Monthly Archives: September 2009

At New Matilda, Sarah Burnside argues that:

The simplest and most compelling argument for addressing climate change is humanist in nature. As human beings, we must take seriously our need to care for each other, whether at the specific level of provision of universal healthcare benefits and international aid, or in the more abstract sense of societal cohesiveness. By extension, policies put forward to combat the effects of climate change need not be justified by invoking Gaia or anthropomorphising dolphins or polar bears.

This statement comes, not, as one might expect, as a criticism of the Green movement’s tendency to mythologise, or anthropomorphise the natural world, but at the end of an attack on ‘deniers’. She concludes:

Rather, progressives sensibly argue that human beings have a duty to each other, including to future generations. Humans will fail in this duty if we place short-term economic gain over the environmental conditions which will shape the lives of humanity in the future.

Arguments like these are drawn not from a “green religion”, but from a belief in humanity.

Burnside must, however, recognise that there certainly exists a ‘green religion’, or at least, that irrational ideas do operate, and achieve influence within the green ‘movement’. She must also recognise that these are the principle weaknesses of the movement she wishes to advance, and moreover, are the principle object of the ‘deniers’ arguments, and ought to be the object of her criticism too.

But as we have pointed out before, it is very hard for environmentalists to criticise their own. It is not a movement which is able to reflect critically on itself, or even its own elements. It is, so to speak, as if its ‘own parts do not smell’. But in fact we don’t need to look far to find intensely anti-human and influential currents within the Green movement that stand opposed to political and material freedoms – so much of it fails Burnside’s test of humanism, comprehensively.

So what are we left with, if we strip away all of the anti-human elements of the entire green movement? We think: nothing.

Burnside may want to disagree. In her attack on ‘denialists’, however, she gives us only two clues as to what a green humanism might consist of:

…human beings have a duty to each other, including to future generations…

and

…we must take seriously our need to care for each other, whether at the specific level of provision of universal healthcare benefits and international aid, or in the more abstract sense of societal cohesiveness.

This account of humanism doesn’t identify anything which makes it distinct. You don’t need to be an environmentalist to believe in ‘universal healthcare’, or for social cohesion, for instance. The rhetorical implication of Burnside’s article is that the ‘deniers’ she lists just don’t care about people. Burnside talks more about policy than about precepts, and reveals more about her own prejudices than her opponents’.

As we have argued here, one can understand climate change as a problem that needs addressing without believing that the problems stand as moral imperatives that demand special form of politics. We could - hypothetically - for instance, argue that an Arctic free from summer sea ice is, while in some senses regrettable, perhaps a price worth paying for the development that might cause it. We could, again hypothetically, emphasise that development offers the people who are most vulnerable to climate a better hope of both prosperity and survival than does a ‘sustainable’ lifestyle.

These propositions are, however, anathema to almost the entire green movement, who will put either the worst-case scenario or the precautionary principle in the way of such a moral calculation.

This is because there is a fundamental idea operating within environmentalism which is incompatible with humanism. It proposes that our principle relationship is not with each other, but with the natural world. Accordingly, ‘duty to each other’ exists principally as a duty to the planet, and ‘societal cohesiveness’ comes from without humanity, being predicated on a sustainable relationship with the natural world. In other words, human relationships are – and must be – mediated by the ‘environment’. These precepts operate prior to the humanist ethic that Burnside attempts to claim for the green movement: humanism is delimited by environmentalism. A failure to recognise these environmental precepts is, according to environmentalists, equivalent to wanting to destroy humanity in an environmental catastrophe.

There is no such thing as eco-humanism, nor progressive environmentalism. Environmentalism is simply anti-human by degree - the extent to which any variant of environmentalism is anti-human is the extent to which it subjects humans to environmental ‘ethics’.

Any notion which doesn’t take the possibility of global catastrophe for granted is excluded from the discussion, and so the discussion about how to organise our lives is premised on the idea that if we don’t recognise environmental imperatives, we will necessarily create Thermageddon. The problem with any such calculation is that its conclusion is its premise. It exists prior to the scientific investigation of our influence on the climate, and it exists prior to the discussion about how human society will in turn be influenced by that change, and how we ought to respond.

The BBC reports that…

Eight of the UK’s leading environmental groups have joined forces to urge political parties to adopt a joint approach on green issues.

These eight are the usual suspects – Green Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Woodland Trust, WWF, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Greenpeace.

Speaking on behalf of all the groups, Stephen Hale, director of Green Alliance, said: “Action in the next parliament is critical if we are to simultaneously reduce our CO2 emissions whilst improving the resilience of our natural environment to avoid the looming crises of food, energy and water shortages by 2030.

“It’s now or never. Support for the common cause declaration will be the threshold for credibility at the next election on environmental issues.

“The commitment to decisive action must be endorsed by all parties.

“The real contest will be over specific policies, so we urge them to include our 10 manifesto asks for 2010 in their forthcoming manifestos.”

We’ve written before about the influence of NGOs in today’s world, and the roles they seem to have positioned themselves into. When Conservative leader, David Cameron gave a press conference at Greenpeace’s HQ, the relationship between the political establishment is (symbolically, at least) transformed. Once the thorn in the side of Western governments, the organisation was now operating as a de-facto PR consultancy, lending the Tories’ energy policies the appearance of legitimacy.

In October last year, we asked whether the arguments made by Oxfam’s campaigns were consistent with reality, and suggested that in fact they end up encouraging a very selfish understanding of ‘injustice’ in the world, as though it were experienced, not by people actually suffering injustice or inequality, but by the organisation’s would-be donors. More worryingly, the development agency increasingly appeared to be taking an anti-development line, pushing for policies that seemingly aimed to ‘protect’ traditional lifestyles on the basis that they were ‘environmentally sustainable’. But as we pointed out, this may well preclude the possibility of the ‘beneficiaires’ of Oxfam’s campaigns from asserting their own political interests, as well as realising their own ambitions for development.

