Not So Ipso Facto…

This is probably my favourite environmentalist line of 2011…

There is simply no exaggerating the importance of the oceans to earth’s overall ecological balance.

Apart from all that exaggeration, of course… Species extinctions, ocean acidification… coral bleaching, blah blah blah.

The New York times editorial of July 15 continues,

Their health affects the health of all terrestrial life. A new report by an international coalition of marine scientists makes for grim reading. It concludes that the oceans are approaching irreversible, potentially catastrophic change.

The experts, convened by the International Program on the State of the Ocean and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, found that marine “degradation is now happening at a faster rate than predicted.” The oceans have warmed and become more acidic as they absorbed human-generated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are also more oxygen-deprived, because of agricultural runoff and other anthropogenic causes. This deadly trio of conditions was present in previous mass extinctions, according to the report.

The oceans’ natural resilience has been seriously compromised. Pollution, habitat loss and overfishing are dangerous threats on their own. But when these factors converge, they can destroy marine ecosystems.

The severity of human impact was reinforced last week when scientists concluded that seven commercially important species, including marlin, mackerel and three tuna species, were either vulnerable to extinction, endangered or critically endangered according to I.U.C.N. standards. The solutions that might help slow further degradation include immediate reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, a system of marine conservation areas and a way to protect ocean life that goes beyond national jurisdictions.

This is the work of nations, but such goals require pressure from ordinary citizens if there is to be any hope of bringing them about in the face of opposing political and economic interests. As the new study notes, changes in the oceans, caused by carbon emissions, are perhaps “the most significant to the earth system,” particularly because they will further accelerate climate change.

It was odd to come across this, nearly a full month since IPSO released their report. It was covered here in two posts. (One. Two.)

Not many people read this little old blog, but a lot of others picked it up. And as a result, some of those involved in IPSO even responded, as Alex Cull pointed out in a comment.

Don Boesch (Professor of Marine Science, University of Maryland): “The heavy participation by environmental activists—don’t get me wrong, I respect the work these folks do and am grateful they are doing it—opens the report to the kind of criticism of agenda-driven bias that the Climate Resistance blogger leveled. Indeed, if we are honest—now don’t shoot the messenger—the blogger is probably correct that the participants were indeed a preselected group who shared beliefs and assembled, not to assess the evidence critically, but assemble it in a way to make their case for a call to action (“the scientific outcomes . . . will be used first and foremost to strengthen the case for greater action”). Now this is a fine and noble thing to do, but it does reduce the authority founded on inclusive, objective appraisal by scientists. As a result, although the IPSO workshop report enjoyed a press splash and thus may have affected public opinion on scope and urgency of ocean stresses, I suspect it will have limited staying power and long-term impact on policymaking.”

{EDIT. ADDED 20/7/11}To which Alex Rogers, the IPSO Report co-leader and co-author, replies:

Whilst Climate Resistance and such like will zero in on the size and make-up of the workshop I think it is worth checking out their blog. This is clearly a site with a single agenda, who – whilst finding all sorts of conspiracy in IPSO / the meeting (for example, I have worked for Greenpeace, but no mention that this has been as an expert witness and no mention I have also worked for the UK government and UN in similar advisory roles) – have no real answer when someone tackles their criticisms, as someone has in the IPSO discussion on their own site (not me incidently). We need to be very careful not to give these people legitimacy by treating them and their message TOO seriously. What is their answer to the overwhelming peer-reviewed evidence on climate change and impacts on the oceans? Their answer is to attack and try and discredit anyone standing up and discussing this matter because they have nothing else.

So why did the NYT pick this story a month later? Why did they claim it was a ‘study’ by scientists — when it was little more than an activist talking shop? Everybody else knows it.

As to my ‘agenda-driven bias’ ‘single agenda’; it’s a bit daft, isn’t it, calling criticism of an ‘agenda-driven bias’ an instance of a ‘single agenda’ ‘agenda driven bias’, especially if you’re admitting to ‘agenda-driven bias’.

{EDIT. ADDED 20/7/11}If you’re still reading, Dr Rogers, this site’s ‘agenda’ is to attempt to understand environmentalism. The conceit of environmentalists is that their politics emerges from ‘the science’, but what projects such as yours demonstrate is that it is very much prior to ‘the science’.

