus:
In other words, like the general public, they form their beliefs through reference to a world view formed through politics and life experience. In order to maintain their scepticism in the face of a sustained, and sometimes heated, challenge from their peers, they have created a mutually supportive dissident culture around an identity as victimised speakers for the truth.
Which is just hilarious in the light of his claims that his own unpopular ‘truth’ is being steamrollered by dirty oil money, right-wing ideology and a psychologically deranged public.
One academic study of 192 sceptic books and reports found that 92% were directly associated with right wing free market think tanks. It concluded that the denial of climate change had been deliberately constructed “as a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism”.
So, given that scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement, how can sceptics be swayed?
That ‘scepticism is rooted in a sustained and well-funded ideological movement’ is patently untrue. The environmental movement is far better funded, having at its disposal hundreds of millions for expensive PR and lobbying campaigns. Indeed, the likes of the European Union even fund such groups as WWF and Friends of the Earth to lobby its own MEPs.
No amount of ‘overwhelming scientific evidence’ can legitimise any political ideology. Contrary to Marshall’s claims, there is nothing ideological about scepticism. Sceptics aren’t asking for the world to be reorganised around environmental ethics. George is. Where you stand on the climate issue does not determine where you stand on the merits or otherwise of conservative ideology. Sceptics object to environmentalism’s hiding of its politics behind ‘the science’ to claim that science produces moral imperatives, and that failing to observe them will cause apocalypse. Stop to ask if climate problems really demand the special politics of environmentalism – that we must swap development and progress for security, for example, or that living a ‘sustainable lifestyle’ really is the best way to express solidarity with the world’s poor and to lift them out of poverty – and George Marshall will call you a conservative. It’s black and white for him – you either do as he says, or you’ve been brainwashed by Jeremy Clarkson. You’re in denial.
Marshall is forced to fall back on psychobabble because the political case for environmentalism has proved unpersuasive. You can almost hear him putting up his hands in defeat in his answer to his own question, ‘how can sceptics be swayed?’ Forget arguing with them, he says, you can cure them only by appealing to their baser, human instincts, especially peer pressure, ‘probably the most important influence of all':
when dealing with a sceptic, don’t get into a head to head with them. Just politely point out all the people they know and respect who believe that climate change is a serious problem — and they aren’t sandle-wearing tree huggers, are they?
Yep, that’ll do it.
Ultimately, Marshall’s case is self-defeating. If the arguments made by contrarian scientists and the majority of the world’s population can be written off as a product of screwy psychology, then so too can those made by Marshall and his cronies – and everyone else for that matter. But when it comes down to it, we don’t care to peer into Marshall’s head in search of psychological peculiarities that contribute to his political inclinations, his self-delusion, his low opinion of his fellow humans, his willingness to toe the green party line, to reinterpret cautious scientific findings as a sign of the imminent eco-Rapture, to fail to distinguish science from politics, or, indeed, his creepy habit of peering into the heads of anyone who disagrees with him.
Direct action historically has been a major way that we’ve got change. I mean, you can look at, historically, through the Suffragettes, through the miners’ strikes, through all of the major changes. Yes, some of it is about putting yourselves in the way, as we have done, as Plane Stupid has done, putting ourselves on runways, directly reducing carbon emissions. And some of it is about debunking the lies and spin that some people have the opportunity to put across to the rest of the world. Yes, we are using the media. But Peter Mandelson is using the media. He’s not elected. He’s not working in the interest of the people and the planet. He doesn’t have science behind him. Ninety per cent of scientists now agree that climate change is a very real threat, that it’s already occurring, that it’s man-made, and that our last chance is going to run out within the next ten years. So I ask you: what else are we supposed to do when democracy is failing people in this country? You have to resort to any means necessary, as long as it’s peaceful, and as long as it doesn’t harm other human beings.
The only difference that custard-thrower Leila Deen can identify between herself and custard-recipient Peter Mandelson, UK Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (and, yes, he’s an unelected peer), is that she has science behind her and he does not. She has nothing else to cling to. By her own words: Just like Mandelson, her actions are undemocratic. Just like Mandelson, she lies and spins. And just like Mandelson, she has the opportunity to put those lies and spin out to the rest of the world. She also demonstrates perfectly why, just like Mandelson (and who wouldn’t quite like to throw custard in his face?), her organisation is deeply unpopular with the electorate.
