Monthly Archives: May 2009
Jeremy Grantham is very rich and very worried. According to the Sunday Times, he has donated £24million to fund climate change research – £12million each to the London School of Economics and Imperial College:
Grantham believes climate change could lead to the collapse of Earth’s ecosystems and even threaten human civilisation.
So concerned is Grantham, 70, over this issue that he has set up the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, endowed with £165m of his own money, to fund environmental research and campaigns. From it he is funding the LSE and Imperial donations, and other grants to American groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund.
This is actually rather old news, which we reported on back in January. But it’s worth another look because, in his exclusive interview with the entirely credulous Sunday Times, Grantham is given full rein to expound on his personal fears and his political prescriptions:
“climate change is turning into the biggest problem humanity has ever faced … We are destroying the planet. We are in the middle of one of the greatest extinctions of species Earth has seen. If it continues unchecked, humanity will soon be running out of food and water … the environment, especially climate change, is going to be the central issue for all society, including business, politics and the economy…
Of course, ‘the environment, especially climate change’, already is ‘the central issue for all society’. We’re rather surprised he hadn’t heard.
But like all establishment greens, that’s not enough for Grantham, who demands no less than the reorganisation of society to save the planet:
…Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world.”
So the capitalist wants to reorganise capitalism, seemingly in the interests of ‘saving the planet’. To further this objective, he funds organisations with close relationships to the state and academia.
The Sunday Times draws on research conducted last year by Professor Cathy Pharoah, co-director of City University’s Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, who
suspects climate change is such a big problem that many would-be donors do not know how to donate or who to give to.
“Climate change has yet to become an attractive issue for many donors,” she said.
She also found that the top 50 environment charities had income of £977m in 2007 — less than half the £2.1 billion achieved by the 50 top overseas aid charities, such as Oxfam. The National Trust is the organisation that raises the most money — about £63m a year.
The implication is, of course, that climate change charities need more money, and that it’s not right and proper that overseas aid charities should have twice the income. This is rather a strange observation in itself. But it’s not even a useful distinction to draw.
Overseas aid charities have been busy reinventing themselves as climate change charities. Oxfam, for example, has launched its own campaign against power stations in the UK, on the basis that their emissions harm the world’s poor:
Coal or renewable? The old way, or the new. We head right back to dirty energy with E.ON’s Kingsnorth. We destroy our chances of avoiding a climate catastrophe and let climate change push poor people deeper into poverty. Or we innovate and start a clean energy revolution. Now is the time to choose.
In the context of environmentalism in general, these charities have all but dropped their traditional push for overseas development in favour of promoting sustainability, which by its very nature means less development.
And like all establishment greens, Grantham has a rather low view of his fellow humans
“Humanity is largely innumerate,” said Grantham.
“They don’t understand how frightening the numbers behind climate change really are…
‘They’… hmm. Being unfettered by membership of humanity, Grantham is free to see things how they really are:
What’s more, the people who can count, the scientists, are paralysed with fear about overstating their case. They have consistently understated the risk and so allowed politicians to ignore it.”
If ever a claim deserved a bit of journalistic scrutiny, that one does. But instead, the Sunday Times adds its own hand-waving statements about what scientists think into the mix:
Scientists argue, however, that there is little point donating money to save birds, woodlands or coastline from short-term threats if they are simply going to be wiped out by global warming later on.
Would that be all scientists? Most scientists? Some scientists? A scientist? Well, according to the evidence presented in the article, it’s no scientists. Or, at least, no scientists’ opinions are offered to support the claim. Instead, it hands straight back over to Grantham for corroboration:
Grantham agrees. With three grown-up children and his first grandchild on the way, he sees money spent on climate research as an investment in the world his grandchildren will inherit.
He is, however, increasingly pessimistic about what kind of world that will be.
“Our species is very bad at dealing with issues like these, so the outlook is bleak. There is no alternative to doing all we can but I suspect humanity is going to face a lot of grief.”
That one person is able to influence the direction of the climate ‘debate’ to the extent that he funds entire research organisations will be an irony lost on environmentalists. You can safely bet £24 million that none of the £24 million Grantham has invested will be allowed near any research which shows any danger of undermining the political argument for action to stop climate change. Meanwhile, the $22 million that Greenpeace unearthed flowing between Exxon and lobbying organisations between 1998 and 2006 is still held as ‘evidence’ that powerful interests dominate the ‘debate’.
Someone else who isn’t entirely wrong this week is Lord Bob May of Oxford. It’s quite refreshing to hear the former Royal Society president and government chief-scientific adviser having a go at Big Environment for a change instead of Big Oil:
Parts of the green movement have become hijacked by a political agenda and now operate like multinational corporations, according to two senior scientists and members of the House of Lords.
