Monthly Archives: February 2011

George Mon-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-and-on-biot is convinced that ‘astroturfing’ outfits are influencing on-line discussion.

The tobacco industry does it, the US Air Force clearly wants to … astroturfing – the use of sophisticated software to drown out real people on web forums – is on the rise. How do we stop it?

‘Astroturfing’ is, I think, one of those words like ‘cult’, which, is especially hard to define, and even harder to use with precision.

What is a cult? On the one hand, we can think of cults which we know exist to extort money (and other things) from people by using illegitimate means of persuasion: brainwashing, bullying, false promises. But on the other hand, to make premature statements about someone taken in by a cult, might be to say that they have been duped, that their rational and critical faculties were compromised or insufficient, or that they are simply stupid. So while it’s easy to say that a cult manipulates people by exerting undue influence over them, we run the risk also of diminishing the putative cult-victim in just the same way that that the cult has. We say they are not complete, they are unable to look after themselves, and that they need our protection. The cult-buster risks reproducing the techniques employed by the cult; he promises us protection from them and their distortions or ignorance of the truth. The hazard is in making hasty assumptions about what other people think, why they think or believe certain things, and how such beliefs are turned into actions. To determine that people act in certain ways because of some undue influence or other is necessarily to leap to premature conclusions, unless we know the individuals concerned intimately. That is to say, only somebody who knows another person very well can say that an idea or action is out-of-character. And even then, to claim that something is uncharacteristic, and therefore the result of some illegitimate influence over their will is again to presuppose perfect knowledge about what somebody’s will ought to be, and the content of the persuasion.

None of this is in defence of cults, of course. There are horrific instances of cults, some leading to mass-murder and suicide. The point is to emphasise that much human behaviour involves persuasion and grouping of various kinds. Associations of individuals are defined by the ideas that they have in common. Those ideas give groups and their members identity. The point at which this normal, positive and rewarding process becomes toxic is not straightforwardly defined, and is certainly not captured by the term ‘cult’. Persuading, and being persuaded; joining and identification with groups are normal human experiences. There is something wrong, then, with seeing normal human relationships in such a way.

And so it is, I think, with this word ‘Astroturf’. It is as ambiguous as the word ‘cult’. Says Monbiot:

Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren’t what they seem. The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies. This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public. For example, there’s a long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups to fight attempts to regulate them.

The evidence of the ‘long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups’ is an article George wrote in 2006.

ExxonMobil is the world’s most profitable corporation. Its sales now amount to more than $1bn a day. It makes most of this money from oil, and has more to lose than any other company from efforts to tackle climate change. To safeguard its profits, ExxonMobil needs to sow doubt about whether serious action needs to be taken on climate change. But there are difficulties: it must confront a scientific consensus as strong as that which maintains that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV causes Aids. So what’s its strategy?

The website Exxonsecrets.org, using data found in the company’s official documents, lists 124 organisations that have taken money from the company or work closely with those that have. These organisations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled “junk science”. The findings they welcome are labelled “sound science”.

Monbiot returns to this claim again and again: that Exxon has distorted the public’s perception of the science. But as this blog has pointed out many times, Exxonsecrets’ grubby investigation failed to turn up the dirt it was expecting. Last year, Greenpeace — who ran the Exxonsecrets campaign — congratulated itself for exposing the ‘secret':

And indeed, over the past four years, Exxon has reduced its grants to prominent climate change deniers from the peak spending in 2005 of over $3.5M. Greenpeace’s research shows a $2.2 million reduction in annual funding to these organizations, down to roughly $1.3 million in 2009.  The number of groups known to be funded has dropped from 51 to 24 between 2005 and 2009.

