The Silliest Climate Change Article Ever?

All sorts of claims are made about climate change. The excellent Number Watch site by John Brignell keeps a list of things (claimed to be) caused by global warming. Pointless speculation about climate change is rife. This is perhaps the most absurd instance of it.

Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists
Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report

There’s no need for sceptics to ‘distort science’ when scientists are perfectly capable of doing it all by themselves. Ian Sample — the article’s author — is even more daft.

It may not rank as the most compelling reason to curb greenhouse gases, but reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim.

Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth’s atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control – and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain.

This highly speculative scenario is one of several described by a Nasa-affiliated scientist and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University that, while considered unlikely, they say could play out were humans and alien life to make contact at some point in the future.

Sample is the Guardian’s science correspondent. But it seems that he has more correspondence with science fiction than science proper. How can any discriminating journalist — which is their job, after all — not have seen the report, and thought to themselves… ‘oh, for ****’s sake’, and either ignored it, or given it the ridicule it deserves?

Never mind human-haters from another planet. The more immediate problem is the journalist’s and scientists’ deeply ingrained misanthropy, right here on Earth. It’s not just speculation that is the problem; it’s what the speculators are speculating from. They presume to sit in judgement of the rest of us, as aliens. That’s got nothing to do with science.

In Defence of 'Taking Energy For Granted'

I was on BBC Radio Newcastle this morning, discussing what some are calling the North East region’s ‘energy revolution’. Some.

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It’s a funny kind of ‘energy revolution’, when the outcome is a reduction of living standards.

I wish I’d said that, but the fact is that I can barely register sights and sounds at 8.30 on a Monday morning, and frankly, I was astonished by Professor Richard Davies’ arrogance. Enough excuses.

Davies was asked, why he thought the things going on around Newcastle — the dimming of streetlights and the switching off of escalators in the city’s underground train network — represents a ‘quiet revolution’? He replied,

Well this is just a sign of what’s taking place around the UK, around Europe. There are big targets which have been set by the EU and by the UK and even by Newcastle City Council to reduce our carbon footprint. And so it’s not surprising we’re starting to see evidence of measures to reduce demand, to switching off escalators, also measures to create more renewable energy. This is an absolutely sensible way of proceeding in order to reduce our carbon footprints and also to develop and change with what is clearly an evolving situation across the globe and in the EU and in the UK.

Yeah… it’s no surprise that when you make energy more expensive, people start turning things off. Things like public goods: street lighting intended to make possible for pedestrians to navigate the streets at night without colliding with street furniture. And things like escalators which help people who might otherwise struggle with poor health and shopping. You don’t have to be a professor to understand it. If there’s less money, fewer things can be done with it. The reason this ‘revolution’ is quiet is that it causes things to be shut down. But it isn’t a revolution, any more than an existing tyranny exercising its power more forcefully is a ‘revolution’. It’s not even an industrial revolution. There is no transformation; there is just a reduction in the quality of public goods, and increased costs, spun as ‘progress’.

Davies was then asked, ‘So are you surprised that not everyone is happy about these changes?’.

I’m not entirely surprised because I think it’s human nature that we tend to, you know, switch on our light and expect it to work. And I think most of my generation have become… it becomes absolutely common that… er, you know assumed that electricity is at our fingertips. But I think we’ve got to be far more aware of the cost of energy. We’ve effectively had energy far too cheaply beleive it or not, because we’ve had fossil fuels, coal and oil and gas, we’ve effectively had it far too cheap. We’ve taken it for granted and I think that has to change. And that’s a big cultural and behavioural change we need to start to see.

In other words, people object to his plans because they have unreasonable expectations of light, heat and power on demand.

Except they don’t. And this was the point I was trying to emphasise. The phenomenon of ‘fuel poverty’ almost tripled between 2004-9.

year Millions households in ‘energy poverty’
2004 2
2005 2.5
2006 3.5
2007 4
2008 4.5
2009 5.5

And there’s no reason to beleive that, given the recent increases in UK energy bills, there are fewer households in fuel poverty today than in 2009. This means that there are tens of millions of people in the UK who are unable to pay their electricity and gas bills, and unable, consequently to pay for other things, including transport, clothing, food, and so on. We might as well just call it ‘poverty’.