Her problem is that the only way she can make it sound like she has science on her side is by twisting that science beyond recognition. Ninety per cent of scientists now agree what? Ten years? These are just random numbers plucked from the ether. What sort of consensus is it when ecotastrophists can’t even agree on what 90 per cent of scientists are saying? Hansen says four years, Lucas says eight, the Green New Deal Group gives us 100 months.
Given that Deen has no more science on her side than her nemesis, all that does separate them is that she’s not happy about the building of a single new runway. That runway might or might not increase aviation emissions and will have virtually no impact on UK Climate Change Act targets when aviation accounts for only six per cent of UK emissions. So she has to make up stuff about that, too:
[…rhubarb rhubarb…] the vast majority of people are against the third runway […rhubarb rhubarb…] a runway that will cause catastrophic climate change and ruin any chance that we have of stopping our carbon emissions […rhubarb rhubarb…] if we build a third runway, all other industries will have to reduce their carbon emissions to zero […rhubarb rhubarb…]
We have nothing against direct action per se. But what sort of direct action is it when the activists target those who are pushing in the same direction as themselves? And let’s not forget that the government quite likes the fact that a few silly protestors are lending some street cred to its own agenda. We recently quoted Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband on the runway protests:
When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.
The custard slinging came before Mandelson spoke at the UK’s Low Carbon Summit. Here’s a video of the event’s ‘highlights’, published on 10 Downing Street’s Youtube channel:
The media focused their attention on the custard-chucking, at the expense of criticising what was being said inside the summit. Take, for example, the words of Mandelson himself:
So the point we want to start at today is this… This transition to low carbon is an environmental and economic imperative and an opportunity for us. It is also inevitable. There is no high carbon future for us.
Here we see familiar lines in action. There are imperatives, and a low carbon economy is inevitable. That is to say that democracy has no say in determining what is or isn’t an imperative, or what the Government’s priorities ought to be. But as we have pointed out before, environmentalism has never been tested democratically in the UK. All the parties absorbed its ‘imperatives’ into their manifestos in a process that has never been challenged or really even debated. Mandelson has no authority to say that there exist environmental or economic imperatives – he isn’t an elected politician; he is held widely in contempt, being seen at best as a joke or a symptom of New Labour’s intransigence and corruption; and he does not have facts on his side.
The huge industrial revolution that is unfolding in converting our economy to low carbon is going to present huge business and employment opportunities as well as enabling us to meet our climate change targets and reduce our energy consumption
We’d like to know from Mandelson precisely where this ‘industrial revolution’ is supposed to be unfolding, and where these opportunities actually are. During the last quarter of 2008, nearly a quarter of a million people lost their jobs in the UK. Unemployment is currently just shy of two million.
There is no unfolding revolution. A revolution implies spontaneity, dynamism and popular support to shake off an old order or system. Instead, this ‘revolution’ requires regulatory laws, massive subsidies, and the creation of targets and goals – the precise opposite of a revolution. The French revolution was not achieved by setting goals for the number of aristocratic heads it intended to remove from aristocratic shoulders by a given date. It just happened. The industrial revolution did not happen because people set targets for miles of train track laid over the next ten years, it produced its own momentum and possibilities, which were, in turn, demanded. Nobody is demanding green politics. It is being foisted on us from above.
Ed Miliband pipes in:
There’s been a huge growth in the green sector and it’s already a three-trillion-dollar industry set to grow by fifty per cent. Now the question isn’t is that industry going to happen; it is going to happen. The question is, can Britain take advantage of that? That’s what our strategy is designed to do. It covers a whole range of areas from waste to recycling to renewable to all… err… a whole range of sectors. Increasing numbers of people will be working in these areas and we want Britain to be a world leader.
Again, we see the ugly leitmotif of today’s bland politics – inevitability. ‘It is going to happen’.
Of course there has been a growth in the Green sector. It has been heavily subsidised. For instance, a report from the think tank Policy Exchange estimated that the (now abandoned) biofuel subsidy (that required diesel sold to be 5% bio-diesel) cost the UK over £500 million a year. The report cited by Miliband and Mandelson (more about that report later) says that the renewable and low carbon energy sector grew by ~6% in the year 2007/8. It also says that the size of the biomass market was £5billion. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what drove the biomass sector’s growth.
