Monthly Archives: October 2010
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.
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. [… ]
- 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?
- How fertility, mortality, migration, ageing and urbanisation are influenced by and influence environments, economies, societies and cultures?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of different population modelling methodologies?
- 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?
- What are the key linkages among population, technology and consumption.
- What are the best (or worst) examples of how policy has been effective in managing population changes?
- 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.
The previous post on this blog looked at the bizarre relationship between former Labour government minister (now Labour Party leader) Ed Miliband, and the 10:10 founder and Age of Stupid director, Franny Armstrong. One of the most curious things that this uneasy love-in produced was the escalation of the phenomenon we call pastiche politics – politicians and activists dress up as history-defining players of the past in an effort to conceal the vacuity of their perspective on the world. The ‘splattergate’ video produced by the 10:10 campaign epitomised the tendency of today’s wooden political actors to do nothing other than alienate themselves from those they intend to persuade.
After the bloodbath – an ill-conceived effort to use self-deprecating humour, apparently – The Guardian seems to have found a new film-maker and film to serve as (ahem) damage limitation following Richard Curtis’s video nasty. It’s a trailer for a documentary glorifying the achievements of activist groups Climate Rush, Climate Camp, and Plane Stupid. But it’s no less revolting than the 10:10 bloodbath.
It’s a classic case of pastiche politics. The big-hitting point they close with is made by a ‘domestic extremist’, who ‘puts her body in the way’ of business as usual in an effort to change the world.
You know, Rosa Parks sat down on a bus; the law changed, because lots of people agreed with her. So that’s what we have to do.
Rosa Parks didn’t have a self-congratulating, white, middle-class, privileged production team with private incomes following her every move, though. The Domestic Extremist compares herself favourably to Parks, but convinces only herself of the virtue of her activism. Rosa Parks bravery in the face of the possibility of brutal treatment by the police, physical attack and murder, and institutional injustice simply does not compare to the actions of the pastiche protester. She ‘doesn’t mind getting arrested’, because it will make little difference to her. Sure, she’ll get man-handled by some policemen, she’ll be arrested, and charged with some public order offence. That’s uncomfortable, but it is child’s play compared to the treatment suffered by genuine civil rights protesters throughout the world and throughout history. She’ll continue her comparatively privileged life, which will only be troubled – if it is at all troubled – by the consequences of her own actions, not by the colour of her skin. What is more, she’ll enjoy the support of whichever politicians are asking for her support, such as Miliband, and now the UK Prime Minister, David ‘vote-blue-go-green’ Cameron.
The trailer ends with the following plea for funds to finish the film:
This project won’t happen without your support
But it could equally be a mission statement for the environmental movement as a whole. Because, contrary to what our Domestic Extremist says, this is no popular movement. That’s why these protesters have to resort to pastiche politics – masquerading as popular protests of the past.
Ed Miliband — the previous government’s Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change — has been elected leader of the Labour Party. Hmm.
This is unusual. Not only is Miliband relatively young for someone hoping to convince the voting public that he’s the best man for the job of running the country, before 2005, nobody had heard of him. It was in that year’s general election that Ed first stood as an MP. Just one election cycle later, he has the party’s top job, and in another, he could in theory be the UK’s number 1. He’d have to turn the party’s fortunes around, however, and that would be harder to achieve than his apparently meteoric rise from obscurity. After all, the reality is not so much that Ed has risen through the Labour Party than it is that the party has sunk to his level. This dynamic reflects what we’ve been saying for most of his career as an MP: environmentalism’s ascendancy is not explained by its own force, but has instead been driven by a vacuum at the heart of UK politics. And Ed is every bit the environmentalist.
There is a lot to say about the phenomenon of Ed. For instance, it is interesting that it was the vote of the unions that gave him a narrow edge over his brother, David, who also stood in the race. What did Ed have that the Unions wanted? In what sense does Ed Miliband best represent the unions? And for that matter, in what sense do the unions, in 2010, represent the interests of their membership? The conservative press have made — and no doubt will continue to make — much of this, calling him ‘Red Ed’, but in doing so, they make far too much of it. Politics, the unions, and the public are not what they were in the 1970s, ‘60s, ‘50s… It’s hard to imagine the masses — or put more strongly: the industrial working class — being moved by Ed Miliband’s desire for a low-carbon economy, for wind farms, for strong international legally-binding treaties on climate change, and for the substantial changes to lifestyles, opportunities, living standards and to society that these things necessarily entail. As we have argued here, environmentalism and climate change politics simply are not popular, but are elitist. Indeed, we have argued that the elitist character of environmentalism is no accident, but represents the political establishment’s clumsy attempt to find a source of legitimacy in lieu of something — anything — with which to achieve a democratic mandate. That is to say that climate change is convenient to indistinct, hollow, shallow, and narrow political parties — saving the planet is a stand in for vision and ideas about how to argue for and achieve positive change.
To be fair — ish — to Ed, he recognised the unpopular character of environmentalism. We are fond of quoting Ed on this, because it is perhaps the most revealing comment about climate change politics ever made by a UK politician:
When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.
As we pointed out at the time, many were claiming that ‘climate change is the defining issue of our era’. But it coincided with the another defining issue of our time: a dearth of historically-defining political movements and ideas. This is why, we have argued here, politicians accordingly cast themselves as the Roosevelt, Churchill, Kennedy of climate change, offering ‘green new deals’, and demanded we got ourselves on a ‘(world) war (II) footing’ if we wanted to save ourselves from Thermageddon. Solving the climate crisis would be our ‘moon landing’.
But this was all ‘pastiche politics’, we argued: lacking a popular movement, environmentalism is unable to make its own history, and so recycles heroes and pivotal moments from the past to elevate its players. Ed’s reflection on environmentalism’s failure was not all that deep after all. He was sharp enough to realise that environmentalism was unpopular, but not bright enough to remember that it was not the political establishment who were demanding the vote for women. It was not those in power who were demanding civil rights and sexual equality. Ed had gotten the whole point of radical politics upside down. It was pressure from below which forced a change above in each of those instances. What Ed was asking for, then, was not unlike asking the rioting serfs of 18th centruy France to demand ‘less cake’. It should be no surprise, then, that those to whom he turned to create the popular environmental movement were really quite posh. It was Tamsin Osmond, grand-daughter of Baronet Sir Thomas Lees, who styled herself and her chums as ‘climate suffragettes’, just as Ed Miliband had asked. Osmond’s group, Climate Rush, descended on Parliament, demanding as their namesakes had a century prior: “deeds not words”. The ladies in fancy dress found themselves arrested. Already, the protesters who had done the bidding of the government minister found themselves on the wrong side of the law. In today’s political world, it is hard to tell the establishment from the revolutionaries.
The Climate Rush movement, so easily parodied, soon lost its momentum. Miliband’s desire for a credible One to organise the masses turned him towards Franny Armstrong, who, although being nearly as posh as Osmond, had dropped the plummy, public school accent for an estuarine whinge. Armstrong, you will remember, was the director of the abysmal film, Age of Stupid, an angry shout at the world, released last year. Off the back of the publicity generated by the film, Armstrong established the 10:10 campaign, intended to get us all to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10% in 2010. In other words, Armstrong had created what might pass as a movement that could help Ed Miliband realise his government’s carbon emissions-reduction targets. Ed took the initiative, and made appearances alongside Armstrong at the launch of her films and campaigns.
Ed, for all his faults, was a politician with a mandate, seeking a greater basis from which to support the policies he was seeking to create. Franny, however, was frequently rude, scolding him for not creating sufficiently far-reaching climate policies, and urging him to ‘stop being a politician’. The self appointed zealot would reproach the democratically-elected politician for heeding public will. She was pure… She wanted to save the planet… But all politicians — especially those who are sensitive to the public mood — are bent. Miliband would take the flak, hoping that such martyrdom and sycophancy would demonstrate his commitment to the cause, and get the climate protesters behind him. Here is one such exchange.
So what’s this all about? You will no doubt be aware that Armstrong has also been in the news recently. An advert for her 10:10 campaign called ‘No Pressure’ has caused controversy by depicting the summary executions of children and others who refuse to be moved by their teacher’s and boss’s instructions. The intensely patronising teacher and the equally intensely patronising boss, upon sensing their underlings’ recalcitrance, casually press buttons which cause the climate delinquents’ bodies to explode all over their obedient class and work mates. The teacher and boss press on with business as though nothing, let alone the murder of their subordinates, had happened. “No pressure”, they had said. But afterwards, no regret in their voice either.
This has been nothing less than a spectacular own goal for the campaign. As has been widely pointed out, It epitomises in dramatic form the overbearing and self-important character of environmentalists. They will brook no dissent. There is no debate. There can be no negotiation. And anyone who feels differently can go hang.
It would be hard to parody the green movement as efficiently as the writer of this film, Richard Curtis — who also wrote the nauseatingly insipid ‘rom-coms’, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral — has. There must be many people asking him, ‘whose side are you on, Richard?’
However, Deputy Environment Editor of the Guardian, Adam Vaughan, rather than seeing the film as one which betrays the greens’ true colours, believes that the film was ‘intended as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of hectoring greens’. The self-mocking intention was simply poorly expressed, he says. In order to explain this, Vaughan quotes environmental psychologist, Adam Corner,
At the most general level, the video fails to address basic principles of communication. What is the message? Who are the audience? The video literally doesn’t make any sense – if it is aimed at supporters, what are we supposed to take from it? And if it is aimed at those who oppose the 10:10 campaign – or more pertinently, are not yet aware of or interested in it – then what is the video hoping to achieve?
It takes an ‘expert’ in ‘communicating climate change’ to point this out, apparently. What Corner and Vaughan can’t explain, however, is why the 10:10 campaign produce such a confused message in the first place. Just as Miliband was sensitive to the fact that his policies lacked popular support, not even Franny is so stupid that she has failed to recognise that people regard her organisation as so many shrill, hectoring, and self-important zealots. But just as Miliband cannot find a movement to share his ambitions, those to whom he turns to for it, can do little but alienate their would-be supporters. Corner, the climate psychologist can only do so much in the aftermath of the film. He turns up to the post-mortem to pronounce the film dead, and offers only ways to avoid the death of such campaigns:
1. Move Beyond Social Marketing.
2. Be honest and forthright about the probable impacts of climate change, and the scale of the challenge we confront in avoiding these. But avoid deliberate attempts to provoke fear or guilt.
3. Be honest and forthright about the impacts of mitigating and adapting to climate change for current lifestyles, and the ‘loss’ — as well as the benefits — that these will entail. Narratives that focus exclusively on the ‘up-side’ of climate solutions are likely to be unconvincing.
3a. Avoid emphasis upon painless, easy steps.
3b. Avoid over-emphasis on the economic opportunities that mitigating, and adapting to, climate change may provide.
3c. Avoid emphasis upon the opportunities of ‘green consumerism’ as a response to climate change.
4. Empathise with the emotional responses that will be engendered by a forthright presentation of the probable impacts of climate change.
5. Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks.
6. Think about the language you use, but don’t rely on language alone.
7. Encourage public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action.
So many buzz-words, and such little meaning. Corner forgets of course, that each of these recommendations are beyond the means of the 10:10 campaign. For instance, it cannot move ‘beyond social marketing’, because, as has been discussed, it is not a popular campaign and its members — even those with advanced degrees in psychology — have no idea to communicate with those outside of the movement. As such, then, climate campaigners are limited to ‘attempts to provoke fear or guilt’ (#2), and have to overstate the likely outcomes of climate change and the benefits that any political solution to it might offer (#3), and overstate the ease at which these solutions may be implemented (#3a, b & c).
It gets worse. Corner’s advice is from the Climate Change Communication Advisory Group — a ‘a diverse range of individuals from academia and the third sector, with expertise in climate change communication and engagement — which he organises. The group produced a report, where the principles above are given more detail. Point 4 is expanded,
We should expect people to be sad or angry, to feel guilt or shame, to yearn for that which is lost or to search for more comforting answers (Randall, 2009). Providing support and empathy in working through the painful emotions of ‘grief’ for a society that must undergo changes is a prerequisite for subsequent adaptation to new circumstances.
Denial and scepticism are simply ‘maladaptive’ emotional strategies — coping mechanisms to deal with the horror of climate change, says Corner. Yet might we turn this around, and wonder if climate change anxiety may well be a much more a clear expression of an emotional problem of those who have failed to adapt to changes in society? After all, it is Miliband, for instance, who is anxious that he is struggling to connect with a base, and it is the 10:10 campaign whose advert looks for all the world like an infantile tantrum after the group failed to get its way, as the campaign’s director, Eugenie Harvey reveals in her apology for the film:
With climate change becoming increasingly threatening, and decreasingly talked about in the media, we wanted to find a way to bring this critical issue back into the headlines whilst making people laugh.
Furthermore, as we’ve argued on this blog many, many times, it is those with the most limited view of humanity — not simply those who would like to blow them up — who make the most out of climate change. For instance, Armstrong, who co-wrote the film with Curtis, argued in its defence that,
We ‘killed’ five people to make No Pressure – a mere blip compared to the 300,000 real people who now die each year from climate change.
The 300,000 people she refers to are those counted by a report from the now defunct Global Humanitarian Forum as having been killed by climate change. But as we pointed out, these deaths from malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition, even if they are Nth-order effects of climate change, are far lower-order effects of poverty. The only way that the claim that these are deaths caused by climate change can be sustained, therefore, is by arguing that it would not be possible to address the problem of poverty. If we abolished poverty, in fact, there would many more millions of lives saved — and what is more, much improved — but that fact is inconvenient to Armstrong, Corner, and their ilk, who make so much capital out of the idea of looming catastrophe. 300,000 theoretical deaths count more to her and her ambitions than the ambitions of millions who die for the want of clean water, civil infrastructure, industrial agriculture, medicine, and so on. The promise that Armstrong makes to these people is that she will make the weather better for them, and in doing so, she displaces from the pages of the Guardian and the academic departments at Cardiff University the idea that development is fundamental to transforming the conditions experienced by people throughout the world.
The 10:10 campaign really is a tantrum, and not by some stretched metaphor or analogy. Franny and her chums really don’t understand the world and the people who inhabit it, and really are not very pleasant people when they find their will obstructed.
Back to Corner’s guide, and point 5 — ‘Promote pro-environmental social norms and harness the power of social networks’ — which, just 4 points later, has contradicted point 1, ‘Move Beyond Social Marketing’. This contradiction is inevitable, because Corner’s expert psychological advice does not explain to the environmental movement how to move beyond it, limited, as it is by a half-baked pathological understanding of how social movements develop. Corner, like Franny — both seemingly experts in communicating the climate change message — has trouble reaching beyond his own mates. Says Corner in the 7 Principles,
One way of bridging the gap between private-sphere behaviour changes and collective action is the promotion of pro-environmental social norms. Pictures and videos of ordinary people (‘like me’) engaging in significant proenvironmental actions are a simple and effective way of generating a sense of social normality around pro-environmental behaviour.
Can you imagine… ‘Here’s me sorting my rubbish for the recycling’… ‘Here’s me not using my car’… ‘Here I am buying over-priced sustainably-sourced millet’… Any ordinary people ‘like me’, exchanging holiday and family snaps for pictures of the most mundane of day-to-day chores in an effort to get them to ‘think like me’ are likely to find themselves lonely and sad. Corner fails to recognise what Franny and the others at 10:10 have realised: they simply aren’t able to put things nicely, or to cultivate ‘social norms’ deliberately in a way that is useful to their campaign. As high-profile as they are, the climate change movement is tiny, and their success in cultivating social norms has been limited to this movement. Accordingly, the creation of eco-social-norms has done nothing more than alienate those who hold with them further, so out-of-kilter with wider social norms are they, as this silly film is surely testament to. And hence, skipping past the almost meaningless point #6, point number 7 — to encourage ‘public demonstrations of frustration at the limited pace of government action’ — only serves, at every turn, as a visible reminder of just how little public support there is for climate politics.
This must be something for Miliband to reflect on. Those to whom he has turned have failed to provide the base he needs to drive his politics forward. This spectacular joke at their own expense leaves gore on not just 10:10’s face, but all over Miliband too. He and they have been hoist by their own petard. However, the point is not simply about environmentalism and climate policies. The point is that environmentalism is more a symptom than a cause. See how far the crisis Miliband’s suffers from extends. Conscious of the dearth of public support for his climate politics, he attempted to circumvent the democratic processes that could not satisfy his ambitions, and sought new ways to connect with an uninterested public. So desperate to connect with people are the members of the establishment, there has even been a recruitment of special climate change psychologists, who invent ways to explain the failure of the message makers. Now the exploding children only echo the sound of the collapse of the hope that climate politics could generate a new social movement. That sound is in turn an echo of the noises that the likes of Miliband generate, as he tries desperately to turn his own political ambitions into reality, but fails. This failure, five years in the making, spans Ed Miliband’s career as an elected politician. This failure is what sold Ed Miliband to the Labour Party. He didn’t do anything else. The words of Ed’s father, Ralph, seem appropriate here.
The Labour Party does not now stand at the crossroads. It made a choice, or rather it accepted the choice that was made for it. Electoral defeat has now forced it, as a Party, to pause and ask itself whether the road leads anywhere. It does—to the political graveyard. And it is by no means certain that, as a Party, it will not continue to travel along that road.” – Ralph Miliband. The Sickness of Labourism. The New Left Review, 1961.
As an after thought. I don’t find the No Pressure video to be the worst produce by climate alarmism. The following videos are far more chilling.
It does not surprise me that politicians who struggle to share their political ambitions with the public use ideas such as these:
… to produce messages such as this: