Climate Science and the Climate Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the greens really got wrong

Published on Spiked-Online at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Greens Really Got Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

Are we facing an existential environmental problem?

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

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

What? The Green Movement Got Something Wrong?!

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

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

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

You what, Mark?

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

Is this the same Mark Lynas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[youtube EHREDKZLfII]

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