All eyes are on the IPCC. Although some of it is ugly, and some sceptics – in our view, at least – are making less dignified arguments than they ought to be, this has been a long time coming. The IPCC, by virtue of the argument that ‘climate change is the most important issue facing mankind’, has become perhaps the ‘most important political institution’, at least by implication. For a while, the putative ‘crisis’ that we face has allowed the IPCC to avoid scrutiny. After all, who could argue with an institution that was established to ‘save the planet’? It seems that some of this invincibility has worn off, perhaps because there were simply too many hoping that some of its Nobel-prize-winning-planet-saving-credentials would rub off on them.

Donna Laframboise, of the No Frakking “Scientific Consensus” on Global Warming blog, has done a quick survey of citations of the WWF in the last IPCC assessment report (AR4).

For example, a WWF report is cited twice on this page as the only supporting proof of IPCC statements about coastal developments in Latin America. A WWF report is referenced twice by the IPCC’s Working Group II in its concluding statements. There, the IPCC depends on the WWF to define what the global average per capita “ecological footprint” is compared to the ecological footprint of central and Eastern Europe.

This is one of those ‘why didn’t we think of that’ moments.

Before the scanning of IPCC reports begins, we’d like to return to a subject we began to look at right when this blog started. The issue of funding.

According to alarmist mythology, sceptics/deniers have been the beneficiaries or obedient slaves of a “well-funded denial machine” that has distorted the debate. Evidence for this came in the form of a site from Greenpeace, called ‘ExxonSecrets’. The site explains itself:

ExxonSecrets is a Greenpeace research project highlighting the more than a decade-long campaign by Exxon-funded front groups – and the scientists they work with – to deny the urgency of the scientific consensus on global warming and delay action to fix the problem.

Greenpeace are particularly proud of one of their efforts:

After consistent campaigning by Greenpeace through ExxonSecrets, ExxonMobil was forced, in 2006, to drop funding to some of its key allies in the campaign to deny climate science and delay policy action The Competitive Enterprise Institute was the key group dropped – it had received $2.2 million from ExxonMobil since 1998, more than any other thinktank. But the relationship continues as CEI’s climate operatives continue to work closely with the other think tanks funded by Exxon.

$2.2 million, over the course of the decade following 1998, amounts to $220,000 a year. Not a hill of beans.

As we reported in May 2008, it’s even less of a hill of beans when it is seen in contrast to the budgets of the big Green, NGOs. WWF, for example, took this much money in recent years:

Year Income ($US)
2003 370,245,000
2004 468,889,000
2005 499,629,000
2006 549,827,000
2007 663,193,000
TOTAL 2,551,783,000

According to WWF’s latest financial report, 2008 was not quite such a good year for them. They’ve switched their accounting to Euros, rather than dollars, and say that in 2007, they took €508,137,000, and in 2008, they took €447,251,000. Poor WWF. Still, we make that to be roughly $584,000,000 – over half a billion dollars, bringing their total income since 2003 to just over $3.1 billion, not including 2009.

Of interest to some of our readers is the fact that WWF took €73,938,000 ($104,320,000) in 2007 and €76,930,000 ($108,856,000) in 2008 from ‘Governments and Aid Agencies’.

‘Why are you banging on about how much money WWF have, again?’ you may well be asking.

The point is first to demonstrate again that, in purely cash terms, the alarmist cause is considerably better funded. This must also be seen in the context of the rhetoric produced by the likes of Greenpeace, who, as we’ve pointed out before, don’t do so badly themselves. They say that ‘deniers’ have intended ‘to deny the urgency of the scientific consensus on global warming and delay action’, yet as the events that are unfolding reveal, it is much more organisations such as the WWF who have influenced the debate with misinformation. http://www.climate-resistance.org/2008/01/well-funded-well-funded-denial-machine.html

We thought it might be time to tot up Greenpeace’s accounts to date…

Year Income (US$) Income (Euros)
1994 137,358,000 —————-
1995 152,805,000 —————-
1996 139,895,000 —————-
1997 125,648,000 —————-
1998 —————- 110,833,000
1999 —————- 126,023,000
2000 —————- 143,646,000
2001 —————- 157,730,000
2005 —————- 173,464,000
2006 —————- 171,367,000
2007 —————- 204,982,000
2008 —————- 196,620,000
TOTAL 555,706,000 1,284,665,000

To put these crudely into the same terms, we make that $2,373,506,970 ($2.37 billion) at today’s euro to US dollar exchange rate.

Most of this money comes from people who think that they are giving to save the rhino, panda, or the whale, because that’s how Greenpeace and the WWF sell themselves. They hire companies to accost people in the street on their behalf and to phone people, harassing them into signing agreements to pay monthly amounts, deducted automatically from their bank accounts. Yet these organisations don’t simply save whales and rhinos, they use their not inconsiderable financial clout to influence the political agenda throughout the world, in a way that the ‘deniers’ simply have not been able to. This obviously includes preparing ‘research’ that finds its way into IPCC Assessment Reports.

There may be nothing wrong with this, as such. We can’t really complain that such-and-such an organisation gets money from old ladies, and uses it to look into things. But the rise of the NGO has coincided with the decline in other forms of political engagement. Thus, politicians turn increasingly to organisations like the IPCC and the WWF for their moral authority. This process isn’t healthy.

Whether or not this new scrutiny of the IPCC will be conclusive remains to be seen, but this was somewhat inevitable. Too much speculation about the climate story caused a bubble. World leaders, politicians, activists have sought to define themselves by this organisation and the stories it produces. Now the bubble, while not yet burst, is getting a damn good poke. Our view is that the IPCC and the climate agenda will no longer serve as a cloak of ‘ethical’ invisibility, to conceal quite so many of the cracks in today’s politics. No more fig-leaves for politicians such as Ed Miliband to hide his shame behind. (h/t Mark H).

Ball or Aerosol?

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According to the likes of Bob Ward, George Monbiot, Ben Goldacre and Steve Connor, it is a well established fact that the slump in global temperatures over three decades in the middle of the last century is the result of changes in the composition of atmospheric aerosols following various clean air acts in the western world.

Failure to acknowledge this fact is ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty’, according to Monbiot, and ‘a major misrepresentation of the scientific evidence’, in the words of Ward. Goldacre described the question of the post-war temperature slump as a prime example of a denialist ‘zombie argument’ (it ‘survive[s] to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times [it is] shot down’) and wrote that it has ‘been answered already, ages ago’. It’s the aerosols, stupid.

We have stated repeatedly that such certainty is not justified by the state of scientific understanding of atmospheric aerosols (see links above). So it’s good to see Quirin Schiermeier’s piece in today’s issue of NatureThe real holes in climate science – which identifies aerosols as one of four problematic areas of climate change research (the other three being Regional climate prediction, Precipitation, and The tree-ring controversy):

Atmospheric aerosols — airborne liquid or solid particles — are a source of great uncertainty in climate science. Despite decades of intense research, scientists must still resort to using huge error bars when assessing how particles such as sulphates, black carbon, sea salt and dust affect temperature and rainfall.

Overall, it is thought that aerosols cool climate by blocking sunlight, but the estimates of this effect vary by an order of magnitude, with the top end exceeding the warming power of all the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by humans.

One of the biggest problems is lack of data…

Schiermeier goes on to describe how little is understood about the relative contributions of white aerosols (eg, sulphates, which have a cooling effect) and black carbon (which has a warming effect); how we don’t know the atmospheric aerosol composition in the present, let alone the past; how little we know about the way in which aerosols interact with clouds and other atmospheric processes, etc.

He doesn’t go into the implications of this lack of knowledge for our understanding of the post-war temperature slump. But it goes without saying that, if ‘Scientists have yet to untangle the interplay between pollution, clouds, precipitation and temperature’, then the claims of Ward, Monbiot, Goldacre, Connor et al are wildly off the mark, if not examples of ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty’.

Thankfully, neither is the post-war temperature slump mentioned in the obligatory list of long-debunked denialist arguments (Enduring climate myths) that accompanies Schiermeier’s article – something of a first for the genre.

The Nature piece is not without its faults. For a start, it is framed in terms of the putative attack on climate science by ‘deniers’. And Hans von Storch is already complaining that Schiermeier has misquoted him, and that the article ignores myths perpetuated by the orthodoxy (of which we could add a few of our own). But perhaps it has dealt the severe head trauma that was needed to finish off for good the real zombie argument – that ‘Temperatures declined after the Second World War as a result of sulphate pollution from heavy industry, causing global dimming. This is well-known to all climate scientists.

The IPCC and the Melting Glaciers Story

This is a big post in two parts. The first is our take on the current story about the Himalayan glaciers. The second is a similar case of non-scientific research being passed off as ‘science’.

A story in the Sunday Times demonstrates the murky nature of the process by which ‘scientific facts’ become established in the climate debate.

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

The No Scientist has, in recent years, become something of an organ of the environmental movement, abandoning cool, rational, empirical scientific detachment for high moral tones, shrill alarmist stories, and a rather one-sided treatment of both the politics and science of the climate debate. No surprises here – we’ve covered the NS’s appalling commentary in many previous posts. What is interesting is how the partiality of science journalists exists as part of its own positive-feedback mechanism, such that oversight turns into ‘scientific fact’. So how does a journalist’s credulousness actually produce ‘consensus science’?

The original article by the celebrated New Scientist environmental correspondent, Fred Pearce was published in 1999. It reported that,

“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating,” says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the chief author of the ICSI report. A typical example is the Gangorti glacier at the head of the River Ganges, which is retreating at a rate of 30 metres per year. Hasnain’s four-year study indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.”

In 2005, the WWF, published its report, An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China. It cited Pearce’s article.

The New Scientist magazine carried the article “Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities” in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”. The article also predicted that freshwater flow in rivers across South Asia will “eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages”.

In 2007, the IPCC cites the WWF

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

This process is what we have called, ‘Chinese Whispers’, after the party game of the same name. Ambiguity, caveats, and uncertainty get removed from scientific research through citation, especially across discipline areas, and when passed between the social and material sciences. Certainty is amplified; the context of scientific research is lost, rendering it meaningless. Why is the IPCC citing the WWF as a source of scientific data, when first, the WWF is neither a scientific, nor a research organisation, but has a specific agenda, and second, when it has the work of an entire working group (WGI) dedicated to providing the ‘scientific basis’, to call upon?

The Times quotes Pearce,

The IPCC’s reliance on Hasnain’s 1999 interview has been highlighted by Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist. Pearce said he rang Hasnain in India in 1999 after spotting his claims in an Indian magazine. Pearce said: “Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain. The report had not been peer reviewed or formally published in a scientific journal and it had no formal status so I reported his work on that basis.”

So Pearce apparently found the claims sufficiently interesting, even though they appeared to have no basis in science. Pearce continues:

“Since then I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt. However, he did make clear that his comments related only to part of the Himalayan glaciers. not the whole massif.”

It is not clear when, since 1999, Pearce found a copy of Hasnain’s report. We haven’t found any attempt to address his mistake. Reflecting on the error in a recent edition of the New Scientist, Pearce says,

Despite the 10-year-old New Scientist report being the only source, the claim found its way into the IPCC fourth assessment report published in 2007. Moreover the claim was extrapolated to include all glaciers in the Himalayas.

Writing on the BBC’s website, Indian Journalist, Pallava Bagla, points out that the IPCC reproduced the error,

The IPCC relied on three documents to arrive at 2035 as the “outer year” for shrinkage of glaciers.

They are: a 2005 World Wide Fund for Nature report on glaciers; a 1996 Unesco document on hydrology; and a 1999 news report in New Scientist.

Incidentally, none of these documents have been reviewed by peer professionals, which is what the IPCC is mandated to be doing.

Since Pearce’s mistake in 1999, he has written many books on the climate issue.

  • Last Generation – How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change
  • When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens When Our Water Runs Out?
  • Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes from
  • The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future
  • With Speed and Violence : Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
  • The Big Green Book
  • Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World
  • Fragile Earth: Views of a Changing World
  • Deep Jungle: Journey to the Heart of the Rainforest
  • Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization
  • Regis: Regional Climate Change Impact and Response Studies in East Anglia and North West England
  • Turning Up the Heat

Before his 1999 article, he penned,

  • Ian and Fred’s Big Green Book
  • Green Warriors: The People and the Politics behind the Environmental Revolution.
  • Turning Up The Heat – Our Perilous Future In The Global Greenhouse
  • Dammed, the:Rivers, Dams and the Coming World Water Crisis
  • Acid Rain (Penguin Special)
  • Turning Up the Heat: Our Perilous Future in the Global Greenhouse
  • Global Warming
  • Watershed: Collapse of Britain’s Water Supply
  • Greenprint for Action
  • Climate and Man: From the Ice Ages to the Global Greenhouse
  • Climate change impacts in the UK

It is inconceivable that as prolific a writer on the climate as Pearce can be unaware of the influence of his error. It is more than obvious that Pearce has a political agenda that exists prior to ‘the science’ he reports. This prior-ness is something we have emphasised here on Climate Resistance as fundamental to understanding the phenomenon of environmentalism: the disaster scenario is the premise of environmental politics, not the conclusion of environmental science. Once this premise is accepted, so to speak, a priori, the conclusion becomes a given; the ‘science’ is almost immaterial, it merely gives numbers to what is already given.

It does not stretch the imagination, then, to suggest that Pearce was happy to overlook the lack of scientific foundations in Hasnain’s 1999 report, and happy for the error to be amplified, and reproduced firstly by the WWF, and then by the IPCC.

Happy that is, until now. The 11 January New Scientist article, which carries his name, speaks about himself as “a journalist”, as though he had nothing to do with it.

However, the lead author of the IPCC chapter, Indian glaciologist Murari Lal, told New Scientist he “outright rejected” the notion that the IPCC was off the mark on Himalayan glaciers. “The IPCC authors did exactly what was expected from them,” he says.“We relied rather heavily on grey [not peer-reviewed] literature, including the WWF report,” Lal says. “The error, if any, lies with Dr Hasnain’s assertion and not with the IPCC authors.”

But Hasnain rejects that. He blames the IPCC for misusing a remark he made to a journalist. “The magic number of 2035 has not [been] mentioned in any research papers written by me, as no peer-reviewed journal will accept speculative figures,” he told New Scientist.

It might have been more appropriate for Pearce to use the word “me”, and accept his role in this brouhaha.

But for the moment, at least he seems to be thinking about the process he is a small part of. His latest article demonstrates the rifts that are emerging in the wake of the affair.

Glaciologists are this week arguing over how a highly contentious claim about the speed at which glaciers are melting came to be included in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Glaciologists, it seems, are now at odds with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

The IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, has hit back, denouncing the Indian government report as “voodoo science” lacking peer review.

Yet, clearly, following the words of Lal, about using non-peer-reviewed literature, Pachauri, on behalf of the IPCC has some serious questions to answer that are not answered by hand waving with statements about ‘voodoo science’.

One of the most frequent criticisms of climate sceptics is that their arguments lack foundation in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Yet here we see that in fact, one of the central claims made in the case for political action to mitigate climate change, had only a speculative basis in science.

Part 2

This all reminds us of a story we were working on a while ago. In Septmber 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”. We were unconvinced already. Humans are by definition not at the heart of any eco-centric view of the world. Moreover, the climate issue has been adopted by one-time development agencies to instead emphasise not developing as the most ‘progressive’ course of action for the world’s poorest people.

In failing to tackle global warming with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialised nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability. The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture. Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.

In our view, Oxfam had given up on the very concept of industrial and economic development as fundamental conditions of political development. Thus poorly conceived ideas about “human rights” had been married with climate change alarmism, to produce a chimera that expressed even greater intellectual poverty than its parents. We began looking at the claims made in the report, and tried to establish where they had come from. For a part-time, unfunded project such as Climate Resistance, this proved to be simply far too time-consuming, and other things were happening, such as the UK’s Climate Change Bill was being put (shoved) through Parliament.

We began compiling a list of the claims made by Oxfam, with the intention of asking them to show what their basis for them was. For instance, in the quote above, Oxfam say that scientific certainty exists about the relationship between the carbon emissions of industrialised countries and floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability that they have, allegedly, produced. We didn’t think that this was an appropriate emphasis of “scientific certainty”. Where had it come from?

What attracted our attention most, however, was this claim

According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger. [Pg. 2]

We looked to see if it was true. All we could find was this.

In other [African] countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003). [IPCC WGII, Page 448. 9.4.4]

Oxfam cite the IPCC, but the citation belongs to Agoumi. The IPCC reference the paper properly:

Agoumi, A., 2003: Vulnerability of North African countries to climatic changes: adaptation and implementation strategies for climatic change. Developing Perspectives on Climate Change: Issues and Analysis from Developing Countries and Countries with Economies in Transition. IISD/Climate Change Knowledge Network, 14 pp. http://www.cckn.net//pdf/north_africa.pdf.

There is only limited discussion of “deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture” in that paper, and its focus is not ‘some’ African countries, but just three: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It is not climate research. It is a discussion about the possible effects of climate change. All that it says in relation to the IPCC quote, is that,

Studies on the future of vital agriculture in the region have shown the following risks, which are linked to climate change:

  • greater erosion, leading to widespread soil degradation;
  • deficient yields from rain-based agriculture of up to 50 per cent during the 2000–2020 period;
  • reduced crop growth period;

Most interestingly, the study was not simply produced by some academic working in some academic department. Instead, it was published by The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). According to the report itself,

The International Institute for Sustainable Development contributes to sustainable development by advancing policy recommendations on international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change, measurement and indicators, and natural resource management. By using Internet communications, we report on international negotiations and broker knowledge gained through collaborative projects with global partners, resulting in more rigorous research, capacity building in developing countries and better dialogue between North and South.

Oxfam takes its authority from the IPCC. The IPCC report seemingly takes its authority from a bullet point in a paper published by an organisation with a declared political interest in the sustainability agenda that was the brainchild of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. (Take note: Conservatives are often behind the advance of the sustainability agenda, in spite of claims that it’s a left-wing phenomenon).

That the IPCC is citing non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific  research from quasi governmental semi-independent sustainability advocacy organisations must say something about the dearth of scientific or empirical research. The paper in question barely provides any references for its own claims, yet by virtue of merely appearing in the IPCC’s reports, a single study, put together by a single researcher, becomes “consensus science”.

The situation is simply insane. The IPCC are cited as producers of official science, yet they appear often to take as many liberties with the sources they cite, as those who cite the IPCC – such as Oxfam – go on to do. To ask questions about this process is to stand against ‘the consensus’, to be a ‘denier’, and to be willingly jeopardising the future of millions of people, and inviting the end of the world.

The popular view of the climate debate and politics is that the IPCC and scientists produce the science, which politicians and policymakers respond to, encouraged by NGOs, all reported on by journalists. But as the case of the glacier and North African water studies show, this is a misconception. Science, the media, government, and supra-national political organisations do not exist as sharply distinct institutions. They are nebulous and porous. They merge, and each influence the interpretation and substance of the next iteration of their own product. The distinction between science and politics breaks down in the miasma.

If this process could be mapped, it would be no surprise to us if it was discovered that the IPCC was be found citing itself through citing NGOs and Quasi-NGOs, and other non-peer-reviewed, not scientific literature. This is the real climate feedback mechanism. Sadly, we have no time and no resources for such a survey, as much as we’d like to.

But would it be necessary to ‘debunk’ the IPCC in this way? Maybe not. We can deal with the arguments on their own terms, after all. We have argued here on Climate Resistance that whatever the evidence or strength of the science with respect to the claim that “climate change is happening”, the political argument about how to respond to climate change depends too heavily on the notion that “failure to act” is equivalent to producing a disaster.

To re-iterate our fundamental point, the problem with much of the argument emerging from the sustainability camp – as the report cited by the IPCC who are cited by Oxfam surely is – is that its premise is political, not scientific. That is to say again than the ‘politics is prior’ to the science. It may well be the case that the region that the study focussed on faces increased droughts, and that, historically, agricultural output in those regions vary as rainfall varies, and that rainfall is declining. But this is not the whole story.

If indeed, they are at all true, the claims made in the report, the IPCC and Oxfam, are only significant if we assume that mankind is impotent to address the water problems they describe. But the North African region covered by the study has a coast, lots of sunshine, and a lot of land. Indeed, the area is being considered for a huge solar-energy project that could power much of Europe and the region, and so its water problems could be answered by the development of large-scale desalination infrastructure. The only problem is capital. So it is somewhat ironic that the lack of capital available to provide such a project with momentum is not the subject of Oxfam’s report.

Why Copenhagen was bound to fail

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/debates/copenhagen_article/7912/

December’s Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to be the moment at which nations came together to save the planet. But the attempt to produce an international, legally binding agreement on climate change ended up more like a squabble between rivals than the invention of a new green era. Even the force of the ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ championed in the lead up to, and during, the conference was insufficient to unite the world’s decision-makers. Although the blame game has begun, it is the nature of the meeting itself that explains its failure far better than the behaviour of its players.

Visions and divisions

Copenhagen brought to the surface the many tensions that exist within the green camp. Before the meeting opened, climate activist-scientist James Hansen expressed his distaste for the carbon markets that would likely be created by a deal (1). This put him at odds with unlikely environmental champion, the former vice-president and chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern. Stern’s 2006 report became the backbone of UK climate policies and made environmentalism the official language of the establishment.

For a while Stern was also celebrated by seemingly radical environmentalists because he had demonstrated that ‘market failure’ – capitalism – had produced the looming climate catastrophe, and he seemingly answered concerns that emissions reductions would impede economic development.  Ultimately, however, Stern, the establishment’s own eco-prophet, had only limited appeal to those seeking to express deeper misgivings about the status quo. As former principal speaker of the Green Party, Derek Wall, put it, Stern’s market solutions only served to ‘commodify the atmosphere’ (2). In the eyes of radical greens, the carbon market proposed by Stern began to represent the political establishment’s intransigence rather than its serious commitment to the environmental agenda. Before long, it became the focus of direct action such as last April’s G20 meetings, when the Climate Camp protest attempted to besiege the European Climate Exchange (3).

Official climate strategies are the focus of criticism from within, as well as without the establishment. Following the G20 protests, the chief economist for the Carbon Trust and a member of the UK Committee on Climate Change, Professor Michael Grubb, criticised the level of commitment to the Emissions Trading Scheme following the collapse of the value of emissions allowances (4). Grubb has joined fellow economists, Climate Change Committee chair Adair Turner and Stern (now chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics) in applying pressure to the government on climate issues, only occasionally in the same direction as their scruffier counterparts in protest movements.

The roles of environmental economists and their institutions were created by political dysfunction. In one extraordinary case of parliamentary pantomime, the Labour government, and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties pledged emissions cuts of 60 per cent, 80 per cent and 100 per cent respectively (5). Each claimed to have ‘the science’ on their side, and that the others would send the world into climate chaos. This embarrassing case of politics-by-numbers and opportunism led to an amendment of the Climate Change bill, creating the Climate Change Committee, which would dictate the UK’s ‘carbon budget’ (6). In this act, the government and its opposition further removed the climate debate from the democratic sphere, placing it instead in the hands of economists and climate experts (7). Now, it seems, the government appoints its own critics.

Pastiche politics and democratic deficit

As Brendan O’Neill observes in Hands off the human footprint!, climate politics epitomises the gulf between politics and public.  In lieu of a popular movement, the answer to this democratic deficit has been to seek authority in the prospect of catastrophe, the objectivity of climate science and environmental economics, and the moral ground supplied by NGOs. But the recruitment of scientists into the policymaking process has not created any confidence in government, politics or science, and the public remains cynical. Acknowledging the problem, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband called for a ‘big historic movement’ like the Suffragettes so as to demonstrate the extent of the climate cause’s ‘popular mobilisation’ (8).

As if commissioned by Miliband himself, a small number of environment protesters – the unpopular movement – dressed up as ‘climate Suffragettes’. Not only do supposedly radical protesters do what government tells them to do, the environmental movement is so incapable of creating its own history that it is forced to borrow costumes from the past to give itself gravity. Similarly, politicians dress themselves up as today’s JFK, offering re-hashed ‘today’s moon-landing’ speeches (9) or brandishing a version of a ‘Green New Deal’ as if they were latter-day Roosevelts (10).

Allusions to grand historical moments are attempts invest both speakers and cause alike with authority. Yet, whether posing as a new Roosevelt, JFK or Churchill, these shallow performances are nothing more than pastiche politics. Their performers are not heroes, but indecisive and disoriented figures who lack cohesive ideas about the future and are terrified of taking responsibility for it. They look to the past to connect with the public, hoping that nostalgia might stand in for vision. Further turning politics upside-down, Miliband calls for a popular movement to demand already-designed policies, while the government defers its decisions to unaccountable and undemocratic panels of experts.

Protecting the climate or projecting the crisis?

The objective of the Copenhagen conference is easily misread as an attempt to respond to warnings issued by climate science, but this view omits the context of the climate debate. The sensitivity of climate systems to greenhouse gasses is routinely confused with human society’s sensitivity to climate, and it is this misunderstanding which produces dramatic claims about looming catastrophes. In a sense, this is right. After all, if we take political impotence and incoherence for granted, it is easy to see how changes in climate could trigger catastrophes, because the process of economic and industrial development – which affords us protection from the elements – is the substance of politics. A small increase or decrease in rainfall in the UK may well create huge problems, not because of any ‘natural’ danger that change creates, but because of the inability to organise or afford a response to a technical challenge.

Climate change sceptics have, for the most part, failed to recognise the political nature and social context of the debate, focusing instead on coming up with a definitive debunking of the science. Hence they have sought to explain the ideas they oppose as purposive, coherent, and organised, leading to speculation about political conspiracies and scientific fraud. But this credits the green movement with far too much. Just as their green counterparts dress up as historical figures, so sceptics pick fights with ghosts. Christopher Monckton, for instance, expresses concerns about Copenhagen being the work of socialists intent on establishing ‘an unelected global government’ (11). While Copenhagen was certainly undemocratic, it is much better explained as the consequence of No Order Whatsoever than the expression of a New World Order. Moreover, it is the most left-leaning countries – China, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba – that stand most accused of scuppering the talks at Copenhagen.

Environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause

Copenhagen’s failure is the culmination of long-standing political incoherence. The government, opposition parties, special climate committees, NGOs, and activists, far from being united by their desire to save the world, only managed to deepen their differences. The government and its opposition use environmental crisis to rescue themselves from their own crisis of legitimacy. The institutions they create only serve to increase the distance between them, the public and the protesters. Sparse protest movements attract attention through absurd stunts, rather than by demonstrating their weight of numbers, further isolating themselves. One-time development NGOs abandon the notion of progress, to concentrate on mere ‘sustainability’, and through ill-conceived ideas such as ‘environmental justice’ and ‘climate poverty’, turn their campaigns against development itself (12).

The climate change camp cannot even agree on the reason for failure. Miliband and Brown accused China of derailing Copenhagen (13). Prescott chose to blame the USA (14), while complaining about climate activist Mark Lynas blaming China (15). As usual, Lynas’ comrade, George Monbiot, laid the blame squarely at the feet of Barack Obama, who was too busy representing ‘vested interests’ to save the planet (16). It was neither China nor the USA, said Martin Kohr, journalist and development economist; it was Denmark. The ‘Danish Text’ had proposed privileging industrialised countries over the developing world, causing the group representing them to walk out of the conference (17).

It seems that championing the climate cause precludes self-reflection. The climate crisis is but a proxy object for a much deeper crisis experienced by today’s politicians, who respond by seeking legitimacy through the environmental agenda. Defunct moral compasses point North towards melting ice caps and South towards ‘climate poverty’. But the crisis exists at home. Vacuity drives environmentalism’s ascendency, and the ever increasing incoherence of environmental politics has driven the search for authority beyond borders and above democratic politics and toward supranational institutions. The coming together of all those gripped by such crises in Copenhagen was a clumsy and blind attempt to turn disunity into something cohesive, and to turn aimlessness into direction. No wonder it failed; it was dead before it was even conceived.

Ben Pile is an editor of the Climate-Resistance blog, and a philosophy and politics student at York University.

(1) Copenhagen: climate change talks ‘should fail’Telegraph, 3 December 2009

(2) Costing the EarthRed Pepper, 1 December 2006

(3) G20 in the city, Climate Camp website

(4) Time to act on carbon markets, BBC News, 15 April 2009

(5) Carbon neutral policy surfeit, Climate Resistance, 4 September 2007

(6) The New, Green AristocracyRegister, 28 October 2008

(7) activism.plc@gov.ac.uk, Climate Resistance, 27 January 2009

(8) activism.plc@gov.ac.uk, Climate Resistance, 27 January 2009

(9) Under the moon: Gore’s giant limp for mankind, Climate Resistance, 21 July 2008

(10) The ‘Green Energy Revolution’: spinning failure as success, Climate Resistance, 22 July 2009

(11) They are all criminals, Pajamas Media, 23 November 2009

(12) Environmental Justice – a Fiction, Climate Resistance, 7 November 2008

(13) Ed Miliband: China tried to hijack Copenhagen climate deal,Guardian, 20 December 2009

(14) LettersGuardian, 28 December 2009

(15) How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the roomGuardian, 22 December 2009

(16) If you want to know who’s to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US SenateGuardian 21 december 2009

(17) Blame Denmark, not China, for Copenhagen failure,Guardian, 28 December 2009


Spiking Copenhagen

Happy New Year!

We have been somewhat neglectful of our blog. The truth – other than that we’re very busy – is that we decided to enjoy Christmas, and forget about climate change for a while.

Normal blogging service will be resumed shortly. And there will be much to discuss. The debate has moved on considerably in the last few months. There has been Climategate, Copenhagen turned out to be more of a failure than anyone was predicting, and the cold snap is once again causing hand-waving from the weather-is-not-climate warmers, who are only too happy to leap on freak warm weather, or other outliers such as the 2007 Arctic Ice extent as evidence of our imminent demise. More imminently, the UK faces a general election, and there are efforts to resuscitate the international response to climate change after Copenhagen.

Two predictions. First, we are anticipating that “scepticism” or “denial” – call it what you want – will become more organised this year, perhaps it already is. Second, although the climate issue is not going away, it has suffered terrible PR, and there is widespread recognition that the climate change pudding has been over-egged. We anticipate that the environmental debate will begin to refocus around the issue of over-population, rather than climate.

Ben has a piece up on the Spiked “after Copenhagen” online debate today.

December’s Copenhagen climate summit was supposed to be the moment at which nations came together to save the planet. But the attempt to produce an international, legally binding agreement on climate change ended up more like a squabble between rivals than the invention of a new green era. Even the force of the ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ championed in the lead up to, and during, the conference was insufficient to unite the world’s decision-makers. Although the blame game has begun, it is the nature of the meeting itself that explains its failure far better than the behaviour of its players.

Read on at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/7912/