The thing that Monbiot and Greenpeace have never explained is, why they have made such a big deal out of such small change? The peak $3.5M/year allegedly spent on climate change denial represents less than 0.001% of its $billion/day sales, the profits from the remainder of which were apparently threatened by the policies Monbiot and Greenpeace wanted. Wouldn’t it be worth spending just a bit more? It’s such small beer, yet the conspiracy theory put about by Monbiot and Greenpeace persisted. This cash, he argued, was used to create fake campaigning organisations, established by the people involved in the same campaign to protect tobacco-company profits:

Philip Morris, APCO said, needed to create the impression of a “grassroots” movement – one that had been formed spontaneously by concerned citizens to fight “overregulation”. It should portray the danger of tobacco smoke as just one “unfounded fear” among others, such as concerns about pesticides and cellphones. APCO proposed to set up “a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of ‘junk science’. Coalition will address credibility of government’s scientific studies, risk-assessment techniques and misuse of tax dollars … Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states.”

… the “coalition” created by Philip Morris, was the first and most important of the corporate-funded organisations denying that climate change is taking place. It has done more damage to the campaign to halt it than any other body.

… This, it seems, is how Monbiot understands ‘astroturf’ organisations.

But does it not also provide us with an adequate description of many environmental campaigning organisations? Some simple substitution of terms suggests that ‘astroturf’ might begin to be too broad a category to apply to just the one side of the debate:

“a national coalition intended to educate the media, public officials and the public about the dangers of CLIMATE CHANGE. … Upon formation of Coalition, key leaders will begin media outreach, eg editorial board tours, opinion articles, and brief elected officials in selected states.”

Surely that could be any green group which receives much funding… Millions and millions of $, £ and € more than Exxon ever spent on the same… from organisations like the UN, the EU, and the UK government to do precisely that same thing? Isn’t that what environmental NGO’s seek also to do?

If it is, then, precisely what NGOs do, what sense does the term ‘astroturf’ bring anything useful to a discussion about the respective sides’ strategies in the climate debate? We can see the problem, of course, with the public agenda being influenced by parties passing themselves off as somehow better reflecting public opinion than their counterparts, but isn’t this form of theatre simply a fact of political life in the 21st century? Isn’t the problem not that there are fake ‘grassroots’ organisations, but that there aren’t really any genuine grassroots organisations at all? Monbiot seems to hint that astroturfing ‘deniers’ serve commercial interests. But there are plenty of cases of the same happening in the other camp.

One such organisation, for instance is Embrace My Planet, which aims to be “a movement of ordinary people who are supporting renewable energy in the UK, enabling you to make your opinions known to politicians and the media”, but is in fact “an arms-length campaign of RenewableUK (formerly BWEA), the trade association for renewable energy suppliers in Britain.” As ‘arms-length’ as Embrace want to claim that they are, anyone who understands Top Gear’s appeal would know how much more quickly the non-renewable energy sector could, should it desire to, mobilise many thousands more people, with much less effort. There are at least as many petrol-heads as there are Gaia-botherers, and there are a great many more people who, if nothing else, merely understand the utility of cars, roads, and fossil fuel. Monbiot’s claim on the moral high ground is precarious enough, and to remain there he has to turn logistical somersaults to claim to represent the public interest whilst denying the fact that the public know their own interest.

Real Climategate Blogger Barry Woods has a couple of posts recently on what might reasonably be called Astroturfing outfits, from the greener side of the fence. Woods points out that The Carbon Brief website, set up apparently put writers and journalists in touch with scientists has a clearly partial agenda:

On further investigation, the website demonstrates that they appear to be nothing but advocates of consensus climate change policy.  A look at their further resources page gives the first two links as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team and RealClimate and it also include Climate Progress. There are no sceptical or even lukewarm website or blog links of any kind.

“Our team of researchers will provide a rapid response service for climate science stories. We go straight to peer-reviewed science and the relevant scientists to get their opinions” – The Carbon Brief

The Carbon Brief appears to have been set up for the specific purpose of countering sceptical stories relating to ‘climate change’ by going to AGW consensus  scientific sources for an instant rebuttal. It is a project of the Energy and Strategy Centre, funded and supported by the European Climate Foundation (ECF)

Furthermore, Woods’ investigation into the ‘Green Social Network’, as he calls it, puts Monbiot at the centre of attempts to influence online debate in a remarkable instance of eco-hypocrisy.