There is no denying that the NGO has increased its influence over the past few decades. The questions we have concern the legitimacy of the new configuration of domestic and international politics, and the kind of elite politics it generates, and why this is happening.

The power of NGOs begins with people putting cash in tins rattled at passers by on the High Street. Increasingly, this process – once an activity of concerned citizens giving up their spare time – has become professionalised, and now consists of teams of people employed to accost shoppers with direct-debit forms, and stories and pictures about the plight of animals and African babies. They want to you to sign up, now, and rarely have any literature which you may take away with you. When the shopper gets home, he or she still is likely to be contacted by the same fund-raising teams who make calls on behalf of the same NGOs with the same stories, on the basis that they earn a commission.

Handing over cash to an organisation that putatively aims to protect Things with Wings seems like an innocuous gesture. Who wouldn’t want to protect the whale/dolphin/puffin? And indeed, if you’re worried about donkeys or elephants, there is nothing wrong with giving money to an organisation which goes about making life comfortable for creatures. But, increasingly, organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the RSPB – part of the Green Alliance) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF – also part of the alliance) aren’t engaging in the simple provision of sanctuary for bunny rabbits, nor even lobbying for a bit more recognition for the rights of grasshoppers, but are instead directing their campaigning funds at the entire business of politics. These green NGOs turn a routine concern for fluffy and feathered animals into a political force. Did the pensioner who signed up to a £5 a month direct debit to ‘save the creature’ imagine that it would be spent directly on a tiger, owl, and badger, or were they aware that it would be spent on delimiting the possibilities of democratic expression? And did those who forked out cash to aid Third World development imagine that it would be spent on precisely the opposite?

It ends with governments funding NGOs to lobby them. Groups such as Friends of the Earth and WWF are the beneificiaries of £millions of EU funds.

Back to the demands of the Green Alliance. The intention is to get each of the UK’s political parties to include the following statements in their manifestos:

1. Put the UK on track to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050.

2. Ensure future energy and transport infrastructure is consistent with a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy by generating at least 15 per cent of energy from renewables by 2020; introducing an immediate ban on new unabated or substantially unabated coal plants and an end to airport expansion.

3. Commit to strong UK leadership at the highest levels in the EU and globally, to deliver EU energy and climate targets and to ensure global greenhouse gas emissions are falling by 2015.

4. Provide the UK’s fair share of finance for adaptation, low-carbon development and to reduce deforestation in the developing world of a least $160 billion a year from 2012.

5. Commit to making significant progress towards restoring the natural environment by 2020, including the doubling of UK woodland cover, meeting other habitat targets and ensuring that protected sites are in good condition; through utilising reforms to agricultural incentives, planning policy and other measures to create high quality landscapes rich in nature and able to adapt to climate change.

6. Ensure that everyone has the opportunity to experience and enjoy nature by providing access to natural green space within walking distance of where they live.

7. Commit to reorienting the planning system so that sustainable development rather than simply economic development is at its heart, requiring all major development plans and planning applications to show how they will contribute to carbon reduction targets.

8. Dedicate all income generated by the emissions trading scheme after 2012 to tackling climate change in the UK and internationally.

9. Protect and increase Defra and DECC budgets and introduce significant new policies to stimulate private investment in the low-carbon economy and the natural environment.

10. Launch a nationwide housing retrofit programme by 2011, which will deliver improved energy efficiency and renewable energy systems across the UK.

To the obvious questions first… Who do these people think they are, such that they can dictate the priorities and parameters of politics? Who voted for them? When was the legitimacy of their influence ever tested? No doubt there is a well-intentioned and widespread desire to help animals and poor people – frequently as though they were the same. But the engagement of this constituency is no more than a response to images, and the question: ‘do you care?’ – this money is simply guilt-offsetting. It does not represent an engagement with the political ideas that NGOs produce.

Second, if this alliance were to be successful, how could it be claimed that the consequent policies carried any democratic legitimacy whatsoever? Axiomatically, they would not have been tested democratically.

Third, these 10 demands are already the substance of all the major parties’ policies, the only difference lies in the degree to which they have been implemented (ie, the raw numbers that constitute the targets). And these policies too have not been the subject of democratic contest.

While the title of the document outlining the alliance’s demands is “Common Cause” [PDF], what is striking about the nature of this demand and the way it has been presented is precisely that it is not a common cause. If it were a genuinely common cause, it would be reflected in demands from below, not by a self-appointed Oligarchy of environmental NGOs. How could anyone – whether they were part of the ‘common’ or not – express their views about the manifesto pledges if there is no alternative view represented politically? The ‘Common Cause Declaration’ that the alliance wants the UK’s political parties to subscribe to says:

We recognise the importance of the natural environment to the people of Britain. We share their conviction that Britain’s natural environment and countryside are an integral part of Britain’s heritage and identity. They are also central to our future well-being because of the services they provide and are threatened by the impact of climate change. We will work to protect and enhance the quality of Britain’s natural environment and to take account of these impacts.

We will use the full range of regulatory, fiscal, spending and other powers available to us to achieve these goals. This will include providing businesses, communities, individuals and other actors with the opportunities and incentives they need to make their full contribution. This way we will achieve successful national and international action on climate change and the natural environment.

The contradictions evident in the lazy, alarmist rhetoric are all too plain. The crass appeal to popular values – identity, heritage, shared convictions – belie the distrust the alliance has in the abilities of the ‘commons’ to make the right democratic decisions. We’re all supposed to think the same, and yet it requires a ‘full range or regulatory, fiscal, spending, and other powers’ (what ‘other’?) to make sure we nonetheless obey our (their) consciences. We all think the same, and yet we’re not wise enough to vote ‘correctly’.

And then there is the implication that there is a gun at the heads of recalcitrants: if we don’t see things the alliance’s way, we’re likely to be responsible for wanting the whole lot to be destroyed.