The peers, who were speaking at an event in parliament on science policy, said they felt that in some areas green campaign groups were a hindrance to environmental causes.
“Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s a political movement,” said Lord May
He’s certainly right that the green movement is a political movement. But it’s an observation from the realm of the startlingly obvious. It’s a movement. Take away the politics and it ceases to exist. May and his fellow peer Lord Krebs seem to be imagining some sort of ideal politics-free… erm… politics.
May [added] that he used to be involved with Greenpeace in the 1970s
What on Earth did they think the green movement was, back in the good-old days, before it got all ‘political’? They don’t say.
May might be a great scientist, but he’s a bad Scientist. As a Scientist – by which we mean, someone who practises Scientism – May is under the impression that his views are merely an extension of ‘the science’ – as if he were the vessel for pure scientific objectivity, and above mere politics. Politics by simultaneous equation. Trouble is, not only are May’s facts often spectacularly wrong, so too is his habit of hiding orthodox environmental politics behind them.
Through his criticism of his fellow Scientists, Greenpeace, May betrays the folly of Scientism. When Scientists disagree, they can only resort to accusing each other of politics. Because politics is what people who are wrong do. After all, you can’t have different views among people who are guided only by the science. And the way you show people are guilty of politics is to show they’ve got their facts wrong. Greenpeace went wrong, it seems, when they let their politics get in the way of May’s version of the facts.
May also criticised green groups who campaign against initiatives such as wind farms and the Severn tidal barrage scheme, while also proclaiming the need to tackle climate change. He said such groups were “failing to recognise the landscape is human-created”.
He might be right that greens harbour an aversion to anything ‘unnatural’. But he is wrong to think that, to see the light over alternative energy, they just need a few facts pointing out to them. After all, if the landscape is human-created, what could be wrong with a human-created atmosphere?
Moreover, the bulk of the opposition to alternative energy comes not from green groups, but from run-of-the-mill objections that just happen to make use of the very environmental language in currency – ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘sustainability’ – that May himself has been promoting. This language has, as we have pointed out here on Climate Resistance, been used to reorganise many and varied aspects of public life. Local government services and plans have all been adjusted to meet the demands of ‘sustainability’ and climate change anxiety. Property developers have painted themselves green. What’s left of British industry has been painted green. So it should be no surprise then that the objections to them are also framed in the same terms. They aren’t green enough. They aren’t sustainable. They will damage fragile ecosystems.
May complains that Greenpeace should be more honest about their political agenda:
“I wish they would wear the uniform of the army they are fighting [under],” said May
But May himself wears several layers of different uniform underneath his tightly-buttoned ‘senior-scientist’ regalia. As self-appointed custodian of the facts, May demands respect for them, and uses them as a stick to beat down insubordination, within and without the ranks, as this interview revealed:
We have to confront this threat,’ says May. ‘Unfortunately the media all too often does this in a way that relegates the most important issue facing our species as if it was a soccer match between two competing sides of equal strength. It’s not. If you want to compare it [the debate over the existence of global warming] to a football match, it is more like Manchester United taking on three primary school children. It is as ridiculous as that.
On one hand, you have the entire scientific community and on the other you have a handful of people, half of them crackpots. Nevertheless, this is still presented as an unresolved battle. That is simply not true. It has been resolved. Only the details of climatic change’s impact have still to be worked out.’
May has lost count of the players in his war/football fantasy. This isn’t a game of two sides, because, for a long time, May has been fighting his own war with deeper Greens. The battle line was drawn across England’s fields – not football fields, but fields where genetically modified crops were being trialled and trashed.
Before his stint as President of the Royal Society, May was appointed by the UK government to lead an investigation into the safety of GM food. But, according to the Guardian, he was also…
… being paid by a leading GM company, it emerged last night.
Bob May and Alan Dewar of the Institute of Arable Crops Research, an organisation subsidised by the government, were appointed in June to help lead a team of “world-class scientists” to look at the potential adverse impacts of the farm trials.
…Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace called for the scientists’ resignation and the winding up of the farm-scale trials, several of which have been partly destroyed by anti-GM activists and one of which was abandoned by the farmer.
Things got worse for May when scientists broke ranks:
… the British Medical Association (BMA) announced it believed gene foods were a potential danger to health, particularly those involving the use of antibiotic-resistant genes. ‘On the basis of no evidence any actual harm,’ as New Scientist noted, the BMA then called for a ban on such crops because they could increase antibiotic resistance in humans.
It was this notion that began Bob May’s lachrymous uncertainties. ‘Christ, we have rising antibiotic resistance because the bloody members of the BMA have been oversubcribing penicillin for every damn illness you can think of. It’s got nothing to do with GM food.’
This was a PR disaster, exacerbated by May’s anger and impatience.