It is Monbiot’s belief that the ‘denial’ attempt executed by Exxon, with no more funding than $3.5 million a year has virtually scuppered the attempt to prevent global warming. Yet there is not one shred of evidence that a single comment beneath Monbiot’s articles on the Guardian has been as such ‘paid for’, or put there by ‘sophisticated software’.  Even if you had $3.5million a year to spend, and you paid denier-drones just $10 an hour to spread their denial across the web, you’d only have 350,000 man hours of commenting. That’s 43,750 working days, 8,750 working weeks, or 190 working years. So let us call it that: if this astroturfing effort exists, and it is funded to the same tune as Exxon’s entire effort, it’s just 190, low-waged people, commenting on websites such as the Guardian. But what a waste of money this would be. For instance, Monbiot has it that ‘Between 2000 and 2002 [TASSC] received $30,000 from Exxon’, and that this same organisation (The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition) “has done more damage to the campaign to halt [CLIMATE CHANGE] than any other body”… If donations of just $10,000 dollars can buy the effect Monbiot is claiming TASSC achieved with it over three years, why on earth would anyone pay for far more expensive comment drones?

The amounts Monbiot gets heated up about are really very small indeed. Given that the issue relates to the creation of hugely powerful supranational institutions, a total transformation of the entire global economy, and the most far-reaching regulations of industry and of lifestyle ever conceived, I think that exchanges of tens of thousands of dollars between interested parties is completely insignificant. Ditto hundreds of thousands. And the same for the millions, too, because the propaganda effort running the other way stretches to millions… No, hundreds of millions… No… Billions of dollars… From NGOs, from carbon finance firms and low carbon venture capitalists, from philanthropic self-serving billionaires… from governments, from supranational organisations… And not a single penny of that is any cleaner than the dirtiest dollar from Exxon.

It’s not the actual amounts that concern Monbiot. If he were to actually gain a sense of proportion, he would have nothing to write about. What disturbs him is the fact that it’s Exxon giving money to the likes of TASSSC, and Steven J Milloy’s Junk Science website. How dare they? Monbiot moans,

JunkScience.com – has been the main entrepot for almost every kind of climate-change denial that has found its way into the mainstream press. It equates environmentalists with Nazis, communists and terrorists.

It is true that Junk Science is a very influential website. It has been the starting point for many days of research for many people. This site is frequently linked to from there. And it’s brought some visitors who have both agreed and disagreed with the content here, and either hung around, or moved on. Is this the criticism? Is this what has annoyed Monbiot? Is his complaint that some Exxon money ended up as a site that directs people to the latest stories about climate change written from a sceptic’s perspective?

It is here that the problems with the use of words like ‘cult’ and ‘astroturf’ begin to emerge.

There is no question about it. Steve Milloy wants to persuade you. I want to persuade you. But so does Monbiot. Monbiot, however, wants to claim that the form of persuasion that Milloy is engaged in is illegitimate. It’s not enough, you see, to simply disagree with Milloy. It’s not enough to put counter arguments to his criticisms of environmentalism.

This is where Monbiot turns the normal, democratic exchange of views; the normal, democratic development of associations between individuals and groups; and the normal, democratic presentation of arguments intended to persuade others… into a dark, sinister and devilish conspiracy.

It now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HBGary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.

It is nonsense, of course. It might work in some sense to market the occasional product. It might create better rankings for certain search terms. The strategy might even drown out online criticism of products within a limited market. But no more than that. As Richard Chirgwin points out on the Register, the best that this form of intervention can hope to achieve is to alienate any genuine participants from online discussions:

While it looks a little like the corporate threat to democracy and free discussion that the Daily Kos believes it to be, it’s also a completely self-destructive strategy. The personas will invade any and every conversation they’re instructed to, acting like over-indulged toddlers and yelling “want #banana NOW!” across grown-up conversations.