The anti-democratic tendency of environmentalism needs no re-telling here. It’s always a problem for environmentalists, who want to claim that their concern transcends the petty affairs of mere humans. Our argument here on Climate Resistance is that this phenomenon needs careful attention if it is to be understood. It would be easy to say that environmentalism has been successful in its enrolling NGOs, and subverting the direction of mainstream politics. But this credits them with far too much.

The dynamic that drives this process is not the power of greens, but the weakness of contemporary political parties, organisations, movements, ideas etc. The political parties and governments have courted – or rather extended into – NGOs because it is easier to negotiate with them than it is to appeal to the public for legitimacy. Thus NGOs, with a slice of their cake in hand, bargain for greater influence in exchange for flattering the hollow agenda of which ever party is attempting to steal a march over its opponents that day. NGOs are still seen as ‘above’ politics in some way – and are thus somehow equipped to make objective statements about the way things are. The reality is that they are exactly as political and self-serving as any other political grouping. Accordingly, a background – and yes, common – concern for the plight of rare species of birds, snails, polar bears, landed country estates, whales, trees, the panda and starving and diseased babies are amplified by climate change alarmism, to preclude a democratic discussion about our ‘common’ future. It seems that the most basic and sometimes trivial of concerns are all that the political establishment – including NGOs – are capable of generating agreement on, and so these becomes the issues which represent the difference between having a future, and inviting a horrific catastrophe. There is no contest between, for instance, political ideas such as communism, socialism, social democracy, capitalism, laissez-faire, or any of their variants. So the NGO rises to the level of its banal and vapid agenda, to fill the void between politicians and the public.

For instance, the alliance quotes the government’s own advisor:

And as the Government’s Chief Scientist, John Beddington, recently pointed out, unless urgent action is taken, we’re heading for a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by 2030.

We wrote about Beddington’s prophetic vision last month.

The scene is one in which the government, NGOs, scientists quote each other, and in each turn, escalate the sense of drama about the looming crisis. This process takes the place of what was once called ‘debate’. That the agenda of advanced economies – who put men on the moon three decades ago, split the atom sixty years ago, and in which a revolution in industrial agriculture found a way of feeding a billion people in less than a generation – are dominated by discussions about matters of mere subsistence reflects the extent to which the horizons of politics have lowered, and the imaginations of politicians has shrunk.

Any fruitful discussion of what to do about climate change – however serious a problem it turns out to be – must first recognise that it is this background of degraded political aspirations that has provided the ground on which environmental politics has been able to flourish and onto which the science of climate change, resource use, and biodiversity has been superimposed. Otherwise, science becomes just another tool for the delivery of the B-movie disaster politics that is pushed by the likes of the Common Cause group and lapped upped entirely credulously, or even solicited, by mainstream parties and parliaments. The NGOs get away with it because nobody is watching.

H/t: Mark H.

In the Guardian yesterday, the paper’s US Environmental correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg writes:

The world’s ocean surfaces had their warmest summer temperatures on record, the US national climatic data centre said today.

Climate change has been steadily raising the earth’s average temperature in recent decades, but climatologists expected additional warming this year and next due to the influence of El Niño.

However, as Bob Tisdale and Anthony Watts point out at the latter’s blog, there are many reasons to be cautious about taking the claim at face value. It is the product of one dataset, and is not supported with data from satellites. Indeed, according to the UAH satellite record, the average temperature of the world in August was just 0.23°C above the average.

But that’s not what really piqued our interest. Goldenburg’s story finishes,

The report also noted the continuing retreat in Arctic sea ice over the summer. Sea ice covered an average of 6.3m sq kilometres (2.42m sq miles) during August, according to the national snow and ice data centre. That was 18.4% the 1979-2000 average.

The press release from which Goldenburg lifts her story says

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Arctic sea ice covered an average of 2.42 million square miles during August. This is 18.4 percent below the 1979-2000 average extent, and is generally consistent with a decline of August sea ice extent since 1979.

The difference between ‘18.4 percent’, and ‘18.4 percent below’ is 63.2 percent. But of course, it may well just be a typo than a reflection of Goldenberg’s misunderstanding of the science. But notice another interpretation. The original quote speaks of the 2009 ice extent representing the continuation of a general trend, ‘consistent with a decline of August sea ice extent since 1979′, ie, not as much ice as there was, once. But this is transformed in Goldenberg’s copy, and becomes ‘the continuing retreat in Arctic sea ice over the summer’, which is palpably not true.

Perhaps you think we’re nit-picking by pulling Goldenberg up for what might well be the result of an honest misunderstanding married to a slack rewording of the press release. But what is strange is her apparent complete lack of surprise at the notion that summer ice has declined by a factor of five in such a short time. And that’s after two years of recovery.

The minimum extent of Arctic sea ice in 2007 was 4.13 million Km2. in 2008 it was 4.67 million Km2. This year, it looks as though it is 5.25 million Km2. This represents an increase of 13% between 2007 and 2008, and an increase of 12% for 2008 to 2009, or an increase of 27% between 2007 and 2009. This is a substantial increase, yet Goldenberg puts emphasis on the loss, in spite of the rather more significant gain. As we have written previously, this is owed to the tendency of those who put much store in the progress of Arctic ice, hoping that it will add power to their alarmist narratives. When the ice doesn’t behave, the miserable story has to be told by a mathematical sleight of hand. Perhaps we should just be grateful that Goldenberg did not extrapolate back from her own made-up figure to discover that summer Arctic ice actually disappeared two years ago.

It’s not entirely Goldenberg’s fault. She has been primed by years of press releases from the likes of NOAA and NSIDC to believe that the ice is retreating on an almost daily basis. As we have noted before, in their attempts to maintain the excitement, these agencies are caught between the temptation to overplay the importance of new datapoints that reinforce the idea of a downward trend, and the need to downplay those that don’t fit easily with the catastrophe narrative. Regardless of where a new datapoint falls on the graph, it’s a portent of doom.