In vain, do scientists such as Sir Robert point out that modified crops actually reduce [pesticide] use. ‘It is simple common sense. Modified seeds cost more than normal seeds. So why the fuck would farmers want to have them if they also used up more pesticides which also cost money?’
He had tried to sell the potential of GM positively, but failed comprehensively, telling MPs in 1999 that:
there are real social and environmental choices to be made… They are not about safety as such, but about much larger questions of what kind of world we want to live in…. There is a huge potential market for new GM ‘agrifood’ in Europe.
This kind of world, argued George Monbiot, was one in which scientists were instrumental in an an ‘economic war against the poor’ – good science wasn’t necessarily ‘good’.
The physics labs in which some of the best scientific brains in Britain design grenades which maim without killing, or bombs which destroy people but not the infrastructure, practice “good” science, subjected to peer review. They are also saturated with values. They place a higher value on their research grants than on the lives with which they toy. Precisely the same approach appears to govern many of the nation’s biology labs.
For the war now being waged across the planet is an economic one, as big corporations attempt to seize the resources upon which some of the poorest people on earth depend. And many of the best biologists in Britain are fighting on the wrong side.
But Monbiot’s distance from Scientism diminished substantially over the next decade, as Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill noted last year:
Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason, a ‘defender of truth’ no less, who is praised on the dust-jacket of his latest book for possessing a ‘dazzling command of science’ (only by Naomi Klein, admittedly, but still).
May lost the battle over GM crops. But he learned a valuable lesson. The potential benefits that science offered weren’t persuasive in the face of the fear that the environmental movement was capable of generating. It was too easy to turn any argument about the potential of science into an argument that favoured business interests. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Science would assert its influence, not by constructing positive visions of the future, but by selling itself as the only insurance policy against certain doom. ‘The kind of world we want to live in’ ceased to be a matter of choice, or even about ‘safety as such’. There was now only one course – survival, and its terms were to be dictated by science. Monbiot and May seemed to agree.
Now, of course, even Greenpeace are likely to cite Bob May’s views on the climate debate:
Last year the UK’s prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, wrote to Exxon asking them to stop funding the groups who were “misinforming the public about the science of climate change”. Exxon indicated to the Royal Society that they had – and they would. In February this year Exxon did a big public relations round of the media, saying it had been “misunderstood” on climate change and gave the clear indication that it had dropped its funding of the climate sceptic industry.
And more curiously, May uses the very same argument about industry funding that Greenpeace was throwing at him in the late 1990s, citing their efforts to ‘expose Exxon’. Greenpeace quotes May quoting Greenpeace on Exxon.
The scientific establishment and grubby eco-warriors converged, speaking each others’ language: science gave plausibility to the environmental movement’s darkest fantasies, and the environmentalists’ nightmares gave science a legitimising raison d’etre. But as May’s confusion about which army’s colours Greenpeace are wearing reveal, the convenience of this entente is not lasting. The side/football team/army that May found himself on is itself at least two, with different interests, and different ambitions that no longer appear to be mutually expedient.
Catastrophism is not the only argumentative tack that Bob May, and the Royal Society in general, have borrowed from the greens. In the days of the GM Wars, when environmental groups were hailing Arpad Pusztai’s infamous study on toxic potatoes as proof that GM food was harmful to health, the Royal Society, under May’s leadership, was bending over backwards to dismiss it as a single, unreplicated piece of evidence. And it was. But ten years later, in his desperation to drive home the prospect of climate catastrophe to unbelievers, he cites single, unrepresentative, worst-case studies with abandon – re-framing them along the way in order to remove any suggestion that they might not be the last word on the matter. In fact, he cites with abandon Lord Stern citing with abandon a single, unrepresentative, worst-case study of climate-change threats to biodiversity. No, worse, he mis-cites Stern with abandon – surreptitiously and wholly dishonestly chopping the middle out of the quoted section to achieve the full effect.
The shifting positions of scientists and pressure groups in environmental debates is illustrated further by comments by May and Krebs in the parliamentary event we started with. Krebs, for example, is happy to denigrate Greenpeace as scaremongers:
Lord Krebs, the former chairman of the Food Standards Agency and current principal of Jesus College Oxford also criticised Greenpeace, saying that it had been set up to peddle fear on environmental issues. “Greenpeace is a multinational corporation just like Monsanto or Tesco. They have very effective marketing departments… Their product is worry because worry is what recruits members,” he said.
But some scaremongering is more equal than others:
He added that in some areas, such as warning about the effects of climate change, such an approach was justified, but that Greenpeace sometimes chose the wrong issues – for example, nuclear power and GM crops.
May echoes these sentiments:
May said parliamentarians had not done enough to prepare the public for the effect climate change would have on their lives in terms of efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate changes.