The other side of this sector’s growth is regulation. For example, In 2002, the UK’s Renewables Obligation order instructed electricity suppliers to source an increasing percentage of their fuel from renewable sources. In 2002 this figure was 3%. By 2008, it was 9%. Failing to meet this target means paying a price per unit of electricity generated, which is then redistributed to suppliers according to how they met the target. A 2004 report by energy watchdog Ofgem said that the Renewables Obligation scheme was ‘providing additional financial support of at least £485 million to the renewables industry this year alone.’
This ‘revolution’ is presented by the Government as something which ‘is happening’, rather than something which was caused by the Government. The worldwide growth in the renewable energy sector is manufactured, much less by spontaneous innovation opening up new opportunities than, as with Britain, new environmental laws and massive subsidies.
Premier Gordon Brown is top act of the night:
So let us set a challenge to our scientists to lead the world in this great human endeavour to create a clean environment for future generations. Let us each set a challenge to business. Let us compete to lead the world in new low carbon products. Let us set a challenge to our planners to build homes and buildings and business and then eco-towns and eco-cities around the vision of a low carbon environment. And let us set a challenge to our schools. Let us teach young people. Inspire them that a low carbon future is not only the best future we can have, but the best future they can have as young people too. And let me tell you, our low carbon future, to create the low carbon economy we need is now a national endeavour that gives us purpose for years to come.
None of Brown’s aspirations are shared by the public. They are his, and the political establishment’s aspirations. Very few people want to live in an eco-home in an eco-town or eco-city. Very few people want their children indoctrinated by eco-dogma. Brown pretends that he wants us to share his eco-centric eco-vision, but Mandelson and Miliband have already revealed that it is inevitable, and that we don’t have a choice. We are to be eco-proles, whether we like it or not.
This ‘let us…’ rhetoric in intended to be statesmanlike, imploring us to be part of some moment of change. But the moment of change has long since passed, and Brown’s vision is a hollow attempt to rescue it. After decades of decline in manufacturing output, and chronic underinvestment in housing and energy, it is a bit rich, and a bit late, for Brown to be telling us that we need eco-homes and eco-industry powered by eco-energy. We needed homes and industry as the conditions for the current economic climate were forming. His government, and previous ones, didn’t see the need then, and the need now owes less to the fact that the climate is changing, and much, much more to the fact that individuals in the Government want to use the climate change issue to generate moral authority for themselves, especially on the world stage. They can’t do that unless the UK is seen to be green, with green laws, green economy, green industry, and green people. Hence, over the last year, the UK has seen a raft of measures hurried through so that the UK contingent can arrive at the UN Climate Conference in Denmark later this year dressed as planet-saving super-heroes, not as a ship of foolish Chicken Littles, struggling to sustain their political legitimacy.
The Low Carbon Summit was, like the web page announcing it, hosted by RBS. Yes, that’s the same RBS that made a loss of £10 billion last year.
The Low Carbon Economy Summit is the only event this year to focus on the business opportunities in moving to a low carbon economy. Uniquely the Low Carbon Summit will explore what further action needs to be taken by government and business to create an environment which supports and promotes investment in low carbon solutions such as renewable power generation and carbon capture and storage as well as emissions trading.
This partnership knows far more about generating crises than stopping them. But then again, crises, real or imagined, are the bread and butter of politicians who otherwise fail to explain to the public what their ‘vision’ actually is. It isn’t until crunch time that Brown, Miliband and Mandelson unveil their ‘revolutionary’ ideas. The language about the inevitabilities and imperatives of environmental catastrophe are attempts to explain failures as success, decline as progress, and inactivity as activity. Politicians stand on their heads to complain that the world is upside down, and that all the trends actually show improvement.
Journalists, too, struggle to explain what’s going on in the world without the prospect of the catastrophe signposting right from wrong. A Guardian article on the event demonstrates its writers’ inability to subject the Government’s climate policies to any scrutiny:
In an interview with the Guardian, Ed Miliband, the climate change secretary, said there was a global race towards creating a low-carbon economy and that Britain must not get left behind. He set out the key elements required – from energy efficiency to a smart electricity grid – ahead of today’s low-carbon summit in London, with representatives from industry, unions and the environment movement.
Much is made of the alleged influence on the public mind of the odd hour of television here and there that does stand against climate orthodoxy. But the media’s failure to subject the terms of the climate debate to scrutiny has had a much more significant effect on the Government’s mind. It seems that they can do no wrong – and consequently can have their many failures overlooked – while they are being green. The only criticism they can expect from Guardian hacks is not being green enough, never mind what kind of outcome it will produce, or what kind of society it will create. There is very little question of the policies, only the echoes of mantras about ‘imperatives’, and ‘inevitability’. One of the lines in the Guardian, also picked up elsewhere was the headline that…
New jobs will be created in low-carbon industries for 400,000 people – from lagging lofts to nuclear power – the government will announce today.
This figure comes from a report by consulting firm, Innovas, commissioned by the Government. What the report said was not that ‘new jobs will be created’, and the Guardian omits the caveats attached to the report.
If the UK environmental employment baseline level grows in line with projected annual growth rates, then, potentially, an additional 400,000 jobs could be created over the next eight years ‐ representing a 45% increase on today’s level. This is a rough estimate based on the growth in market value, where employment levels are calculated on a pro rata basis. Some of this growth in employment might be due to displacement activity, as green goods and services become more acceptable than the alternatives, such as a shift from manufacturing traditional doors/windows to heat and energy efficient ones, or from carbon‐based fuels such as coal to renewable energies such as wind. However the majority of the growth in employment, particularly in the Renewable Energy industries, would represent additional economic growth to 2015.
The figure of 400,000 new jobs becomes even more dubious when it transpires that Innovas estimates that employees in the low carbon and environmental goods and services (LCEGS) sector number 881,000 people in the UK. There are roughly 30 million working people in the UK. That means 2.6% of the workforce are employed by the LCEGS. This sector has (according to Innovas) a market value of £106 billion. It seems hard to believe that such a large number of employment opportunities has been opened up by demand for green products. Yet the report projects, nonetheless:
The LCEGS sector, including supply chain, currently employs some 881,000 people in the UK, and this is forecast to increase to 1,289,000, or around 400,000 in the next eight years.
On what basis, though? The statistical summary accompanying the report claims that there are 6361 UK companies, employing 106,826 people in the ‘Alternative Fuel Vehicle’ sector. This turns out to mean ‘Alternative fuels (main Stream) for vehicles only’, and ambiguously, ‘other fuels and vehicles’. Does this lump together people who work on developing green cars and green fuel? According to www.autoindustry.co.uk, 210,000 people worked in manufacturing automobiles in 2005. Even assuming that there are still 210,000 people working in the UK’s ailing motor industry (which seems unlikely), can we really assume that half of these positions are in the LCEGS sector?
The report’s statistical summary goes on to say that 154,992 people work in ‘Alternative fuels’, 70,538 in the LCEGS ‘water and waste water’ sector, and 22,563 in the LCEGS ‘energy management’ sector. This gives us a total of 442,813 people in these LCEGS sectors. But according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), only 177,000 people worked in the energy and water sector at all. If we now include people that work in the LCEGS ‘hydro’, ‘wave and tidal’, biomass, wind, geothermal, photovoltaic, and ‘additional energy sources’ sectors, there are 626,557 people working in LCEGS energy sectors according to Innovas – many more people than the ONS claim.
It is plausible that the ONS and Innovas categorise jobs and businesses in different ways. But to claim that a greater number of people work in the LCEGS energy and water sector than work in the energy and water sector, when just a small percentage of Britain’s energy comes from renewable and alternative sources is just daft. We simply don’t believe it.
According to Eurostat, the UK produced 14,813,000 tons of oil equivalent (TOE) energy using renewables, against a total of 183,946,000 TOE. That process seems to have involved 533,455 people, according to Innovas’ statistics. If the UK’s total energy production was as efficient in terms of labour, it would have needed 6,624,378 people, or 22% of the workforce engaged in the production of energy. Perhaps this is what Brown and his fellows have in mind, when they are talking about the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs:
This weekend, the University of the West of England’s Centre for Psycho-Social Studies is holding a conference on ‘The Psychological and Political Challenge of Facing Climate Change’. According to conference organiser Professor Paul Hoggett:
“We will examine [climate change] denial from a variety of different perspectives…
Except he doesn’t actually mean ‘different perspectives':
…as the product of addiction to consumption, as the outcome of diffusion of responsibility and the idea that someone else will sort it out and as the consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency, irresponsibility.”