At its most ludicrous, this can result in statements about single datapoints that serve as a warning of both imminent disaster and the dangers of relying on single datapoints. For example:

Sea ice extent has fallen below the 2005 minimum, previously the second-lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era. We will know if the 2008 record will also fall in the next several weeks, when the melt season comes to a close. The bottom line, however, is that the strong negative trend in summertime ice extent characterizing the past decade continues.

But in bending over backwards to make sure that no one gets the silly idea, on the evidence of a single datapoint, that global warming has stopped, they open the door to alarmist nonsense every time they update their graphs.

This is not the first time Goldenberg has tried to lick an iceberg and got herself stuck. In July, she teamed up with Damian Carrington for a story in the Observer:

‘Revealed: the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide’.

The writers tell us that images taken from a US spy satellite ‘reveal the devastating impact of global warming in the Arctic‘. The images, now declassified, were ‘kept secret by Washington during the presidency of George W Bush’. The saintly Obama, by contrast, ‘is currently trying to galvanise Congress and the American public to take action to halt catastrophic climate change’. What separates Bush, the evil denier, from Obama, the saintly prophet, is their treatment of a cold, hostile, uninhabited, tract of frozen sea.

Instead of being something which causes immediate concern in its own right, the real importance of images of open sea where there was once ice is that it gives seemingly geological scale to environmentalists’ claims about our influence over the planet and its likely consequences. Where scientific opinions and catastrophic story lines have failed to mobilise popular support for environmentalism, various greens appeal to our ability to register the difference between what once happened and what seems to be happening now. Accordingly, Goldenberg and Carrington present us with the before and after pictures.

This picture is, according to the article, part of a series that are ‘the first graphic images of how the polar ice sheets are retreating in the summer’. This is sheer nonsense. Archived and near real-time Images of polar ice have been available to the public via the internet for years. The Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois have, since 2004, run a website called The Cryosphere Today, which allows users to compare the ice cover of the Arctic on any two dates. Here, for example, is an image depicting the same information as the recently declassified spy-satellite pictures.

So keen are the ice researchers at the University of Illinois, there is even an application that can be run on web-enabled mobile phones. The iPod generation now have no excuse for being ignorant of the state of almost entirely uninhabited, entirely hostile, and least interesting regions of Earth.

The US National Snow and Ice Data Center provide a similar means to staying in touch with the latest developments at the frozen North. (And who wouldn’t want to?) Using the Google Earth application, NSIDC aim to ‘help people better understand the cryosphere—where the world is frozen—by making our data more visible and interactive. What is available at the NSIDC is a vast array of images and data, none of which has been classified, all of which has been available for years. If you felt so inclined, you could even compare sea ice extent in July 2007 and 2008, to show just how remarkably quickly the Arctic recovered from its historic low.

Or if you prefer, you could just go to the NSIDC homepage for ‘daily image updates of Arctic sea ice’.

None of this is secret information. The only difference with the declassified images is the level of detail. Images in the public domain were only available at resolutions of 15 meters (each ‘dot’ in the picture represents an area of 15 meters square), whereas spy satellites create images at a resolution of one meter. Unless you are a climate specialist this makes no difference whatsoever. Prior to the release of these images, no researcher with an interest in the cryosphere would have been ignorant of the extent of sea ice off the coast of Alaska in 2007 as it stood in contrast to the previous year’s ice.

So what’s the big secret, and why all the fuss? On the 15th of July, the US National Research Council released a report called ‘Scientific Value of Arctic Sea Ice Imagery Derived Products’. According to a NASA press release, the authors of the report believe that the higher resolution images would significantly extend scientific understanding of the processes driving the annual cycle of melting and freezing. There already exists a relationship between science and the military in which images produced by surveillance hardware is shared. Declassified images have, for a number of years, been put into the public domain through a program called Literal Imagery Derived Products (LIDPs). The satellites that have produced these new images have, at the request of the same scientific community in 1999, been recording images from locations within the Arctic region since 2005. The report made an argument for the release of the images. Just a few hours later, the Interior Department declassified them.

Goldenberg and Carrington present the release of the images as, pardon the pun, a sea change in the attitude of the US government. But the satellites began recording the regions in 2005 – while Bush was president. If there had been no intention to make these images available to the scientists who requested them, why generate them in the first place? Moreover, the two writers seemingly make the case that an executive decision was made, by Bush in the first instance and Obama in the second, to respectively conceal, and reveal the images. Yet there is no evidence in the article, or on the web, that either president made any such decisions. It is only in the imaginations of bored journalists that the timing of the declassification of the images represents the termination of a conspiracy to deceive the public instigated by Bush. The facts are plain: nothing that wasn’t already widely known has been revealed by these images; the images are not useful to any political ends, either to inform the public, or to demonstrate the fact of global warming; there is no evidence presented that there was an attempt to conceal these images; there would have been no reason to keep the images secret; it was under Bush’s administration that spy satellites began recording images from the locations in question. There was no story.

There is, however, the story in the heads of Goldenberg and Carrington. Routinely in this kind of narrative, the plight of polar bears, summer sea ice melt, global warming, and anthropogenic CO2 are conflated as the one and same thing, as each other’s cause and effect, rather than treated as phenomena that have distinct and complex causes. In this story, polar bears are killed by increased ice melting, which is caused by global warming, both of which will continue to increase, and all of which is caused by anthropogenic CO2, which is caused by us. These causal relationships are presented as unassailable scientific facts with no questions of complexity, nuance, or degree permitted. To argue that the progress of Arctic ice melt may well have a cause that is independent of the Earth’s warming is to deny both. To argue that polar bear populations may be increasing, or may be suffering for reasons other than ice melt is to deny global warming. Because ultimately, at the end of this chain of reasoning is an argument that owes nothing whatsoever to science: George Bush tried to hide all of this from you.

