Driving to Distraction

Posted by Ben Pile on December 22, 2010
Dec 222010

UK politics is taking a very spooky turn.

I came across this today in the course of some research…

Lords Science Committee expand Behaviour Change Inquiry to consider interventions to reduce car usage in towns and cities

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee have launched a new call for evidence as part of their inquiry into the use of behaviour change interventions in delivering Government policy. The Committee, who have been investigating behaviour change since July, have so far focused on Government efforts to promote healthy eating and reduce obesity. With the publication today of a second call for evidence, they are now turning their attention to policies designed to reduce car usage in towns and cities.

Call for Evidence ( PDF 228 KB)

The Committee are inviting written evidence on the issue from any interested parties by Friday 21 January 2011.  Some of the questions they are seeking answers to include:

  • What are the most influential drivers of behaviour affecting an individual’s choice of travel?
  • What role does infrastructure play in encouraging and facilitating changes in travel-mode choice?
  • What are the most appropriate type and level of delivery of behaviour change interventions to change travel-mode choice?
  • Are current policy interventions addressing both psychological and environmental barriers to change?
  • Are policy interventions appropriately designed and evaluated? What lessons have been learnt as a result of these evaluations?
  • What lessons can be learnt from interventions in other countries?

Baroness Neuberger, Chairman of the Inquiry on Behaviour Change, said in comment:

“We have had some very interesting evidence sessions in this inquiry, which has so far focused on efforts to reduce obesity. However, Government programmes to change behaviour go much wider than personal health alone.

“We will now focus on programmes designed to reduce car usage in towns and cities. Reducing the number of journeys made by private car is likely to be a big part of a  successful programme to reduce the level of carbon emissions in the UK.

“We will look at examples of where successful schemes have been implemented and examine what lessons can be learnt and applied elsewhere.”

I haven’t got much to say about this right now — nor the time — but a couple of points should stick out.

First… That there are Government programmes to change behaviour should worry us immensely. Aren’t they supposed to ‘work for you’?

Second. It’s interesting that climate change is the legitimising basis of this proposed intervention.

Third. There seems to be no call for evidence regarding the rightness or wrongness of intervening in this way, whether or not climate change is happening.

Perhaps it is incumbent on us to take the initiative. If you have any time this Christmas holidays, consider responding to the “Science Committee’s” social engineering project.

It’s time to modify their behaviour!

Dec 102010

Brain Cox is a great science communicator. That is to say, he makes very effective TV programmes, which do not condescend, and do much to encourage an interest in science. But there is surely science as process, and there’s ‘science’ as an institution. It’s not clear which one Cox – who gave this year’s Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Lecture –  was speaking for. His lecture, given the title, ‘Science: a challenge to TV Orthodoxy’ was disappointing given his previous arguments for scientific research, and didn’t challenge orthodoxy as much as it reproduced it, almost entirely uncritically.

To people who follow the climate debate, the interesting things would seem to be Brian’s treatment of Martin Durkin’s film, The Great Global Warming Swindle, which was ‘bollocks’, in Cox’s view; and Iain Stewart’s Climate Wars series, which was held up as a model of good science documentary making. (More on those points shortly.)

But what Brian’s lecture really demonstrates is very much the problem in the background to the climate debate, not merely the problem within it. As we’ve argued here, environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause of the problems experienced in today’s society. Some interesting contradictions in Brian’s thesis reveal the context of the climate debate.

Take, for instance, these two statements, one made at the opening and the other further into his presentation.

Science is enjoying a renaissance in its political and cultural visibility. It was largely protected in the recent government spending review, which speaks not only to its economic value, but also to its increasing public profile.

[...]

So since the continuing health of our science programming depends on the public and therefore government support, and the steady flow of excited young people who want to become scientists and engineers, television clearly has a big responsibility to get its science programming right.

At the same time as Cox celebrates the apparent scientific renaissance, he seems to be concerned that television isn’t getting science right. This appears to be something of a contradiction. What kind of cultural renaissance misconceives the very substance that drives it?

To demonstrate the problem of broadcasters’ approach to science, Cox turns to the treatment of two scientific arguments. The first is the BBC’s handling of complaints about his (correct) claim that ‘astrology is a load of rubbish’ in his film, the Wonders of the Solar System. It had drawn the following complaint:

His careless assertion was unreserved, unsubstantiated and unscientific. Has he done any empirical studies? Has he explored his birth chart? … I have certainly never seen him at an astrology conference or read anything written by him about astrology… This bad science is an abuse of a position of trust in an educational scientific programme funded by BBC licence payers. BBC guidelines state that astrology must be presented in a balanced way.

When the BBC asked Cox for a response, he simply put his argument more forcefully. The BBC instead released a statement explaining that Cox’s views on astrology were his own, and not necessarily a reflection of the BBC’s views. The issue Cox takes here is with the supposition that broadcasters should be ‘neutral’ in their coverage of ‘controversies’.

Cox says that this is a trivial case, but that there are much more serious problems caused by the imperative of impartiality. The next case he explores concerns criticism of the the media’s coverage of the MMR-autism scare from Dr. Ben Goldacre. Goldacre says:

Now debate’s good. But this was conspiracy theory and ignorance. The pharmaceutical industry have certainly been guilty of cover-ups. But MMR just isn’t one of them. And it’s not as if scientists have ignored the question. Researchers in Denmark looked at half a million children. 400,000 had MMR. 100,000 didn’t. And yet the rates of autism was the same in both groups. You’ve not heard about research like this, because the media chose not to cover the evidence that goes against their scare story. I can’t blame parents for being terrified. Evidence-based medicine — the science of how we know if something is good for us, or bad for us — is fascinating. It’s easy to understand. And I think the public deserve the chance to hear about these ideas.

Just as the BBC had sought to distance itself from Cox’s statements about astrology, the ITN news programme featuring Goldacre’s authored piece also emphasised that the opinions reflected belonged to the author, not the broadcaster.

These two cases indeed seem to point to a problem, though it’s worth asking how representative they are. And Cox’s reflection on them is not deep. Astrology is, as Cox claims, a mystical view of the universe. But its adherents no longer express their ideas in supernatural terms. The complainant’s criticism of Cox is expressed in scientific terms. It accused him of bad science. However much nonsense it is, the complainant’s reformulation of a supernatural idea in scientific terms speaks volumes about science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’.

And to the MMR scare, we might want to say that, although the media’s appetite for controversy certainly raised the profile of the issue, scientists were at the heart of the story. Surrounding the coverage of Andrew Wakefield — the now disgraced researcher — who gave the story seemingly scientific credibility, were the angry parents of autistic children. A strange mix of high emotions and cold scientific language dominated the coverage, obscuring the substance of the matter. Cox and Goldacre both promise that science had the answer. But what does this promise say to the suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry — and by extension, medicine — that Goldacre seems to share? What can it do about the media’s need for ‘scare stories’? It seems, after all, less that science is enjoying a renaissance, but that ‘science’ is simultaneously the expression of a weakening of public discourse and trust, and is given as its remedy. To what extent is the use or abuse of science in the MMR scare or astrology really about science?

Moreover, climate sceptics would recognise Goldacre’s criticism of the media’s use of ‘scare stories’. And this makes Cox’s use of the Great Global Warming Swindle and BBC’s Climate Wars series all the more odd. If the media are drawn to scare stories such as MMR, is it not fair to ask if this phenomenon extends to the media’s coverage of the climate?

To illustrate the expression of bad documentary film-making, Cox points to the Swindle film, to make the argument that a viewer might not have the substance behind the eyes necessary to understand that Durkin’s film was a ‘polemic’. He acknowledges that the film was advertised and introduced as a polemic, but that this is not enough. He seems to want the words ‘POLEMIC’ in flashing red letters, throughout the broadcast.

Durkin’s film was polemic, of course. But Cox doesn’t ever explain what the fault of the film’s polemic was. Was it the solar / cosmic ray theory of cloud-formation? Or was it the argument that climate change is the product of this natural variation? Cox’s objection to TGGWS appears to be that it broke with what he calls the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, misleading the audience who may not be sufficiently well informed to understand that the film was a polemic. Broadcasters and film makers should stick to the peer-reviewed scientific consensus.

But if Cox doesn’t identify precisely what the object of the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ actually is, how can he criticise a ‘polemic’ which seems to contradict it? This blog has, over the past 4 years attracted criticism for the same thing, yet we’ve rarely ever ventured into matters of science. Indeed, our principal argument is that the ‘consensus’ seems to stand for whatever those who wield it claim it stands for. More to the point, we can see as much confusion about what the consensus is from climate scientists, world leaders, and activists as we can see from any group of sceptics. Yet it is only ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’ who are taken to task for taking liberties with the consensus.

There is a further problem here, in that the climate debate divides on another axis, between the argument about whether or not ‘anthropogenic climate change is happening’, and what its consequences are. Within each side of this axis there are competing and contradicting claims, and questions of degree, rather than binary, true-or-false calculations. If, just over a year ago, had you proposed a film to Brian Cox, which took issue with the claims that climate change would massively reduce crop yields in Africa, or that the hundreds of millions of people living beneath the Himalayas face chronic water shortages as a result of glacial recession, you would, in his view, be a ‘maverick’. You would be outside the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. Yet those are the things that this and other blogs have discovered to be false. The implication of Cox’s argument is that such claims should be ignored by broadcasters.

So the notion of a ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ serves to polarise the political and scientific debates. And the unfortunate implication for Cox is that, as long as what you say apparently ‘fits’ the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, you can whittle out any nonsense you wish without incurring the wrath of the ‘scientists’. (And it should be asked again at this point, exactly how representative TGGWS was — as we’ve pointed out before, this bogeyman sticks out of many tens of thousands of hours of programming. It’s hardly typical of contemporary programming, and sits amongst many many hours of green trash.) You can, for instance, claim that a billion people will starve or face drought. You can claim that 150,000 people a year die of climate change. You can then, for no good reason double the estimate to say that 300,000 die of climate change. You can claim that there are just ‘50 days to save the planet’, or you can claim that ‘Obama has just 4 years to save the planet’, or you can claim that there are only ‘100 months to save the planet’.

In other words, you can use the ambiguous ‘peer reviewed scientific consensus’ to construct dramatic stories about catastrophe, and you can use this urgency to develop political arguments with the blessing of ‘science’. And that is precisely what Iain Stewart did for in his series, Climate Wars, which Cox holds up as an example of ‘drawing a clear distinction in the viewers mind, between the peer-reviewed science and his opinion’. In the clip Cox showed, Stewart said:

It would have been lovely to have made a programme about how science had got it all wrong. That actually we’ve got nothing to worry about. But unfortunately it’s the opposite. Most of the climate scientists I talked to are actually genuinely scared by the future. They’re worried that it’s in the nature of the climate to change far faster than we once thought possible. And my feeling is, if they’re scared, so should we be. Because whatever the uncertainties surrounding climate prediction, the fundamental science is pretty clear. We may not know exactly what global warming will bring, but we sure as hell know it’s happening. There’s just no hiding place from that simple fact. And of course what it means for us an our families, well, that’s a different matter. But if I’ve learned one thing in this series, it’s that the stakes are so high, doing nothing simply isn’t an option.

But as we showed here (and here), Stewart’s films took massive liberties with the facts of the climate debate, and even greater liberties with his treatment of the arguments of the ‘sceptics’. For instance, he presented the last 20+ years of debate as one between ‘scientists’ representing an unchanging ‘scientific consensus’ and the usual deniers. This re-wrote history, not only from the perspective of just one side, but also from the present. This ahistoric perspective was owed to the fact that the film is nothing more than a verbatim replication of Naomi Oreskes’s ‘Tobacco Strategy’ thesis. Indeed, Oreskes gets a credit on the film. But it’s nothing more than a conspiracy theory. As we pointed out:

To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between ‘denialist’ arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.

Brian Cox cannot have looked too deeply at the Climate Wars series, because Stewart routinely confuses ‘science’ with opinion. It was, in the words Cox might use, ‘factually total bollocks’, both in its treatment of the scientific arguments, and matters of history and politics. And it’s Cox’s surprisingly fragile understanding of the climate debate and his failure to subject claims about the ‘scientific consensus’ to criticism which causes him to reproduce the same old orthodoxy:

As Iain Stewart says, the consensus is clear. The real controversy is political, and centers on the question ‘what is to be done’. Should we increase tax on oil? Should we not build a third runway at Heathrow? Should we build more nuclear power stations? Or wind turbines? Should we risk damaging our economy in the short term by reducing CO2 emissions quickly? Or should we continue to pursue economic growth at all costs, and seek a more market-oriented solution to climate change? These are complex questions, the answers to which often divide down political lines. But I think Iain Stewart navigates these treacherous waters well, because he remains true to the science, and true to television.

Here, Cox is simply naive. For him, the political debate emerges after the ‘science’, but as this blog argues, there’s plenty of politics prior to the science.

In one sense, the politics is prior in determining what the consequences of climate change are likely to be. In order to understand the material consequences, environmentalists presuppose a fragile nature in ‘balance’. And to understand the human, social consequences of climate change, environmentalists need to presuppose that social phenomena are ‘natural’, such that nothing could ever be done, for instance, to abolish poverty. These points are discussed at length elsewhere on this blog. But there is another sense in which the politics is prior that could do with some exploration here.

As discussed above, science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’ is coincident with moral disorientation at the newsdesk, and a collapse of trust between the public and medicine. Cox identifies that there’s a problem with TV makers responding to the controversies that its audience wants answers to, but appears to say nothing of what this phenomenon arose from. Just as newsdesks can only see the world in terms of scare stories and controversies, so too do today’s political arguments ground themselves on matters of catastrophe.

Cox does this himself:

This means that the most objective and impartial presentation of the so-called contentious story, such as MMR, climate change, astrology, or even the so-called evolution debate should be given significantly more weight to the scientifically peer-reviewed position. Because this will leave the audience with the more truthful view of the current thinking. Now you may see there that I’m redefining what impartiality means. But the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial. To leave the audience with this particular kind of impartial view is desperately important. We’re dealing with the issues of the life and death of our children and the future of our climate. And the way to deal with this is not to be fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase from a famous news outlet, but to report and explain the peer-reviewed scientific consensus accurately.

Cox makes an argument for science, not on the basis of its positive potential for us, but on the same old basis: that we face crises. This is not an argument for science. It’s an appeal for authority.

… the grand challenges of our age such as climate change, and the ever-increasing appetite of our planet’s rapidly expanding population for clean water and energy require scientific and engineering solutions as well as political ones.

Cox is kidding himself. The peer-review process is not, by definition ‘impartial’. For instance, the peer-review process can’t necessarily exclude the possibility that the peer-reviewers are victims of the thinking that Cox is victim to. Does the peer-review process reject claims about the consequences of climate change which don’t give consideration to the degree to which social factors — i.e. poverty — determine the human outcome far more than weather? Or are scientists, just as journalists and politicians are, vulnerable to the idea that catastrophes are merely material events, devoid of any social or historical context? It strikes me that you can do perfectly good science on a flimsy social premise that ‘poverty is natural’, to conclude that climate change will make it worse. But why should this premise have more weight in the debate about climate change than the argument that we could do more by abolishing poverty? Moreover, the view of the climate debate that Cox seems to have is that it simply divides on the question about whether or not ‘climate change is happening’. And the fundamental problem here is that the ensuing arguments confuse the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 and the sensitivity of human society to climate.

My argument on this blog is that this confusion is the presupposition of much climate science that constitutes the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. This is at best a kind of soft-environmentalism, and it’s passed off as the conclusion of climate science. But really, it’s the premise of political environmentalism. The conclusion and premise of much climate research is identical, and never interrogated. This is the major fault not only of environmentalism, but also of science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’.

Scientists, journalists and politicians are all vulnerable to the view that debates about science consist merely of arming the argument about ‘What is to be Done’ with the imperative: ‘Something Must be Done about…’. That is the extent of science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’. In the process, a great number of presuppositions are smuggled in, consciously or not.

To this, Cox might respond (indeed he says it),

Science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature. It is utterly a-populist. Its findings reflect no social or political norms or religious beliefs. In other words, when it comes to the practice of science, the scientists must never have an eye on the audience. For that would be to fatally compromise the process.

‘Science’ as a process may well have no agenda to speak of. But the same cannot be said of science as an institution. Science does not do science; people do science. And as much as the aim may be to produce a value-free investigation of the material world, we see in the climate debate that the issue is muddied. Climate science is no longer merely engaged in an attempt to understand material processes, but becomes the substance of an understanding of how humans relate, and the basis on which far-reaching political institutions are being established. The claim that 150,000 people die each year from climate change, for instance, to form the basis of a projection and a call for action, must presuppose that there is nothing that can be done to abolish poverty. In other words, climate science begins to explain the existence of poverty in the world: it’s the result of a degraded environment. The more general expression of this problem is the ‘naturalisation’ of social problems and phenomena.

The problem becomes clearer in a statement Cox makes near the start of his presentation:

I think the best way to illustrate these occasional incompatibilities is to first define what science is. Now this is not easy in a historical context, because to put it bluntly, vast amounts of drivel have been written about the subject by armies of postmodernist philosophers and journalists. But I’m going to ignore all this, because I concur absolutely with the quote attributed to the Nobel-prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman. He said the philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornothology is to birds. To my mind, science is very simple indeed. Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe. Now as long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is a statement of the obvious. See everything we take for granted in the modern world, from atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging, is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it.

‘Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe.’ Of course it is, with two important caveats. First, that material science is the framework for understanding the material world. Second, that this first caveat must imply some method which makes it possible to identify whether science is attempting to study something material, or something that is better understood or studied through social science.

Cox is nearly onto something when he says that postmodern philosophy confounds the definition of ‘science’. But he perhaps forgets what it also did to the study of the human realm. If we take ‘postmodernism’ to mean some radical form of relativism, which reduces ‘science’ to nothing more than ‘just another belief system’, this also reduces the social sciences and humanities to meaningless narratives. The effect of postmodernism on the understanding of the human world was far more devastating. The escape from postmodern relativism has been to locate authority not in human-centric ideas, values, or principles, but to ground it in what appears to be objectivity… ‘Science says…’ This really does turn ‘science’ into ‘just another narrative’, because it now starts to become an encompassing framework, from which claims are made about the non-material world. It starts to explain poverty as a natural phenomenon. It starts to explain the right and the wrong in material terms of ‘true and false’. It starts to connect humans through material phenomena. ‘Climate change’ begins to explain social phenomena; it measures the ‘ethics’ of our behaviour; it determines what form of social organisation is best, and how people should relate…

That is the reality of ‘science’s cultural and political renaissance’. Science becomes far more than a value free investigation of the material world, and starts, in Cox’s own words,

…to draw profound conclusions about our responsibility to ourselves, our planet, and ultimately the cosmos itself.

This is no longer ‘objectivity’. And when it turns out that the institutions of science don’t engender the respect and authority that Cox believes they deserve, he has only one answer: more scientism. The reality is that people are suspicious of the MMR jab and people believe in astrology, not because they are mislead, but because it takes more than sheer wonder at the universe to create trust in political, social, and scientific institutions.

Dec 082010

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/9986/

Conventional climate wisdom has it that once ‘the science’ is put before politics, politicians will respond to the imperative to save us from Gaia’s revenge. So each year, representatives from each country that has signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) assemble to turn it into an agreement to limit CO2 emissions.

But science is a slow process; politics happens much faster. In the rush to get the most recent research under the noses of policymakers, those engaged in the climate debate show that climate politics exists before climate science has even got its thermometer out.

The problem for those seeking a deal at this year’s Cancun COP meeting (Convention of Parties [to the UNFCC]) has been that the climate change debate has changed. The COP15 meeting in Copenhagen was a disaster. It revealed disagreement about how best to respond to the science, and showed that the ostensible desire to save the planet barely conceals the same ruthless agendas which have always dominated global politics. The ‘Climategate’ emails revealed that scientists are as human as the rest of us. And just to prove it, the IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri branded as ‘voodoo science’ any criticism of the mainstream view of climate change and its consequences. But the criticisms turned out to be valid. More troubling still, the rate at which the world was warming seems to have slowed considerably, leading sceptics to ask whether global warming is still happening.

The trouble with evidence-based policymaking is that, when doubt about the evidence emerges, the policymaking grinds to a halt. In order to continue with the creation of environmental bureaucracies and political institutions, fresh certainty has to be supplied. As the talks in Cancun opened, so ‘new’ evidence emerged from two of the UK’s biggest climate-research organisations, the Tyndall Centre and the Met Office, amidst a flurry of headlines.

‘World is warming quicker than thought in past decade, says Met Office’, reported Damian Carrington in the Guardian. This spoke to the sceptics who had argued that there had been no significant warming. According to Carrington, the Met Office had discovered that a change in the way sea surface temperatures were measured introduced a cool bias. This was significant, said Carrington, ‘because the rate of global warming from 2000-2009 is lower than the 0.16C per decade trend seen since the late 1970s [...] the warming rate for the past 10 years is estimated at 0.08-0.16C’. Global warming alarmists could breathe a sigh of relief; the world was doomed after all.

But other newspapers reported the story differently. ‘Global warming has slowed down over the past 10 years, say scientists’, said the Daily Mail. ‘Global warming has slowed because of pollution’, said the Telegraph.

The reality was that the scientists involved didn’t know whether the rate of the world’s temperature rise had increased, decreased or stayed the same. Nor did they know what the causes of its change were. But there was evidence of less warming. The Met Office’s own data suggested that the last decade had seen temperatures rise by 0.05 degrees Celsius. This is significantly less than the 0.16 degrees rise per decade seen since the end of the 1970s. However, the research by NASA GISS suggested a rise of 0.13 degrees. The Met Office held a briefing for the press to explain that the reduction in warming might be natural variation, or could be accounted for by a mixture of a decrease in stratospheric water vapour and the cooling bias introduced by new methodology. It might even be pollution. What they were sure of, however, was that climate change was still happening, but that 0.08 degrees of climate change had gone missing. In the words of Chris Morris, ‘there’s no evidence for it, but it is a scientific fact’; the world was still warming really.

The Met Office’s new claims were all published in a brochure produced for the Cancun climate talks called Evidence: the state of the climate. The introduction of the report declares that ‘Controversy over this past year has led some to question the evidence for climate change and man’s involvement in that change. In fact, the evidence of a rapid long-term change in climate, driven by mankind’s activities, is becoming even stronger.’

This defensive posture owed much less to the emergence of new science than to doubt about the old. The Met Office used other indicators to demonstrate the continued influence of humanity upon the climate, while explaining that the decreased rate of warming remained ‘entirely consistent with predicted man-made climate change’. But is ‘consistent with’ the same as ‘not inconsistent with’? A decrease in the rate of warming is also ‘entirely consistent with’ the idea that humans aren’t causing climate change. What the Met Office means is that the last decade’s reduced rate of warming doesn’t yet challenge predictions. The science is simply uncertain.

The Met Office has since released yet another analysis – Risks of Dangerous Climate Change. This report compares the predictions made in 2007 to the Met Office work since the 2007 IPCC (AR4) report. On the matter of sea level rise, it turns out that new science gives reasons to be both alarmed and relieved.

