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.