“I think there has been a problem of communication,” he said. “For some, I think it’s the desire not to confront the issue.” But, he said, the smoking ban had showed, for example, that public attitudes could change rapidly.
The smoking ban did not change attitudes. All it did was to prevent the expression of attitudes – there is no choice. It hasn’t made people less tolerant of smoking, it’s just made smoking illegal in public spaces. It is a deeply confused lawmaker who cannot tell the difference between a law and an attitude.
This confusion represents the heart of the problem of May’s scientism. If you merely view ‘attitudes’ as equivalent to holding so many wrong or right ‘facts’, then it stands to reason that winning the argument consists of no more than barking right facts at the wrong. This harks back to a prehistoric view of science communication that the Royal Society itself has played no small part in dispelling. It is a return to the deficit model, whereby the unenlightened masses just need to know more about the science in order to come to the ‘correct’ conclusions. The last couple of decades have seen a shift away from this unidirectional Public Understanding of Science to a more conversational Public Engagement with Science model. And yet it is striking that, while the Royal Society has embraced public engagement exercises over nanotechnology and, to an extent, genetic modification (although only after the horse had bolted), when it comes to climate change, conversations are conspicuous by their absence. The only conversations that the Royal Society takes part in on climate change are with those who already agree. It’s little surprise that there has been no formal attempt to engage the public in conversation when the majority of the electorate remain unconvinced by climate change rhetoric.
May attempts to side-step this particular pitfall by claiming that wrong facts about climate change are only held because they were put there by the wrong people – conspiracies of ‘an active and well-funded “denial lobby”‘, in May’s words.
‘Politics’ is thus reduced to the expression of wrong ‘facts’, resulting in the highly polarised battle between armies – or football teams – representing true (science) and false (politics). The whole business of politics is therefore a deviation from ‘the right facts’. Concomitant with such scientism is the view that being right is equivalent to being legitimate: the ‘consensus’/football team/truth-army legitimises the reorganisation of the world according to the demands of the environmentalists that are consistent with the Scientists’ own ambitions. What makes this necessary are the dire consequences of climate change, as dictated by ‘climate science’
Whatever the scientific truth of the claim, scientism’s argument amounts to an organising principle, the same as any other political ideology. Any normative proposition that demands that we change our lives must be treated as any other. That is to say, it needs to win its way to influence by persuasive and careful argument, and must endure hostile criticism. But that is not how the environmental movement has won its influence. Instead, men like May have captured the catastrophic drama that has been generated by the likes of Greenpeace and used it to legitimise new international and national political institutions and legal frameworks. Where political philosophies used to gain momentum – movement – through capturing the public’s imagination, and would assert ideas through such weight of numbers, today’s political players legitimise themselves with terrifying images.
Bob May might be unaware of his own contributions to the politicisation of science, but it is not lost on Patrick Moore, Director of Greenpeace International for seven years during the 1970s, the period of Bob May’s involvement with the group:
“It appears to be the policy of the Royal Society to stifle dissent and silence anyone who may have doubts about the connection between global warming and human activity,” said Dr. Moore, Chairman and Chief Scientist of Vancouver, Canada-based Greenspirit Strategies Ltd.
“That kind of repression seems more suited to the Inquisition than to a modern, respected scientific body,” said Moore.
May would no doubt argue that these shifting allegiances reflect no more than the ‘truth’ of ‘the science’ on offer from Greenpeace et al regarding these various areas.
Indeed, May’s erstwhile right-hand-man Bob Ward has argued just that:
during my early days at the Royal Society in 1999, the Society became involved in a major debate over GM foodstuffs, when it challenged a number of statements about their safety that were based on studies that had not been submitted to peer-reviewed journals. This made the Society the subject of much criticism from NGOs such as Greenpeace, which I think demonstrates that the Society is not partisan to particular interest groups.
That the Royal Society doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with businesses and Greenpeace may make it hard to identify the Royal Society’s sympathy with an existing interest group. But that doesn’t mean that interests and politics aren’t operating beneath the crusader-for-science costume. Even having the best scientific facts doesn’t guarantee the stainless moral fibre of their possessor. The curious thing about the last few decades’ eco-wars has been the way that all sides have attempted to portray themselves as being in possession of the best, least interested facts, and that the opposing viewpoints are tainted – perverted, even – by financial and political interest. But paradoxically, this has happened in an era characterised by a dearth of influence by political perspectives in debate. Since the late eighties, for example, it has been hard to identify the functioning of Left or Right arguments operating in the public sphere that owe anything to their traditions. Where once, such movements would have achieved prominence for their ideas precisely because they were political, and because they represented interests, today’s movements instead appeal to ‘science’ for legitimacy.
But as the GM wars showed, science hasn’t solved anything: the debate continues its descent. The arguments May produces, like Frankenstein’s own monster, escape his control. The interminable issue of funding, rather than demonstrating the purity of scientific objectivity, demonstrates the impossibility of such a perspective ever being achieved – even Lord May is ‘industry funded’. Scientific terminology – ‘sustainability’, ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’ – escape scientific context, to allow anyone to speculate what might happen ‘if trends continue’. The notion of ‘consensus’ becomes detached from its object, and allows anyone with a broadly sympathetic agenda to cite facts about opinion about facts as evidence of facts themselves.
This is no reflection on the usefulness of science itself. But that usefulness diminishes when it is puffed up for political purposes – ultimately to fill the void left by politics itself.
So, May might be giving a few sections of the green movement a bit of stick, but when it comes down to it, that Greenpeace et al have got their facts wrong has little to do with it. He pounces on them when their interests and politics diverge from his own. Which is why environmentalists can rest assured that they can keep on making up the facts about the climatastrophe as they go along without incurring the wrath of May or the Royal Society. In fact, the Royal Society gives out prizes for that sort of thing.
May has lost one battle against the forces of unreason. He doesn’t want to lose another one. He’s going to win on climate change, even if he has to lower himself and scientific institutions to the level of Greenpeace to do so. But in today’s world, neither are causes; they are both just symptoms.
George Monbiot isn’t always entirely wrong. Writing in the Guardian yesterday:
Why is the Medical Research Council run by an arms manufacturer? Why is the Natural Environment Research Council run by the head of a construction company? Why is the chairman of a real estate firm in charge of higher education funding for England?
Because our universities are being turned into corporate research departments. No longer may they pursue knowledge for its own sake: the highest ambition to which they must aspire is finding better ways to make money.
Last month, unremarked by the media, a quiet intellectual revolution took place. The research councils, which provide 90% of the funding for academic research, introduced a requirement for those seeking grants: they must describe the economic impact of the work they want to conduct. The councils define impact as the “demonstrable contribution” research can make to society and the economy. But how do you demonstrate the impact of blue skies research before it has been conducted?
The increasingly cosy relationship between government, industry and the Academy (we’d throw activism in there, too) is certainly a problem. But that’s not to say Monbiot is entirely right.
First, his article is notable for what it leaves out. He could have added: Why is the Economic and Social Science Research Council’s Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) chaired by the vice-president of a firm offering carbon-finance products? Or why is the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) chaired by a businessman and green activist?
Second, this linear model of research that Monbiot complains about is also remarkably attractive to those at the top of institutional environmentalism. We reported, for example, on Sir David King’s advocacy for just such a linear model of research funding when he argued that the money spent on the Large Hadron Collider would be better spent saving the climate.
Moreover, since Lord Stern’s report on the economics of climate change, the ‘economic impact’ part of the equation that Monbiot scoffs at is increasingly central to the environmentalist research agenda. And it is Lord Stern himself who heads up the CCCEP, of course. The CCCEP’s own model of research is itself linear, as demonstrated by its mission statement:
Climate change and its potential impacts are increasingly accepted, but economic, social and political systems have been slow to respond. There is a clear and urgent need to speed up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to unavoidable climate change.
The Centre’s mission is to respond to this need by advancing public and private action on climate change through innovative, rigorous research.
But more than that, we have argued repeatedly here that, on environmental matters, the interests of government, industry, academia and pressure groups are remarkably similar. The only contingent that begs to differ, in fact, is the electorate. Which is why the CCCEP’s own linear research model is directed towards the specific goal of changing behaviour.
Monbiot complains that NERC is run by the head of a construction company. And yet that hasn’t stopped it reframing its activities under the banner of climate change and the like. From the front page of NERC’s website:
NERC funds world-class science in universities and our own research centres that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. We are tackling the 21st century’s major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. We lead in providing independent research and training in the environmental sciences.
In the rather more crude version of Monbiot’s argument, he claims that a conspiracy of oil interests has paid for the ‘distortion’ of science. Yet it turns out that the cash available to the alarmists – who more often than not make arguments that are well out of kilter with the ‘consensus’ position without drawing Monbiot’s criticism – exceeds the denialists’ efforts by several orders of magnitude. In this case too, Monbiot’s critical eye has too narrow a perspective. It’s okay for there to be a relationship between academia, private interest, and the state when it suits him. As we have said before, when you wear green spectacles, you cannot see anything that is painted green – greenwashed.
The issue here is clearly not merely commercial, as George seems to imply. The fact that well-connected people are able to turn their social status into cash is no surprise – it was ever thus. What is interesting is that where once we imagined academia to speak truth to power, it is increasingly expected to speak Official Truth®™ for power.
Bob Ward’s accusations about our funding arrangements made us realise that anyone out there wishing to push their filthy dirty oil money our way have no way of getting it to us. To that end, we have installed a shiny new button, dedicated to him. Please feel free to click it (or the ‘donate’ menu item at the top of the page to contribute in £ or Euros) and help us keep the resistance going.
Even if you’re not an energy transnational, if the recession isn’t biting you too hard, and you enjoy this blog, just a dollar/euro/pound or two would come in handy. We’d like to upgrade our server, get a better functioning website design, and maybe add a few features.
Thank you most kindly.
Among the most absurd elements of climate change debates is the persistence of the issue of ‘funding’. Absurd because at the same time that science is held to give uncorrupted and incorruptible instructions about how to respond to a changing climate, it is also held – by the very same people – to be vulnerable to ‘attack’ and ‘distortion’ by financial interests. This form of argument has been deployed by alarmists to diminish the credibility of anyone challenging the ‘consensus’, whether or not they actually challenge ‘the science’. According to this logic, anybody who has any sympathy with any sort of contrary argument, if they aren’t part of the organised conspiracy to ‘distort the science’, have been brainwashed by it.
It’s also absurd because no matter how hard an attempt is made to divide the debate between good and bad, funded and unfunded, interested and disinterested, the argument fails. For every vested interest in ‘business as usual’, there is a venture capitalist lobbying for legislation that will create a market for their carbon finance products. For every ‘politically-motivated’ argument standing against the Kyoto Protocol and its successor, there is an ideologue angling to reorganise society according to the tenets of environmentalism. For every ‘denial’ of climate change science, a hundred more liberties are taken with the facts in the other direction.
It’s even more absurd because those who shriek the loudest about the corrupting influence of dirty oil money tend to have far more than their fair share of power in climate debates.
Talking of which, we are flattered that Bob Ward – Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, erstwhile Director of Public Policy at risk insurance giants RMS and before that, Senior Manager for Policy Communication at the Royal Society – has dropped by to give his thoughts on our observation that, if you’re going to go around accusing the opposition of corruption, you’d better be whiter than white yourself. We suggested that Ward’s obsession with Exxon is rather ironic given his own links with the risk insurance industry. And, of course, the risk insurance industry has at least as much to gain from climate alarmism as Exxon has from playing down the dangers.
Except that the only thoughts that Ward has actually offered consist of accusations that… you’ve guessed it… that we are motivated by our own dodgy financial interests:
Dear Ben and Stuart,
Who needs ‘LinkedIn’ when you can have hilarious pages on spoof websites like this devoted to your career! Congratulations on one of the most imaginative attacks on me yet – it ranks alongside ExxonMobil’s attempts to convince Chris Huhne MP that there were question marks over my departure from the Royal Society!
I was hoping to gauge whether I was demonstrably more corrupt than you, but sadly you seem to be a bit shy about revealing the identity of your paymasters. Do tell!
Then, in true Pythonesque Spanish-Inquisition style, he adds:
I didn’t expect you to reveal your sources of financial support, and you didn’t disappoint. Or maybe you really are independently wealthy and don’t need to work for a living. Just like Prince Charles, eh chaps? Pip pip!
If Ward can be so wrong in this instance – and, for the record, he is utterly wrong on both counts – it does rather make one wonder about the veracity of any of his other accusations.
You are welcome to make of it what you like. We are aware that one mustn’t make too much of the witterings of a PR professional. But, at the very least, we’d expect rather more from a PR professional of Ward’s credentials, especially one who claims to speak for science – as Ward does in his many indignant open letters to his various nemeses. No, maybe not.
Anyway, like one commenter, we are intrigued to find out what Ward actually thinks is ‘imaginative’ about our account. All we have done is pull together a bunch of factual observations about the political, business and academic interests of Ward and his associates. No imagination necessary. But Ward is too busy with the ‘ad hominems’ to say what might actually be wrong with the piece.
It would seem that Ward is aspiring to the standards set by his former boss at the Royal Society, Bob May, who, while on the one hand, insists that we ‘respect the facts‘ (as designated by the Royal Society), is only too willing to make up stuff as it pleases him as long as it serves his political ends.
As we pointed out a long time ago, Greenpeace’s attempts to establish the size of the conspiracy to distort science culminated in a total failure of the argument. Their Exxonsecrets website aimed to demonstrate the flow of cash between the oil giant and a network of think tanks, and found a trail of cash amounting to $22 million between 1998 and 2006. Their own budget for the same period was $2.1 billion. For every dollar that Exxon is alleged to have spent on distorting the debate, Greenpeace spent a thousand on their own propaganda effort.
What does it prove? Not very much. All it says is that the issue of funding and interests isn’t clear cut, and in fact cuts both ways. But it does suggest that Grantham’s Policy and Communications Director is getting rather desperate if he is resorting to hurling accusations of dodgy funding at a couple of lowly bloggers.
If you think we are getting a bit over-excited by all this, you’re probably right. But the point is that, while people shriek that interests corrupt, it’s not just profits and careers that are being established on the back of climate change anxiety – an entire climate change industry and national and international political institutions are being constructed with the objective of changing the way we live. What we have argued on this blog is that, whatever the scientific truth about climate change, it doesn’t call for special politics and special political institutions that are, for the sake of our survival, above criticism and scrutiny. Bob Ward and his ilk seem to think that this industry and these institutions – which he has played his own small part in manufacturing – are above scrutiny, and that all he needs to do to dismiss any criticism is point his fingers and cry ‘Exxon!’. Given the lack of popular support for the restructuring of political systems on environmental grounds, perhaps Ward’s boss at Grantham, Lord Stern, should consider getting a new Public Relations man.
Over at the Register, Stu has an interview with Professor Mike Hulme:
Just two years ago, Mike Hulme would have been about the last person you’d expect to hear criticising conventional climate change wisdom. Back then, he was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, an organisation so revered by environmentalists that it could be mistaken for the academic wing of the green movement. Since leaving Tyndall – and as we found out in a telephone interview – he has come out of the climate change closet as an outspoken critic of such sacred cows as the UN’s IPCC, the “consensus”, the over-emphasis on scientific evidence in political debates about climate change, and to defend the rights of so-called “deniers” to contribute to those debates…
Here it is.
A good excuse to recycle one of our favourite videos:
Just two years ago, Mike Hulme would have been about the last person you’d expect to hear criticising conventional climate change wisdom. Back then, he was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, an organisation so revered by environmentalists that it could be mistaken for the academic wing of the green movement. Since leaving Tyndall – and as we found out in a telephone interview – he has come out of the climate change closet as an outspoken critic of such sacred cows as the UN’s IPCC, the “consensus”, the over-emphasis on scientific evidence in political debates about climate change, and to defend the rights of so-called “deniers” to contribute to those debates.
As Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, Hulme remains one of the UK’s most distinguished and high-profile climate scientists. In his new book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, he explores how the issue of climate change has come to be such a dominant issue in modern politics. He treats climate change not as a problem that we need to solve – indeed, he believes that the complexity of the issue means that it cannot be solved, only lived with – and instead considers it as much of a cultural idea as a physical phenomenon.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing to hear from a climate scientist writing about climate change is that climate science has for too long had the monopoly in climate change debates. When we spoke to him on the phone, Hulme cited as evidence the 2007 protests against Heathrow’s third runway, where marchers made their case by waving a research paper at the TV cameras under a banner bearing the slogan “We are armed only with peer reviewed science”. [The paper wasn't actually peer-reviewed science - see Bootnote]
“To me, that’s the most dispiriting position,” says Hulme. “For these people who feel so passionately about this, their ultimate authority is a report from a group of scientists, and they’re saying ‘this is where we stand, forget about our moral concerns, forget about our ethical positions, forget about whether we are Right, Left or centre, forget about whether we are Christians or Buddists, no, none of that matters.’ The only thing that matters is that they’re holding a report from peer-reviewed science that in itself justifies their position.”
And it’s not just protesters who are hiding behind the authority of science. World leaders are doing it, too.
“Uncertainty, and things like that”
Hulme despairs over the comments made to the Copenhagen climate conference in March by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then the Danish Prime Minister. Rasmussen told delegates that “science should be the basis for decision-making in this field”, and asked scientists to keep it simple, “not to provide us with too many moving targets…and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.”
“That’s just classic,” says Hulme. “Here’s this politician telling the scientists ‘we can’t do this without you. Give us the numbers. But by the way, make them simple, and make them precise.’”
Hulme believes that this dependence of politics on science expects too much of science’s ability to explain and to predict, and that this is a burden that science cannot carry. Science is exposing its vulnerabilities, he says. And in overselling itself, the risks are very substantial. “It’s like the classic case of the dodgy dossier”.
Making politics disappear
He stresses that he has little problem with the basic scientific understanding of climate change. It’s just that, if progress is to be made in debates on how to respond to that knowledge, they need to be opened up to other disciplines, from the arts and humanities, for example – and to good old-fashioned politics and ideologies.
“However much we agree on the fundamentals of the physics of climate change, there are huge ethical, political and ideological differences that remain about what climate change signifies for society”, says Hulme. “And if one pretends that we can gloss over those, converging on a single political position, where there is no party political debate and differentiation, then we’re losing some of the essential dimensions of climate change that we have to engage with. It narrows down debate rather than opening it up.”
Which is why Hulme has opposed the idea of UK cross-party consensus. “Climate change can only be understood from a position of dis-census, rather than artificially solved by creating consensus,” he says.
Similarly, while he is sympathetic to the ambitions of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he is critical of the way it is widely cited as the last word on climate issues.
“It’s won theNobel Peace Prize for goodness’ sake – it can’t be challenged!”
He also regards the IPCC as too selective in terms of both the geographical regions from which it draws its knowledge and in its academic scope.
“It is hugely dominated by the natural sciences, economics and engineering. The social sciences hardly get a look in, and the humanities none at all. For example, it does not include anthropological understandings of weather and climate or any historical perspectives on how societies and climates have interacted historically.”
“If climate change is the biggest issue facing the future of human civilisation, to use the rhetoric, then surely a body charged to assess what humans know about climate change should actually be assessing all forms of knowledge.”
Moreover, says Hulme, no one is even quite sure what sort of knowledge it is that the IPCC, as a “boundary organisation” – part science, part politics – actually produces. Nor how the world at large interprets that hybrid knowledge. Even more fundamentally, he says, it is far from clear that the IPCC has actually allowed us to do “better science”:
“Or has it actually narrowed the way we frame and ask questions in climate change research?” Hulme wonders.
And yet even though the IPCC is an institutional experiment as much as a scientific one – and despite its occupying a position of huge influence in the world – few sociologists seem to be scrutinising its workings. This may in part be due to the fact that action on climate change is widely seen as a progressive goal, says Hulme, and being a generally progressive sort of bunch, social scientists might be reticent to impede proceedings, or to be seen to give succour to right-wing “denialists”.
“That’s an accusation that has been charged at me, that I’m simply lending ammunition to people who generally are politically conservative, and who want to discredit the basic physics behind climate change.”
In pushing to open up climate change debates to non-scientific disciplines, Hulme runs the risk perhaps of attracting accusations of not only “denier”, but also of “relativist”, which is almost as dirty a word in scientific circles. Hulme’s Christian beliefs might be a further invitation to ad hominem responses.
But any attacks that were aimed at him on these grounds would demonstrate his point nicely.
After all, much of the abuse that is hurled across the climate divide comes from those who like to believe that it is they who are dealing in a currency of proper science – bias and ideology is what the opposition does. Hence the vitriol aimed at Bjørn Lomborg over the years.
“It was interesting as to why he received such hate-mail from very well respected academics rather than simply engaging in the arguments,” says Hulme. “It became very very heavily and easily personalised, when actually Lomborg’s position is an entirely defendable position. I mean, you can disagree with it, and you can find flaws in his argument, but let’s find those flaws and let’s have a disagreement, rather than suddenly becoming reactionaries overnight. And I think there’s too much of that. And it’s an interesting question as to why it is that people feel that climate change is somehow is the issue beyond all other issues today that one has to stand on shoulder to shoulder and not allow any chink in because it would allow the powers of darkness to somehow gain the upper hand.”
For Hulme, for open debate to be possible, there must be a recognition on all sides that we all bring a host of values, beliefs and influences to the table along with our knowledge, expertise and training.
“If, say, Jim Hansen or Fred Singer and I sat down and looked at the same scientific evidence, we would come up with a very different set of proscriptions. Now, why is that? Is it because our scientific training is deficient, and he’s seeing more than I’m seeing, or I’m seeing more than he’s seeing? I don’t think it is. I think actually there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on here. And that’s actually what we have to get down to – to root out, and expose, accept, and work within these broader, deeper sources of disagreement.”
“To hide behind the dubious precision of scientific numbers, and not actually expose one’s own ideologies or beliefs or values and judgements is undermining both politics and science”, says Hulme.
A bigger debate
That his thesis has the potential to draw in and engage disparate climate change factions is suggested by the cover-blurb testimonies from an oil company advisor, a deep ecologist, a sociologist, and an environmental scientist. But Hulme has his work cut out. Even as he spoke to us, President Obama was declaring in his address to the US National Academy Of Sciences: “Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over”.
It’s not hard to get labelled a climate change “denier”. You don’t even have to deny that climate change is real, man-made and a problem. As Bjørn Lomborg, climatologist Patrick Michaels and political scientist Professor Roger Pielke Jr have discovered, you merely have to challenge the orthodox political policy responses.Or, like Climate Audit’s Steve McIntyre, dare to scrutinise the statistical workings behind influential climate research papers. If you stray from agreeing with the political prescription, you’re an immoral person.
So, how long, we wonder, before Mike Hulme attracts the same accusation?
Oops: the “peer reviewed science” waved at the cameras by the Heathrow protesters wasn’t even peer reviewed science. It was a report from the Tyndall Centre commissioned by the Friends of the Earth and The Co-operative Bank. See my earlier report here – and the Tyndall report here [PDF].