This has led, predictably, to conflicting headlines. ‘Alarmist Doomsday warning of rising seas “was wrong”, says Met Office study’, says the Daily Mail. ‘Met Office halves “worst case” sea level prediction’, says the Telegraph. Ignoring the good news about sea levels, ‘We must take climate change more seriously warn Met Office scientists’, says the Scotsman. Climate change threat to tropical forests ‘greater than suspected’, says John Vidal in the Guardian.

‘The evidence of the dangerous impact of climate change is clearer than ever’, said Vicky Pope, head of Hadley’s climate predictions programme. ‘New understanding of the science suggests the overall impact will be about the same [but] in some cases, like the risk of methane release from wetlands and permafrost melting, [we] now conclude that the risks are greater.’

But the ‘dangerous impact of climate change’ simply isn’t getting clearer. It’s not merely evidence of ‘increased rates of warming’ that is in short supply; there is no visible effect of climate change on human society. There is no marked increase in storm intensity or frequency; there is no climate change signature on insurance claims. Any increase in humanity’s vulnerability to nature could be far more easily explained as first-order effects of poverty than by Nth-order effects of climate change.

That’s not to say that ‘climate change isn’t happening’, nor to suggest that it won’t be a problem. However, the alarmist narrative which created the basis for international climate policy has exhausted itself. By over-stating things in the past, it created the conditions for its later embarrassment. In order to sustain the political momentum, science has had to do PR. And the effects are all too plain. Few of the many claims in either of the Met Office’s reports cite any ‘peer-reviewed’ scientific literature, and therefore stand only as statements of opinion, not of science. I asked the Met Office about the confused messages that they seemed to be delivering. A press officer told me that the papers had got the stories broadly right, and the differences between the headlines reflected different editorial agendas.

Actually it reflects more than editorial agendas.The problem is the broader expectation that science can be instructive; that ‘what to do about climate change’ can be simply read off from clear scientific evidence. The evidence isn’t clear. It is contradictory. It changes. Science is confused by the political demand for certainty, for the true story. Thus any new study or review of the science creates a narrative about the future which is either ‘worse than previously thought’ or lends credibility to the sceptic’s arguments. The entire UNFCCC process is not unlike 24-hour live rolling coverage of a natural disaster. The same scenarios are endlessly repeated while news anchors and pundits speculate wildly about the significance of the latest images drip-fed into lifeless depictions of carnage. There is no story… but there might be one, at any moment… Stay tuned.

Science and policymaking are imitating the news. Rather than waiting for genuine scientific development, scientific organisations engaged in the policymaking process produce summaries of the latest speculation on demand. This speculation is intended to add urgency to the process by defeating the doubt that besets the policymaking. But it does so at the expense of a sober understanding of the climate and our relationship to it. This is acceptable under the rubric of the precautionary principle, which allows policymakers to aim to be safe rather than sorry by accepting approximations of ‘science’ in lieu of certainty. But this reveals that science – as an institution, rather than a process – is much less involved in discovery than in supplying climate politics and its bureaucracies with legitimacy.

Cancun & the Met Office

Posted by admin on December 8, 2010
Dec 082010

I have a story on Spiked today, about the pre-Cancun messages from the Met Office. In retrospect, I wish I’d called it “Some of our Global Warming is Missing”, but I expect it’s been said before.

Conventional climate wisdom has it that once ‘the science’ is put before politics, politicians will respond to the imperative to save us from Gaia’s revenge. So each year, representatives from each country that has signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) assemble to turn it into an agreement to limit CO2 emissions.

But science is a slow process; politics happens much faster. In the rush to get the most recent research under the noses of policymakers, those engaged in the climate debate show that climate politics exists before climate science has even got its thermometer out.

I don’t normally ‘do’ science, but it seems that the MO are getting less coherent and more involved with the politics.

It would have been good to also have had a look at the stuff from the Tyndall Centre / RS Phil Trans A and their panic about 4 degrees, but there wasn’t room.

While you’re over at Spiked, check out Eero Iloniemi’s article on  land prices in places that are about to be washed away by climate change and sea-level rise.

Climate Science and the Climate Debate

Posted by admin on November 28, 2010
Nov 282010

I’ve been too busy for blogging recently. To break the silence, I thought I’d post this presentation I gave at a debate at York University this time last year. The discussion was about the view often expressed by environmentalists that there is no need for any further scientific debate.  Needless to say, our side won the vote about the motion.


One of the most striking characteristics of the climate debate is the almost routine confusion of politics and science.

“Climate change is happening”, we’re told, time and time again, therefore “we need strong, radical, international frameworks on climate change”, laws, regulation, and maybe even rationing in order to prevent a disaster.

In this view, we need to fundamentally change our economies, our industry, and our lifestyles. And we need institutions to be put in place to make sure this happens.

This has even become an argument against democracy itself. This argument holds that the public are too stupid to understand the gravity of the situation we face. Democracy therefore becomes no more than a means to satisfy individual greed and indulgence in the face of catastrophe.

“We are fiddling with our ipods and plasma widescreen TVs while Rome burns.”

My argument here is that to forbid the discussion of the science of climate change is therefore to forbid the discussion of the organising principle of today’s political institutions.

We cannot challenge it because it exists behind closed doors. It exists on computer simulations, guarded by today’s priests: a holy order of climate scientists.

The scientific proposition that CO2 causes or will cause catastrophe has formed the basis of a system of ethics and a system of politics. This system is environmentalism, and it exists in contrast to human-centric systems of thought and politics. It informs the creation of supra-national political organisations, such as the UNFCCC and treaties that follow in its wake. It informs our industrial transport and the energy policies and strategies of our government. It establishes the relationship between individuals and the state.

We take it for granted that this proposition, or set of propositions, is true, because science is, in today’s world, the last seat of authority.

The question I have is about whether that desire for political authority exists before or after climate science. I believe that the politics is prior.

The unstated premise of environmentalism is that politics is impotent to face the challenges of development.

Once this view has been established, once we decide that politics is pointless, catastrophe becomes a given.

As I argued on Tuesday, catastrophe is inevitable, only if we take it for granted that we cannot organise the world to combat poverty through development, i.e. through the creation of wealth.

We hear so often that climate change will be worse for the poor, but we never interrogate this claim to ask whether it might be better to address the issue of poverty than to attempt to make other people’s lives better by driving less.

So we hear that the 300,000 deaths attributed to climate change are a bigger concern than 40 million deaths — and the rest — from poverty, throughout the world.

This dysnumeric moral calculus is owed to our politicians’ inability to generate authority for their political ideas in political terms: by asking you to engage with them, for instance. It is owed to their inability to connect with the public. This has driven politicians to search for another basis for their authority. Contemporary politics cannot conceive of a way of making life better for the millions or billions of people living in poverty in this world, never mind finding a way of improving life for the rest of us. There is no science which could serve as the basis for such an idea.

Accordingly, we are forced to accept a form of politics that is limited by the ethical imperatives seemingly issued by climate and environmental science

This, it is argued, is evidence-based policy-making.”The science is in”, and the continued debate about climate change impedes the possibility of “rising to the challenge” we are faced with. Instead, I would argue, we can see policy-based evidence making.

The catastrophes that we are confronted by, are instead the products of today’s vapid political imaginations. They confused their own impotence for material reality. No wonder the other ‘side’ does not want there to be a debate.

A continued debate might reveal just how hollow today’s political discourse actually is: what is passed off as climate science is a fig leaf. It hides our politicians shame: an embarrassment of bad faith, bad politics, and bad science.

What the greens really got wrong

Posted by Ben Pile on November 8, 2010
Nov 082010

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/9868/

Environmentalists have long claimed that their desire to save the world has been thwarted by conspiracies of Big Oil and right-wing think-tanks. Channel 4’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong (watch it here) showed signs that some environmentalists are at last beginning to take responsibility for their failures. But does it tell us anything we didn’t already know, and will the new environmentalists be so different from the old?

The main thrust of the film is that, by opposing GM, nuclear power, and DDT, environmentalists have damaged the chances of a solution to climate change and have done serious harm to poorer people and their own public image. Critics have been arguing this for environmentalism’s entire history, of course. But it is interesting to see some sober reflection on green failure nonetheless. Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (see a review of the book here), speaks candidly about how his objection to GM ‘wasn’t a science-based rational thing. It was an emotional thing and it was about the relation between humans and other living things’. Since Lynas ‘came out’ in favour of nuclear power, he has found himself on the receiving end of the self-righteousness he once meted out to others.

Although it is interesting to see one-time activists reflecting in this way, the reformulation of environmentalism doesn’t really address the problems with its initial perspective. The arguments in the film don’t form a criticism of environmentalism as an instance of the politics of fear, but merely moderate some of its excesses. There is an interesting discussion about the shortcomings of the precautionary principle, and the film’s participants are far more circumspect about risk from certain technologies than they have been in the past.

But these risks are merely seen in contrast to the ultimate catastrophe: climate change. Technologies are not considered in terms of their potential for humans, but are embraced reluctantly as solutions to climate change. Genetically modified (GM) food is sold seemingly only on the basis that it is a means to begrudgingly feed the poor. The limitations of the catastrophic narrative still are such that they constrain discussion about progress beyond subsistence.

The new environmentalists’ point is that the environmental movement failed to protect the environment. So the tension between development and environment still haunts the debate, rather than being exorcised from it. And this is the film’s major shortcoming. The real claim of environmentalism – its ethics – is not merely that we must protect the environment, but that we should live within environmental limits.

This is explored only briefly in the film, by reference to Paul Ehrlich who, in the late 60s, attempted to give these limits numerical substance. Ehrlich predicted dire consequences, but the resource depletion, mass famine and economic collapse he saw in his calculations failed to materialise. Undaunted, the environmental movement merely deferred the date of eco-tastrophe further into the future, and made an ethic out of life within presumed environmental limits – ‘sustainability’. The result has been the tendency of the environmental movement to produce ideas which are hostile to technological development and appear to be anti-human in consequence. But this character of environmentalism is only superficially explored in the film.

This shallow treatment of environmentalism’s substance resulted in a heated but ultimately futile studio debate broadcast after the film. In this exchange, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, Greenpeace’s token scientist Doug Parr, and Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth (FoE) criticised the film for what they saw as it’s preoccupation with technology as the means to overcome these limits. ‘You can’t look at technology in ideological isolation’, said Bennett, insisting that FoE have a ‘pragmatic rather than ideological approach to technology’. Monbiot claimed that this was the most ‘ideological film I’ve ever seen on television’. Each side now accused each other of ‘ideology’, while claiming science and pragmatism for themselves.

However, this kind of ‘pragmatism’ has long been a feature of the environmental movement. For instance, in 2004, Lynas declared that ‘[t]he struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere’. In 2008, Monbiot seemed to agree, arguing that the eco-anarcho-socialists gathered at Climate Camp were undermining themselves: ‘Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim’, he said.

It is this claim about ‘pragmatism’ that allows environmentalists to smuggle their own ‘ideology’ into such debates under the cover of ‘science’. And it was only ever a clash between two groups of environmentalists – rather than criticism from without – that would finally expose the tendency of ‘pragmatism’ to produce its own crises. The same ‘science’ seems to produce different arguments, and here lies the biggest mystery about the greens. ‘Where’s the cohesion of the new environmentalists?’, asked Doug Parr; there is no new environmental movement, he pointed out.

In fact, there never really has been an environmental movement, full stop. Environmentalism has been a loud and bizarre spectacle of UK politics, but it has never moved more than a handful of people out onto the streets at any one time. It has never achieved sufficient numbers to count as a political force. And there has been no cohesive environmental philosophy. Instead, as Lynas admits, environmentalists were united, not by science, but by their emotional rejection of contemporary society.

As with most criticism of environmentalism, it is often the reaction to it that reveals more than the criticism itself. Monbiot replies that the movement was unsuccessful, not because it failed to capture the minds of the public, but because ‘we are massively out-spent by corporate-funded movements which have had hundreds of millions poured into them telling government and the media there isn’t a problem’, a claim which surely ignores the UK and EU governments’ environmental policies. He complains that Channel 4 has ‘broadcast a series of polemics about the environment… over the last 20 years’. But the three films he’s talking about – Against Nature, The Great Global Warming Swindle and What the Green Movement Got Wrong – occupied no more than six hours of two decades of near continuous broadcasting. What environmentalists lack in terms of a sense of proportion, they make up for with a sense of persecution.

What Lynas has realised, and Monbiot has not, is that ‘sceptics’ did not undermine the environmentalists’ cause. Environmentalists were their own worst enemy. They have alienated the rest of society by their own uncompromising and misanthropic outlook. The challenge for the new environmentalists is to emerge from this crisis of their own making into an era of growing scepticism, while keeping an eye on the consequences of their arguments. But without the precautionary principle, alarmism, doom and catastrophe, and premature claims to scientific certainty, what is environmentalism?

What the Greens Really Got Wrong

Posted by Ben Pile on November 8, 2010
Nov 082010

Read my article about Ch4′s What the Green Movement Got Wrong at Spiked-Online.

Environmentalists have long claimed that their desire to save the world has been thwarted by conspiracies of Big Oil and right-wing think-tanks. Channel 4’s What the Green Movement Got Wrong (watch it here) showed signs that some environmentalists are at last beginning to take responsibility for their failures. But does it tell us anything we didn’t already know, and will the new environmentalists be so different from the old?

While you’re there, check out Brendan O’Neill’s excellent take on neomalthusianism.

When modern Malthusians insist that resources are finite, they only expose their historical illiteracy, misanthropy and social pessimism.

Arguing the corner for the neomalthusians, Adrian Stott of the OPT tries to defend his case.

Are we facing an existential environmental problem?

Yes. I hope we agree that the global environment is already in bad trouble, and getting worse. (If spiked is in denial over that, then there’s not much hope for this debate). The increasing rate of extinctions, the rising number of species suffering population declines in the order of 90 per cent (not just tigers, but sparrows and voles, too), the destruction of rainforests, the pollution of the oceans – the evidence is plain to see.

It’s plain to see that neomalthusians don’t really understand their own argument, nor the criticism of it, in spite of its historic failures.

Nov 042010

Channel 4 will be showing “What the Green Movement Got Wrong” tonight. Tune in at 9pm…

It’s too early to say much about the film — I haven’t seen it yet — but it appears to feature prominent environmentalist, Mark Lynas saying that environmentalists were wrong to oppose GM and nuclear energy. The thinking being that these are two ways we could prevent global warming.

“My view”, says Lynas, “as one of the contributors to the film, is simple: the greens can dish it out, but they can’t take it.”

You what, Mark?

This is a real debate and the environment movement needs to tackle it head-on rather than asserting that all challenges must be part of some imagined evil conspiracy.

Is this the same Mark Lynas:

Pie-man Mark Lynas said he was unable to ignore Lomborg’s comments on climate change. “I wanted to put a Baked Alaska in his smug face,” said Lynas, “in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.” Many countries in the Third World are also experiencing the effects of climate change. In Africa, Lake Chad is now a twentieth of the size it was in the 1950s, leaving millions potentially without water. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is planning the evacuation of its entire population as sea levels continue to rise. “And yet despite all this evidence,” comments Lynas, “Lomborg somehow contrives to argue that it is cheaper to go on burning fossil fuels than to switch to clean energy to prevent runaway global warming. This feeds right into the agenda of profiteering multinationals like Esso.”He continued: “I don’t see why the environment should suffer every time some bored, obscure academic fancies an ego trip. This book is full of dangerous nonsense.