Brendan O’Neill beat us to it:
…It will be a gathering of those from the top of society – ‘psychotherapists, social researchers, climate change activists, eco-psychologists’ – who will analyse those at the bottom of society, as if we were so many flitting, irrational amoeba under an eco-microscope. The organisers say the conference will explore how ‘denial’ is a product of both ‘addiction and consumption’ and is the ‘consequence of living in a perverse culture which encourages collusion, complacency and irresponsibility’. It is a testament to the dumbed-down, debate-phobic nature of the modern academy that a conference is being held not to explore ideas – to interrogate, analyse and fight over them – but to tag them as perverse.
We don’t have much to add, other than recommending that you take a moment to browse the conference programme and the outline of the afternoon’s Themed Groups session to get the full flavour of the event. (Links to Word files at the bottom of this page.) Here’s a taster:
It’s one thing – though a very important one – to understand environmental issues intellectually; quite another thing to feel them in our flesh and blood. According to ecopsychologists, our alienation from flesh and blood experience plays a key role in our numb acceptance of planetary degradation and destruction. This workshop will use simple experiential exercises to help you connect more deeply with your own embodiment, and hence with the beauty and fragility of the other-than-human world.
It sounds like a great day’s entertainment if anyone fancies popping along. And all for only 50 quid.
We’ve alluded to Clockwork Orange (Clockwork Green?) when talking about psychologists’ attempts to get a piece of the climate change action. O’Neill goes with Nineteen Eighty-Four:
Psychologising dissent, and refusing to recognise, much less engage with, the substance of people’s disagreements – their political objections, their rational criticisms, their desire to do things differently – is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. In the Soviet Union, outspoken critics of the ruling party were frequently tagged as mentally disordered and faced, as one Soviet dissident described it, ‘political exile to mental institutions’ (11). There they would be treated with narcotics, tranquillisers and even electric shock therapy. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure our hero Winston Smith of his anti-party thinking. ‘You are mentally deranged!’ he tells him. Today the word ‘Orwellian’ is massively overused, to describe everything from fingerprint library cards to supermarket loyalty cards, but treating your dissenters as deranged? That really is Orwellian, and we should declare permanent war against it.
There are two sides to every debate, of course, so we’ll give the last word to O’Brien the torturer Dr Steven Moffic:
It’s often hard to have a discussion about the climate change debate without recourse to language about ‘sides’.
We are certainly not the only ones to have argued that the conventional portrayal of the debate as a polarised one between warmers/alarmists and sceptics/deniers is counter-productive. Not only does it too easily translate into a battle between good and evil, but it is a misleading description of climate change debates.
Moreover, while such debates are principally about what to do – the politics – the existing categories relate to what is believed about the material reality – ‘the science’. For instance you could attract the label ‘denier’ (and many do) by arguing that there’s no urgent need for ‘drastic action’ to avoid climate change in spite of holding that CO2 is influencing the climate, and will cause problems, and that it would be a good idea to cut emissions in the longer term.
The polarisation of the political debate using scientific terms is an impediment to understanding the actual arguments being made. An individual’s views on the science aren’t always sufficient to explain the ‘side’ he ends up on, or which label is applied to him. To label someone in a way that relates to ‘science’ when their views are essentially political is like determining what football team someone supports according to how they dance. It might work in some more extreme cases if you’re armed with some cultural knowledge, but broadly speaking, it’s just silly.
How then, should we sensibly identify ‘sides’ in the debate? We think we have the germ of an answer.
It seems to us that there are two categories of people – the interested and the uninterested. The uninterested are not engaged with the debate. The interested are.
Then there are those who believe that what emerges from climate science constitutes moral imperatives that demand a special form of politics. This contrasts with those who may or may not recognise climate change as a problem, but who do not recognise the need for such special ‘eco’ politics. Their arguments are categorised as ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’ respectively.
These two opposing categories can be joined up:
||Somebody for whom climate change is central to their political perspective, and actively engages with the debate.||Somebody who does not engage with or challenge the debate but takes at face value the terms presented by politicians, the media, and instructions to recycle, etc.|
|Unorthodox||Somebody who does not believe that environmental problems demand a special form of politics, and who engages with the debate.||Somebody who does not engage with or challenge the debate, and who doesn’t pay much attention to what environmentalists tell them to do.|
We’ve included people who are not ‘in’ the debate as such, because we think that a lot of the debate is about them. For instance, how to get people in the Uninterested-Unorthodox category (which includes the vast majority of the human race) to change their lifestyles, is a major concern of those in the Interested-Orthodox category.