17 thoughts on “Not So Ipso Facto…”

  1. I don’t think he’s accusing you of “agenda-driven bias” – he’s saying your criticism of the report is one of “agenda-driven bias”.

  2. Ooops, StuB is right. In fact it was Alex Rogers who replies to Don Boesch, by claiming that this site the one with the singe agenda…

    Whilst Climate Resistance and such like will zero in on the size and make-up of the workshop I think it is worth checking out their blog. This is clearly a site with a single agenda, who – whilst finding all sorts of conspiracy in IPSO / the meeting (for example, I have worked for Greenpeace, but no mention that this has been as an expert witness and no mention I have also worked for the UK government and UN in similar advisory roles) – have no real answer when someone tackles their criticisms, as someone has in the IPSO discussion on their own site (not me incidently).

    Some hasty copying on my behalf.

  3. What is the mindset that reads Ben’s criticism of IPSO and claims that he alleges that it is “conspiracy”.

    Are they are so wrapped up in their opponents being in some sort of conspiratorial gang (which is quite funny when their discussions are clearly held in the open in well known blogs) that any criticism of the Green movement is automatically thought to imply the reverse suggestion of conspiracy?

    As for this blog having a single agenda. Knock yourself out! That’s what all the best blogs are. The suggestion is often made that Greenies are Luddites, and while I don’t think that’s true, sometimes they do themselves no favours with their reactions to new ways.

  4. Here’s my reply to the comments at the Sea Monster site.

    I am surprised by Alex Roger’s complaint that my site, Climate Resistance — and therefore my criticism of the IPSO report and its uncritical reception by the media — ‘is clearly a site with a single agenda’, and that I should not be given ‘legitimacy’ by being ‘taken too seriously’. Isn’t that, after all, what I was saying about IPSO?

    My ‘agenda’ is to understand environmentalism as a political phenomenon. It is the conceit of many environmentalists that their political ideas simply emerge from ‘science’, rather than from their own prejudices. From this idea, extraordinarily powerful political institutions have been created at national and supranational levels, and a range of far-reaching economic and industrial policies have been created, especially in the UK.

    My main concern is that this policy-making happens without due democratic process — that environmentalism’s values have not been tested in the public sphere, let alone at the ballot box. To criticise environmental politics is to seem to stand up and identify oneself as a ‘denier’ of objective science. Second, I am concerned about the consequences for development, both in the industrialised world, and poorer parts. So, I want to know, what kind of society will environmentalism create? What form of social organisation will be created by the construction of supranational political institutions that determine, above democracies, how much energy you may consume? How many political freedoms will we enjoy, once we surrender control of our lives to what appears to be the ‘overwhelming majority’ of scientific research? What will life be like in an eco-utopia?

    Is this a conspiracy theory, as Dr Rogers claims it is? No, far from it. I’m sure he and his colleagues are acting in clear conscience. And I’m just as sure that there are many environmental problems. I think that Dr Rogers is doing what many other environmentalists are doing: acting on their beliefs that the world is in peril, and something must be done, or we’ll all die in some ecological catastrophe. However, the content of those beliefs is, I argue, environmental ideology, not ‘science’.

    This is not an attempt to simply ‘discredit’ IPSO. However, it stuck me as the epitome of environmental ideology. What brought its members to the table appeared to me to be their shared prejudices and presuppositions about the world: that they could find justification for those prejudices in scientific research, and present their findings as ‘science’, and that the world would sit up and listen to a ‘panel of experts’, and agree that ‘something must be done’. The media were obedient.

    Let me compare it to two other studies I think were similar. The now defunct Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF), led by Kofi Anan, published a report in 2009, which claimed that each year 300,000 people in the developing world die from the effects of climate change, and that this figure would rise to 500,000 by 2030. This report borrowed its method from a 2002 report from the WHO, which claimed that 150,000 people die each year in ‘High Mortality Developing Countries’ (HDMCs) from the same. The WHO estimated the effect of climate change on the prevalence of malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition. They then multiplied that estimate by the estimate of the number of cases of those conditions that caused death, and attributed the result to ‘climate change’.