All of which is to say that the story about the progress of ice escapes its scientific context to illustrate the political narrative that the likes of Goldenberg impose over it. It is the vehicle through which she can submit Bush-bashing copy, months after the end of his presidency, allowing her to stand Bush in ecological contrast to Obama. That Goldenberg gets the scientific facts wrong, and struggles to interpret them correctly, and fails to subject her own stark misapprehension to scrutiny, is only half the story – she then uses her own confusion to create a picture of political conspiracies against scientific truth. In no small way this demonstrates the extent to which the political story exists prior to the science, and needs it. If the ice wasn’t melting, Goldenberg would have to make it up… Oh…

Further to this post, a reader has sent us an ingenious example of a novel linguistic construction that attempts to escape the constraints of the English language in order to give the impression that tentative predictions of the future are happening now:

“The fact is we are causing future contemporary climate change. [Geological hazards are] another portfolio of things we haven’t thought of,” says Bill McGuire from the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre at University College London.

H/T Ian L

At the BBC’s Earth Watch blog, Richard Black takes a different perspective on the recent survey of the British public (well, 500 of them, anyway) and Climate Porn that we covered in our last post.

Among the emails that arrive in my inbox regularly on climate change, one sentiment expressed regularly is that the language of climate catastrophism is getting shriller and shriller as the arguments for the phenomenon collapse.

It’s one that I disagree with.

I think the language of catastrophism, chaos, doom – whatever you like to call it – has actually sobered up, in the UK at least, having peaked about three or four years ago when newspapers such as The Independent ran dramatic front pages on a regular basis, a new umbrella body for activists called Stop Climate Chaos came into existence, Roland Emmerich had the Atlantic Ocean freezing in an instant in The Day After tomorrow, and a leading thinktank lambasted a portion of the British press for indulging in “climate porn”.

Some long-time observers warned at the time that this would “turn people off”; the Cardiff study suggests they may have been right.

So is Richard right that global warming hysteria has diminished?

Thirteen months ago, the New Economics Foundation, with a group of other organisations including the UK’s Green Party, launched its 100 Months campaign, claiming that:

We have 100 months to save our climate. When the clock starts ticking, we could be beyond our climate’s tipping point, the point of no return.

In January, the Guardian reported James Hansen’s claim that the

President ‘has four years to save Earth’ – US must take the lead to avert eco-disaster.

Last month, John Beddington, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor foresaw a global environmental crisis in 2031:

As the world’s population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

Earlier that month, Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot did battle in the Guardian over whether the eco-apocalypse was inevitable or could just about be prevented if human nature could be contained by state institutions. Wrote Kingsnorth:

On the desk in front of me is a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each represents the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, population levels, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the human economy’s gross domestic product.

Wrote Monbiot, his brother in despair:

Like you I have become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash you predict. For the past few years I have been almost professionally optimistic, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. I still have some faith in our ability to make rational decisions based on evidence. But it is waning.

2009 also saw the release of the film, The Age of Stupid, which claims to be a documentary, but is in fact a fiction set in the future, charting the fall of civilisation as it was torn apart by Gaia’s wrath. Environmentalism’s inability to construct an understanding of the present forces it to base its fantasies – climate porn – from a position in the future. The film’s director, Franny Armstrong, was met in several public meetings by the UK’s Climate Change Minister, Ed Miliband, who was entirely unable to challenge her catastrophism, as we reported, back in June:

… it isn’t a debate. Miliband and Armstrong’s positions are not counterposed. Miliband is nothing if not a committed environmentalist. Yet he recognises that what both he and Armstrong want ain’t a vote-winner, and the public remain unconvinced about the environmental issue. Knowing that environmental policies therefore lack the legitimacy such far-reaching policies ought to have, he recently called for the green movement to demonstrate the kind of mass-movement that has driven political change in the past.

Miliband needed Armstrong, we said. To give his government’s policies moral legitimacy, she had thrown at him the figure that, according to the UN, 150,000 people die each year as a result of climate change, for which the UK would be culpable if it failed to act on climate change. As we pointed out in the same post, the figure had just been raised by the GHF, to 300,000 – another case of climate porn in 2009 – but both figures were dubious. What they entirely failed to show is how few people in the developing world died of causes attributed to climate change compared to other causes. In fact, as a cause it ranked the lowest, beneath obesity – not something you’d expect people in the Third world to suffer from. Moreover, what the figure entirely omits is that these secondary effects of climate change, were they experienced in the industrialised world, would likely have resulted in no deaths at all. And yet these 300,000 deaths are used as the basis for an argument for the mitigation of climate change rather than as a good reason for industrialisation and economic development. Such is the distorting effect of climate porn on political discourse.

Expressing the thesame symptoms of disorientation, here are some headlines from the Independent over the past year.

Is the Independent less shrill thanit used to be? Hardly.

Back in March, we wrote about the coverage of the Copenhagen climate discussions in the Guardian, most of which was written by David Adam. The following headlines all appeared in the same week:

  • Global warming may trigger carbon ‘time bomb’, scientist warns.
  • Caught on camera: The Greenland tunnels that could speed ice melt.
  • Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts.
  • Severe global warming will render half of world’s inhabited areas unliveable, expert warns.
  • Europe ‘will be hit by severe drought’ without urgent action on emissions.

Adam finished his week of misery with a podcast about what he took from the conference:

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.

But as we pointed out at the time, in an echo of his criticism of climate porn in 2006, Professor Mike Hulme gives us reason to take Adam’s and the conference organisers’ claims to be reporting ‘scientific opinion’ verbatim with a pinch of salt.

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.

[…]

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.

Richard Black is perhaps a great deal more sensible in his reporting than his fellow journalists at the BBC, the Guardian, and the Independent. Yet he seems to have become immune to their sensational climate stories. They simply no longer register. But this desensitisation means a failure to reflect critically on environmentalism and its influence, and his journalism suffers as a consequence. With ‘a number of reports hinting that the pace of global temperature rise may have abated, for now at least’ in mind, Black considers whether this, rather than climate porn, may be having an influence over the direction of policy.

I wondered if this was being reflected in the intensive negotiations leading up to Copenhagen’s UN summit. After all, if governments were sensing a reason not to pledge difficult and potentially expensive transformations to their economies, you would expect them to take it.

Here, he misses the point that climate change isn’t something difficult for governments to cope with. It is actually convenient. The political establishment’s absorption of environmentalism allows it to substantially lower the standard by which it is measured, and gives authoritarianism a legitimising basis. The looming, inevitable environmental crisis instructs the public to lower their expectations accordingly. It means that rather than finding a way through problems such as energy supply, water and travel infrastructure, and of course, raising expectations, politicians can turn the normal business of politics around, and redefine the problem as one of individual morality. The statement that the public must use less electricity, must travel less, and must consume fewer resources is a statement that the public must expect less of politicians and politics, and behave themselves. The failure of the establishment’s collective imagination is what drives ‘climate change ethics’. The search for international agreements and legal frameworks to ‘combat climate change’ is a way of externalising what cannot legitimately be done domestically. Once in place, politicians can reasonably argue that punitive climate laws are a matter of international obligation; we are all bound by them, and cannot do anything about them. It defers politics and political accountibility to the strange, undemocratic, inaccessible space that exists between states.

Black continues…

Last week I had the chance to ask someone intimately involved in those negotiations. “No” was the answer – not reflected at all – in fact, what was being reflected were fears that the picture would be worse than the IPCC painted.

Climate porn operates at these levels, not just in the media. According to Black’s un-named climate negotiator, we can’t even trust the consensus – represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – to paint a reliable picture of the future. Therefore there can be no parameters by which we can begin to rationally understand or criticise the governmental, or inter-governmental response to climate change. Things can be perpetually based, not on what has been observed, or produced by science, but on the possibility that ‘the picture would be worse than the IPCC painted’… Climate porn, just as Hulme warned.

Black concludes by taking a closer look at the results produced by the survey of the British public, and determines, weakly, that theirs “and their leaders’ perceptions of climate change, in the UK and elsewhere, are not significantly out of step”.

Here, again, Black sees the world upside down. He can point to as many opinion polls and interpret them in as many ways as he likes: environmentalism has never been tested in the UK at the only poll that counts – democratic elections. Fear (climate porn), and hashed-together international frameworks (Copenhagen) – not democracy – are the vehicles through which environmental ideology cements itself in public institutions. Environmentalism’s influence within the establishment is ascendant precisely because the political establishment has such trouble connecting itself with the public.

Headlines don’t get much more alarmist than this…

As Tory Outcast points out, the story that the Independent Newspaper thinks a catastrophe is in fact far more mundane:

The article by Tony Patterson tells the story of two commercial vessels which have managed to navigate the North East passage and uses their success as irrefutable proof that we are all going to die.

Such high-pitched tabloidism from the ‘Independent’ is nothing new of course. It epitomises what a think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), called, in 2006, ‘Climate Porn’. A BBC article at the time, picked up the story, and quoted IPPR’s head of climate change, Simon Retallack:

“It is appropriate to call [what some of these groups publish] ‘climate porn’, because on some level it is like a disaster movie,” Mr Retallack told the BBC News website.

“The public become disempowered because it’s too big for them; and when it sounds like science fiction, there is an element of the unreal there.”

Later that year, the then Director of the Tyndall Centre, Professor Mike Hulme warned that the language being used – not just by the media, but also by politicians, campaigners, and scientists – in the discussion around climate change was increasingly removed from anything scientific, and was likely to encourage people to switch off:

But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.

It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.

[…]

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.

Three years later, the BBC reports this week from the British Science Festival:

The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years, according to a survey.

Twice as many people now agree that “claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated”.

Four in 10 believe that many leading experts still question the evidence. One in five are “hard-line sceptics”.

The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public’s perception matches that of their elected leaders.

Psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh, who conducted the research while at the Tyndall Centre, doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to the words of her former boss. As with much social science dealing with matters of climate change, the survey seems to have less to do with shedding light on public attitudes and behaviour and more to do with trying to change them:

“Unfortunately, some people latch on to this uncertainty and say ‘let’s carry on as we are’.”

She feels that many people are not “playing their part” in reducing humanity’s impact on the environment.

[…]

“In general people are showing little willingness to change their lifestyles.

“They will recycle, unplug the TV and change their light bulbs; but they won’t change how they travel or how they eat.

“These are the things that are going to make the biggest difference”

It’s interesting that Whitmarsh’s case seems to be reliant on the same outmoded notion of science communication that social scientists have been instrumental in dispelling. The ‘deficit model’ holds that public opposition to certain scientific developments and technologies is simply the result of scientific illiteracy. Get the public up to speed, it says, and they will surely make the ‘right’ decisions. We’ve mentioned before that, while the deficit model and the push for ‘public understanding of science’ have generally been supplanted by strategies of ‘public engagement’ and ‘upstream engagement’, and science academies and governments seek dialogues with the public on everything from nanotech to genomics, climate change is the subject of decidedly one-way conversations. Which is hardly surprising, given that climate change mitigation is central to all parties’ manifestos while at the same time being the source of significant distrust on the part of the electorate.

Whitmarsh does attempt to distance herself from the deficit model:

we argue that there is a need to avoid a ‘deficit model’ in relation to carbon literacy, and to explore situated meanings of carbon and energy in everyday life and decisions, within the broader context of structural opportunities for and barriers to low‐carbon lifestyles.

But that all goes out of the window when it comes to how to get people to do the ‘right’ thing:

Together this evidence indicates that individuals would benefit from education to promote understanding and skills to manage their carbon emissions, as well as structural measures to enable and encourage carbon capability. Our survey showed that misperceptions exist which may be addressed through informational approaches (e.g., highlighting the contribution of meat production to climate change). However, the low uptake of alternatives to driving and flying, and of political actions, likely reflects broader structural and cultural impediments to behaviour change noted elsewhere.

She says as much, too, in her comments to the BBC:

But I think what we have to get across is that residual uncertainty in science is normal.

‘Residual uncertainty’ has nothing to do with it. The problem for Whitmarsh, and other academics who fail to identify the difference between activism and research, is that the over-statement of ‘the science’ is not normal, and the public are actually rather more clued up – even if only instinctively – than she gives them credit for. And in fact the public seem rather better informed than her.

As we saw, the IPPR and the Director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research – none of them sceptics – were warning back in 2006 that the climate change pudding had been over-egged, and was likely to damage the possibility of reaching the public. Mike Hulme, as director of the Tyndall Centre, would have been Whitmarsh’s boss. It’s not as if Whitmarsh could possibly be unaware of the criticisms of the over-statement of climate change.

Yet she searches for ways in which the public might be force-fed ‘carbon literacy’ programmes.

There exist several non-climate-sceptic explanations for the public’s reluctance to absorb the climate change agenda that didn’t appeal to clumsy hypotheses about disparity between official scientific truth and public opinion. These explanations credit the public with sufficient intelligence to have identified the tendency of many politicians, scientists, campaigners and journalists to exaggerate climate change with stories of ‘tipping points’, ‘N-year windows to save the planet’, and ‘inevitable catastrophe’. But Whitmarsh seems to ignore these far more simple accounts, and takes the view that a new way of conveying the same imperatives to the public is needed, rather than reflecting on the possibility that the public have, in fact, well understood the message and found it wanting. That is to say that it is possible to believe that climate change is a problem, while believing that the politics, posturing and glib copy that is produced seemingly in order to address the problem in fact plainly demonstrate a self-serving and cynical view of the public. Indeed, the ‘man in the street’ seems able to see in the environmental psychologist what the environmental psychologist can’t even see in herself. This inability to self-reflect is the defining characteristic – the symptom – of the entire climate change movement and those who uncritically engage in climate politics. With just a few, largely ignored exceptions, they will criticise anyone but themselves in reflecting on their own failure.

Back in 2006, in the BBC article featuring the IPPR’s criticism of climate porn, the Independent’s deputy editor, Ian Birrell defended his paper thus:

If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us

No sooner than his words were spoken, the readers of the Independent decided to express their own independence:

In fact, our models suggest that the Indy will go into negative circulation in Summer 2018:

But scientists predict the tipping point may have already passed sooner than will would have was been previously thought.

We haven’t mentioned Bob May for a while. Here he is, talking to BBC R4’s World at One presenter Martha Kearney today about… oh, you know, everything. [Listen again – UK Only]

MK: The issue of climate change is being addressed tonight by the president of the British Science Association, Lord May. He’s the former president of Britain’s leading science academy, the Royal Society and the former government Chief Scientific Advisor. He’s making his speech at the British Science Festival tonight and takes as his starting point the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. And Lord May, you’re going to outline what you see as a set of interlocking set of problems which in fact threaten our existence on the planet.

BM: Yes. I’m going to begin with the very different world of Darwin’s time, which is exactly coincident with the foundations of the British Association for the Advancement of science. And I’m going to point out that in Darwin’s own time there were lots of problems like for example in the physics of that day, Earth couldn’t have been nearly long enough for the, err, what the geological record tries to tell us. Nearly all those problems have been swept away by advances in science in the subsequent 150 years or so, except for how evolution managed to create and sustain cooperative behaviour in large aggregates of unrelated people. Small when we were hunter-gatherers, small groups we were all, the people in the group were all related. But today we still don’t really properly understand the origins of the stability of the ties that bind us in big societies.

MK: And those ties are vital, you believe, people do need to cooperate when it comes to the problems of tackling climate change, population growth, food and water supplies?

BM: And indeed the two things you’ve just had: those two programmes are beautiful small examples, the one before, immediately preceding a sketch of climate change and before that, legalistic tensions between the interests of the individual and the interests of society. More generally we’ve got a concatenation of problems that we seem to have difficulty focusing on other than one at a time. But they’re all interlinked.

MK: And you…

BM: Half as many again by the middle of the century. Need to feed them. Water supplies. Demand crossing supplies. And climate change.

MK: And you believe that in the past, religion, mythology, the idea of a deity as a punisher was what actually helped bind people together.

BM: Well, there’s a huge academic growth industry in trying, playing artificial little games as metaphors for cooperation, always with the temptation for a seeming advantage of cheating. And what they’re tending to tell us is that carrots are much more effective than sticks. But if you’ve only got carrots, there… there… the benefit of cheating is not suppressed. And what helps most is carrots with a few sticks. A mechanism for punishing the people who don’t pay their dues for the cooperative benefit which they get. And that poses the question… the punisher is often penalised for punishing. How much better to invent a supernatural entity that is all-knowing-all-seeing-all-powerful and arguably there’s quite a lot of speculation that the origins of religion lie as a mechanism with the wish of the deity or pantheon interpreted by a hierarchy… it’s a mechanism for bringing people together to cooperate in the norms of the society under the non… not the… fear, if you like… ummm… of punishment, if not here then in the hereafter.

MK: Well, interesting, but undoubtedly controversial ideas. I’m sure many people of faith will disagree with you. Lord May, thanks very much indeed for joining us.

Wow.

So here’s what we understand from the interview.

In the beginning, there were little groups of hunter-gathering people who didn’t know people from other little groups of hunter gatherers. And we don’t know how these people co-operated, except for being scared by a god. But then a man called Darwin came along and said that the Earth was older than the hunter-gathering god-fearing people said it was. So people stopped being terrified of the god, and therefore stopped co-operating with each other. But now, using special games based on Darwin’s ideas, scientists have worked out that people need to have carrots and sticks to make them co-operate.

In short: No sooner has science proved that religion is nonsense than it proves that we need it after all to save the planet and our own souls. For May, religion is not true, but it is a convenient untruth. He seems to think that religion, the tenets and authority of which science challenged centuries ago, was a good idea because it brought people together so that they obeyed norms. He wants us to believe in a god that he knows doesn’t exist to save us from armageddon, which he knows exists. We need this new religion, because we’re too stupid to behave properly, except through being steered by ‘carrots and sticks’. We’re just a bunch of feckless donkeys.

Is evolutionary theory – the science which played no small part in toppling the illegitimate rule of the church – being used to construct a false religion that coerces us with reward and punishment?

Maybe it’s too soon to say. We’re just a bunch of donkeys, after all.

Meanwhile, perhaps a more simple question to answer concerns Bob May and his ilk. Does he need a religion to create the possibility of a cooperative effort to solve a crisis, or does he need a crisis to create the basis for authority? As we argue often here on Climate Resistance, climate politics is prior to the science. Or perhaps that sort of chicken and egg problem is another one for the evolutionary biologists?

It turns out we’ve missed a trick in our articles about the fashion for what we have called ‘pastiche politics‘, the phenomenon by which environmentalists attempt to muster non-existent public support by comparing themselves to world-changing political movements of the past – the Suffragettes, JFK, the New Deal, anti-apartheid, that sort of thing. Because, writing at Comment Is Free about Franny ‘The Age of Stupid’ Armstrong’s 10:10 Campaign, which seeks to get us all to reduce our emissions by 10% over 2010, Brendan O’Neill has provided a handy quote from Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst:

Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance … We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.

(Which is also a rather nice counter to the watermelon theory, which holds that environmentalism is the reincarnation of socialism – red on the inside. But that’s another story.)

O’Neill’s piece is a ripple of dissent in a sea of sycophantic Guardian coverage of 10:10. Which is not entirely surprising, given that the Guardian is backing the campaign. It presents so much material from the green great and good on the subject that it’s hard to know where to start. Happily, many of its flaws are encapsulated in this wee video of Franny Armstrong confessing all to Guardian journalists:

The good news is that the first 10% cut is actually very easy. It’s the low-hanging fruit, it’s the changing your light bulbs, turning down your heating, driving a bit less, flying a bit less, changing your eating habits a little bit – it’s that kind of thing. Unless you’re one of those people who have already started, in which case it’s a lot harder. But it only gets really hard around 30 or 40%.

But we don’t have to worry our pretty heads about that, because the good people at 10:10 will make sure the government will make us do it. And we already know that the government would like us to make them make us do it. As UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband said about the Heathrow 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.

Unfortunately for Franny, governments are far easier to persuade than the electorate.

I’m of that generation that grew up being told that the point of our existence was to watch TV and go shopping and play computer games and then die. And I’m actually extremely excited and happy to realise that actually that’s not true. Actually, we have this immense responsibility – our generation has this immense responsibility. Because everybody who came before us didn’t know, and everyone who follows us, it’ll be too late for them to do anything. So it is down to us. And I actually find that extremely exciting and extremely inspiring, that we have got something important to do and that we’re not just passive consumers […] I find it much more scary the idea that our lives are just not worth anything, and if we just bought more Nike trainers, for example, then we would all be happier […] And I find that whole individualistic get in your little car and sit in a traffic jam for two hours and then go to a pointless job, that’s what I find really terrifying.

Don’t we all, dear. The difference is that Franny is happy to escape the treadmill by insisting that everybody else keeps on pedaling – literally. Meanwhile, Franny gets to go in big shiny helicopters:

At the end [of The Age of Stupid], there’s this great shot of this old guy mountain-climbing that was clearly shot from a helicopter. It was shot from a helicopter, because I shot it. And that kind of decision we had to make, like, you know, if we increase the production values of the film, we make it that much more mainstream by doing things like helicopter shots.

What was that she was just saying about passive consumerism?

It is de rigeur for environmentalists demanding that the rest of us change our greedy, consumerist ways to ritually, and with faux embarrassment, confess the size of their own carbon footprint. But it is only so big, they say, shifting uncomfortably yet sincerely in their seats, because they have a planet to save. Over to Franny again:

The thing about my carbon footprint is that it was really, really good. Because I’ve been vegetarian since I was eleven, I’ve never had a car, I live in a very cold house, I’ve got solar panels, I’ve got amazing insulation, I hate shopping, so I never buy anything. So I was doing really, really well until I made this climate blockbuster movie, and I’m now flying quite a lot to promote it. Like we’ve just been in Australia last week and we’re going to America next week. So my carbon footprint has dramatically gone up since I’ve become such a successful climate campaigner, paradoxically.

Not paradoxically at all. What Armstrong has succeeded in demonstrating is that, if you want to actually get anything done around here, you have to make an impact.

Her argument will no doubt cut ice with the converted, however – the converted being those with nothing better to do than read the Guardian and work out how to reduce their emissions. For everyone else, which is almost everybody, there is stuff to do. As we’ve said before, saving the planet is just a way to pass the time.

Anyway, good luck to ‘em. They’ll need it. And congratulations in advance should their campaign actually manage to turn the heads of anything approaching a sizable chunk of the population. But we don’t believe for one minute that the public will go for this, like the public haven’t voted for green parties in the polls, like electoral turn-out has declined as all the mainstream parties have adopted mainstream environmental policies, like opinion polls repeatedly show that most people have little time for environmentalism, like ‘popular’ protests at energy plants and airports are anything but popular.

At the risk of indulging in a bit of pastiche politics ourselves, we would suggest that the real popular movement, the one that really is running counter to the mainstream and trying to change the world for the better, is the one that staunchly resists the political elites’ undemocratic push for a more sustainable, less aspirational world in which our only goal is to keep everything just how it used to be – forever. Because most of us, as (ahem) Martin Luther King once said, have a dream.

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