Anyone with a brain worth having would, were they ever to find themselves in virtual conversation with an individual operating dozens of personas, recognise that they were engaged in a discussion with a moron. It would certainly not be possible to have as many persuasive simultaneous discussions. But for Monbiot, the idea that thousands of debate-hackers each operate dozens of puppets in thousands of online fora, absorbing the collective mental energies of all virtual environmental activists, thereby stalling progress, is just too good to let go. It explains to him the failure of his own arguments to persuade the wider public, and it explains the dearth of harmony under his own articles. It’s not that he doesn’t inform the debate with robust argument; it’s not that Monbiotists too, lack coherent and powerful arguments; it’s that an army of ciphers exists, merely to overwhelm them. Hence, he asks the readers of CommentIsFree :

So let me repeat the question I’ve put in previous articles, and which has yet to be satisfactorily answered: what should we do to fight these tactics?

Online discussion fora are perhaps the most disposable form of public debate. On sites like CommentIsFree, dozens of articles a week feature exchanges below the line between the same characters, throwing the same arguments at each other. The aggressive, pedantic, exhausting form of exchange alienates the casual participant, and discourages the casual reader. Vast amounts of energy are spent on these little battles, that are, in almost every case, forgotten by the time the next article is published. Why would anyone want to pay people to dominate the billions of such discussions that take place? It would be absolutely futile.

Yet it’s what happens below the line that is the subject of Monbiot’s articles, above it.

George’s articles about the environment and environmental politics are poorly conceived. Yet they call for radical political, economic and social changes, throughout the world. It is obvious from what happens below the line that George’s ideas are not going to spread throughout wider society. The only way George can account for this is by conceiving of an effort to deny ‘the truth’. He can’t reflect on the idea that people might disagree with him, because he is wrong. They can’t have worked out for themselves that he’s wrong. They can’t have been persuaded by a better argument than his. They must all have been persuaded by a lie, then. Or they must all have prostituted themselves to Big Oil, and spend their time engaged in futile online discussions, hoping to dissuade others from Monbiot’s own righteous cause.

Whether or not Monbiot is right about climate change and the need for political and economic reorganisation of the world to stop it; his ideas about why his perspective is not shared by people is simply implausible. It doesn’t pass basic tests of proportion and logic. The result in black and white is an ego-centric fantasy that says much more about the mythology of the environmental perspective than it says about its detractors. In positing that these detractors belong to an astroturfing outfit, Monbiot turns normal political debate and the exchange of ideas into a conspiracy. Normal discussion becomes a manipulated space, dominated and controlled by sinister interests. But worst still, in the process, Monbiot reduces anyone involved in, or following the conversation into zombies, easily influenced by the dark forces that seek to control the ideosphere. In his rush to explain why people simply don’t agree with him — and in fact strongly disagree with him — he insults the intelligence of anybody who dares to take issue with him. Like brainwashed cult victims, they merely respond to the misinformation they are exposed to.

What this speaks about then, is the contempt Monbiot has for humans and their faculties of reason; for democratic expression such as association and debate. He simply does not trust people to make their own minds up: all that happens is they end up disagreeing with him. Worst still is that Monbiot simply doesn’t recognise that this extraordinary narcissistic  approach to debate is what alienates him. He’s expecting the sympathies of the same people he is calling stupid. Monbiot doesn’t seem to understand that his critics often accuse him of being anti-human, but we can see this misanthropism running across his whole argument.

If there’s a film which questions climate change, it’s because the broadcaster has declared a war against science. If there’s an organised effort to challenge environmentalism, there’s a ‘tobacco strategy’ and a conspiracy. If his fellow greens take issue with his religiosity, they have been sucked into the corporate agenda. If people in internet chat rooms disagree with Monbiot, it is because there are paid minions of Big Oil, tapping away at their keyboards for money. If the public don’t buy his ideas, it’s because they are feckless, stupid, sheep, blindly following their base drives and instincts. This is the consistent pattern of Monbiot’s arguments. Climate change has little to do with it… It’s about people. The environment is merely the thing which Monbiot uses to legitimise his elitism, and his anti-humanism. It’s a device, a story, a myth that elevates him. That’s why nobody buys it, because they’re not so stupid, after all.

Bishop Hill points to a paper by Ross McKitrick. The Bishop himself points to the following passage, a thought experiment in which an Intergovernmental Panel on Economics, analogous to the IPCC is imagined.

Suppose the International Monetary Fund (IMF) created an economics version of the IPCC, which proceeded to issue an Assessment Report and Summary for Policymakers every five years that was promoted as the consensus view of what “every mainstream economist believes.” Suppose further that the IMF was committed to one particular school of economic thought, such as New Keynesianism, that they ensured that all the lead authors of the IMF report were dedicated New Keynesians, and that the report inevitably concluded the New Keynesians are right and their critics are wrong (or do not even exist). And finally, suppose that the IMF report was sponsored and endorsed by government departments who benefited by promotion of New Keynesian ideas, and that major funding agencies and university oversight agencies also began to endorse, support and promulgate the views in the IMF report.
It should be obvious that all of this would, over time, degrade the intellectual climate in the economics profession. It would do so even if New Keynesianism is true—and moreso otherwise. Members of the research community would be forced to respond to the warped incentives created by such a dominant institution by embracing, or at least paying lip service to, New Keynesianism. Over time it would be costlier and costlier to be publicly identified as a critic of New Keynesianism, and as critics became marginalized by political forces the IMF’s declaration of a “consensus” would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But how hard do we have to try to imagine such an institution, premised on such an orthodoxy?

The World Commission on Environment and Development, was established in 1983, and chaired by then Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. In 1987, the group published its report, “Our Common Future”. The blurb on the back of the report proclaimed:

Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology, so that governments and their people can take responsibility not just for environmental damage, but for the policies that cause the damage. Some of these policies threaten the survival of the human race. They can be changed. But we must act now.

It was here that “sustainable development” became part of the global political and economic agenda. According to the report:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present wihtout compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organisation on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

It’s interesting to note how concern for the world’s poor quickly turns into a prison for them. ‘Sustainability’ in the first instance promises to prioritise their development, but with the caveat that any development is ecologically ‘sustainable’. Nobody, anywhere, gets to decide what kind of development is appropriate for themselves; Brudtland decides for them. She gets to define everybody’s needs, present and future. She gets to decide what’s an appropriate speed and form of development.

This blog argues that, as important as it is to look at and criticise climate science, the real substance of the debate should be about the politics. If I understand McKitrick’s point correctly, it is that we wouldn’t accept an orthodoxy in an economic organisation such as the IMF. I would suggest that an orthodoxy has already been established, long before the IPCC was even established. The reason it doesn’t get noticed as such is that it appears as though the argument for sustainability is premised on ‘the science’. I suggest that much of the science is in fact premised on the orthodoxy. That is to say that the IPCC, presupposing the orthodoxy’s rectitude, imagines society to be as vulnerable to climate as climate is sensitive to CO2.

McKitrick points out that, ‘the IMF’s declaration of a “consensus” would become a self-fulfilling prophecy'; but worse than this, so to would be the object of the prophecy/consensus. The more we believe that society is vulnerable to climate, the more vulnerable it becomes. Imposing the limit of ‘sustainability’ over the development of the poor precludes an economy which can withstand the elements — it’s climate resistance — sustaining only that economy’s vulnerability. Sustainability make people more vulnerable to climate.

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/10148/

Sir Paul Nurse, the new president of the Royal Society, hasfollowed his predecessors, Martin Rees and Bob May, by making a loud public statement about the climate debate. Nurse claimed in a recent edition of BBC2’s science programme, Horizon, that science is under attack, and that public trust in scientific theories has been eroded. Like his predecessors, however, Nurse fails to understand why partial statements from the president of the Royal Society do more to impede the progress of debate than move it on.

Although it was advertised as a discussion about an ‘attack on science’, the Horizon film was dominated by the climate change debate. In Nurse’s view, the public are less convinced by climate change than they ought to be. This has followed an ‘attack on science’, which Nurse explained in a somewhat one-sided account of the ‘Climategate’ affair, the leaking of thousands of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in November 2009. But as ugly, pointless and unpleasant as that affair was for those involved, if there is something to be said about the character of the debate about climate change, it is that raised passions and low tactics are not unique to either putative ‘side’.