    These estimates amount to a model of sensitivity of humans to climate. But take a closer look at the model’s assumptions. It assumes that changes in the prevalence of diarrhoea caused by climate change are as sure as the changes in the climate caused by CO2. The implicit assumption, then, is that poverty is a natural phenomenon, same as the weather. This is environmental ideology, I argue, and it informs the WHO and GHF reports in a very dangerous way. Malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition, even if they are Nth-order effects of climate change, are FIRST order effects of poverty. In the 21st century, diseases of poverty cannot have natural explanations. We could intervene, in very simple ways to prevent these diseases.

    If we look at the WHO’s report, we discover that the deaths attributed to climate change in HMDCs amount to the smallest of problems that HDMCs face. According to the WHO’s own statistics, being overweight kills nearly three times as many people as climate change. Physical inactivity kills four times as many. Dirty water kills nearly 11 times as many people as climate change, and being underweight kills 24 times as many people. Yet rather than emphasising the abolition of poverty, which kills tens of millions, the WHO emphasised instead that ‘climate change is the biggest problem facing the developing world’, and urged immediate action. Similarly, the GHF, rather than emphasising the 7.55 million deaths from malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition, and encouraging us to focus on poverty, emphasised the 302,000 deaths caused by climate change. NGOs, politicians, and the media took the figures at face value, and climate change moved up the agenda with new moral purpose.

    Political priorities and scientific research are distorted by environmental ideology, whose fundamental presupposition is that we live in a fragile relationship with the natural world. The fact that the fragility of this relationship is exaggerated is shown by the WHO and GHF’s calculations and their emphasis on climate change over development. Second, it follows that over-stating the fragility of the relationship causes an over-sensitivity to changes within the environment, be they natural or anthropogenic. Change is too easily seen as destruction. Any trend, no matter how small the sample, or how short the series, can be extrapolated far into the future to depict a world denuded of the study’s subject. Uncertain science is turned into ‘best available evidence’ under the logic of the precautionary principle. Last, these ideas form the notion of a vast, fragile, infinitely complex ‘self-regulating’ system, which we interfere with in ways that can never be measured or predicted, yet which cause devastating consequences. Thus, there is a need for the strict regulation of productive enterprises, and political institutions to serve this function. This much is environmental ideology, and the IPSO report seems to me to be stuffed full with it, as do many of the studies which informed it.

    The fact that it was so easy to show that the members of the panel all seem to share a mindset demonstrated to me the problem with the wider debate in microcosm. If there were a conspiracy, it would be so much less a problem. But here we see a totally uncritical media and credulous politicians taking as ‘science’ a self-selecting political panel’s mere opinion. Never mind that this was ‘grey’ literature, produced by a defacto campaigning organisation, the panel, and those taking the report at face value were all convinced of its rectitude, the safety of its provenance, and the soundness of its conclusions. Yet it was little more than a talking shop. Why, then, even bother with the discussion? If all it takes for ‘science’ to be done, and to influence policy, why not just admit that opinions are ‘science’ in today’s world? Why bother with all that boring, hypothesis-experiment-replication stuff, if panels of ‘experts’ can be assembled to determine the truth, merely by phoning the contacts in just one political activists phone book?

  5. That’s a pretty good description of this site and its commenters. I’m inclined to agree with those folks. I think the worst aspects of this site are the lack of distinction between your values and the science. Post after post muddles the science with some kind of strange value system. These are guys are scientists and they are claiming about your distinct LACK of science.

  6. … the lack of distinction between your values and the science …

    It’s almost as if you can’t read, Anonymous. Isn’t that my criticism of IPSO, and environmentalism — that they hide their politics and ‘ethics’ behind ‘science’…

    … These are guys are scientists and they are claiming about your distinct LACK of science …

    Straight back at them.

  7. Anonymous,

    For me at least, the issue is that the IPSO scientists are also activists, and this reduces the credibility of their scientific opinions. You can find scientist after scientist working actively within climate science who are concerned by this precise issue, and this across a broad spectrum of views on the actual impacts of global warming. Likewise, many people sceptical of some or all of the claims are themselves well-qualified scientists – myself included – even if they do not work in climate science.