Lynas’s views on nuclear power has got him into trouble with the green movement before, of course. Back in 2008, he wrote,

Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. [...] The backlash to my first magazine article on the subject prompted my inbox to collapse, the blogs to drip with venom, the dirty looks to multiply.

Just imagine! Venomous attacks from environmentalists! Poor, poor, Lynas. Still, at least it’s provided a moment of self reflection, even if it is own backside he’s disappearing into.

But was Lynas’s conversion a Road to an Atomic Damascus or the Green Reformation, we asked, as Lynas battled with another favourite of ours, Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas. Lynas, like Luther, has nailed his theses to Ch4’s door. It will be interesting to see just how deep a reflection on the problems of the environmental movement Lynas has been able to commit himself to. I have my doubts.

It’s all well and good to propose nuclear power as a technical solution to an objectively-defined problem of climate change, and to point out that the greens have been the ones doing most to prevent progress in this regard. But this misses the point that environmentalism — Lynas included — doesn’t begin with objectively-defined crises. For instance, Lynas now finds himself accused of the kind of attack on his integrity he was once proud to be involved in. Silly consumer ethics guru, Leo Hickman in Tuesday’s Guardian points out that

An environmental documentary due to be broadcast on Channel 4 on Thursday evening has come under attack from a leading American environmentalist who was interviewed for the programme, as well as a coalition of anti-GM campaigners based in the developing world. [... ] In a letter sent today to Channel 4′s head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, a coalition of anti-GM campaigners based in the developing world led by India’s Vandana Shiva accused the filmmakers of using only two “southern-based commentators”, both of whom are “funded by major GMO [genetically modified organisms] companies”.

Friends of the Earth, who are angry that they have been named in the film, have issued a statement and a film:

And it is here that we can really see what the environmental movement gets wrong. Kirtana Chandrasekaran’s vision for the future is one in which we ‘build on the knowledge’ that small farmers throughout the world have. The irony here being that, just a moment previously, she had complained that GM technology locks poorer people into debt and poverty. She can’t see beyond this form of existence, to consider the possibility of small farmers becoming big farmers, and of leaving subsistence existences — and possibly rural life — far behind them. For Chandrasekaran, subsistence existences are the expression of pure eco-virtue. And this is what the environmental movement gets terribly, terribly wrong.

Oct 272010

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/9825

It has been an annus horribilis for the environmental activists and politicians who insist that the world needs to act on climate change. There was ‘Climategate’, the leak from the University of East Anglia of compromising email discussions between climate researchers; questions about the provenance of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); concerns about the competence of IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri; and the failure to find a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen.

These events have dented confidence in climate science. Claims that ‘the debate is over’ seem to have given way to an acknowledgement that doubt exists. Reflecting these developments, the Royal Society – Britain’s most prestigious scientific body – has issued a new short guide to the science of climate change that is substantially more equivocal than its previous statements. Some have welcomed this change in the character of the climate debate, but there isn’t much to celebrate because the ideas underpinning climate anxiety have not been challenged.

Not so long ago, climate change was – according to some – ‘the defining issue of our era’. On the face of it, the special domestic and supranational political and economic institutions – the IPCC, the Kyoto process, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, and so on – that followed such claims were a response to the ‘defining issue’. But to sceptics of these political ideas – if not the science – this was less about constructing ‘global solutions to global problems’ and more about the fact that global solutions need global problems. The job of establishing the basis for these political projects fell to science. But science is fickle. It turned out that the defining issue of our era was not so easy to define.

In 2005, during the peak of climate hysteria and the drive to create an international political response to climate change, the Royal Society entered the political debate forcefully and published A Guide to the Facts and Fictions About Climate Change – a report which spoke unequivocally about official climate science and those who dared to challenge it.

The guide declared: ‘There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emission. Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded.’

The science academy had attached itself to a side in the climate war. It was now not only identifying the basis on which the climate-related political institutions would be built – defining the defining issue – it was identifying the enemy of that process and engaging them in battle. But rather than cementing the foundations of these political institutions, the Royal Society had undermined them. The aggressive position it had assumed had shown that science is a corruptible institution. The claim was that the ‘deniers’ had particular motivations, and so produced bad science. But the Society’s position rested on the assumption that climate scientists were unimpeachably honest.

By the time the Society published Climate Change Controversies: A Simple Guide in 2007, it had polarised the climate debate into camps divided by simple, cartoonish categories: ‘scientists’ and ‘deniers’. One side was dispassionate, objective, and not motivated in the slightest by financial interests or political ideas; the other consisted of nothing less than scientific prostitutes peddling lies. But most of all, the Royal Society had created an expectation that science could produce unambiguous and instructive moral and political statements.

The events since winter 2009 have demonstrated that these standards and expectations were unrealistic. Science did not consist of pure, virtuous individuals, who were impartially and dispassionately informing the debate with unimpeachable evidence. Science could not provide a basis for the construction of new, climate-change-solving political institutions. Claims had been made on behalf of the scientific consensus which simply didn’t stand up to closer inspection.

The new report issued by the Royal Society at the end of last month is more circumspect than its predecessors. Gone are the claims made about ‘myths’ and financial interests contaminating scientific objectivity. It now presents ‘the science’ within three categories of certainty: ‘aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement’; ‘aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion’; and ‘aspects that are not well understood’. This restatement will say little to anybody with an existing knowledge of the issues it relates to, and so the document looks now more like a rearguard action designed to define permissible areas of debate and discussion.

In a similar move, the BBC published its new guidelines, which promise that its coverage of climate issues will be more ‘inclusive’, and ‘ensure the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected’. The hitherto unchallengeable IPCC – the body that produces the ‘scientific consensus’ – has announced in the wake of criticism that the teams constructing its next report will take ‘guidance’ on the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed literature, the way it handles uncertainty, and its error-checking.

Although rank alarmism has been deprived of some of the certainty it once seemed to enjoy, there is not much to celebrate. These changes are not the consequence of a successful challenge to climate science in an open, technical debate, but to errors in procedure exposed by the media’s appetite for scandal. Most importantly, these changes have not come about as the consequence of a public debate about the values and ideas that underpin environmentalism. So while sceptics have attempted to challenge climate politics by questioning climate science and the over-statement of its consequences, this approach leaves the political character of environmentalism unchallenged.

For instance, the introduction to the Society’s latest report reveals: ‘Changes in climate have significant implications for present lives, for future generations and for ecosystems on which humanity depends.’ This claim exists prior to anything which emerges from climate science. It stresses society’s dependence on natural processes at the expense of an understanding of our capacity creatively to respond to our circumstances. And it is from this that many of the subsequent claims made in the climate debate draw their moral authority. For instance, it makes a political priority out of finding some relationship of ‘balance’ between nature and the human world, rather than addressing the problems caused by inequality within it. And it is this scepticism in relation to our capacity to deal with present and future problems which is also the basis of neo-Malthusian ideas about overpopulation and resource-depletion.

It is no coincidence that, as it was preparing to moderate its statements on climate change, the Society has been seeking to intervene in the debate about population. In July this year, it announced that it would be ‘undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures’ (see A prejudice in search of a scientific disguise, by Brendan O’Neill).

Climate change has served as the encompassing environmental narrative. It was used to connect the human and natural worlds, and to provide a basis for many political institutions that, without a climate crisis, would simply lack legitimacy. The forcefulness with which claims about climate change were presented and their abstract nature made climate-centric politics ever less plausible. However, if players in the climate debate are beginning to sense the exhaustion of the climate issue, they are able simply to slide into the population debate.

The perspectives of environmentalism do not begin with science, but with the anti-human and unscientific premise of our dependence on the natural world. This outlook goes unchallenged because of a perception that environmentalism is a pragmatic solution to purely scientifically-defined problems, and a belief that it can be answered in purely scientific terms. This encourages a sense of passivity, a sense of ‘leave it to the experts’.

But experts are rarely interested in allowing debate. Rather than passing a sceptical eye over the wildly exaggerated claims about climate change that led to the events of the last year – or even answering its critics – the scientific academy was busy fulfilling a new political function. It provided the basis for new and powerful political institutions in the place of a public contest about the values and ideas that inform them. This gap was hidden behind ‘science’.

It will likely be the same with the debate about population. Instead of finding solutions, today’s scientists seem to thrive and find new purpose in the atmosphere of doom and catastrophe created by the environmentalists’ narrative, and seem keen to emphasise the impossibility of progress beyond natural limits.

What Next for the Royal Society?

Posted by Ben Pile on October 16, 2010
Oct 162010

In May this year, the UK’s science Academy, the Royal Society, announced that it was going to publish a “new guide to the science of climate change to help the public gain a better understanding of the issue.”

This announcement appeared to follow in the wake of a series of episodes that challenged the scientific basis of the arguments for political action on climate change. Email hacking, questions about the provenance of IPCC claims and the virtues of its chair seemed to make climate scepticism more respectable than it had been. This was in many respects grotesque. As I argued here, climate orthodoxy had not actually been challenged by an open public, technical debate about the conclusions of climate science, and neither had it been challenged by a debate about the premises of political environmentalism. Instead, it was the media’s desire for stories about sleaze and scandal which drove this issue into the limelight. Nonetheless, events at least allowed for climate orthodoxy to be challenged. Even the president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, now seemed to acknowledge that climate change anxiety had been over-egged.

Climate change is a hugely important issue but the public debate has all too often been clouded by exaggeration and misleading information.  We aim to provide the public with a clear indication of what is known about the climate system, what we think we know about it and, just as importantly, the aspects we still do not understand very well.

If the Royal Society aimed to clarify the issue for the public, by pointing out that the debate was ‘clouded by exaggeration and misleading information’, it had already failed. You can’t clarify a complex situation merely by pointing at the mess, and issuing ‘the facts’ about what it pertains to, especially since it had been the Royal Society under the stewardship of Martin Rees’s predecessor, Bob May, who had done much to add heat – rather than light – to the public debate.

For instance, in 2005, the Royal Society published ‘A guide to the facts and fictions about climate change’, which is now offline. (We have a copy of it if you’d like to see it.) This is what it said about climate scepticism.

There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emission. Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded.

The Royal Society in 2005 was not working from scientific facts but was propagating conspiracy theories, none of which it could substantiate. We pointed out for example, that the claims about ‘well-funded’ attempts to challenge to climate politics didn’t pass a test of basic arithmetic. In fact, what characterised the climate sceptics was their lack of funding, especially when seen in contrast to the astronomical sums available to the panic industry.

Bob May epitomised the angry, intolerant and censorious character of the environmental movement further when he offered his own unique translation of the Royal Society’s motto in 2007. Nullius in Verba had long been translated as ‘on the word of no one’, but May had decided a better translation was ‘respect the facts’. As self-appointed custodian of the facts, however, he didn’t appear to be against making them up himself.

May had accused Martin Durkin, the director of the Great Global Warming Swindle of being a HIV-AIDS denier, as well as a climate change denier. And this must speak most loudly about the desperation of high profile and influential climate change alarmists even while they were enjoying almost entirely favourable media coverage, and the sympathy of governments. Even when ‘the science was settled’, it wasn’t settled enough for those who wielded it to make political arguments. They needed to make stuff up, whether it be about the effects of climate change, or about those who were sceptical of their claims, to win the political debate.

Under the stewardship of Rees, the Royal Society’s commentary on climate change was torned down somewhat. In June 2007, it published a ‘simple guide’ to ‘climate change controversies’.  This consisted of a number of answers to what the RS had understood as ‘misleading arguments’ that characterised the sceptic’s arguments.

Misleading argument 1: The Earth’s climate is always changing and this is nothing to do with humans.

Misleading argument 2: Carbon dioxide only makes up a small part of the atmosphere and so cannot be responsible for global warming.

Misleading argument 3: Rises in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the result of increased temperatures, not the other way round.

Misleading argument 4: Observations of temperatures taken by weather balloons and satellites do not support the theory of global warming.

Misleading argument 5: Computer models which predict the future climate are unreliable and based on a series of assumptions.

Misleading argument 6: It’s all to do with the Sun – for example, there is a strong link between increased temperatures on Earth and the number of sunspots on the Sun.

Misleading argument 7: The climate is actually affected by cosmic rays.

Misleading argument 8: The scale of the negative effects of climate change is often overstated and there is no need for urgent action.

Each of these ‘misleading statements’ was outlined, and followed by the words, ‘What does the science say?’ These were followed again in each case by an account of what science had apparently said to the report’s authors. Science’s words, however, retold through the mediums at the Royal Society, became bland, condescending, and failed to raise the level of the debate. The approach of the report was typical of the establishment’s mode of engaging with the public on scientific matters at that time. A belief existed that all you needed to do to convince the public was to present the opposite case as ‘myths’ and to counter them with ‘simple’ ‘facts’, and public would obediently defer to scientific authority. The irony here being, of course, that the RS had been involved in its own myth-making, not only by presenting ‘simple’ accounts of the climate debate (which is actually complex), but also by having made unequivocal and unreasonable statements about the climate debate and its politics. It wanted now to retreat to ‘simple’ scientific facts. Too late.

The public, not being as simple as the RS understood them to be, recognised that the reduction of the debate to ‘simple’ facts was typical of those making political arguments on the basis of the over-stretched claims about climate change. The idea that ‘myths’ and ‘facts’ characterise the debate is the corollary of the idea that the debate divides into two camps: scientists and deniers, who deal in facts and myths respectively. The report spoke only to the myths and to the deniers, whereas the public by now knew that the debate was far more complex. The ‘simple guide’ delivered precisely this over-simple message in its introduction:

This is not intended to provide exhaustive answers to every contentious argument that has been put forward by those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming.

Reports published at the time revealed that the thinking public, even if they believed that climate change was happening, also understood that it had been exaggerated by cynical politicians and scientists who had become giddy with hyperbole and their new-found celebrity status. The failure to treat the arguments made from its own ‘side’ to scientific scrutiny revealed the continued partial treatment of the issue by the RS, and moreover, demonstrated the inability to reflect on its own position that characterises environmentalism. For an institution established with the purpose of promoting the role of science in the public sphere, the Royal Society had perhaps become its own worst enemy.

The events of the last year, which undermined the credibility of climate science in the public’s mind still further, need no retelling here. We can see now that each successive report that the Royal Society has issued has not been amended or improved by developments in climate science, but by the problems generated for it by the attitude of the previous report. As Rees says in the press release attached to the current report:

It is three years since the Society published a document specifically designed to help the general public get a full understanding of climate change.  Nothing in recent developments has changed or weakened the underpinning science of climate change.  In the current environment we believe this new guide will be very timely.  Lots of people are asking questions, indeed even within the Fellowship of the Society there are differing views.  Our guide will be based on expert views backed up by sound scientific evidence.”

So if the ‘underpinning science of climate change’ has not changed, what has given rise, then, to the people who ‘are asking questions’. Who are they, and what are their questions? The report doesn’t say. Rees continues,

It has been suggested that the Society holds the view that anyone challenging the consensus on climate change is malicious – this is ridiculous.  Science is organised scepticism and the consensus must shift in light of the evidence.  The Society has always encouraged debate particularly through our discussion meetings and our journals. The Society has held two recent discussion meetings relevant to this area.  One on Greenhouse gases in the earth system: setting the agenda for 2030 and one on Handling uncertainty in science. The debate must be open and it must also be based on sound science rather than dogma.

Rees’s claim here is umitigated nonsense. The RS refused to allow complexity, uncertainty or dissent into the debate, and indeed dismissed as malicious those who had a different perspective on climate change. The 2005 report accused sceptics of ‘undermining science’ for financial ends and private interests. The 2007 report was directed at ‘those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming’. The RS actively discouraged debate, its presidents and their staff claimed that there was no debate to be had, and that those who wanted one were ‘deniers’.

The new report does not say much at all. It is a restatement of the science, divided into three categories of certainty, ‘Aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement’, ‘Aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion’, and ‘Aspects that are not well understood’. These are intended, it seems, to delimit areas of permissible discussion. As a document which is concerned with the physical science of climate change, by itself, it seems very limited indeed. This blog is concerned more with the political and moral arguments which putatively emerge from climate science. And it is the inability of the RS to recognise the sheer weight of expectations that are hung on climate science that make this new report almost completely pointless.

The implication of the report is still that if we can establish what the effect of CO2 on the climate system and natural processes is, the answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ will come to us. Instead, the claims in the climate debate are far more complex than can be substantiated by establishing that ‘climate change is [or is not] happening’. For instance, it is perfectly feasible that some degree of climate change is happening, and that this may cause problems for some people, particularly people in the poorer parts of the world, as the RS have pointed out in the past. And it is on this fact that much of the moral argument for political action on climate change rests. This perspective is captured in the introduction to the new report

Changes in climate have significant implications for present lives, for future generations and for ecosystems on which humanity depends.

However, as we have pointed out, the fundamental issue for such people is not the climate, but their lack of wealth. The further implication of this approach is that such poverty as exists to make people vulnerable to climate is inevitable, or even ‘natural’. But can ‘science’ really determine the extent to which human societies and future generations really depend on ecosystems? Or is the claim merely a political presupposition that exists in the perspectives of the authors of the RS report, prior to any data or scientific facts? What if we were to suggest instead that the fundamental dependency that humans have is not on ecosystems, but between themselves? After all, what determines people’s vulnerability to climate in today’s world is not the climatic conditions of their location, but their ability to cope with it. Here in the UK, where we enjoy central heating, a car, and food, we do not have better access to ‘ecosystems’ than people living elsewhere in the world. Poorer people in the world could be richer. Much richer. And this wealth would afford them better protection from a changing, or not changing, climate. The problem of climate change, therefore, is not principally determined by climatic conditions, but by social, economic, and technological development. It is not climate science we should be looking to in order to establish the immediate problems of climate change, but instead social science.

Some have welcomed the Royal Society’s apparent repositioning, believing it to represent a tacit acknowledgement of the extent to which climate change has been exaggerated. But even if the RS are now treating the climate issue with slightly more caution, it is not after any reflection on what took it to its own extremes. The same eco-centric precepts persist in this report, and out of this new position something far more sinister is emerging.

Climate change science has comprehensively failed to produce a basis from which climate politics can proceed. In the first place, it is too abstract a set of ideas to act as a narrative to explain the human world. In the second, and because of the first, it has been wildly exaggerated. People – rightly – simply did not believe that their lives were so dependent on natural processes. Politicians’ and environmentalists’ ambitions to produce moral authority from terrifying stories about catastrophe were shattered by the force with which their messages were thrust upon the public. The stories grew less credible.

As we’ve been arguing here for a long time, climate politics are prior to climate science. As explained above, the premise of human dependence on ecosystems exists before any consideration of material facts or theories about the state of the planet. Accordingly, changes to natural processes count in this perspective as damage to human society. The way out of that framework for those of a human-centric persuasion is to emphasise the degree to which human society makes itself, and depends on its own creativity – not ecosystems – for more than mere survival.

That understanding was once the principle that science promised to unleash, so that humans could progress towards their own future rather than one dictated by the weather. It liberated individuals and society from illegitimate rule and mystical and superstitious ideas. Now science instead is used to find ways to contain that creativity by denying it. In the climate debate, moral authority was sought by claiming that our incautious progress had altered the weather. Now, that same authority is being sought on the basis that we are not sufficiently creative to invent faster than we consume. We are going to run out of stuff. There are too many people.

Shortly after the Royal Society announced it was to revise its advice on climate change, it announced [PDF]:

The Royal Society is undertaking a major study to investigate how population variables will affect and be affected by economies, environments, societies and cultures over the next forty years and beyond. The aims of the study are to provide policy guidance to decision makers and inform interested members of the public based on a dispassionate assessment of the best available evidence. The scope of the study will be global but it will explicitly acknowledge regional variations in population dynamics and the impact of policy interventions. We aim to complete the project by early 2012.

The timing is no accident. The character of the public discussion of environmental issues is changing. While it is welcome that there has been a marginally more sober reflection on the climate, there is little to celebrate. The scientific academy has sensed that it in today’s world, it wields political power. As the call for evidence suggests, the Royal Society has already decided that population is a problem, and the size of the population ought to be managed by political power, not by the individuals it consists of.

We invite feedback on the following questions.  [... ]

  1. What scientific evidence is available to show how fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation will affect or be affected by population levels and rates of change, at both regional and global levels, over the next forty years and beyond?
  2. How fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation are influenced by and influence environments, economies, societies and cultures?
  3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different population modelling methodologies?
  4. What are the key interconnections among population change, environments, economies, societies and cultures? How do these relate to any of the examples listed in the second bullet point of the terms of reference above?
  5. What are the key linkages among population, technology and consumption.
  6. What are the best (or worst) examples of how policy has been effective in managing population changes?
  7. What other issues should our study addresses?

The implication of these question is the same idea that operated at the core of the RS’s climate perspective. The idea of our dependence on ecosystems is still the premise of its neomalthusianism. The climate story emphasised the damage that climate change would do to these systems, resulting in calamity. A weaker form of the same climate story serves as an adjunct to the population story. Neomalthusians can now acknowledge the uncertainty of the climate science, but make the claim that the degree to which climate change is certain is a function of population. The more people, the greater the possibility that climate change is a problem. Climate change has been the principal narrative which connected human society to the natural world, but now population has become the ‘master’ issue. It connects fears about biodiversity, climate change, resource-depletion, pollution, and so on. We can jump up and down with joy when climate science is shown to have been exaggerated by politicians, or is embarrassed by the excesses of a researcher. But it won’t have been the result of attempts to understand the phenomenon of environmentalism, and environmentalists will simply regroup under the population issue, as we predicted they would.

The main problem with this perspective, is as we’ve argued here, that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we start from the premise of environmental-determinism — that our futures are dependent on ‘ecosystems’ — then we preclude the possibility of development that would allow us to exceed ‘natural limits’. The notion of human dependence looks like an objective claim with a scientific basis, but it is in fact a moral argument. Of course, it is possible to find instances of human dependence on natural processes. But these are contingent facts not universal truths, and the point of emphasising natural limits is to create for society an organising principle.

Further, it is hard to make a counter-argument in scientific terms. How do you quantify the potential of human creativity in the scientific terms that neomalthusianism appears to demand? This was the conundrum that led Martin Rees to his conclusion that human understanding is limited in his Reith lectures earlier this year.

Rees couldn’t quantify the extent of human possibility, but claimed that it must exist somewhere. His argument was that we should act as though we are limited now. Just as with the neomalthusian perspective, this seems to demand a seemingly scientific answer to its claims, but neither the extent of human potential, nor the actual limits imposed by nature are given. And so, the benefit of the doubt is given to environmentalism’s political project. As I pointed out, the result is toxic: “it’s only when you take a narrow, limited, and negative view of humanity that you can make stories about our imminent demise, and the necessity of creating special forms of politics to prevent catastrophe from occurring.”

Rees and the Royal Society are seeking ever greater roles for science in the political sphere. Politicians, who are suffering from a historic inability to define their purpose, take the authority this lends them with ever more enthusiasm. But this has resulted in a qualitative shift in the character of science. Where once it provided the means to liberate human potential, it now exists to regulate it. Instead of ‘speaking truth to power’, science increasingly speaks official truth for official power. The result is bad politics and bad science.

© 2014 Climate Resistance Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha