Climate Science and Climate Scepticism

Ben (C-R editor) gave a presentation at York University last week, in a debate organised by the Freedom Association, alongside Professor David Bellamy and Richard S. Courtney, and opposite Stephen Hockman QC (who intends to establish an international climate change court), Simon Bowens from Friends of the Earth, and a couple of environmental science students.

Ben argues that the debate about the science divides on many axes, and predominantly following claims made about the consequences of climate change.

Listen to the audio and see the slides from the presentation with the widget below. (Requires flash)

Global Warming's Pause For Thought

Stu has an article up on Spiked about the reaction to Paul Hudson’s BBC article ‘What Happened to Global Warming?’:

A BBC News journalist’s willingness to report more than climate orthodoxy should be encouraged not condemned…

While we’re on the subject, it’s strange that no one seems to have mentioned the far more pronounced temperature plateau/decline that occurred between the mid-1940s and the early 1970s. The orthodox explanation for that one is that the cooling effect of white aerosols such as sulphates – released from coal and oil burning – was masking the warming effect of greenhouse gases until various clean air acts allowed the anthropogenic warming trend to re-emerge.

We wrote last year about how alarmists have wielded the aerosol-masking theory to beat down anyone who suggests that the post-war slump is a problem. Here’s George Monbiot:

Temperatures declined after the Second World War as a result of sulphate pollution from heavy industry, causing global dimming. This is well-known to all climate scientists. The exclusion of this information from [The Great Global Warming Swindle] was straightforward scientific dishonesty.

For Bob Ward, the Swindle‘s omission represented one of ‘five major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence’ in the programme.

The Independent’s Steve Connor also made a meal of it:

The programme failed to point out that scientists had now explained the period of “global cooling” between 1940 and 1970. It was caused by industrial emissions of sulphate pollutants, which tend to reflect sunlight. Subsequent clean-air laws have cleared up some of this pollution, revealing the true scale of global warming – a point that the film failed to mention.

The trouble is that there remains little empirical evidence to support the idea, as we were surprised to find out when we talked to UC San Diego atmospheric physicist Veerabhadran Ramanathan about his research showing that another type of aerosol – black carbon – had a significant warming effect:

Climate Resistance: What are the implications of this work for the idea that the post-war temperature decline is the result of sulphate aerosols masking the warming effect of CO2 emissions?

Veerabhadran Ramanathan: After the 1970s, when the West was cleaning up pollution, there was a rise in temperatures. We stopped burning coal in cities etc, and coal puts out a lot of sulphates, and sulphates mask global warming. At the same time, in the tropics, China and India, they were growing fast and putting a lot more Black Carbon.

CR: So the sulphate component must have been reduced more than the Black Carbon component for the aerosol masking theory to hold? We now need empirical data to compare the effect of black and white aerosols during the post-war temperature slump?

VR: Exactly.

CR: Do we have that empirical data?

VR: No. The data we have is for 2002-2003. We don’t know what happened in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The implication of this study is that we have to understand what is the relative change in the sulphur emissions versus the Black Carbon emissions – and we don’t know that.

CR: So what is the empirical evidence that, 50 years ago, white aerosols were masking GW due to CO2?

VR: It’s pretty flimsy. The main information we have […] is our understanding of the SO2 emissions by coal combustion, and oil. But we need to know not so much how much SO2 we put out, but how much was converted to sulphates, how much was removed [etc]

CR: So you don’t even know the life cycle of the SO2 and sulphates?

VR: No. All the information we have is from models… It could still be true [that white aerosols account for the post-war temperature slump]

CR: But it could not be true?

VR: Yes. The picture is complicated. But this paper is not saying it is wrong[…]

CR: So we now have a better idea of what is happening aerosol-wise in the present, but what was going on in the 1950s/’60s is still elusive?

VR: Yes, There’s a lot of research needs to be done on that – what happened in the ’50s and ’60s, and then why the rapid ramp up [from the ’70s]. I’m not saying our current understanding is wrong, just that it is a more complicated picture. I would say it’s uncertain.

We wouldn’t suggest the aerosol-masking theory is wrong either. What’s interesting is how a neat idea is sold as an established fact, how a working hypothesis has become a truth ‘well-known to all climate scientists’, how ‘scientists are investigating’ becomes scientists ‘have explained’. Without the masking theory, the orthodoxy would have a serious problem. The research that shows that decade-long periods of static/declining temperatures are to be expected against the background of a warming trend (see the Spiked article above) makes no claims that such natural variation could account for the much longer post-war slump.

Meanwhile, it will be worth watching to see how the tactics of the climate orthodoxy change as – and if – the present slowdown in temperature rise continues. The slump has already robbed the orthodoxy of much of its potential for short-term alarmism about record temperatures, and the Met, for example, seems already to have ditched its yearly climate forecast in favour of a decadal one. And how long before serious efforts are made to explain the slump in causal terms – not to mention how quickly those investigations are deployed as proof that climate science has nailed it?

Gordon Browns His Trousers and Goes Green

When Gordon Brown spoke of ‘catastrophe’ yesterday, he wasn’t talking about his premiership or worrying about the UK under a Tory government.

Brown has always been rather quiet on climate change. His government hasn’t, but he has. We’ve always had the impression that he went along with the greening of New Labour a tad reluctantly. It’s as if he thought there were more pressing matters, even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were.

He suddenly seems to be making up for lost time

PM warns of climate ‘catastrophe’

The UK faces a “catastrophe” of floods, droughts and killer heatwaves if world leaders fail to agree a deal on climate change, the prime minister has warned.

Gordon Brown said negotiators had 50 days to save the world from global warming and break the “impasse”.

Fifty days?! Talk about the zeal of the converted.

Radio 4’s The World Tonight summoned climate change secretary Ed Miliband to ask him if Brown was exaggerating:

No, I don’t think he was… The science is very clear about this…


Which would seem like a good moment to remember the cautionary words of climate scientist Mike Hulme:

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)[Note: AR4]. To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.

Brown’s catastrophism and the catastrophic state of his premiership and government are linked of course. As his authority continues to melt spectacularly, his desperation to connect with the media, the electorate and his party is forced to the surface. A few strong words about catastrophic climate change are about the only straws he has left to cling to. Not that it will cut any ice at the ballot box. Brown is just one more green obstacle for the electorate to navigate around.

Here’s the entirety of what Brown said:

In every era there are one or two moments when nations come together and reach agreements that make history. because they change the course of history. And Copenhagen must be such a time. There are now fewer than fifty days to set the course for the next few decades. So as we convene here, we carry great responsibilities, and the world is watching. If we do not reach a deal in the next few months, let us be in no doubt. Once the damage from unchecked emissions growth is done, no retrospective global agreement in some future period can undo that choice. By then it will be irretrievably too late. So we should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue.

Only last week we saw new evidence of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice.

Brown is talking here no doubt about Professor Peter Wadhams’s announcement that the Arctic is set to be ice-free in summer. This was in no way ‘new evidence’, however. Wadham was speaking at the launch of the findings of the Catlin Arctic Survey, and was simply reiterating, in equally vague terms, what has been bandied about for years. His statements were effectively a damage limitation exercise on behalf of the Catlin expedition, an insurance-sponsored venture that spectacularly failed to provide much at all in the way of data.

And in just twenty-five years, the glaciers in the Himalayas which provide water for three-quarters of a billion people could disappear entirely.

What’s happening to the glaciers? If they are melting, then there is no reason why there should be less water for the millions of people who live downstream. Glaciers which neither grow nor shrink must have equal output as input. Meanwhile, if there is a growing water shortage problem (whatever its cause), a global deal at Copenhagen won’t help those facing it to build new water infrastructure. Nor will it give them one

IPCC estimates tell us now that by 2080 an extra 1.8 billion – equal to a quarter of the world’s current population – could be living and dying without enough water.

The only claim to this effect that we could find in the IPCC’s literature was this PDF of a presentation. It says:

A 3°C temperature increase could lead to 0.4 –1.8 billion more people at risk of water stress.

Notice that Brown omits to inform us what could produce the effect, which is a particularly high estimate anyway, and takes the upper range of the effect, which is more than four times higher than the lower. Moreover, the figure is premised entirely on those who are likely to experience such effects being unable to develop any water infrastructure. Even the worst-case projection/scenario considered by the IPCC in AR4 does not estimate that global temperature could increase by 3 degrees until 2080 – 70 years in the future. That’s plenty of time to start building water infrastructure.

Brown continues:

If the international community does nothing to assist the rainforest nations in protecting the world’s rainforests, the damage not just to climate, but to biodiversity, to watersheds and to the livelihoods of millions of people will, as you know here, be incalculable.

Which is simply meaningless.

The recent report of the Global Humanitarian Forum led by Kofi Annan suggests that 325 million people are already seriously affected by drought, disease, floods, loss of livestock, low agricultural yields, and declining fish stocks. A further 500 million people are at extreme risk, and every year the effects of climate change are already killing 300,000 people – the number killed by the Indian Ocean Tsunami. And the toll could rise to half a million each year by 2030.

We have looked at the GHF’s claims previously (here and here). And as we showed, there is no reason to take them seriously. As with the WHO’s claim that 150,000 people are killed by the effects of climate change, each and every single one of these deaths would have been avoided had there been the level of development in those regions as there is in the West. It cannot be argued, therefore, that climate change is responsible for those deaths. Poverty was responsible for them. Moreover, the number of deaths attributed to climate change is lower than for any other effect of poverty according the UN’s very own figures. Here they are again:

More than 26 million people seem to die prematurely in the developing world, yet Brown thinks their biggest problem is climate change.

98 per cent of those dying and otherwise seriously affected live in the poorest countries, and yet their countries only account for 8 per cent of global emissions. This is the great injustice of climate change. Those being hit first and hardest by climate change are those who have done least to cause it.

Brown seeks legitimacy for his climate change policy-posturing by claiming to be interested in helping the world’s poor. Yet at the same time, it appears that he is not making an argument for the world’s poor to enjoy our lifestyles, and our level of wealth. Thus he is not making an argument for them to be equipped with the means to make themselves less vulnerable to the effects of climate, and of climate change. To what extent then, is Brown making an argument for the defence of the interests of the global poor?

Brown isn’t interested in them at all. What Brown is interested in is sustaining his own role and his own function. He is clothing himself in scientific factoids and dubious statistics so that he can make-believe that he is a planet-saving super-hero. Transparently, he fails.

Newsnight of the Living Dead

For those who missed Wednesday’s edition of BBC2’s Newsnight, we highly recommend that you watch it:

When you’re asked to adapt your lifestyle to combat climate change, what goes through your head? Do you embrace the challenge, switch off the lights and reach for the hair-shirt? Or do you shut your eyes, bury your head in a carbon-luxurious lifestyle and hope it will all go away? Tonight we ask what the green movement has really achieved. Yes, they’ve brought the issue to the national conscience. But are they now becoming part of the problem by rejecting so many potential solutions? They style themselves as radical, but are they actually too conservative? Tonight we put the great and the good of the green movement on trial.

It doesn’t quite live up to the promise, but it’s well worth it for the spectacle of Caroline Lucas, Zac Goldsmith, John Sauven, Franny Armstrong et al being lined up Weakest-Link-style for self-inflicted humiliation. Available on iPlayer here if you’re in the UK.

In the Pipeline

Just a quickie to say that we’re still here, and to flag up the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London, 31 Oct/1 Nov.

Ben will be speaking at the session Solving the Energy Crisis: all about lightbulbs and lifestyle? where he’ll share the mic with Brenda Boardman (Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford; author of Home Truths: a low-carbon strategy to reduce UK housing emissions by 80%); Jacquie Burgess (professor of environmental risk, University of East Anglia); Martin Haigh (energy consultant, Shell); Peter Sammonds (professor of geophysics, UCL).

There’s lots more on the programme that might be of interest. Such as:

Bookshop Barnie at the Battle: ‘Why We Disagree about Climate Change’

The Fight over Flight: what’s the problem with air travel?

Abundant, Cheap, Clean… Contentious? Why is energy a battlefield today?

A Green New Deal: can environmentalism save the economy?

A New Nuclear Age?

See you there maybe.


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…


…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.

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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.

Iceberg Stories Are a Wet Lettuce

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…

Future-Present Imperfect Imperative, Part 2

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

Has Climate Porn Already Tipped?

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.