    For myself, I would favour action on global warming and think a limited carbon tax would be no bad thing. I’m unsure how other contributors here feel about this, but that is scarcely the point. I suspect that most people here are bothered by and confused by the misrepresentations and falsehoods pushed by so many environmental activists and activist scientists, and about where this may be leading society. I think there is a strong desire to try to understand how the world has arrived at this point, and surely this is simply a healthy and natural reaction to what by any measure is a crazy situation.

  8. For me, the worst part of the report was the claim that it came from a panel of scientists when half of the participants weren’t even scientists!

  9. Whilst Climate Resistance and such like will zero in on the size and make-up of the workshop I think it is worth checking out their blog. This is clearly a site with a single agenda, who – whilst finding all sorts of conspiracy in IPSO / the meeting (for example, I have worked for Greenpeace, but no mention that this has been as an expert witness and no mention I have also worked for the UK government and UN in similar advisory roles) – have no real answer when someone tackles their criticisms, as someone has in the IPSO discussion on their own site (not me incidently). We need to be very careful not to give these people legitimacy by treating them and their message TOO seriously. What is their answer to the overwhelming peer-reviewed evidence on climate change and impacts on the oceans? Their answer is to attack and try and discredit anyone standing up and discussing this matter because they have nothing else.

    “Oh, Ben; it’s because you make us think about our biases in uncomfortable ways by shining a light on it that we feel we have no option but to write you and your blog off as a crank with opinions of zero worth…”

    Alex and his ilk are clearly professionals when it comes to projecting such things as “conspiracies” and “agenda-driven biases” onto other people.

  10. What is their answer to the overwhelming peer-reviewed evidence on climate change and impacts on the oceans?

    You worked for Greenpeace? And you tell us off for not listening to consensus science!

    Here is some consensus science:
    – many GM crops are safe.
    – many whale species are increasing sufficiently well to allow hunting.
    – modern nuclear power stations are safe.
    – human beings are naturally omnivores, and meat eating is healthy.

    The Greenies don’t want to know about science when it disagrees with their politics. Only when it comes to (alleged) global warming do they suddenly decide that consensus science must be followed.

    When Greenpeace accepts GM crops, allows whale hunting and no longer opposes nuclear power on principle I will believe that they are guided by science. Until then they are just one more political group with a barrow to push, and less shame than most about their tactics.

  11. What I found most striking from the SeaMonster blog was the fact that one of the participants had dissociated himself from the final report. If you look at the IPSO home page, it mentions “27 participants from 18 organisations” but there are only 26 participants listed in the long version of the report summary. The 27th participant was Dr Manuel Barange, Director of Science at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
    http://www.pml.ac.uk/about_us/the_pml_team/staff_directory/manuel_barange.aspx

    I’d hazard a guess that Dr Barange would not classify himself as an AGW-sceptic, let alone someone who could be accused of being a “denier”, yet he was clearly not comfortable with IPSO’s report and press release, finding them simplistic, one-sided and containing at least one statement that was scientifically incorrect; you can read his comments on the SeaMonster blog, where he explains why he pulled out of the project.

    This debate is often framed in a way that allows only extremes and absolute opposites – scientists vs “deniers”, action vs inaction, etc. Yet many of us, I think, are somewhere in the middle-ground (personally, for instance, I’m probably somewhere in the “lukewarm” category, accepting that extra CO2 in the atmosphere should result in around a degree of warming – more or less – but also suspecting that this will not, in itself, be catastrophic and is likely to be barely noticeable against the background of natural variability.) And as we can see, there is a range of scientific opinion – not everyone in science wants to sing from the same simplistic hymn-sheet.

    The thing about activism is that it allows for no nuances; it’s all or nothing, you’re with us or against us, it’s life or death and there’s no time to lose. It’s always just a few seconds away from midnight.

  12. I noticed on the SeaMonster page that Ben’s comment is on that another scientist, Trevor Branch, has some pretty trenchant criticisms of the IPSO report.

    In my opinion, both the report and this SeaMonster discussion of the report, are utterly and completely biased by the vast majority of participants being conservationists with an obvious agenda. It is easy to come to consensus about an upcoming extinction of marine life if you primarily invite people who have publicly stated they believe this to be true.

    I don’t know much about him, but he also sounds to me a bit more like the kind of scientist that I used to remember as a kid when he says things like this.

    We need to move beyond these all-sweeping generalizations that everything in the oceans is failed and doomed to extinction, and instead rebuild those areas that need rebuilding, learn from areas where management is actually working, and encourage better management, institutional capacity, and monitoring where this is most needed.

  13. “This debate is often framed in a way that allows only extremes and absolute opposites …”

    It’s difficult sometimes to understand what the extremists – at both ends – actually want out of all this. Do some sceptics really think that no action of any kind on increasing CO2 levels is justified? Or do many on the warmist side really want to resolve the issue by restructuring society and eliminating industry and growth? I think they must do, if you take their statements at face value.

    The complexity of the issues seems to mean that no action can be guaranteed to have the desired effect, and that we can never be sure that a given outcome is the result of any specific action. We have to move forward, and at the same time we have to be careful.

    As Ben pointed out in his previous post, many things are objectively getting better – even if not everything is. There’s no doubt that CO2 emissions have the potential to be a problem, if they are allowed to continue to grow without limit. Therefore some form of action is justified. I hope it turns out to be in the general area pegged out by Pielke and his colleagues.

    I fear however that the do-nothing brigade may win, unless their opponents can be persuaded to please give it a rest – and to stop lying about what they know to be the case. Why do they do it?

  14. That’s quite a revealing conversation between Branch and John Bruno, who’s sounding pretty desperate, eg: “… have you ever been snorkeling or diving , ie in the ocean? Because your opinions truly sound like they are coming from someone who has never seen what many of us see all the time, ie, extreme overfishing (no matter how you define it).”

  15. Philip – I hope it turns out to be in the general area pegged out by Pielke and his colleagues.

    If I remember rightly, Pielke and Lomborg were proposing a microtax on carbon, which will be used for low-carbon energy research.

    I have no real practical objection to this — a microtax will be far cheaper than the UK’s silly and dangerous energy policies. I’m also a fan of energy R&D.

    However, I was concerned about the basis for the microtax — climate change. Isn’t there a sufficient reason for investing in energy R&D anyway? That is to say, the ‘ethic’ that seems to drive the microtax argument is climate change, whereas I suggested that it should be driven by the idea that more energy is good for us. In particular, it is good for people who don’t sufficient have access to it. In the long run, we know that ‘carbon free’ energy will win out. Not because of the environment, but because nuclear energy has such huge promise. In the meantime, I think we ought to have priorities that are human-centric, rather than eco-centric.

    Imagine if the world took energy as seriously as climate change. Instead of wasting trillions on fruitless climate change policies, it instead focussed on an energy R&D programme. It wouldn’t even need much cash, and it wouldn’t need the anti-democratic institutions that have been created to ‘save the planet’. Yet it would arguably do far more for people and for ‘the environment’ than the IPCC etc ever will.

  16. Ben,

    I agree with all your points above, and think that at face value Pielke’s position is pretty close to what you say. For example, he talks about “other far less controversial reasons that decarbonisation makes sense”. He also calls very strongly for vastly increased energy supply especially for the billion or so who do not yet have proper access to it. He points out that decarbonisation – meaning a reduction in CO2 emissions per unit energy – has been going on for more than a 100 years and he hopes by indirect means to increase this trend. He is against geoengineering – unlike Lomborg. One quote I particularly like and think is relevant to this blog is:

    Climate change is a bit like a policy inkblot on which people map onto the issue their hopes and values associated with their vision for what a better world would look like.

    I also hope we can start to take energy as seriously as climate change. Dare I hope that this would be one possible route to a reasonably satisfactory conclusion – provided people like Chris Huhne can stop fooling themselves it can be done on the current technological base. Climate science, on the other hand, doesn’t stand a chance of achieving any resolution!

  17. Roger Pielke has let me know that I’ve not understood his position. He also correctly points out that I’ve not read his book — to my shame. I think I made the comment too hastily (i.e. Before Caffeine) and half remembering that I’d come across Lomborg’s argument through his blog.

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