Monthly Archives: March 2010
Regular readers of this blog will know that we’re been trying to develop the idea that a great deal of politics exists prior to the science in the argument for a political response to climate change. This was the basis of our criticism of studies such as the GHF’s and WHO’s reports of (respectively) 300,000 and 150,000 deaths a year attributed to climate change – all of them in the world’s poorer regions. You can only make this kind of statement, we argue, if you take for granted that poverty is a ‘natural’ effect. Otherwise, logically, the cause of so many deaths is in fact poverty, not climate change. And on the other hand, we try to point out to sceptics that, as much fun as debunking hockey sticks and exposing Climategate emails is, the political debate does not rest on science. Looking for the ‘smoking gun’ to ‘debunk’ global warming fears merely reproduces the mistake that alarmists make – it expects science to answer the political debate.
When we make this argument elsewhere, it seems to appear to our counterparts as though we are saying that somehow politics is prior even to material reality, which would seem to deny material or formal reality by making it somehow dependent on social reality in some kind of postmodern sleight of hand. This isn’t what we’re arguing. What we are suggesting is that the politics is prior to formal reality in the argument, but not in formal reality. It is a conceit of the warmists that they imagine their own argument to be perfect models of the world, such that to take issue with it them is to deny the causal universe itself.
In the real world, it is possible to presuppose certain things, and to model and project scenarios from these social, or political presuppositions. There is nothing wrong, or unscientific about this. But the assumed premises are easily forgotten, and from these projections, it seems, comes an argument for the politics that the projection presupposed. This in turn is passed off as ‘science’, ‘speaking’. The GHF and WHO’s projections, for instance, have to presuppose that poverty is an immutable fact in order to make the claim that 150,000 / 300,000 deaths a year are caused by climate change (rather than by poverty). This in turn becomes an argument for policies which aim to mitigate climate change for the putative benefit of ‘the poor’, but in reality miss entirely the factor which makes people vulnerable to climate – poverty, and lack of wealth more generally.
Our citing the cases of the GHF and WHO is not intended to make the argument that ‘therefore all climate politics is wrong’, of course. However, this kind of thinking is evident in virtually every argument that we have seen which posits the human consequences of climate change as a basis for political action. It is a mistake that the GHF and WHO make. It is a mistake that was made when it was assumed that the lives of millions of people would be at risk from the exaggerated Himalayan glacial recession. And it seems that it is a mistake that is almost built into the operations of the IPCC.
The next move in any discussion is the trump card… the end-of-the world story that does not depend on modelling projections from presupposed scenarios. There remains a risk that greenhouse gases will cause runaway climate change. There remains the possibility that sea level rise will be so rapid and so high that it really does inundate society’s adaptive capacity. A small rise in temperature might unleash vast clouds of methane from under frozen land. Just a few degrees of warming may cause a mass extinction event, destroying the world’s biodiversity and capacity to support life. And so on. Only scientists can really understand these risks.
It’s a curious thing to happen. Anyone can construct a superficially plausible disaster story and then demand that only the scientist with the exact pertinent qualifications can stand in the way of its moral authority. It is the straightforward application of the precautionary principle.
Such arguments are scientific only in the sense that they are expressed in technical terms, or require some technical knowledge to unpack them. They are not claims of the same order that are made more often in the debate that attempt to match theory with empirical evidence.
It makes no difference what that actual numerical values of such risk calculations are. That the scenario they depict is remotely plausible makes ignoring them – rhetorically speaking – as good as inviting them. The mere possibility that your existence is threatened is held over the debate in much the same way as a gun to the head. Not simply the worst-case scenario, but the worst-possibly-imaginable scenario carries more weight in debate than anything rational. And it is passed off as “science”. To challenge it is to “deny” science. This is not a phenomenon that it is unique to climate politics.