The mistake Nurse made in his treatment of the climate debate is to imagine that it is divided over a simple claim that ‘climate change is happening’. It is this polarisation of the debate into simple categories – scientists verses deniers – that obscures the real substance of debate, its context and its nuances. The reality is that disagreements about climate change are matters of degree, not true-or-false. In turn, disagreements about the consequences of climate change and the proper policy response are also matters of degree.

Thus, the debate is multi-dimensional, and controversy exists throughout. But for Nurse, identifying the areas of disagreement and offering up an analysis isn’t the point. Instead, he takes for granted that ‘the science is in’, and wonders why trust in scientific authority seems to have been eroded. One reason for this loss of trust just might be that controversies and other inconveniences are swept aside by the polarisation of the debate, leaving a perception that authoritarian impulses are hiding behind scientific consensus. But to point this out would not fill an episode of Horizon. Instead, after a rather feeble retelling of the consensus, the film showed Nurse going after the deniers, who, he suspects, are responsible for undermining public trust in science.

This crusade took Nurse to the home of outspoken climate sceptic and Telegraph journalist James Delingpole, who disputes the existence of the consensus and its value to science. The film was clearly constructed around this moment, at which Nurse seemingly delivers a coup de grace to the deniers: ‘Say you had cancer, and you went to be treated, there would be a consensual position on your treatment.’ This ‘doctor analogy’ appears to leave Delingpole uncomfortable, and stuck for words: ‘Can we talk about Climategate… I don’t accept your analogy’, he responds.

Whatever the reason for Delingpole’s hesitance, there are many good reasons for not accepting Nurse’s analogy. The most obvious being that the climate is not like the human body; climate change is not like cancer; climate scientists are not like oncologists; and climate-science research institutions are not like hospitals. But worse is the fact that Nurse’s thought experiment defeats its purpose. He’s asking us to believe that there has been an attack on science and that trust in science is being eroded. But if we presume that Delingpole is forced by the analogy to accept that he should trust the consensus formed by scientists, we must conclude that science is not under attack. An ‘attack on science’ would reject both climate change and medicine.

Nurse’s reasoning is that if we’re not scientists, we are not able to follow the complexities of climate science, and so take arguments about the climate on trust. But newspapers, he observed, are full of contradictory messages. ‘Political opinions’ are expressed through ‘lurid headlines’, causing ‘an unholy mix of the media and politics… distorting the proper reporting of science, and that’s a real danger for us if science is to have its proper impact on society’. Perhaps worse, the internet allows ‘conspiracy theories to compete with peer-reviewed science’. The concern here is that trust in the wrong source prevents the feckless public from responding to the correct messages about climate change, sending us all to our doom. Instead, people should trust in science, because unlike the politically driven newspapers, and internet lunatics, its authority ‘comes from evidence and experiment’.

But there is no attack on science. Even climate-change deniers will still take the advice of oncologists, and will still express criticism of climate-change policies in scientific terms. What Nurse fails to recognise is the difference between science as aprocess and science as an institution. The reputation of the former is intact; but, as I’ve argued before here on spiked, scientific institutions undermine their own credibility when they interfere in a one-sided way in such debates, regardless of any effort by ‘deniers’. Then, the members of these institutions resort to making BBC documentaries to wonder out loud why no one trusts them anymore.

Aside from the technical complexity that Nurse describes, and the multiple dimensions to the climate debate that he ignores, there is the context of the climate debate to be considered. The background to the climate debate is a collapse of trust in public institutions of many kinds. Echoing this collapse in public reason, Nurse urges, ‘trust no one, trust only what the experiments and the data tell you’. But isn’t this also the message from climate sceptics, who accuse institutional, official science of corruption and political motivation?

It would seem that the sceptics have a good point here. Climate change has come to the rescue of the forgotten old academic department, the tired political establishment, and the disoriented journalist. The possibility of ecological catastrophe injects moral purpose back into public life, in spite of a collapse in trust. Accordingly, local authorities and national governments have, in recent years, transformed their purpose; now their goal is to monitor your bins rather than provide public services. Powerful supranational political and financial institutions have been created to ‘meet the challenge’ of climate change. And these political changes have for the most part occurred without any semblance of democracy; it is presupposed that these organisational changes to public life are legitimate because they are seemingly intended to do good.

Nurse might argue that this reorganisation of public life around environmental issues comes with the blessing of scientific authority, and that it is science which identified the need to adjust our lifestyles and economy. But the greening of domestic and international politics preceded any science. The concept of ‘sustainability’ was an established part of the international agenda long before the IPCC produced an ‘unequivocal’ consensus on climate change; indeed, the IPCC was established to create a consensus for political ends. Nurse, nearly recognising science’s role in the legitimisation of such political ecology, worries about loss of trust. As he noted in the Horizon film, if scientists are not ‘open about everything they do then the conversation will be dominated by people driven by politics and ideology’.

But the conversation is already driven by politics and ideology; it’s simply that Nurse does not recognise environmentalism as political or ideological, and he does not notice himself reproducing environmental politics and ideology. The loss of trust he now observes is not the consequence of politics and ideology, but the all-too-visible attempt to hide politics behind science and highly emotive images of catastrophe. If the presidents of science academies want their trust back, they will first have to admit to the politicisation of their function in an atmosphere of distrust. Nullius in verba, indeed.

There is only one climate sceptic in the world. His name is Christopher Monckton. This is the only conclusion you could draw from Rupert Murray’s film, Meet the Climate Sceptics,  broadcast on BBC4 tonight.

The film portrays Monckton single-handedly attacking the entire global scientific establishment, sabotaging any possibility of climate legislation in the USA, and thereby demolishing any possible global deal on emissions-reduction through the UNFCCC process. Along the way he destroys Kevin Rudd’s administration and the Australian ETS… In Murray’s fantasy, Christopher Monckton is to climate scepticism what James Bond is to the UK.

The film belongs to a strand on BBC TV, called Storyville. But Rupert Murray doesn’t just tell a story, he constructs a mythology. Says Murray, introducing his film:

I don’t know about you, but over the past few years, I’ve been quite frightened by all the media stories about global warming. Even the British government mounted an ad campaign to try and scare us and our children into acting on CO2.

I thought like quite a few people, that we humans were heading for disaster. I was scared we were going to lose our freedoms, because our free-wheeling lifestyle was going to have an impact.

I was worried for my children. What kind of world were they going to grow up into?

Then one day I came across this film, and the more I watched, the better I felt. my guilt for being human began to evaporate as leading sceptic, Lord Christopher Monckton seemed to demolish many of the key predictions of doom.

If the sceptics were right, we could all celebrate. But what if they were wrong, and by listening to them, we were gambling with millions of peoples’ lives and our future?

I set aside my own green beliefs and any preconceived ideas I might have had. I wanted to hear their side of the story, to find out if they had the answers we’re all looking for.

But Murray doesn’t meet them. He doesn’t hear their side of the story. And he doesn’t set aside his green beliefs and preconceptions; he brings them with him on his journey following Mockton across Australia, the USA. With the footage, he weaves a story that is transparently intended as some kind of moral pornography for liberals.

This journey shows Monckton at the same time affable and charismatic in bed with a nasty, reactionary audience: elderly and religious conservatives, the Tea Party movement; Glen Beck; Fox News; bizarre conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones; the Republican Party; and a bigoted homophobe who claims to agree with what he imagines as Monckton’s attitude to gays:

I endorse your stand on homosexuals and Aids {sic}… They should be locked up they should be exterminated.

This is all Murray wants to say about Monckton — he’s in bed with the baddies. We learn almost nothing about Monckton’s argument. This demonstrates that as hard as Murray pretends he aimed to understand the sceptics, and to have put his prejudices to one side, he couldn’t create a film which accurately portrayed the thesis of just one of them, in spite of spending a great deal of time with him. All we see is small, disconnected fragments of argument, devoid of any context. The superficial attempts to portray Monckton’s ideas are counterposed by much longer expositions of strong and at times shrill, opinion from the likes of Kevin Trenberth, Andy Pitman, and David Griggs, to which Monckton is denied the opportunity to answer.

This is a pity, because it precludes proper criticism of the argument Monckton actually makes. It instead takes issue with the image of Monckton that Murray invents.

I’ve seem Monckton’s presentation, and I do not find it convincing. At the risk of annoying visitors here, my criticism of sceptics in general is that the dependence on scientific arguments fails to challenge the eco-centric politics that precedes it in the environmentalists case. Thus, scepticism makes a concession to environmentalism: all you need is the right science, and then you’ll know what to do. Scepticism almost accepts environmentalism’s premises, and so fails to criticise it, leaving the debate to oscillate according to the latest scientific discovery. All it would take to make climate alarmism and the political changes it demands legitimate, then, would be for some new scientific discovery.

However, a film which made a serious attempt to understand Monckton’s argument would be interesting, and likely would reveal weaknesses in the alarmist’s case, even if it wouldn’t be conclusive. Many films are made about scientific controversies, featuring strong personalities, outlining their thesis, allowing critics to give their perspective. Such a film could be made in a matter of days, with a fraction of the carbon budget…

But Murray, the film-maker, prefers cheap shots and expense accounts that take him across the globe. Instead of giving us Monckton’s own account of his argument, he has created a snide character assassination, taking advantage of unguarded moments, and moments from the fringes of Australian and US politics. Murray wraps them all up so that the viewer can have a good old titter to himself about what fools the rest of the world are. And he does it for a transparent purpose: to maintain the perception of the debate as one divided into scientists on the one side, and foolish ‘deniers’ on the other.

This is reflected in a short review of the film on the Guardian’s TV page:

Storyville: Meet the Climate Sceptics
10pm, BBC4

Despite – or because of – the scientific consensus that man-made global warming is a tangible hazard, a fringe of vociferous opinion holds that the danger has been massively overstated; that global warming is an environmental equivalent of the millennium bug. Rupert Murray’s film introduces leading climate change sceptics, attempting to understand their arguments and motivations – are they misguided, are they opportunists, or do they have a point? Their cause is possibly not aided by having as spokesman the hereditary peer Christopher Monckton, who recently needed to be told to stop referring to himself as a member of the House of Lords.

The film really does not feature ‘leading climate sceptics'; it features only Monckton. And Monckton is not the spokesman for climate scepticism.

Yet again, it is the reaction to climate scepticism which tells us much more about political environmentalists than scepticism. There is a need to explain the failures at COP15 and 16, there is a need to explain the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, there is a need to explain the failure of the green movement. Thus the myth of Lord Monckton, attacker of science, destroyer of progressive climate policies… Because that, fundamentally is the only way the failure to turn climate alarm into political authority can be explained. It is only by creating what appears to be a whole, powerful, enemy — an other — can the likes of Murray begin to explain environmentalism’s discombobulation, so as to start to give it identity as an alternative to the sheer nastiness depicted by the myth.

There are many climate sceptics Murray could have chosen to interview. But none that lend themselves so easily to creating this picture of the debate. There are climate sceptics from across the political spectrum in both houses of Parliament. There are climate sceptics in other public and civil institutions, think tanks, campaigning organisations, and universities. An interesting film that sought to make sense of climate scepticism could be made, even by a critic of environmentalism. Murray is not that film-maker, and now, after two cheap, partial and crass films in the space of just one week, it’s probably time to ask if the BBC is even capable of commissioning a film that gives a sobre, honest account of the debate.

The BBC now has to cope with the fact that an editorial agenda appears to be at work more than ever, long after it has been accused of this, and long after it made statements that it would behave otherwise. The BBC gives succour to Monckton at the expense of its own credibility, just as it did a week earlier. By making a caricature of Monckton, Delingpole, and climate scepticism, the BBC reveals itself as the same kind of beast it attempted to slay: given to dogma, unwilling to countenance either debate or dissent, and failing to reflect on its function as an impartial broadcaster. It could be all the things it mocks in Murray’s film. It could be Fox News. It could be the homophobic bigot. It could be the religious zealot.

Post archive
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2007
  • 2006
  • 2002