Astroturfers and Space Cadets

Poor George Monbiot is even miserabler than usual:

On the Guardian’s environment site in particular, and to a lesser extent on threads across the Guardian’s output, considered discussion is being drowned in a tide of vituperative gibberish. A few hundred commenters appear to be engaged in a competition to reach the outer limits of stupidity. They post so often and shout so loudly that intelligent debate appears to have fled from many threads, as other posters have simply given up in disgust. I’ve now reached the point at which I can’t be bothered to read beyond the first page or so of comments. It is simply too depressing.

His problem is that lots of commenters don’t agree with him. And Monbiot flatters himself that there can be only reason for that – someone must be paying them to do so:

As I documented extensively in my book Heat, and as sites like DeSmogBlog and Exxonsecrets show, there is a large and well-funded campaign by oil, coal and electricity companies to insert their views into the media.

They have two main modes of operating: paying people to masquerade as independent experts, and paying people to masquerade as members of the public. These fake “concerned citizens” claim to be worried about a conspiracy by governments and scientists to raise taxes and restrict their freedoms in the name of tackling a non-existent issue. This tactic is called astroturfing. It’s a well-trodden technique, also deployed extensively by the tobacco industry. You pay a public relations company to create a fake grassroots (astroturf) movement, composed of people who are paid for their services. They lobby against government attempts to regulate the industry and seek to drown out and discredit people who draw attention to the issues the corporations want the public to ignore.

Considering the lengths to which these companies have gone to insert themselves into publications where there is a risk of exposure, it is inconceivable that they are not making use of the Guardian’s threads, where they are protected by the posters’ anonymity. Some of the commenters on these threads have been paid to disseminate their nonsense, but we have no means, under the current system, of knowing which ones they are.

Monbiot even once went as far as challenging one of the commenters, who ignored him. Which has got to prove something:

Two months ago I read some comments by a person using the moniker scunnered52, whose tone and content reminded me of material published by professional deniers. I called him out, asking “Is my suspicion correct? How about providing a verifiable identity to lay this concern to rest?” I repeated my challenge in another thread. He used distraction and avoidance in his replies, but would not answer or even address my question, which gave me the strong impression that my suspicion was correct.

As it happens, we’ve been making the odd venture into Comment is Free discussions recently, and the funny thing is that the vast majority of our time on there has been spent fending off accusations that we are paid deniers, astroturfers, corporate sock-puppets, and that we’ve been posting under multiple aliases as part of an orchestrated campaign.

Monbiot’s preoccupation with astroturfers and the like sits hilariously with the fact that it is environmentalism that claims to be the grassroots movement trying to be heard above the din of the well-funded denial machine. The truth is of course that environmental orthodoxy is being driven from the top down, and comprises a range of corporate interests, policy-makers, media types, academics, NGO’s and private-school activists. The group it has most spectacularly failed to win over is the electorate. There’s a whole lot of people out there who disagree vehemently with Monbiot – too many for any denial machine to be able to afford to pay.

This failure is explained by the Monbiots of this world as the result of the influence of ‘deniers’, of course. Deniers have accordingly become the key antagonists in environmental mythology. But rather than taking on the arguments of the deniers, George has a fantasy battle in his own head. These fantasy deniers say so much more about George than they say about the real world.

Ho Ho Ho Green Giantz

Thanks to George Carty for pointing us to the Energy From Thorium Discussion Forum, where someone named Klaus Allmendinger has spotted something strange in the small print of a new report from WWF and Allianz insurance that claims to rank G8 countries in terms of their progress towards CO2 emissions targets:

… When noticing France AND Germany in similar places on the list, I looked a little further. France, according to this report, has still fairly high emissions from electricity production. A small footnote under one of the graphs though explains why:

1 WWF does not consider nuclear power to be a viable policy option. The indicators “emissions per capita”, “emissions per GDP” and “CO2 per kWh electricity” for all countries have therefore been adjusted as if the generation of electricity from nuclear power had produced 350 gCO2/kWh (emission factor for natural gas). Without the adjustment, the original indicators for France would have been much lower, e.g. 86 gCO2/kWh.”

So basically, France’s CO2 emissions from electricity production are produced by ideological bias, not by fossil fuel combustion. It looks like the German emissions are lower than actual tons of CO2 also because of emission trading schemes. Allianz is of course also a trader in CO2 certificates.

It seems like the new battle-cry is: Enrons of the world, unite !!!

Not only does the report clearly not do what it claims to do, and not only is this another instance of Big Insurance joining forces with Big Environment to whip up alarm (not to mention premiums) about environmental risks (Allianz join Munich Re, RMS and Catlin), but, by ranking countries in terms of energy – rather than CO2 – production, it also supports our suggestion that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations.

Science-Based Catchphrase-Making

The Bush administration’s unorthodox stance on climate change and stem-cell research led to widespread accusations that it conducted a war on science. The Democrats’ response has been to promise to ‘let science guide us, not ideology’, to ‘make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology’, and that ‘the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over’.

But in the latest issue of Issues in Science & Technology, Dan Sarewitz shows that, on the evidence of Obama’s presidency so far, science-led policy-making is easier said than done. Take Obama’s moves to change US stem-cell policy. Bush infamously restricted the use of federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research, limiting research to existing stem-cell lines. Writes Sarewitz:

Less than two months into his presidency, Obama announced that he would reverse the Bush policies by allowing research on cell lines created after the Bush ban. The president instructed the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to “develop guidelines for the support and conduct of responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research.”

In announcing the change, President Obama emphasized the need to “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” yet the new policy, as well as the language that the president used to explain it, underscores that the stem cell debate is in important ways not about scientific facts at all, but about the difficulty of balancing competing moral preferences. The new policy does not allow unrestricted use of embryos for research or the extraction of cell lines from embryos created by therapeutic cloning. In explaining that “[m]any thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” President Obama was acknowledging that, even in its earliest stages, the small group of cells that constitute an embryo are in some way different from a chemical reagent to be sold in a catalog or an industrially synthesized molecule to be integrated into a widget. Indeed, to protect women from economic and scientific exploitation, and in deference to the moral and political ambiguity that embryos carry with them, no nation allows the unrestricted commodification of embryos, and some, including Germany, have bans on destroying embryos for research purposes. Although most Americans favor a less restrictive approach to stem cell research than that pursued by President Bush, the issue is inherently political and inherently moral. Thus, some of the cell lines approved for research under the Bush restrictions might actually not be approved under the Obama guidelines because they may not have been obtained with the appropriate level of prior informed consent of the donor, a moral constraint on science that apparently did not concern President Bush.

Or take Obama’s decision to slash funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository:

At this point it is tempting to write: “It’s hard to imagine a case where politics trumped science more decisively than in the case of Yucca Mountain, where 20 years of research were traded for five electoral votes and the support of a powerful senator,” which seems basically correct, but taken out of context it could be viewed as a criticism of President Obama, which it is not. But the point I want to make is only slightly more subtle: Faced with a complex amalgam of scientific and political factors, President Obama chose short-term political gain over longer-term scientific assessment, and so decided to put an end to research aimed at characterizing the Yucca Mountain site. This decision can easily be portrayed in the same type of language that was used to attack President Bush’s politicization of science.

But not only is science-led politics difficult, if not impossible, it is also potentially dangerous. Sarewitz concludes:

… ownership of a powerful symbol can give rise to demagoguery and self-delusion. President Bush overplayed the national defense card in pursuit of an ideological vision that backfired with terrible consequences in Iraq. In turn, a scientific-technological elite unchecked by healthy skepticism and political pluralism may well indulge in its own excesses. Cults of expertise helped bring us the Vietnam War and the current economic meltdown. Uncritical belief in and promotion of the redemptive power of scientific and technological advance is implicated in some of the most difficult challenges facing humans today. In science, Democrats appear to have discovered a surprisingly potent political weapon. Let us hope they wield it with wisdom and humility.

A Big Fuss About Small Change

Bob Ward is at it again. In an article for the Guardian, he writes that – shock, horror – ExxonMobil continues to fund organisations he disagrees with, even though he has told them not to.