If people want to take issue with our contention that climate politics are prior to climate science, they are most welcome. They could, for example, argue that we are overstating the degree to which the politics is prior. We are unaware of any extant sociological accounts of science that deny any confounding effect of politics in the scientific endeavour. A good argument might be made, for instance, that science’s quality control measures of peer review, replication and the like are more effective than we credit when it comes to squeezing out messy humanity from the process, or that political and scientific institutions are better than we believe at appraising their own biases, fears and desires when commissioning, conducting and interpreting policy-relevant scientific research. But, as a general rule, that is not what happens.
Rather, we are accused of denying material reality, of attacking or disprepecting science… of postmodernism gone mad. Which is as funny as it is infuriating. Because to deny that climate politics is – to a greater or lesser degree – prior to climate science is as at odds with reality (and even the academic consensus) as the notion that the causal universe is merely a product of our collective imaginations. If we are wrong, it is only by degree. It’s an argument we would enjoy having. But it’s not going to happen when just to broach the subject is seen as a sign that we are anti-science. It is those writing us off as such who are wrong in absolute terms.
Some of the planet’s most powerful paymasters will gather in London on Wednesday to discuss a nagging financial problem: how to raise a trillion dollars for the developing world. Those charged with achieving this daunting goal will include Gordon Brown, directors of several central banks, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the economist Lord (Nicholas) Stern and Larry Summers, President Obama’s chief economics adviser.
As an array of expertise, it is formidable: but then so is the task they have been set by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. In effect, the world’s top financiers have been told to work out how to raise at least $100bn a year for the rest of this decade, cash that will be used to help the world’s poorest countries adapt to climate change.
A trillion dollars for the developing world, eh? That sounds like a hell of a lot. And indeed it is. Except when you do the math.
It is said that there are a billion people who live on less than a dollar a day. So a $100bn a year changes the lives of these billion people to the tune of one dollar a day, for a hundred days a year.
In other words, it makes virtually no difference.
That’s not the way Bob Ward sees it.
“The prices we pay for our goods do not reflect one key cost: the damage that their production does to the planet’s climate system,” said Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the LSE. “We need to find ways to extract payment from those who cause that damage and then use that money to fund developing nations so that they can protect themselves from the worst effects of global warming.”
When Bob Ward isn’t telling people what they are not allowed to say or do, he’s thinking up new ways to use the environmental crisis to do more of it.
What at first pass looks like an impulse to deliver some kind of humanitarian aid is revealed as an authoritarian instinct. When it turns out that the aid is paltry, only the authoritarian instinct remains. This is cloaked in the language of “helping” poor people at the expense of people who are seemingly responsible for their condition, but it’s really about using the climate to control both the wealthy and the poor. Make no mistake, this is a self-serving gesture. If it wasn’t, a discussion about poverty in the world attended by so many of the Global Great and the Good would not be dominated by the climate change agenda. It is only because it offers no genuine transformative potential (yet it offered them a platform from which to elevate themselves) that so many of the world’s most powerful people are so interested. The big numbers and the lofty goal flatter them. But in reality the effect will be to make no more difference than a few pennies here and there would.
The point here being that if $100bn a year is sufficient to make a difference with respect to people’s lives affected by climate change, then there are two serious implications. The first is that climate change is a minor problem – what determines whether or not it is a problem for you is whether or not you happen to have about a third of a dollar in your pocket on a given day. $0.3 makes the difference between you surviving and you being a climate victim. Second, the implication is that the world’s leaders do not give a stuff about poverty, unless it is “climate poverty”. That is to say it is only when poverty carries some instrumental value to them that they become interested. If you’ve $1.3 in your pocket, you can go hang. If you’re a climate victim, you generate moral authority for the changes that Gordon Brown, George Soros, Nick Stern, and Larry Summers – and the rest – have in mind.
This has nothing to do with poverty. What abolishes poverty are roads, factories, hospitals, schools, ports and airports, dams, bridges, and water infrastructure built by the people that use them. All of these things, in their construction and operation, produce CO2. The trillion dollars a decade promised by the people gathering this week will be predicated on minimising the impact of any potential development in the poorest part of the world, and its purpose is to buy support from the leaders of those countries for a specific climate agenda that suits the architects of this deal. The people who will administer this transfer of wealth – likely the cronies of Nick Stern – will be the only ones who see any real change in their circumstances. To the people on the receiving end, it is peanuts.
There are a lot of positive things, of course, that a $trillion could do to abolish poverty. But the abolition of poverty has been conveniently abolished from the agenda by the preoccupation with climate change. What this has done is to reframe the conditions that many millions of people have to endure in such a way as to appear as a natural consequence of industry, as if poverty never existed before climate change. So the very roles – the presidents and prime ministers – that created such conditions are now populated by people who seek to generate moral authority and political legitimacy for themselves out of those very conditions, through the logic of climate change.
Venture a doubt about climate change politics or ethics, and you’ll likely be asked, “Don’t you believe in global warming?” If you express suspicion about the prominence and function served by alarm and catastrophe in arguments for political responses to climate change, it will be assumed that you don’t understand “the science”, or you simply aren’t aware of “the science”, or you are denying “the science”. As we’ve observed before, the debate is presented as one between sides attached to either the proposition “climate change is happening” or its denial, “climate change isn’t happening”.
It is a mistake to see the debate in this way for a number of reasons – most of which we’ve discussed here before. The point of this blog post is to stress what is interesting about the statement “climate change is happening”. For a statement with such huge implications, it is entirely devoid of meaning or content.
The expression, “climate change is happening” seemingly stands for a scientific theory, empirical observation, a projection and its human consequences, a moral imperative, and of course, a political response – all at once. We have pointed out before how this progression works and the problems that exist with it. Unpacking the argument reveals (in our view, at least) a presupposition that climate’s sensitivity to CO2 (and other GHGs) is equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate. That is to say that society is as vulnerable to atmospheric CO2 as the world’s climate system’s current state is. As we have pointed out, this statement of equivalence in turn presupposes society’s impotence, or put more explicitly, it denies human agency. If this isn’t clear, what we’re saying is that the getting from climate science to climate politics in less than one step – by saying “climate change is happening” – presupposes a great deal.
Moreover, that the expression can be unpacked in such a way reveals its emptiness. It is a mere container for prejudices and preconceptions. It is a box, with the word “SCIENCE” painted on the side to flatter the bearer. The proposition “climate change is happening”, then, says more about the person saying it than it says about the material world.
It means different things to different people. “Climate change is happening” means we must all become anarcho-eco-socialists to the radical crusty protestor. To the capitalist climate change guru – Nick Stern, perhaps – it means we need to create carbon markets. To others, such as the New Economics Foundation, it means the entire world must reduce its wealth, and share the little that exists ‘equitably’ through “contraction and convergence”. To the leaders of some western nations, Gordon Brown, for instance, it means that a legally-binding treaty must be created, complete with supra-national, supra-democratic climate political institutions. To the person living a “sustainable lifestyle”, it means moral purpose and direction and smugness. To the local government official, it means a legitimate basis for their increasingly regulatory and authoritarian function (in spite of record low voter-turnouts). Need we go on?
You see, to take issue with any of these positions would elicit the same response “climate change is happening”, as if that was all that needed to be said. It is as if, for instance, supra-national institutions and treaties would exert legitimate influence over sovereign, democratic countries, by virtue of the mere fact of climate change “happening”. No question asked about the degree or consequences of it “happening”. If you don’t like the way the local authority is behaving… tough… climate change is happening… are you denying climate change?
As we have said before, this in some way explains Climategate. Datasets that show warming such as that produced by the authors of the leaked emails are the pivot, so to speak, of the entire climate change movement. The debate has been polarised in this way by those taking their authority (see above) from the binary fact of climate change. Excluding from debate any question of degree, or scrutiny of the process that turned climate science into climate politics has left just one thing for the argument to be about. So all that needed to be done to deprive climate politics of its basis was to show that, in fact, climate scientists are human, have their own prejudices, and make mistakes.