A few weeks ago, ExxonMobil revealed that it made contributions in 2008 to lobby groups such as the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Heritage Foundation in order to “promote informed discussion”. So I have now written again to ExxonMobil to point out that these organisations publish misleading information about climate change on their websites

Ward, you might remember, started writing letters of complaint to the likes of Exxon when he was Director of Communications at the Royal Society, who supplied him with headed note-paper. He continued his crusade after taking up the post of Director of Global Science Networks at global risk insurance firm RMS. And he shows no sign of stopping now that he’s Policy and Communications Director at Professor Lord Sir Nicholas Stern’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE.

The Guardian deems Ward’s article important enough to get its staff environment reporter to write an article about the fact that Ward has written an article:

The world’s largest oil company is continuing to fund lobby groups that question the reality of global warming, despite a public pledge to cut support for such climate change denial, a new analysis shows.

Company records show that ExxonMobil handed over hundreds of thousands of pounds to such lobby groups in 2008. These include the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in Dallas, Texas, which received $75,000 (£45,500), and the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, which received $50,000.

According to Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, at the London School of Economics, both the NCPA and the Heritage Foundation have published “misleading and inaccurate information about climate change.”

‘Hundreds of thousands of pounds’. Gosh. Compared to the sums made available for climate alarmism, even the ~$45 million paid out by Exxon over the course of a decade (according to Greenpeace’s Exxonsecrets website) is chicken feed. One only needs to compare it to the amount given by Ward’s benefactor, Jeremy Grantham, to put things into perspective. As a Sunday Times article revealed recently:

So concerned is Grantham, 70, over this issue that he has set up the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, endowed with £165m of his own money, to fund environmental research and campaigns. From it he is funding the LSE and Imperial donations, and other grants to American groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund.

So, just one individual has given nearly five times more in one lump to the green cause than Exxon (a petro-chemicals giant) is alleged to have given over the course of a decade. Nevermind the $billions at the disposal of the giant green NGOs such as WWF, and Greenpeace – many of which enjoy cosy relationships with governments and the EU, who go so far as paying such groups to lobby them.

According to Grantham:

Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world.

Says the… erm… Capitalist businessman. But whose interests will the remodelling of global capitalism and business serve?

Ward, of course, has his own interests served by elevating poorly-funded networks of ‘deniers’ to the status of global capitalist conspiracy. It gives the impression that there’s actually an organised challenge to the increasing influence of environmental ideology, giving him a role as its inquisitor. Thus, the image of the brave Ward standing against evil corporate conspiracies (with billionaires standing behind him, out of focus) gives such environmental ideology the appearance of socially-progressive radicalism.

Yet, arguably, Exxon are the ones doing the social good here, donating such sums that, if only in a small way, create the possibility of debate that has been so far dominated by the interests of the super-wealthy – the Goldsmiths, Prince Charles, the Tickells, Gore, and so on. Why should we take their word for it that their influence, and the influence of the institutions they lobby for, and fund, and direct, are operating in our interests?

Moreover, Ward’s accusations about the corrupting influence of corporate dollars can be thrown right back at him. From his HQ at the LSE, Ward’s boss Nick Stern runs both the Grantham and the Centre for Climate Change, Economics and Policy (CCCEP). While Ward’s employment is ostensibly with the Grantham, he also doubles up as PR man for the CCCEP. The CCCEP is funded jointly by the UK’s research councils and risk insurance giants Munich Re.

The close association between climate alarmists and the insurance industry is no less natural than that between ‘sceptics’ and Exxon. Just as Exxon might be expected to play down the threat of climate change when it suits them, Munich Re can be relied upon to overstate the dangers. Fear of risk is to the insurance industry what oil is to Exxon.

The difference is that Bob Ward doesn’t write letters of complaint to Munich Re insurers or articles for the Guardian when Munich Re disseminates ‘misleading and inaccurate information about climate change’ – which they surely do.

While Big Oil dishes out a few quid to a handful of pressure groups on the political fringes, Big Insurance conducts its business safely ensconced within the political, academic and scientific establishment. Its own brand of misleading and inaccurate information is acceptable simply because it does not conflict with the political goals of the environmental elite. Indeed, that same misleading and inaccurate information becomes central to the environmental cause, forming the basis of, for example, Kofi Annan’s much-publicised report ‘demonstrating’ that 300,000 people per year are dying as a result of climate change.

To take Exxon funding is to attract accusations of ‘denialism’, but to be funded by Munich Re is something to be proud of, to the extent that esteemed academic institutions such as the LSE want to tell the world about it:

New world-leading Grantham Research Institute opens for business as LSE joins forces with Munich Re on climate change

The £millions available to Ward and his colleagues have improved neither the quality of their arguments nor their popularity with the electorate. No wonder they are terrified that Exxon are still funding ‘deniers’. Grantham ought to ask for his money back. Surely, if ‘deniers’ were engaged in prostituting their intellectual resources for pure profit, the best way to ensure that the environmental message got heard would be to pay them to switch sides. After all, in spite of the $billions that have been made available to green causes, it’s only (allegedly) taken Exxon $45m to undo all that ‘good’ work.

Forecast for Satire Worse Than Previously Thought

We find ourselves temporarily elsewhere and otherwise engaged. We’ll be back shortly. It has not escaped our notice that there has been a couple of interesting elections recently, and that a new report for the UK government proves beyond doubt that it’s very hard to make predictions about the future. We’ll come back to these. Meantime, a couple of other things…

First, Ben had an article on Spiked last week about the Guardian’s entirely credulous coverage of Greenpeace’s allegations that illegal deforestation in the Amazon Basin is linked to a number of giant UK food firms:

…the ‘smoking gun’ which Greenpeace claims links companies to illegal deforestation amounts to no more than an allegation that trade that has been ‘contaminated’ with some beef from farms that had extended into rainforest. The evidence of this global conspiracy produced by Greenpeace are documents representing the sale of less than 9,000 head of cattle – hardly a huge amount given Brazil’s estimated stock of 200million.

To put that into perspective, there are 10million cattle in the UK, a country with a surface area less than three per cent of Brazil’s and with less than a quarter of Brazil’s human population. If Brazilian cattle were reared as intensively as their British counterparts, 9,000 cattle would occupy an area roughly one-tenth the size of the county of Oxfordshire…

Second, staying with Greenpeace, here’s a funny thing. It’s just not funny in the way Greenpeace intend it:

In a front-page ad in today’s International Herald Tribune, the leaders of the European Union thank the European public for having engaged in months of civil disobedience leading up to the Copenhagen climate conference that will be held this December. “It was only thanks to your massive pressure over the past six months that we could so dramatically shift our climate-change policies…. To those who were arrested, we thank you.”

There was only one catch: the paper was fake.

Looking exactly like the real thing, but dated December 19th, 2009, a million copies of the fake paper were distributed worldwide by thousands of volunteers in order to show what could be achieved at the Copenhagen climate conference that is scheduled for Dec. 7-18, 2009.

…goes the email circular (H/T Andrew). And here‘s the spoof newspaper.

But governments have been quite open for a while now about the fact that they look to climate protesters for political direction. Here’s UK energy and climate change minister Ed Miliband, for example:

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.

And here’s opposition leader David Cameron:

[youtube 8gr5rIK097E]

While the European Union goes as far as paying environmental groups to lobby them.

Greenpeace should be thanking the government. Where’s some proper satire when you need it?

Greenpeace: putting trees before people

At the end of last month, the Guardian’s environment correspondent, David Adam, reported from Brazil on Greenpeace’s allegation that illegal deforestation in the Amazon Basin was linked to a number of giant UK food firms. But were Greenpeace’s claims all that they appeared?

The online version of Adam’s report features a video of his visit to Brazil. Pressing ‘play’ on the video, I expected to see Adam giving an account of the environmental Armageddon he was witnessing (and causing, given that the plane he travelled in would have emitted considerable quantities of greenhouse gases to get him there).

Instead I was greeted by one of the rotating adverts that appear ahead of the Guardian’s video features. ‘Kerrygold is owned by Irish dairy farmers, and this is our ad’, the farmers declare in broad brogue. It’s a curious advert to see ahead of a report about trees being illegally felled to make way for cattle. Over the course of centuries, Ireland been cleared of forest cover, and is now one of the least forested countries in Europe. It doesn’t seem to have done Irish farmers much harm.

Life isn’t as simple for people seeking an existence in Brazil as it is for the Kerrygold farmers, as Adam’s first article from the region illustrates. While the owners of one ranch have their estate and luxury accommodation protected by armed guards, squatters who live on the estate live much less rewarding lives. The possibility is raised that one of the squatters – the father of two young children – was recently shot in a dispute over land. We might expect Adam to continue describing the conditions and violence that the many people in Brazil have to endure. Instead, his article becomes confused and dominated by the issue of illegal deforestation – the subject of the Greenpeace report.

The story is that the Brazilian government has been unable and possibly unwilling to stop rainforest being illegally cleared to make way for cattle. Farms – some of which have illegally turned more than 20 per cent (the legal limit) of their land into pasture since 2006 – sell cattle to large companies that in turn supply UK retailers such as Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer with a range of goods such as meat, leather and gelatine products. ‘British supermarkets are driving rapid destruction of the Amazon rainforest by using meat from farms responsible for illegal deforestation’, says Adam.

Sarah Shoraka, Greenpeace forests campaigner, is even blunter: ‘Shoes, handbags and ready meals aren’t normally associated with rainforest destruction and climate change, but we’ve found a smoking gun. UK companies are driving the destruction of the Amazon by buying beef and leather products from unscrupulous suppliers in Brazil. These products are ending up on our shelves.’

But is this ‘driving’ of rainforest destruction by UK firms quite as clear as Adam and Greenpeace are claiming? The suggestion is that these companies are complicit in illegal deforestation and therefore culpable. However, the ‘smoking gun’ which Greenpeace claims links companies to illegal deforestation amounts to no more than an allegation that trade that has been ‘contaminated’ with some beef from farms that had extended into rainforest. The evidence of this global conspiracy produced by Greenpeace are documents representing the sale of less than 9,000 head of cattle – hardly a huge amount given Brazil’s estimated stock of 200million.

To put that into perspective, there are 10million cattle in the UK, a country with a surface area less than three per cent of Brazil’s and with less than a quarter of Brazil’s human population. If Brazilian cattle were reared as intensively as their British counterparts, 9,000 cattle would occupy an area roughly one-tenth the size of the county of Oxfordshire.

Furthermore, it’s not true that the Brazilian government has ignored illegal clearing. In June last year, officials seized 3,100 cattle being illegally reared on an ecological reserve in the state of Para and a herd of 10,000 in Rondonia. The country’s environment minister estimates the size of the herd grazing illegally cleared land to be just 60,000. Are Greenpeace making mountains out of cow pats?

The story trades on the familiar line that, somehow, supermarkets and brand names are at the centre of all that is wrong in the world. But the government-funded National Health Service (NHS) was also named by Greenpeace’s report as a recipient of cattle products from illegal cleared rainforest, making it hard to sustain the idea that this is some kind of corporate conspiracy. Greenpeace’s aim with this exaggeration, aided and abetted by Adam’s reports, seems to be the establishment of international rules to regulate the trade in beef, pushed through on a wave of consumer guilt.

As Greenpeace’s report says: ‘The Copenhagen Climate Summit, to be held in Denmark in December 2009, is the key opportunity for governments to agree measures to drastically reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions. Any effective deal must include actions and funding to tackle deforestation.’

There may well be an argument that what happens to trees thousands of miles away is a problem. But the problems experienced by the poor in Brazil, and throughout the world, must surely be more pressing. Instead, it is squeamishness about what our shopping habits do to forests that drives the argument for international regulatory frameworks, and it is hard to see how focusing on land, trees and cows will raise the standard of living for people whose labour and lives are cheap. Such campaigns seem to express greater solidarity with wood than with people.

Greenpeace enjoys an increasingly cosy relationship with the establishment. As politicians find it harder to make arguments for themselves, they frequently turn to NGOs to give their policies credibility. For instance, the UK Conservative leader David Cameron recently launched his party’s energy policy at a press event held on the rooftop of Greenpeace’s London HQ (watch it here).

Journalists, too, look to such organisations for moral direction and sensational copy. This means that rather than holding them to account, the claims and broader agendas of NGOs often go without scrutiny or criticism. It is taken for granted that they are ‘ethical’, but no one ever voted for Greenpeace and there is no good reason to believe that the preoccupation with environmental issues is in the interests of people, either in the UK or in Brazil.

The Illusion and Politics of Necessity

Our last post got us thinking a bit more about the WHO’s attribution of 150,000 deaths a year to climate change, now superseded by the GHF’s 300,000.

As we said, headlines – thousands and thousands of them – were generated by the ’cause’ that was least significant in the WHO’s own study. The 0.5% of deaths attributed to climate change amounted to around 150,000, while the causes of the remaining 42,157,155 deaths went largely undiscussed, principally because conventional wisdom informs that ‘climate change is the biggest threat facing mankind’ and ‘climate change is worse for the poor’.

The WHO report bases its estimation on the role of climate change in producing conditions which encourage the proliferation of disease vectors: more rain means more stagnant water for mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite, for instance. This seems to be us to be nonsense for two main reasons. First, if we took seriously the issue of malaria, there would have been no deaths caused by it, and many fewer deaths attributable to climate change. Second, the method by which the estimation was turned into raw numbers is highly dubious.

Nonetheless, factoids such as those produced by the WHO operate in the argument of activists such as Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Stupid, as a form of a priori knowledge that can be used to produce further claims about climate change. For example, we know that gravity causes objects to fall towards the ground – it is a given. Therefore, we know, without needing to see it, that releasing a fragile object at height will cause it to fall and break. The given knowledge about gravity allows necessary conclusions to be drawn. As Armstrong puts it when trying to explain to the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband that he was asking ‘other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives’ to preserve our ‘right to … fly, as many times as [we] want to’, ‘One follows the other’. This is because, in her view, a ‘hundred and fifty thousand people … are already dying from climate change every year, according to the World Health Organisation’. Anything which causes climate change is therefore, in Armstrong’s moral calculus, causing the deaths of thousands of people.

But, it is only necessarily true that climate change causes increased deaths if it is necessarily true that it is not possible to deal with the problem of malaria (for instance) as a first order effect. We know that it is possible to deal with the problem of malaria (it has been abolished from wealthier countries), therefore we know that there is no necessary connection between climate change the 150,000 deaths that the WHO attributed to it. The relationship is contingent. We know, therefore, that Armstrong’s reasoning is bogus: it is not the case that ‘the one follows the other’: something else is needed to explain why and how climate change ’causes’ 150,000 deaths.

The arguments that many activists put forward are effectively a cascade of ‘one follows the other’ assumptions that diminish in their necessity and certainty as they move away from what has been established by climate science, into the increasingly contingent domain of Nth-order effects of Nth-order effects.

This chain of reasoning can start out with facts we can be very sure about. The ‘consensus’, in other words. We know, for instance, that we produce CO2, and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. But, in spite of a broad consensus, the effect of that CO2 in terms of likely temperature rise is the subject of some questioning. The subject of more questioning is the likely climate change, such as rainfall patterns, that increased temperatures will cause. Even less certain is how species of animals will respond. Less certain again is the effect that the preceding effects will have on humans. We move from a scientific claim, through increasingly speculative and contingent layers of effect, ultimately to questions about society itself. Of course, we can say that increased precipitation causes better conditions for mosquitoes, generally. But the point is that, such a cascade doesn’t want us to understand simply the relationship between increased precipitation and mosquitoes, but between climate change and death. We could, with the right intervention, abolish the relationship between increased precipitation and mosquitoes altogether. Hence, the relationship between precipitation and malaria is of an entirely different category as the relationship between CO2 concentration and global temperature. We can’t stop CO2 being a greenhouse gas. We can stop rainfall creating habitats for mosquitoes, and we can develop a way of preventing malaria entirely through a number of interventions.

The social effects that have been given as reasons to mitigate climate change – climate refugees, resource war, famine, plague, and so on – exist at the end of such chains of reasoning.

Two claims are made about climate politics by many of its adherents.

First, it almost goes without saying that it is the greater-order effects of climate change that are the premise of environmental politics. It is the possibility of catastrophe that drives most environmentalism, particularly in the political mainstream.

Second, it has been long argued that these greater-order effects of climate change have been produced as facts by science – the WHO’s statistic, for instance. As Franny Armstrong puts it in her argument with Ed Miliband, it’s not her wish we reduce the amount of flying we do by 95 per cent, but science which demands it. Miliband responds to Armstrong by agreeing that we need to respond to ‘the science’. This same schematic of demarcated science and politics operates at all levels of debate about climate policies.

But as we have explained, the ‘facts’ relating to the consequences of climate change (e.g. 150,000 deaths), are only contingently true, and may not even be true at all. Something which is contingent cannot be a necessary fact. The effect of climate change on human society is contingent on many factors that cannot be easily (if at all) understood scientifically. It is fundamentally people’s ability to adapt spontaneously and autonomously to climate – changing or not – that explains the outcome of climate change in the world that was looked at by the WHO. The claim that ‘climate change caused X deaths’ is therefore significant only if we can say that the circumstances that allowed climate change to claim so many lives – poverty – are an unchangeable fact about the world. But the fact of poverty owes very little to science, and very much to politics. We cannot explain poverty scientifically. We can explain it politically, even if it is harder to reach an agreement about how best to remedy it.

It cannot be argued, therefore, that the premise of climate politics (catastrophe) is the conclusion of climate science. Between the start of the scientific evaluation of climate science, and its conclusion is an assumption that is deeply political: that the poverty that allows climate change to cause deaths from malaria is a natural phenomenon. The claim that climate science is prior to, and distinct from climate politics therefore cannot be sustained.

In order to make the argument for the mitigation of climate change on the basis of its consequences, it is necessary to argue that the relationship between anthropogenic CO2 and its catastrophic Nth order effects is necessary. But the only reason that it is necessary that climate change will increase the number of deaths from Nth order effects is because the environmental movement have displaced from the political agenda any possibility of technological advance and economic development that doesn’t meet their requirements of ‘sustainability’.

We have long argued here on Climate Resistance that two things can be said about what emerges from the climate debate:

1. Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It rules out the possibility that the world can continue to improve, which carries the consequence of making people ever more subject to environmental changes, whatever the cause of that change.

2. Climate politics are prior to climate science. Although environmentalists argue that they are responding to climate change, it is transparently the case that catastrophe is the premise of climate politics, and more significantly, it is the premise of any scientific research which posits a necessary relationship between climate change and the social-effects of climate change.

In other words, the argument for action to mitigate climate change takes its own conclusion as its premise. It makes it necessary that climate change will cause Nth order effects simply by positing that it is necessary that climate change will cause Nth order effects.

That is why we argue here for politics to be put back at the centre of the climate debate. In part, because it is clear that the expectation of science to be decisive and instructive is beyond its means. Consequently, vaguely plausible theoretical projections get passed off as empirical facts as the environmental agenda seeks to satisfy its claims to objectivity, further confusing the boundaries between politics and science. What organisations such as the WHO, GHF and the IPCC are engaged in is less the generation of evidence for evidence-based policy-making, and more policy-based evidence-making.

But more importantly, accepting the putative necessity of the relationship between the climate and the health of human society rules out human interests being the organising principle of politics. If we accept that there are ‘natural’ and necessary relationships between the environment and social effects then we rule out the discussion about how to abolish effects such as poverty, famine, malaria, in favour of merely mediating them by reducing quality of life elsewhere. That is why the 42 million+ deaths due to non-climate effects get ignored in favour of the claim that our profligate use of carbon causes 150,000 (or 300,000, take your pick, or simply pluck a number out of thin air) deaths in the developing world.

These 150/300 thousand deaths are not used out of sympathy. They are used as moral weapons in a debate that lacks substance. Already, the figure of 300,000 deaths has been used in Parliament to encourage the UK’s commitment to the Copenhagen conference later this year. There is no doubt that the dubious figure will resurface again, stripped of all the caution that its authors attached to their findings, and in the style of Franny Armstrong, it will be used to arm arguments for an international response to climate change that will, necessarily, cause more problems for poor people than it will solve.

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Update:

Roger Pielke Jr. has a number of interesting posts on the subject of the 300,000 deaths statistic over at his Prometheus blog.

The Age of the Age of Stupid

It is telling that parts of the environmental movement attempt to ram home their message by telling the rest of the world that they are stupid for not getting it.

As we have shown here on Climate Resistance, some argue that psychological mechanisms might be to blame for our failure to respond to climate change, and devise techniques that might ‘encourage’ us to behave ‘responsibly’. Others claim that the feckless public’s scepticism and denial are the result of conspiracies to distort science’s message, or that a ‘balance’ of views in the media gives a credibility to false ideas. Some even say that the issue of climate change is just too serious and big an issue for democracy to cope with – we vote selfishly, and our sinful minds cannot possibly understand the enormity of the tragedy that we are making. What fools we are.

But the last thing those who make such claims ever look at to explain their failure is their own argument. So who are they calling stupid?

All of us, it seems. One such case is ‘The Age of Stupid’ – a film that points its big pointy finger at the people of the world, and damns them for their stupidity.

Franny Armstrong, the director of the film, was at the Hay Festival last weekend, sharing the stage with climate change minister, Ed Miliband. As the Guardian’s James Randerson reports:

What we saw on stage was a clash between the absolutism of the single-minded campaigner and the art of realpolitik. For Armstrong the situation is clear. Already, 150,000 people are dying each year as a result of human-caused climate change – according to the World Health Organisation – so the consumerist growth model that has created the problem has to go.

But, countered Miliband, that would deny developing countries like China and India their chance to grow their economies. “If you say to them look, we’ve had this growth model for 50 years or whatever it is but now we’ve discovered it’s a real problem and you can’t carry on growing, there’s no way to can persuade them to be part of a global agreement,” he said.

Here is what they said to each other, according to the Guardian’s podcast coverage of the festival:

MILIBAND: Even after the recession, even after putting a price on carbon, passenger demand in the UK is expected to double. Now your position says, err…

ARMSTRONG: Ninety-five per cent cut in flights by 2020.

MILIBAND: You’d like a ninety-five per cent cut in flights?

ARMSTRONG: Yep. No, the science… It doesn’t matter what I’d like… If we’re going to prevent runaway climate change, which is the goal. Then ninety-five percent cut in flights, yeah. But I think what you said is absolutely key. Like it was only one generation ago, perhaps two [laughs] that err, flying was a magical once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’d look forward to. You know, you’d save up, and you’d go, you know, once a decade. That’s what we’re talking about, everybody in the room could fly about once a decade. And then wed be back to being a magical experience and what’s wrong with that? I think we have to look at the level of sacrifice, don’t we, because what we’re saying is you think the British people wouldn’t agree to sacrifice [laughs] erm, their right to go on holiday as many times as they… fly, as many times as they want to.

MILIBAND: But…

ARMSTRONG: Hang on, let me finish. But in order… We’re therefore gonna ask other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives. I.E. the hundred and fifty thousand people who are already dying from climate change every year, according to the World Health Organisation.

MILIBAND: I’m not saying that, come on. I’m not saying that.

ARMSTRONG: No but you are. One follows the other.

This exchange epitomises the climate ‘debate’ in a number of ways.

First, 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. As he said last year:

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.

But the environmental movement cannot muster it. Too few people – only a small number of protesters and the UK establishment, it seems – are interested in the subject at all. Nonetheless, Miliband has been instrumental in driving forward the environmental agenda, which forms a substantial part of the government’s own legislation. Because it does suit the political establishment, it has proceeded without any real parliamentary scrutiny – virtually all MPs, with only a few exceptions, are entirely uncritical of anything ‘green’ – and without environmentalism being tested at the ballot box. This democratic oversight is overcome by deferring many of the parameters of our environmental strategy to an unaccountable, unelected panel – the Climate Change Committee, and of course, to the Stern Report, and to the IPCC; each papering over the nuances, doubt, uncertainties and scientific caution of the previous.

The second is the way Armstrong hides her naked prejudice behind science. It’s not her that wants a 95 per cent cut in flights, it’s science. It has spoken to her. But wherever Armstrong got her claim that a 95 per cent cut in flights is necessary to avoid ‘runaway climate change’ and the deaths of 150,000 people, it was not from scientific literature, and it was not from scientists. It’s an argument that has been assembled from bits of science, and strung together like a Frankenstein monster – a highly dubious form of inductive reasoning which allows her to claim that Miliband is making an argument for ‘other people in other countries to sacrifice their lives’. Her chain of reasoning is that i) flights cause CO2, ii) CO2 causes global warming, iii) which will cause runaway climate change, iv) which kills people – the WHO says so, v) these are mostly poor people in other countries. There is no sense of proportion at any stage of this form of reasoning. There is no attention given to the caveats and caution or scope that the original research – if indeed it was research – presented.

This is a major problem for Armstrong if she wants to persuade anybody who isn’t stupid. Anyone who isn’t stupid is able to see for themselves, with just a little research, how her argument stacks up, or doesn’t.

The statistic of 150,000 climate change deaths is from the WHO’s The World Health Report 2002, page 72 of which says:

Climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, 6% of malaria in some middle income countries and 7% of dengue fever in some industrialized countries. In total, the attributable mortality was 154 000 (0.3%) deaths and the attributable burden was 5.5 million (0.4%) DALYs. About 46% this burden occurred in SEAR-D, 23% in AFR-E and a further 14% in EMR-D.

‘Estimated’. There is no footnote explaining the method by which the estimate was achieved. for that, we need to look to press releases. This one, from Reuters, via commondreams.org:

The book estimated climate change was to blame for 2.4 percent of cases of diarrhoea because, Campbell-Lendrum said, the heat would exacerbate bacterial contamination of food.

Climate change was also behind two percent of all cases of malaria, because increased rainfall created new breeding grounds for mosquitoes which carry the disease, he said.

There is a logical problem here with using a model to attribute deaths from cause A to ultimate cause B. By virtue of being directly caused by A, we cannot say empirically, that B was responsible for any particular death. The relationship between the cause of climate change, and an Nth order effect of climate change is theoretical, not empirical, and is itself based on a speculative chain of reasoning which is unlikely to carry much necessity. People who were killed by malaria, which was caused by an increased rainfall, which was caused by climate change, which was caused by somebody driving a 4×4 in South London, were killed, first and foremost, by malaria. The relationship between the ultimate cause (CO2) and ultimate effect (150,000 deaths from disease) – which we have to take at face value, because the WHO have decided not to tell us how it was established – is contingent: things could have happened otherwise. For instance, we might have abolished malaria and dengue fever, and the developing world might have been more developed such that more people had fridges and freezers, and medicine – very simple medicine, as it happens – to deal with diarrhoea. If that had happened – and it’s not a stretch of the imagination – there would have been no deaths from climate change. So why campaign for less cars, rather than more fridges and more medicine?

But let’s be charitable to the WHO and their researchers, for a moment. Perhaps there is a value in estimating the influence of climate changes on disease, based on assumptions. It might open up some discussion about strategies that might be followed to confront malaria, and where investments might be best made. Theoretical models aren’t in themselves, ‘bad’, and can be useful to testing existing knowledge, perhaps between different disciplines. But, look, these researchers aren’t as interested in the 98% of malaria cases which aren’t ’caused’ by climate change as the 2% that they assume is caused by climate change.

Even according to WHO’s own statistics, climate change is just about the least pressing problem for anyone in the developing world. Even being overweight or physically inactive in regions where we typically understand life to be characterised by scarcity of food, and hard physical labour are each bigger problems than climate change. The WHO table attributes 404,418 deaths in the high-mortality developing world to being overweight, nearly three times as many as it claims die from climate change (144,714). That’s nothing, of course, compared to the problem of being undernourished, which kills 5,610,300 – 38 times as many as climate change. Yet, arguably it is a much much easier problem to solve, at face value, than climate change. Moreover, the likes of Armstrong repeat the claim that ‘climate change is the biggest problem facing mankind’, and that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. Is this really the picture that emerges from this research?

To read the oft-quoted headlines that the WHO’s report had generated since being published in 2002, you’d have thought so.

A Google search for 150000 deaths climate change WHO yields 150,000 search results. Perhaps the least interesting statistic that the WHO generated… indeed, the item nearly at the bottom of the table… is what generated the largest number of headlines.

More to the point, whereas it is relatively easy to measure the number of deaths attributed to a first-order cause, such as malaria, there have been no deaths anywhere in the world that can be directly attributable to climate change. Yet even establishing how many people die from malaria is fraught with complications. They aren’t all counted. None of the statistics represented by the WHO’s research are empirical ‘facts’. They are all the result of projections, estimations, and assumptions, calculated from known data of varying quality.

But the result of the theoretical model is treated outside the scope of the study as an empirical result. It is presented as a fact that 150,000 people die a year from climate change. It is Armstrong’s starting point. Without it, she wouldn’t have a case. Or at least she wouldn’t have had one until late last week. Because that’s when Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum launched its much-publicised report (pdf) revealing that it’s actually 300,000 people per year dying as a result of climate change.

The Guardian jumped on it, naturally, calling on George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and John Vidal to hit its significance home. Of those, only Vidal mentioned the highly speculative nature of the estimate. Lynas was the silliest:

These numbers are vitally important, because they provide a direct evidence-based link between culpability – those responsible for the emissions driving climate change – and victimhood, those who are suffering the consequences, including losing their lives […] The legal implications are analogous to those faced by the tobacco industry once evidence solidified about the links between smoking and cancer. Shareholders and investors in fossil fuels need to be aware that they now face a liability that will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars – their products are killing people, and it is only a matter of time before the wheels of international justice begin to turn.

Just like Franny Armstrong, Lynas grasps at the statistics as objective support for his politics. In his case it’s that those dirty oil companies are guilty of crimes against humanity and that he now sees a way to quantify those crimes. Of course, it’s pure fantasy. All one would have to do to counter his case would be to put together a report ‘estimating’ the number of lives saved each year by the burning of fossil fuels – through the provision of emergency services, heating, nutrition etc etc. But there’s the rub. The WHO isn’t going to carry out such a study. Just as it’s not going to carry out a study that comes up with a figure for the number of deaths caused by a stable climate. And nor is any celebrity diplomat with a charity at his disposal and connections at the highest level. As we say quite often, the politics is prior to the science. The WHO and Kofi Annan are responding to a hunger for statistics that confirm that climate change is real, happening and that something has to be done. Forget the starving millions, there are the appetites of directionless journalists, politicians, NGOs and diplomats to satisfy. Not to mention intergovernmental organisations such as the WHO itself. Neither the WHO nor the GHF have much to go on, of course, as they are quite prepared to admit in their respective reports. They do the best they can to cobble something together, shrouding their findings in caveats, qualifications, provisos and caution. But once the figures are out there, those caveats, qualifications, provisos and caution can be forgotten about. The job is done. Anyone is free to use these stats as they like. WHO won’t complain. Nor will Kofi Annan.

That’s the trouble with political consensuses. They are consensual. The only ones willing to challenge them are by definition outside of the consensus. And if you’re outside the political consensus, you’re a denier. And if you’re a denier, you can’t be trusted. Your money is corrupting. Your challenges can be written off as politically motivated. You can be ignored.

So, while the existence of a political consensus on climate change means that anyone who does not sign up to it is wrong by definition, the only ones who can possibly challenge that consensus are those who do not sign up to it. And indeed, even to try and challenge the consensus is evidence that one sits outside it and is, therefore, guilty of denialism.

And meanwhile, Lynas can demand that climate change must take precedence over all of the other problems out there that are ‘worse for the poor’ (which he does) – indeed, that are worse for the poor than climate change, according to no less than the WHO itself – and still be a respected member of the political climate change community.

It all leaves us in a farcical situation in which it does not matter what one’s own personal interests are, just as long as they incline one towards the proper sort of political bias. So, while just about the only group likely to make a case for the historical benefits of fossil fuels is the oil industry – who cannot be trusted because they are the fossil fuel industry – the press and politicians are more than happy to swallow the GHF report despite the fact that much of the crucial data on which its 300,000 figure is based is provided by insurance giants Munich Re, when risk insurers have as much interest in generating fear of climate change as Exxon has in generating doubt. And despite the fact that Munich Re’s data is highly questionable.

In the heat of the climate battle, excited activists like Armstrong and Lynas have absorbed

the numerical product of assumptions as concrete, cold, objective, hard, solid and unchallengeable, necessary facts about the world. These nebulous and often spurious assertions are taken out of any context in which they can be seen in proportion, and become the foundation of moral reasoning. In this way, the likes of Armstrong and Lynas project superficially plausible, but fundamentally flawed statistics into the future to make statements about what is happening in the present. Hence, Armstrong tells Miliband that he’s asking other people to sacrifice their lives so that we can go on holiday.

We might say, ‘ho hum, it’s just a couple of eco-loons’, nobody’s listening. But Miliband – a senior UK politician – is listening. He’s made two appearances with Armstrong recently: first at the launch of her film, and now at the Hay festival, apparently in order to demonstrate the UK government’s commitment to the environmental agenda. Why else would he be there? Try getting a politician such as Miliband to debate with a climate change ‘denier’, let alone a ‘sceptic’, let alone someone who’s critical of the politics. He would run a mile. Instead, he poses on stages with eco-warriors.

Even when she’s clearly mistaken, and trying to embarrass him, Miliband cannot point out to Armstrong that she’s a lunatic. He can neither challenge, nor expose her bogus way of thinking about things. He can’t assure the audience that she’s making stuff up, or taking things out of proportion, or that ‘one thing’ really does not ‘follow the other’, as she claims. Far from demonstrating the shallowness of the ‘one thing following the other’ argument, he instead tells Armstrong, that, yes, people aren’t going to give up their flights, but that he’s happy to make them more expensive:

I’m saying that we have to achieve the scientific… the… the… the cuts in emissions that science demands of us. And that is very important. But… but I’m saying that flying is the most difficult thing to tackle, partly technologically, err, speaking. I am saying that the price of airline tickets will go up including in the United Kingdom. We… we’re… it’s part of our emissions trading scheme, which means there is a price on err carbon emissions from aviation from the first… for the first time. I’m saying actually domestic flights will get much less err frequent, people will do them much less, and you got to expand high speed rail and you’ve got to have a big change in the relation to err public transport. But I am also saying that as someone in the art of persuasion, it… you know, you have probably twenty per cent of people in this country who are deeply committed on climate change. Maybe forty per cent who are… sort of… think it’s kind of… you know… right to do something but aren’t particularly engaged in it. And then a whole group of other people. In the art of persuasion, I’m not convinced that saying to people in my constituency, who are able to do something, and go to places that their parents could not have dreamed of, that that’s all got to end overnight is realistic. Which is what you’re saying.

Is it conceivable that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has not heard the ‘150,000 deaths from climate change’ factoid before? Of course he has. Can he really not know what its limitations are, and what criticisms have been made of it? Of course he does. But it wouldn’t be expedient to start challenging the very people he is turning to in the hope that they, through their films and through fear-mongery, will create support, and therefore legitimacy, for the policies he has devised.

He must think we’re stupid.

Here’s some more Stupid factoid tennis between Armstrong and Miliband.

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Grantham's Greenbacks

Jeremy Grantham is very rich and very worried. According to the Sunday Times, he has donated £24million to fund climate change research – £12million each to the London School of Economics and Imperial College:

Grantham believes climate change could lead to the collapse of Earth’s ecosystems and even threaten human civilisation.

So concerned is Grantham, 70, over this issue that he has set up the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, endowed with £165m of his own money, to fund environmental research and campaigns. From it he is funding the LSE and Imperial donations, and other grants to American groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund.

This is actually rather old news, which we reported on back in January. But it’s worth another look because, in his exclusive interview with the entirely credulous Sunday Times, Grantham is given full rein to expound on his personal fears and his political prescriptions:

“climate change is turning into the biggest problem humanity has ever faced … We are destroying the planet. We are in the middle of one of the greatest extinctions of species Earth has seen. If it continues unchecked, humanity will soon be running out of food and water … the environment, especially climate change, is going to be the central issue for all society, including business, politics and the economy…

Of course, ‘the environment, especially climate change’, already is ‘the central issue for all society’. We’re rather surprised he hadn’t heard.

But like all establishment greens, that’s not enough for Grantham, who demands no less than the reorganisation of society to save the planet:

…Capitalism and business are going to have to remodel themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing and eventually very different world.”

So the capitalist wants to reorganise capitalism, seemingly in the interests of ‘saving the planet’. To further this objective, he funds organisations with close relationships to the state and academia.

The Sunday Times draws on research conducted last year by Professor Cathy Pharoah, co-director of City University’s Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, who

suspects climate change is such a big problem that many would-be donors do not know how to donate or who to give to.

“Climate change has yet to become an attractive issue for many donors,” she said.

She also found that the top 50 environment charities had income of £977m in 2007 — less than half the £2.1 billion achieved by the 50 top overseas aid charities, such as Oxfam. The National Trust is the organisation that raises the most money — about £63m a year.

The implication is, of course, that climate change charities need more money, and that it’s not right and proper that overseas aid charities should have twice the income. This is rather a strange observation in itself. But it’s not even a useful distinction to draw.

Overseas aid charities have been busy reinventing themselves as climate change charities. Oxfam, for example, has launched its own campaign against power stations in the UK, on the basis that their emissions harm the world’s poor:

Coal or renewable? The old way, or the new. We head right back to dirty energy with E.ON’s Kingsnorth. We destroy our chances of avoiding a climate catastrophe and let climate change push poor people deeper into poverty. Or we innovate and start a clean energy revolution. Now is the time to choose.

In the context of environmentalism in general, these charities have all but dropped their traditional push for overseas development in favour of promoting sustainability, which by its very nature means less development.

And like all establishment greens, Grantham has a rather low view of his fellow humans

“Humanity is largely innumerate,” said Grantham.

“They don’t understand how frightening the numbers behind climate change really are…

‘They’… hmm. Being unfettered by membership of humanity, Grantham is free to see things how they really are:

What’s more, the people who can count, the scientists, are paralysed with fear about overstating their case. They have consistently understated the risk and so allowed politicians to ignore it.”

If ever a claim deserved a bit of journalistic scrutiny, that one does. But instead, the Sunday Times adds its own hand-waving statements about what scientists think into the mix:

Scientists argue, however, that there is little point donating money to save birds, woodlands or coastline from short-term threats if they are simply going to be wiped out by global warming later on.

Would that be all scientists? Most scientists? Some scientists? A scientist? Well, according to the evidence presented in the article, it’s no scientists. Or, at least, no scientists’ opinions are offered to support the claim. Instead, it hands straight back over to Grantham for corroboration:

Grantham agrees. With three grown-up children and his first grandchild on the way, he sees money spent on climate research as an investment in the world his grandchildren will inherit.

He is, however, increasingly pessimistic about what kind of world that will be.

“Our species is very bad at dealing with issues like these, so the outlook is bleak. There is no alternative to doing all we can but I suspect humanity is going to face a lot of grief.”

That one person is able to influence the direction of the climate ‘debate’ to the extent that he funds entire research organisations will be an irony lost on environmentalists. You can safely bet £24 million that none of the £24 million Grantham has invested will be allowed near any research which shows any danger of undermining the political argument for action to stop climate change. Meanwhile, the $22 million that Greenpeace unearthed flowing between Exxon and lobbying organisations between 1998 and 2006 is still held as ‘evidence’ that powerful interests dominate the ‘debate’.

Genetically Modified Climate 'Science'

Someone else who isn’t entirely wrong this week is Lord Bob May of Oxford. It’s quite refreshing to hear the former Royal Society president and government chief-scientific adviser having a go at Big Environment for a change instead of Big Oil:

Parts of the green movement have become hijacked by a political agenda and now operate like multinational corporations, according to two senior scientists and members of the House of Lords.

The peers, who were speaking at an event in parliament on science policy, said they felt that in some areas green campaign groups were a hindrance to environmental causes.

“Much of the green movement isn’t a green movement at all, it’s a political movement,” said Lord May

He’s certainly right that the green movement is a political movement. But it’s an observation from the realm of the startlingly obvious. It’s a movement. Take away the politics and it ceases to exist. May and his fellow peer Lord Krebs seem to be imagining some sort of ideal politics-free… erm… politics.

May [added] that he used to be involved with Greenpeace in the 1970s

What on Earth did they think the green movement was, back in the good-old days, before it got all ‘political’? They don’t say.

May might be a great scientist, but he’s a bad Scientist. As a Scientist – by which we mean, someone who practises Scientism – May is under the impression that his views are merely an extension of ‘the science’ – as if he were the vessel for pure scientific objectivity, and above mere politics. Politics by simultaneous equation. Trouble is, not only are May’s facts often spectacularly wrong, so too is his habit of hiding orthodox environmental politics behind them.

Through his criticism of his fellow Scientists, Greenpeace, May betrays the folly of Scientism. When Scientists disagree, they can only resort to accusing each other of politics. Because politics is what people who are wrong do. After all, you can’t have different views among people who are guided only by the science. And the way you show people are guilty of politics is to show they’ve got their facts wrong. Greenpeace went wrong, it seems, when they let their politics get in the way of May’s version of the facts.

May also criticised green groups who campaign against initiatives such as wind farms and the Severn tidal barrage scheme, while also proclaiming the need to tackle climate change. He said such groups were “failing to recognise the landscape is human-created”.

He might be right that greens harbour an aversion to anything ‘unnatural’. But he is wrong to think that, to see the light over alternative energy, they just need a few facts pointing out to them. After all, if the landscape is human-created, what could be wrong with a human-created atmosphere?

Moreover, the bulk of the opposition to alternative energy comes not from green groups, but from run-of-the-mill objections that just happen to make use of the very environmental language in currency – ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘sustainability’ – that May himself has been promoting. This language has, as we have pointed out here on Climate Resistance, been used to reorganise many and varied aspects of public life. Local government services and plans have all been adjusted to meet the demands of ‘sustainability’ and climate change anxiety. Property developers have painted themselves green. What’s left of British industry has been painted green. So it should be no surprise then that the objections to them are also framed in the same terms. They aren’t green enough. They aren’t sustainable. They will damage fragile ecosystems.

May complains that Greenpeace should be more honest about their political agenda:

“I wish they would wear the uniform of the army they are fighting [under],” said May

But May himself wears several layers of different uniform underneath his tightly-buttoned ‘senior-scientist’ regalia. As self-appointed custodian of the facts, May demands respect for them, and uses them as a stick to beat down insubordination, within and without the ranks, as this interview revealed:

We have to confront this threat,’ says May. ‘Unfortunately the media all too often does this in a way that relegates the most important issue facing our species as if it was a soccer match between two competing sides of equal strength. It’s not. If you want to compare it [the debate over the existence of global warming] to a football match, it is more like Manchester United taking on three primary school children. It is as ridiculous as that.

On one hand, you have the entire scientific community and on the other you have a handful of people, half of them crackpots. Nevertheless, this is still presented as an unresolved battle. That is simply not true. It has been resolved. Only the details of climatic change’s impact have still to be worked out.’

May has lost count of the players in his war/football fantasy. This isn’t a game of two sides, because, for a long time, May has been fighting his own war with deeper Greens. The battle line was drawn across England’s fields – not football fields, but fields where genetically modified crops were being trialled and trashed.

Before his stint as President of the Royal Society, May was appointed by the UK government to lead an investigation into the safety of GM food. But, according to the Guardian, he was also…

… being paid by a leading GM company, it emerged last night.

Bob May and Alan Dewar of the Institute of Arable Crops Research, an organisation subsidised by the government, were appointed in June to help lead a team of “world-class scientists” to look at the potential adverse impacts of the farm trials.

…Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace called for the scientists’ resignation and the winding up of the farm-scale trials, several of which have been partly destroyed by anti-GM activists and one of which was abandoned by the farmer.

Things got worse for May when scientists broke ranks:

… the British Medical Association (BMA) announced it believed gene foods were a potential danger to health, particularly those involving the use of antibiotic-resistant genes. ‘On the basis of no evidence any actual harm,’ as New Scientist noted, the BMA then called for a ban on such crops because they could increase antibiotic resistance in humans.

It was this notion that began Bob May’s lachrymous uncertainties. ‘Christ, we have rising antibiotic resistance because the bloody members of the BMA have been oversubcribing penicillin for every damn illness you can think of. It’s got nothing to do with GM food.’

This was a PR disaster, exacerbated by May’s anger and impatience.

In vain, do scientists such as Sir Robert point out that modified crops actually reduce [pesticide] use. ‘It is simple common sense. Modified seeds cost more than normal seeds. So why the fuck would farmers want to have them if they also used up more pesticides which also cost money?’

He had tried to sell the potential of GM positively, but failed comprehensively, telling MPs in 1999 that:

there are real social and environmental choices to be made… They are not about safety as such, but about much larger questions of what kind of world we want to live in…. There is a huge potential market for new GM ‘agrifood’ in Europe.

This kind of world, argued George Monbiot, was one in which scientists were instrumental in an an ‘economic war against the poor’ – good science wasn’t necessarily ‘good’.

The physics labs in which some of the best scientific brains in Britain design grenades which maim without killing, or bombs which destroy people but not the infrastructure, practice “good” science, subjected to peer review. They are also saturated with values. They place a higher value on their research grants than on the lives with which they toy. Precisely the same approach appears to govern many of the nation’s biology labs.

For the war now being waged across the planet is an economic one, as big corporations attempt to seize the resources upon which some of the poorest people on earth depend. And many of the best biologists in Britain are fighting on the wrong side.

But Monbiot’s distance from Scientism diminished substantially over the next decade, as Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill noted last year:

Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason, a ‘defender of truth’ no less, who is praised on the dust-jacket of his latest book for possessing a ‘dazzling command of science’ (only by Naomi Klein, admittedly, but still).

May lost the battle over GM crops. But he learned a valuable lesson. The potential benefits that science offered weren’t persuasive in the face of the fear that the environmental movement was capable of generating. It was too easy to turn any argument about the potential of science into an argument that favoured business interests. As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Science would assert its influence, not by constructing positive visions of the future, but by selling itself as the only insurance policy against certain doom. ‘The kind of world we want to live in’ ceased to be a matter of choice, or even about ‘safety as such’. There was now only one course – survival, and its terms were to be dictated by science. Monbiot and May seemed to agree.

Now, of course, even Greenpeace are likely to cite Bob May’s views on the climate debate:

Last year the UK’s prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, wrote to Exxon asking them to stop funding the groups who were “misinforming the public about the science of climate change”. Exxon indicated to the Royal Society that they had – and they would. In February this year Exxon did a big public relations round of the media, saying it had been “misunderstood” on climate change and gave the clear indication that it had dropped its funding of the climate sceptic industry.

And more curiously, May uses the very same argument about industry funding that Greenpeace was throwing at him in the late 1990s, citing their efforts to ‘expose Exxon’. Greenpeace quotes May quoting Greenpeace on Exxon.

The scientific establishment and grubby eco-warriors converged, speaking each others’ language: science gave plausibility to the environmental movement’s darkest fantasies, and the environmentalists’ nightmares gave science a legitimising raison d’etre. But as May’s confusion about which army’s colours Greenpeace are wearing reveal, the convenience of this entente is not lasting. The side/football team/army that May found himself on is itself at least two, with different interests, and different ambitions that no longer appear to be mutually expedient.

Catastrophism is not the only argumentative tack that Bob May, and the Royal Society in general, have borrowed from the greens. In the days of the GM Wars, when environmental groups were hailing Arpad Pusztai’s infamous study on toxic potatoes as proof that GM food was harmful to health, the Royal Society, under May’s leadership, was bending over backwards to dismiss it as a single, unreplicated piece of evidence. And it was. But ten years later, in his desperation to drive home the prospect of climate catastrophe to unbelievers, he cites single, unrepresentative, worst-case studies with abandon – re-framing them along the way in order to remove any suggestion that they might not be the last word on the matter. In fact, he cites with abandon Lord Stern citing with abandon a single, unrepresentative, worst-case study of climate-change threats to biodiversity. No, worse, he mis-cites Stern with abandon – surreptitiously and wholly dishonestly chopping the middle out of the quoted section to achieve the full effect.

The shifting positions of scientists and pressure groups in environmental debates is illustrated further by comments by May and Krebs in the parliamentary event we started with. Krebs, for example, is happy to denigrate Greenpeace as scaremongers:

Lord Krebs, the former chairman of the Food Standards Agency and current principal of Jesus College Oxford also criticised Greenpeace, saying that it had been set up to peddle fear on environmental issues. “Greenpeace is a multinational corporation just like Monsanto or Tesco. They have very effective marketing departments… Their product is worry because worry is what recruits members,” he said.

But some scaremongering is more equal than others:

He added that in some areas, such as warning about the effects of climate change, such an approach was justified, but that Greenpeace sometimes chose the wrong issues – for example, nuclear power and GM crops.

May echoes these sentiments:

May said parliamentarians had not done enough to prepare the public for the effect climate change would have on their lives in terms of efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate changes.

“I think there has been a problem of communication,” he said. “For some, I think it’s the desire not to confront the issue.” But, he said, the smoking ban had showed, for example, that public attitudes could change rapidly.

The smoking ban did not change attitudes. All it did was to prevent the expression of attitudes – there is no choice. It hasn’t made people less tolerant of smoking, it’s just made smoking illegal in public spaces. It is a deeply confused lawmaker who cannot tell the difference between a law and an attitude.

This confusion represents the heart of the problem of May’s scientism. If you merely view ‘attitudes’ as equivalent to holding so many wrong or right ‘facts’, then it stands to reason that winning the argument consists of no more than barking right facts at the wrong. This harks back to a prehistoric view of science communication that the Royal Society itself has played no small part in dispelling. It is a return to the deficit model, whereby the unenlightened masses just need to know more about the science in order to come to the ‘correct’ conclusions. The last couple of decades have seen a shift away from this unidirectional Public Understanding of Science to a more conversational Public Engagement with Science model. And yet it is striking that, while the Royal Society has embraced public engagement exercises over nanotechnology and, to an extent, genetic modification (although only after the horse had bolted), when it comes to climate change, conversations are conspicuous by their absence. The only conversations that the Royal Society takes part in on climate change are with those who already agree. It’s little surprise that there has been no formal attempt to engage the public in conversation when the majority of the electorate remain unconvinced by climate change rhetoric.

May attempts to side-step this particular pitfall by claiming that wrong facts about climate change are only held because they were put there by the wrong people – conspiracies of ‘an active and well-funded “denial lobby”‘, in May’s words.

‘Politics’ is thus reduced to the expression of wrong ‘facts’, resulting in the highly polarised battle between armies – or football teams – representing true (science) and false (politics). The whole business of politics is therefore a deviation from ‘the right facts’. Concomitant with such scientism is the view that being right is equivalent to being legitimate: the ‘consensus’/football team/truth-army legitimises the reorganisation of the world according to the demands of the environmentalists that are consistent with the Scientists’ own ambitions. What makes this necessary are the dire consequences of climate change, as dictated by ‘climate science’

Whatever the scientific truth of the claim, scientism’s argument amounts to an organising principle, the same as any other political ideology. Any normative proposition that demands that we change our lives must be treated as any other. That is to say, it needs to win its way to influence by persuasive and careful argument, and must endure hostile criticism. But that is not how the environmental movement has won its influence. Instead, men like May have captured the catastrophic drama that has been generated by the likes of Greenpeace and used it to legitimise new international and national political institutions and legal frameworks. Where political philosophies used to gain momentum – movement – through capturing the public’s imagination, and would assert ideas through such weight of numbers, today’s political players legitimise themselves with terrifying images.

Bob May might be unaware of his own contributions to the politicisation of science, but it is not lost on Patrick Moore, Director of Greenpeace International for seven years during the 1970s, the period of Bob May’s involvement with the group:

“It appears to be the policy of the Royal Society to stifle dissent and silence anyone who may have doubts about the connection between global warming and human activity,” said Dr. Moore, Chairman and Chief Scientist of Vancouver, Canada-based Greenspirit Strategies Ltd.

“That kind of repression seems more suited to the Inquisition than to a modern, respected scientific body,” said Moore.

May would no doubt argue that these shifting allegiances reflect no more than the ‘truth’ of ‘the science’ on offer from Greenpeace et al regarding these various areas.

Indeed, May’s erstwhile right-hand-man Bob Ward has argued just that:

during my early days at the Royal Society in 1999, the Society became involved in a major debate over GM foodstuffs, when it challenged a number of statements about their safety that were based on studies that had not been submitted to peer-reviewed journals. This made the Society the subject of much criticism from NGOs such as Greenpeace, which I think demonstrates that the Society is not partisan to particular interest groups.

That the Royal Society doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with businesses and Greenpeace may make it hard to identify the Royal Society’s sympathy with an existing interest group. But that doesn’t mean that interests and politics aren’t operating beneath the crusader-for-science costume. Even having the best scientific facts doesn’t guarantee the stainless moral fibre of their possessor. The curious thing about the last few decades’ eco-wars has been the way that all sides have attempted to portray themselves as being in possession of the best, least interested facts, and that the opposing viewpoints are tainted – perverted, even – by financial and political interest. But paradoxically, this has happened in an era characterised by a dearth of influence by political perspectives in debate. Since the late eighties, for example, it has been hard to identify the functioning of Left or Right arguments operating in the public sphere that owe anything to their traditions. Where once, such movements would have achieved prominence for their ideas precisely because they were political, and because they represented interests, today’s movements instead appeal to ‘science’ for legitimacy.

But as the GM wars showed, science hasn’t solved anything: the debate continues its descent. The arguments May produces, like Frankenstein’s own monster, escape his control. The interminable issue of funding, rather than demonstrating the purity of scientific objectivity, demonstrates the impossibility of such a perspective ever being achieved – even Lord May is ‘industry funded’. Scientific terminology – ‘sustainability’, ‘ecosystems’, ‘biodiversity’ – escape scientific context, to allow anyone to speculate what might happen ‘if trends continue’. The notion of ‘consensus’ becomes detached from its object, and allows anyone with a broadly sympathetic agenda to cite facts about opinion about facts as evidence of facts themselves.

This is no reflection on the usefulness of science itself. But that usefulness diminishes when it is puffed up for political purposes – ultimately to fill the void left by politics itself.

So, May might be giving a few sections of the green movement a bit of stick, but when it comes down to it, that Greenpeace et al have got their facts wrong has little to do with it. He pounces on them when their interests and politics diverge from his own. Which is why environmentalists can rest assured that they can keep on making up the facts about the climatastrophe as they go along without incurring the wrath of May or the Royal Society. In fact, the Royal Society gives out prizes for that sort of thing.

May has lost one battle against the forces of unreason. He doesn’t want to lose another one. He’s going to win on climate change, even if he has to lower himself and scientific institutions to the level of Greenpeace to do so. But in today’s world, neither are causes; they are both just symptoms.