The idea that climate science and climate scientists were not vulnerable to prejudices, interests, influence allowed people to believe that to challenge any aspect of climate politics is seemingly to “deny” climate science. Here is one such politician doing exactly that…
“Climate change is happening” means different things to different people. Ask what it means, and get as many different replies back as people you asked. It is not, by itself a statement with any scientific meaning, but one which clearly carries many political consequences. It allows people to express certain ideas about the world – anything between generalised grumble about things, to a design for the entire world’s organisation – in one neat little declaration. And interestingly, it seems to bring together the establishment and radical subversives (they like to think) in one, hollow, hollow slogan.
The desire that things be “ethical” has developed in the same era as climate change anxiety. Naturally, there is some convergence. Things which promise to lessen ‘environmental impact’ are considered ‘ethical’, and the implication is that things that aren’t clearly labelled ‘ethical’ are therefore ‘unethical’.
This is unusual because “ethical” seems to have replaced the word “good” in the discussion about what is good. This is nonsense for two main reasons. “Ethical” does not mean “good”. Al-Qaida has ethics. The Nazi Party had ethics – It had a very “ethical foreign policy”. Ethics is about determining a moral framework, within which can be established, in any instance, right from wrong, good from bad. So at the same time, those who use the word “ethical” in the place of the word ‘good’ reveal their own lack of confidence in the concept of good, and yet pretend to be the only people to ever think about what is right and what is wrong. Ethics is now what you buy, not what you think.
Last November, George Monbiot said something we agreed with… “We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits”, he said. We agreed, but with the qualification that George was right to say that “ethical consumerism” is wrong, but for the wrong reason, and was inconsistent. He was responding to a study in Canada, which had apparently demonstrated that “ethical consumerism” had the effect of creating a sense of entitlement to act ‘unethically’ elsewhere. In an experiment, participants who had “bought” ethical goods were more likely to go on to “steal”.
It was odd, then, to see that The Guardian were reporting the study again last week, nearly 6 months after Monbiot had reported it in the same newspaper.
According to a study, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the “licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour”, otherwise known as “moral balancing” or “compensatory ethics”.
The Guardian seem to be having a bit of an ‘ethics’ festival at the moment. Commenting on the “news”, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, Julian Baggini says of the experiment,
… complacency is as dangerous in ethics as it is in any other area of life where we strive for excellence. If we think we are “good people” we might think less about the possibility that we might actually be doing wrong.
But if that just seems to be a universal truth of human nature, what of the idea that being in moral credit earns us redeemable naughtiness points? I can imagine what the evolutionary psychologists would say: ethics is rooted in reciprocal altruism – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. So when you do the right thing, but not to any particular person, we instinctively feel that we have earned some sort of pay back. Since no-one will do that for us, we opt for self-service reciprocation.
That may indeed be natural, but that doesn’t make it right. And even if it did, there is still a problem that when we allow ourselves to dish out the rewards, we can’t trust ourselves to be fair.
The philosopher takes the experiment at face value, to begin to mull over the implications for ethics with respect to “human nature”, before coming to this conclusion.
True virtue would never liken its rewards to points on a loyalty card, not because it is its own reward, but because it is not something we should practice to accrue future benefits. If these latest studies show us anything, it’s that we’ve lost sight of this. It is not to our credit that we see good deeds as ways of earning it. Ethics has gone beyond reciprocal altruism and become unenlightened self-interest. But I’d better stop there: I’m in danger of feeling very, very self-righteous.
It is a shame that Baggini did stop there. Because the experiment says nothing about human nature, and says nothing about ethics in general. Instead, it speaks most loudly about “environmental ethics”. As we said back in November:
If it is true that buying ‘ethical goods’ makes you more selfish, then surely the lesson is that there’s something wrong with environmental ethics, rather than with its application in the form of ethical consumerism. …
This is the problem with attempting to locate the basis of ethics without humanity. A few posts ago, we discussed the implausibility of ‘eco-humanism’. We argued there that the environmental conception of ethics puts the environment prior to humans – that their principle relationship was with the natural/biological order, rather than with one another. Furthermore, the prospect of catastrophe in the environmental narrative precludes any conception of ‘good’. All human action reduces to a quantity of bad, such that we can only speak about one action being less bad than another, using a carbon-footprint calculator, or something.
Environmental ‘ethics’ are an absurdity. First, they are extraordinarily polar, and lack any nuance whatsoever. All bad actions lead ultimately to nothing less than the end of the world, yet the most mundane actions – buying the ‘good’ kind of paper to wipe your arse with, for instance – become acts of planet-saving significance. This happens for the reason Baggini raises – that virtue cannot be likened to “points on a loyalty card”. Yet this is exactly how environmental ethics force us to see the world. Good is measured as the net balance of our exchange with the natural sphere, as calculated by ‘science’. Climate science, then, gives the ground for environmental ethics as a kind of cheap, vulgar moral realism – the idea that there are moral facts in the world.
What “the good life” consists of has haunted moral philosophers for thousands of years, but human ethics are swept away by the urgency with which the climate issue has been presented. And human politics are similarly abolished in the face of the looming apocalypse. To take issue, with any part of this moral framework is to deny its premises – “the science” – is to be a denier. To question the soundness of the framework is to be a “contrarian”, or a “delayer”. Adherents of environmental ethics even have words for those who are not observant.
The public opinion expert’s opinion on the public’s opinion of experts is that the public still have confidence in the experts.
(H/t: Roger Pielke)
One of the things that often emerge from the climate debate is the problem that few people have a sufficient grasp of any aspect of the climate issue to speak with any authority. As far as some are concerned, the fact that we are not climate scientists hangs over anything we say here on this blog, for instance, even though what we’re really interested in are the moral and political dimensions of the debate. Does every debate about the climate outside of the science academy consist of nothing more than a battle of received wisdoms? Are our views about the climate debate formed from nothing more than what the people we trust say?
That the climate debate is very complicated and seemingly predicated on scientific theory and empirical observation looks like a good reason to exclude non-qualified opinion from the debate. Yet the desire to exclude non-qualified opinion from the debate about what to do may well be the motivation for such an argument. Such elitism is everywhere in this debate. It begins with arguments like George Monbiot’s in Heat…
It [the campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.
… And it ends with undemocratic political institutions such as the UK’s Climate Change Committee and (if it had succeeded) the COP15 treaty.
Climate science was the source of all moral authority in the world. Impeccably well-behaved, selfless and incorruptible scientists laboured tirelessly to understand what Objective Truth Herself said. Meanwhile, evil, self-interested and unqualified parties had been paid by huge corporations vast sums of money to distort the message that had been spoken by Objective Truth to scientists through Science. Then Climategate happened, and messed the whole thing up.
Now, of course, George Monbiot has had to apologise because he invested his trust so heavily in “climate science”. When he felt this trust had been broken, he had to call for Phil Jones’ head. But as we’ve been arguing all along, you didn’t need to see what was going on at CRU – which was probably perfectly normal – to know that the arguments produced by every green poseur between Monbiot and Miliband was unsound. What happens now things aren’t so clear-cut?
Nature (magazine) abhors a (moral) vacuum… In an editorial this week, it said,
Climate scientists are on the defensive, knocked off balance by a re-energized community of global-warming deniers who, by dominating the media agenda, are sowing doubts about the fundamental science.
So, although even Monbiot seems to have been reflective about the failure that Climategate represented, some seem intent on reanimating the cartoonish categories in the debate. Blaming “deniers” for Climategate, and the disarray experienced by climate activists is a very silly move. What caused the argument to topple over and to lose credibility was its own structural weakness, not the efforts of deniers. Too much was expected of climate science.
the onslaught seems to be working: some polls in the United States and abroad suggest that it is eroding public confidence in climate science at a time when the fundamental understanding of the climate system, although far from complete, is stronger than ever. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University in California says that his climate colleagues are at a loss about how to counter the attacks. “Everyone is scared shitless, but they don’t know what to do,” he says.
It’s interesting that Nature chooses an ecologist – and not just any old ecologist – to speak for climate science, and climate scientists. Ehrlich is just about the last person Nature – which claims to be a ‘weekly journal of science’ – ought to turn to for scientific objectivity, or to comment on ‘attacks on science’. For Ehrlich is not simply famous for having had his own predictions spectacularly fail, he speaks as the re-inventor of Malthusianism and as a passionate advocate of controlling population. His failed predictions were used as the basis for a political movement once before. This movement made itself prominent by scaring everyone shitless about the end of the world.
In order to restore the public’s trust, says the Nature editorial…
scientists must acknowledge that they are in a street fight, and that their relationship with the media really matters. Anything strategic that can be done on that front would be useful, be it media training for scientists or building links with credible public-relations firms. In this light, there are lessons to be learned from the current spate of controversies. For example, the IPCC error was originally caught by scientists, not sceptics. Had it been promptly corrected and openly explained to the media, in full context with the underlying science, the story would have lasted days, not weeks. The IPCC must establish a formal process for rapidly investigating and, when necessary, correcting such errors.
It may well have been scientists who found the problem with the 2035 glacier claim. But it was this humble little blog which found the baseless ‘50% of crops in Africa’ claim in IPCC WGII.
What Nature still doesn’t get is that the claims made in IPCC reports – never mind their errors – no matter how forcefully they are presented in their “full context with the underlying science”, are not presented in their full context with the underlying politics.
Ehrlich’s politics preceded the science. And so it is with the arguments the IPCC’s projections towards climate catastrophe. The Malthusian dynamic that Ehrlich reinvented in fact works for species of animals. But humans are different because we can respond to our circumstances. In order to make his theory work for human society, Ehrlich has to rule out the possibility of human agency. This is the premise of so much environmental alarmism, including that which is now pushed in Nature. The editorial later reminds that, “the core science supporting anthropogenic global warming has not changed”. But Nature forgets that something exists prior to “the core science”, and that is the presupposition of impotence.
Public trust in scientists is based not just on their competence, but also on their perceived objectivity and openness. Researchers would be wise to remember this at all times, even when casually e-mailing colleagues.
.. And perhaps when they are blocking FOI requests…
Public trust in science has little to do with the ascendency of the environmental message. In fact, what has driven the greening of politics is hinted at in the Nature editorial: “polls consistently show that people trust scientists more than almost anybody else to give honest advice”. As public trust in politics has waned, so politicians’ have had to seek new ways of establishing legitimate authority. And so aimless politicians have hidden their hollow political visions behind “science” and crises such as those constructed by Ehrlich. Ehrlich penned his gloomy tome as the incredible post-war economic boom came to a close, and the optimism of the White Heat moment began to flicker and dim. Thanks to Ehrlich’s prophecies, politicians no longer had to make promises about how they were going to make the world a better place, but instead just had to point to the looming ecological crisis to explain why they couldn’t. Science, which had once put people on the moon, is now being used to limit peoples’ expectations.
The only sensible comment from nature is that “Scientists must not be so naive as to assume that the data speak for themselves”. And yet that is precisely what scientists and politicians have done. The claims that “the science is in”, “the science is settled”, “the debate is over”, and the casting of this debate as one between “science” and those who wish to “attack science” all do exactly that. They obscure the fact that a great many presuppositions and prejudices lie behind and hidden by “the science”. The consequence is that, as it is revealed that climate science simply cannot bear the weight of the moral and political claims that are invested in it, trust in science will be eroded. It is those who are passing themselves off as the “defenders of science” who will be responsible.