Struggling to afford to pay for something is not the same thing as ‘taking it for granted’. Energy that one-in-five homes cannot afford is not ‘far too cheap’. There is no ‘behavioural’ or ‘cultural’ change that could make people who can’t afford to pay to keep their families warm more ‘aware of the cost of energy’.

The other thing I was hoping to emphasise was that, just as higher energy costs means a harder time for homes, it means that jobs in the energy-intensive sector are also vulnerable. The North East of England is particularly vulnerable to rising energy prices, because there is a great deal of energy-intensive industry there, such as steel manufacturing. Rising energy costs, and uncertainty about the effects of the UK’s climate policies were cited by steel manufacturers, Tata as reasons for the closure of several of their plants. Showing just as much indifference to the plight of the less fortunate, Baroness Bryony Worthington — who, as Barry Woods points out, was instrumental in the design of the UK’s energy policies — tweeted,

@sandbagorguk RT @BBCBreaking Steel giant Tata believed to be planning to cut around 1,500 jobs at three sites << revenge for the c[arbon] budgets?

So limited is Worthington’s grasp of the real world, she could only see the redundancies of hundreds of individuals as a simple act of revenge, rather than the inevitable consequence of a large firm seeking to protect its bottom line in the wake of policies — carbon budgets — she herself had crafted. It’s not unlike robbing someone, and then calling them mean for not buying you a Christmas present. What did she expect — for Tata, an energy-intensive company, to take staff on? Did she really not expect energy policies to have material effects?

One man whose industrial sector and whose job is not at risk, of course, is Professor Richard Davies himself. A look at his profile page at the University of Durham website reveals that his department is the beneficiary of many £millions of money from renewable energy companies, and the UK government…

Richard Davies’ main role at Durham University has been in building cross-department and cross faculty research research in energy. This started in the field of geo-energy (e.g. fossil fuels, carbon capture and storage) and more recently has been across a spectrum of energy research, with the development of Durham Energy Institute (DEI). Davies’ remit has been to build DEI from concept to a fully functioning and high achieving energy institute which is Nationally and Internationally significant. This has included development and roll out of effective governance, raising internal and external profile, attracting significant new funding for posts, getting recognition in UK government and enabling and triggering new research opportunities.

Sicne 2008 DEI has undergone spectacular growth and now involves 107 researchers across 12 departments. Research income for 2010 was almost £9M. Highlights in 2010 were collaborating on winning a £54M grant on Low Carbon Networks (DEI lead – Phil Taylor); £1M funding from DONG Energy for a Prof of Renewable Energy and £0.6M from Eaga for a Prof of Low Carbon Communities. DEI works closely with UK Research Councils and the private sector. It was officially launched by the Rt. Hon. Chris Huhne, Secretary of State, Energy & Climate Change on 28th March 2011.

Lucky Professor Davies and his colleagues! While thousands of his neighbours have lost their jobs, tens of thousands more have had their jobs put at risk, and hundreds of thousands of them cannot afford to heat their homes, Davies and his team have gone from strength-to-strength. Hooray! Hurrah! This must be what is meant by ‘green growth’: it is the hue of a fungus that colonises a decaying carcass. It’s Nature’s way, after all.

Davies and the Durham energy Institute are not involved in energy research. They are political tools. They lend the credibility of independent academic expertise to the UK and EU’s political environmental agenda. And in return, state department’s such as DECC give them generous research grants. (The £54 million grant from Low Carbon Networks is a grant from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.) As observed previously on this blog, the academy no longer speaks truth to power, but speaks official truth on behalf of official power.

If there is a ‘revolution’, it is one in which the likes of Professor Richard Davies, Baroness Bryony Worthington, and Chris Huhne (and the rest) have completely closed themselves off from accountability and criticism. This is neither an energy revolution, nor an industrial revolution, but a political revolution. This undemocratic move takes power — literally, and in the political sense — away from the public, only to go on to lecture the poor about their opulent lifestyles… ‘Let them eat cake’.

Against Development

Bishop Hill links to an article by Oxfam’s research director, Duncan Green. Says the Bishop…

Duncan Green is head of research at Oxfam GB and has written an article exploring the question of whether the drought in the Horn of Africa is caused by climate change. The article is here and an edited version appears at the Guardian. I’m sure that comment will be freer at Mr Green’s place.

Green presents evidence to support the idea that the drought in the Horn of Africa is global warming in action: anecdotal evidence from the locals and increases in surface temperatures. He also notes rather more importantly that the rainfall records are ambiguous.

The Bishop is right to suggest that Green has to turn somersaults to make the famine in the Horn of Africa something to do with climate change. And Green admits it… Sort of…

Conclusion? Attributing the current drought directly to climate change is impossible, but in the words of Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, in a talk at Oxfam last week, ‘worldwide, events like this have a higher probability of occurring as a result of climate change.’ Moreover, unless something is done, the current suffering offers a grim foretaste of the future – temperatures in East Africa are going to rise and rainfall patterns will change, making a bad situation worse.

So, although we can’t say that this is climate change in action, this is what it will look like. So much for science. But the ‘science’ didn’t bother me as much as what followed in the article.

What to do? Firstly remember that while the drought is caused by lack of rainfall, famine is man-made. As Amartya Sen famously observed, famines do not occur in functioning democracies. The difference between the minor disruption of hosepipe bans, and the misery and suffering in the Horn, is down to a failure of politics and leadership. It is no accident that those communities worst affected by the drought are not just those blighted by conflict, but also by decades of official neglect and contempt from governments, who see pastoralism as an unwanted relic of the past.

Secondly, the famine shows the extreme vulnerability of poor people to weather events like failed rains. Governments and the international community have to save lives now, but also act to reduce that chronic vulnerability, building local abilities to manage the drought cycle, improving the flow of data, information and ideas for adapting to climate change and drastically increasing long-term investment in smallholder agriculture and pastoralism, which have shown they can provide a decent life for millions of East Africans, provided they are supported (rather than ignored) by governments.

Beyond helping East Africa and other vulnerable regions adapt to impending climate change, it is of course also incumbent on the rich and emerging economies to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. Fail to do that, and all attempts at adaptation are likely to offer only temporary relief.

The first thing to notice is Green’s use of Amartya Sen’s argument: famines do not occur in functioning democracies. It’s a point made here very often. It’s not climatic phenomena which determine the outcome of some climatic or natural phenomenon; social conditions are far more decisive. The test of this is to compare two natural disasters of equal magnitude — earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc — falling on places whose economies are very different. Invariably, the human cost differs by several orders of magnitude. Earthquakes that barely cause any disruption to daily life in advanced economies kill thousands in less developed places, and leave many more homeless. As Green notes, ‘The difference between the minor disruption of hosepipe bans, and the misery and suffering in the Horn, is down to a failure of politics and leadership’. The point should be obvious: if hosepipe bans got more frequent or more serious here in the UK, there would be a lot of angry people, demanding answer from utilities companies, public agencies, and politicians.

It’s interesting, then, that Green should go on to say, ‘It is no accident that those communities worst affected by the drought are not just those blighted by conflict, but also by decades of official neglect and contempt from governments, who see pastoralism as an unwanted relic of the past’. Green sees the ‘neglect’ of the interests of pastoral communities as the ‘failure of politics’. But the reality of pastoralism is that it precludes those who endure it from becoming a political force. The relationship individuals have with each other and their ‘environment’ in pastoral society is immediate and transparent. Thus, such societies are more vulnerable, and less able to assert themselves ‘politically’. The business of subsistence consumes time. Put most simply and somewhat flippantly, if you cannot read, because you have no real need to, how are you going to write to your MP to express your feelings? And if you have no stake in the economy, how are you going to assert your interests?

Pastoral communities are excluded from politics as such in almost the same way that the peasants of medieval England were largely unable to resist the enclosure of common land, forcing them from it. It was not ‘neglect’ which led to the rough treatment of peasants; it was the fact that political freedoms are created, not given. Green imagines that ‘politics’ fails to respond to pastoral societies, but he forgets that pastoralism and democracy are rarely seen together in a meaningful way, and thus he forgets Sen’s point — famines do not occur in functioning democracies. The abolition of the English peasant class was ugly. But the industrialisation of the UK created the possibility of democracy and other freedoms, albeit bloody and hard-won. Feudalism was put in its place, it didn’t take it up voluntarily.

Curiously for the the research director of a ‘development’ charity, Green seems to emphasise that there is a responsibility to ‘protect’ pastoral society, rather than to encourage — or enable — its transformation. This does two things. First, it locks the members of pastoral societies into that lifestyle — which it celebrates as ‘sustainable’ — and limits its possibilities. Second, it creates a ‘political’ role for agencies such as Oxfam at the expense of development — their influence is legitimised by the implausibility of political or industrial development, which it also precludes. I find that a grotesque thing for a ‘development’ agency to be engaged in. Rather than helping, Oxfam looks more like a parasite. The concept of ‘sustainability’ turns the concept of ‘development’ completely upside down. Progress means retrogression.

There have been several posts on this blog about Oxfam’s need for victims to legitimise its function, here, here, here and here — so there’s no need to repeat the point. (Though Oxfam didn’t listen then.)

NGOs like Oxfam have huge and growing influence over people’s lives. Yet they are completely unaccountable. And yet they presume to sit over troubled countries to complain about ‘failed politics’. And they do so without being challenged. We give money to them because we think it will make a direct difference to somebody’s life. But the only difference it seems to make is to advance Oxfam’s self-interested agenda, at the expense of development. The next time you consider donating to them, remember that you’re giving money to an organisation that would rather see ‘pastoral society’ preserved forever in aspic, rather than enjoying the roads, railways, airports, fridges, medicine, factories, shops, schools, hospitals, water infrastructure, democracy, liberties and opportunities that you enjoy. I can’t help thinking… maybe that’s the point.

The PM, Her Chancellor, the Royal Society, its Geneticists & the BBC

British PM, David Cameron has written to his Australian Counterpart, Julia Gilllard, to congratulate her on her climate change policy — the Carbon Tax. The Sydney Morning Herald says,

“Your announcement sends a strong and clear signal that Australia is determined to make its contribution to addressing this challenge,” he said. “It will add momentum to those, in both the developed and developing world, who are serious about dealing with this urgent threat.”

Mr Cameron’s letter, dated July 22, is the second high-profile endorsement for Labor’s carbon tax plans in less than a week, after former British Labour prime minister Tony Blair, in Australia for a series of corporate speaking events, said reducing carbon-fuel dependence was an “intelligent” move being adopted around the world, during a joint press conference with Ms Gillard.

It ought to be funny that one PM who failed to win sufficient seats to win the election without forming a coalition is congratulating another in the same position, for her indifference to public opinion. David Vote-Blue-Go-Green Cameron, like his predecessors Brown and Blair have presided over a growing chasm that exists between the public and the political establishment. As I pointed out in the previous post, the UK’s energy and climate policies have resulted in rising prices, millions of UK households living in ‘fuel poverty’, and the possibility that energy intensive industries will leave these shores at the expense of many thousands of jobs, yet the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change’s priorities are with the mitigation of climate change. Climate change policies epitomise the indifference of politicians to the public’s concerns. Criticism of their policies is waved away as so much ‘denial’ of ‘the science’.

Nigel Lawson has stepped into the debate with some interesting comments in reply to Cameron’s letter. Says The Australian

While Baroness Thatcher was at the forefront of Britain’s moves to set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Lord Lawson said her motivation was to challenge the coalmining union and at the same raise support for nuclear power as a clean energy replacement for coal.

If there’s anybody still reading this blog who holds with the ‘watermelon thesis’ of environmentalism (why do it to yourself, why?), I’m sure the irony will be lost on them. Says Lawson…

“I was as close to Margaret Thatcher as anybody at the time. The fact is initially she felt this issue needed to be looked into, but she was agnostic as to whether it was a serious problem or not.

“She was instrumental in having the IPCC set up, but it has changed greatly from what she intended as a fact finding organisation to become a lobby group.”

“She did have reason for highlighting the possibility of global warming because the biggest threat to the UK energy security at the time was the stranglehold the Marxist National Union of Mine Workers had on the coal industry.

“She felt Britain should not be so dependent on coal. She was in favour of building up nuclear energy to break the dependence on coal and the main opposition to nuclear came from the environment movement. Mrs Thatcher thought she could trap them with the carbon emissions argument.”

The ‘watermelon theory’ holds that environmentalism is the reincarnation of Marxism. Yet here we have a former senior UK politician — the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher — claiming that the UK political establishment absorbed environmentalism in order to win a political battle against Marxism and/or organised labour.

This blog has long argued that the climate is a proxy issue for vacuous politics. And here we hear it first hand: the UK political establishment’s emphasis on climate change has its origins in attempts to do politics by other means; and it was not Marxists who were smuggling their agendas into the public sphere under cover of ‘science’, but their opponents. I don’t say it to divide the debate, or to blame one putative ‘side’ for the ascendency of environmentalism. I say it to show that the climate debate never has and doesn’t now divide on left-right lines, and to point out that what has driven it — its dynamic — is vacuity.

The truth of the matter is, that by the time Thatcher went Green, the Left in the UK was in complete ruins. In fact, the unions and the Labour Party were already at their historical weakest by the time she arrived at number 10. She is remembered as a strong and combative leader, but public confidence in her, too, was often the lowest for any previous prime minister. Thatcher appeared popular, however, because of the fact that UK general elections are lost, not won: the Labour Party and the unions were simply less popular even than she. She might have been able to continue her political project unhindered, were it not for the reality that having defeated the left, her political project was left without its own purpose. The fight with the Left had given her project identity, but it was negatively-defined. Thatcher’s greening, then, owes less to a struggle with the reds — they had already gone — and more to do with the fact that blue had faded too. Like each Prime Minister since, she failed to connect with those below, and so reached for the skies for help.

Mr. President, the Royal Society’s Fellows and other scientists, through hypothesis, experiment and deduction have solved many of the world’s problems.

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century. This was brought home to me at the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver last year when the President of the Maldive Islands reminded us that the highest part of the Maldives is only six feet above sea level. The population is 177,000. It is noteworthy that the five warmest years in a century of records have all been in the 1980s—though we may not have seen much evidence in Britain!


In studying the system of the earth and its atmosphere we have no laboratory in which to carry out controlled experiments. We have to rely on observations of natural systems. We need to identify particular areas of research which will help to establish cause and effect. We need to consider in more detail the likely effects of change within precise timescales. And to consider the wider implications for policy—for energy production, for fuel efficiency, for reforestation. This is no small task, for the annual increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide alone is of the order of three billion tonnes. And half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution remains in the atmosphere. We have an extensive research programme at our meteorological office and we provide one of the world’s four centres for the study of climatic change. We must ensure that what we do is founded on good science to establish cause and effect.


The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development.

Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nutured and safeguarded.

Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century and one in which I am sure your advice will be repeatedly sought.

Reading Thatcher’s 1988 speech to the Royal Society with the benefit of 23 years hindsight, it seems littered with eco-clichés. And for an ‘agnostic’, as Lawson now describes her, she seems committed to the tenets of ecologism: the precautionary principle and ‘sustainable development’. It was just a year earlier that Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister, had completed her report for the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, in which sustainable development is defined, and proposed as the organising principle of domestic and international policies.

If we take Lawson’s argument seriously, the watermelon theory is yet more roundly defeated. By 1988, the UK Left is in ruins, and the Soviet Union is yet to fall, but it is now that the process of establishing supranational political institutions to deal with climate really begins — the creation of the IPCC, for instance. In short, it was a domestic crisis which causes the climate to become the #1 international issue. Moreover, science had been recruited into Thatcher’s war against the non-existent Marxists: she had given the Royal Society a purpose. It now had ‘relevance’ –the poisonous category that now dominates research in almost all disciplines — to public policy.

That the Royal Society was recruited into a political project comes as no surprise to many of us. Though it is a point which is lost on them and the many scientists wheeled out to comment on climate matters. As I have argued here previously, the current President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, is as oblivious to the political nature of his function, and the influence that environmental ideology has over him.

Nurse might argue that this reorganisation of political 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; 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. If scientists are not ‘open about everything they do’, he says, ‘then the conversation will be dominated by people driven by politics and ideology’. But it 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 it 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.

Nurse, like his predecessors, had entered the climate debate with guns blazing, though not blazing quite as ferociously. There is now a peculiar story, that reflected the politicisation of the Royal Society’s function, and its causes, in an unpleasant symmetry. As I argued on Spiked, the incautious remarks made by the RS’s presidents had done more to undermine science in the public mind than anything any climate change ‘denier’ had ever said:

The science academy had attached itself to a side in the climate war. It was now not only identifying the basis on which the climate-related political institutions would be built – defining the defining issue – it was identifying the enemy of that process and engaging them in battle. But rather than cementing the foundations of these political institutions, the Royal Society had undermined them. The aggressive position it had assumed had shown that science is a corruptible institution. The claim was that the ‘deniers’ had particular motivations, and so produced bad science. But the Society’s position rested on the assumption that climate scientists were unimpeachably honest.

By the time the Society published Climate Change Controversies: A Simple Guide in 2007, it had polarised the climate debate into camps divided by simple, cartoonish categories: ‘scientists’ and ‘deniers’. One side was dispassionate, objective, and not motivated in the slightest by financial interests or political ideas; the other consisted of nothing less than scientific prostitutes peddling lies. But most of all, the Royal Society had created an expectation that science could produce unambiguous and instructive moral and political statements.

The events since winter 2009 have demonstrated that these standards and expectations were unrealistic. Science did not consist of pure, virtuous individuals, who were impartially and dispassionately informing the debate with unimpeachable evidence. Science could not provide a basis for the construction of new, climate-change-solving political institutions. Claims had been made on behalf of the scientific consensus which simply didn’t stand up to closer inspection.

The new report issued by the Royal Society at the end of last month is more circumspect than its predecessors. Gone are the claims made about ‘myths’ and financial interests contaminating scientific objectivity. It now presents ‘the science’ within three categories of certainty: ‘aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement’; ‘aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion’; and ‘aspects that are not well understood’. This restatement will say little to anybody with an existing knowledge of the issues it relates to, and so the document looks now more like a rearguard action designed to define permissible areas of debate and discussion.

In a similar move, the BBC published its new guidelines, which promise that its coverage of climate issues will be more ‘inclusive’, and ‘ensure the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected’. The hitherto unchallengeable IPCC – the body that produces the ‘scientific consensus’ – has announced in the wake of criticism that the teams constructing its next report will take ‘guidance’ on the inclusion of non-peer-reviewed literature, the way it handles uncertainty, and its error-checking.

In autumn last year, it looked as though public institutions such as the BBC and the Royal Society might be at last moderating their positions. Then came Paul Nurse’s silly Horizon film, in which he claimed there had been an ‘attack on science’. The BBC and the Royal Society have merely regrouped, only having offered to relax their zeal on the belief that they had been damaged by ‘sceptics’, rather than by their own actions embarrassing them. One reason for this inability to self-reflect just may be the fact that without overweening crises — i.e. climate change — public institutions and roles are not easily justified. The BBC guidelines offered hope that a more nuanced public debate might be possible. But if it did so, it would bring it into conflict with the entire establishment… Chief amongst them, the coalition government’s fragile claims to certainty regarding the most expensive policies ever conceived: a commitment to nearly 20 years of expensive renewable energy policies. But not just that. There isn’t a public institution in the UK which hasn’t been organised on the basis that ‘climate change is the biggest threat facing mankind’. Entire university departments have reinvented themselves as ‘relevant’. The relationship between individuals and local government has been reorganised around the climate issue. And nominatively democratic nation states now defer to supranational institutions and panels of scientific experts, rather than to democratic processes, to determine their direction.

There is simply too great an institutional need of climate change to allow public service broadcasting to start challenging the orthodoxy. Hell, even the evil news barons, the Murdochs, disgraced over the phone-hacking scandal are committed environmentalists. Yet those screaming for their scalps, and protesting at their influence over the UK media did not notice, and were convinced instead that a Murdoch controlled BSkyB would lead inevitably to the UK becoming a hotbed of climate change denial. Meanwhile, the Murdoch’s great enemy, the British Broadcasting Corporation published Steve Jones’ review of its coverage of scientific issues. Jones claimed,

Things are, perhaps, improving. Lord Monckton is, without doubt, a man who adds to the gaiety of nations and is a skilled communicator of his views. However, a recent BBC Four investigation (“Meet the Climate Sceptics”, Storyville, 31st Jan 2011) of his activities made his isolation from mainstream beliefs very clear. A 2011 Horizon in which the President of the Royal Society interviewed other climate sceptics also revealed their marginal position. A submission made to this Review by Andrew Montford and Tony Newbery (both active in the anti‐global‐warming movement, and the former the author of The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science) devotes much of its content to criticising not the data on temperatures but the membership of a BBC seminar on the topic in 2006, and to a lengthy discussion as to whether its Environment Analyst was carrying out BBC duties or acting as a freelance during an environment programme at Cambridge University. The factual argument, even for activists, appears to be largely over but parts of the BBC are taking a long time to notice.

It seemed beyond Jones’ genius to notice that at least two of the few programmes he could find which seemingly gave a voice to ‘deniers’ — Meet the Climate Sceptics, and Paul Nurse’s Horizon episode — were polemic hatchet jobs. Far from giving a voice to sceptics’ arguments, then, these shows offered only a caricature of their personalities: to set them up as fools, rather than engage them in debate, to make statements about ‘denial’ in general. What Jones misses, then, is that the substance of the debate is hidden behind the ‘fact’ of climate change, reduced, such as it is, to the binary, true-false calculation. Assuming that no BBC executive or producer possess any greater brain-power than he, it is safe to assume that any criticism of climate change policy will be taken as a defacto position of climate change denial.

Here, for example, is Ed Miliband, as former Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2009, hiding from Nigel Lawson’s criticism of his policies behind ‘science’.

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Miliband says, ‘The problem is, Lord Lawson, that you’re trying to spread doubt where in fact there is as close as you can get to a scientific consensus’. Lawson makes the important point that development — or lack of it — is the major problem facing billions of people. Miliband insists, however, that it is ‘science’ which has determined the problem — in this case access to water –and that Lawson ‘doubts’. Yet it is necessarily true that if you remove the problem of lack of development, you reduce the degree to which climate change is a problem. And Jones, too, seems to fail to grasp this point that climate change may well be a ‘fact’, but that the extent to which this fact is a problem depends on when and where it is experienced. That is to say that we can’t understand climate change in terms of pure material science: it’s impacts are determined primarily by social factors, and only then by the material nature of the phenomenon.

It comes as a great surprise to me that Professor Steve Jones is not capable of understanding the point, and prefers instead the binary treatment of the issue. This binary treatment runs as follows. It divides the debate into two simple camps, one attached to the claim ‘climate change is happening’, the other its denial. The former camp has been criticised here for the necessary implication that the significance of the claim is only a given if it is true that the sensitivity of human society to climate change is equivalent to the sensitivity of the climate to CO2. That is the presupposition of climate change alarmism. Lord Lawson recognises that the presupposition is false, and so do many others, including ‘libertarian conservatives’ who Jones identifies as most strongly representing climate change ‘denial’. In this respect, then, ‘libertarian conservatives’ are more progressive than their counterparts on the ecological left. The debate divides on this presupposition, not the ‘scientific’ fact of climate change. It is a shame that Jones is not a capable enough thinker to recognise it.

It is a surprise to me that Jones takes this ignorant position, because his discussions about race in the 1990s and early 2000s appealed to me, and influenced my thinking not just of genetics and the environment (he was very critical of George Monbiot, for instance), it also struck me as a criticism of the naturalised view of the social world — i.e. determinism and scientism. Here is Jones in the 1990s, talking about Charles Murray’s book, The Bell Curve, which Jones reads (rightly, in my view) as an attempt to give scientific credibility to racist ideas.

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people who try to disect genes from environment are wasting their time. […] you can’t separate the two. I sometimes jokingly say … that scientists … discovered and sequenced the gene for crime. And they did. I can assure you that … in thousands of laboratories around the world, there is a copy of the gene for crime. And what is that gene? Well, the logic is simple. Nearly all criminals are male. And that’s, true, okay. All males, which is what makes them male, have a tiny segment of DNA… the logic is impeccable, we have the gene that makes embyos that when they’re in a very early phase female, into male; all criminals are male; therefore we have the gene for crime. But of course, most males aren’t criminals. Crime is not a biological phenomenon alone. It’s a biological and social phenomenon.


In Japan in the [1950s], the mean IQ score of Japanese kids was around 100. Now it’s around 111. Now what’s happened? Has there been a sudden burst of genetic change in Japan? Some evolution? Of course there hasn’t, the schools have got better, right. So you can change IQ, although it’s inheireted, you can absolutely change it, by changing the environment.


In the US today, there is a prominent and growing class of young Asians who have high IQs and are being … socially very successful. And nobody disputes that’s tue. [Murray] says that genetics and IQ are intimately linked — these people have good genes. Well, 20 or 30 years ago, therefore, their parents had no doubt good genes. That’s what genetics is all about. They were down there struggling among the poor. I didn’t see Charles Murray and his gang out there saying ‘this is terrible, there are clever people out there among the poor, let’s help them’. There was a strange silence. And it’s, I’m afraid, a classic case of the rich — those with power — blaming the problems of the country, or the problems of the world economy on the poor. Well, I’m afraid it ain’t like that. And genetics doesn’t tell us anything about economic and social problems.

To deny that race has a scientific basis seems to insult our faculties of sense. We can see racial characteristics, and that they are inherited. Yet the attempt to define race in scientific terms yields little if any meaningful or useful value — our social environment counts for so much more. Similarly, we all have a rough and ready account of ‘climate’ in our heads, which like ‘race’ we experience through our senses, and both are closely linked to our understanding of history. We can see very easily that climatic processes are apparently conditions of our existence: the weather changes, and brings us water to drink, or to irrigate fields, or sunshine to help crops grow and so on. But what is harder to see is that the real fundamental is social organisation. It’s not the weather that brings crops to market; it’s people. It is sad to see that Jones does much to show that ‘race’ is a socially-constructed idea — or ‘ideological’ in some way — but fails to see the same in the understanding of the ‘climate’. I wonder how much more a robust scientific concept ‘climate’ is than ‘race’. That’s not to say ‘there’s no such thing as climate’, but that even scientists are vulnerable to ideology, and go looking to substantiate their prejudices, just as Murray — and countless eugenicists before him — did. And we all know about those orthodoxies.

An interesting historical background exists to this idea that we are dependent on the climate. We could go back forever, but today’s events — ridiculous climate policies, ranty scientists dictating the terms of public service broadcasting, isolated and self-serving politicians and so on — can be understood by looking more carefully at what produced them: the industrial conflicts in the UK in the 1970s, and the fight between Thatcher and the Left in the 1980s. Following those disputes, scientific institutions are recruited into a political project. Their members’ insights into the material world become a new basis for the creation and legitimation of political institutions. In the process,the business of politics became increasingly removed from the concerns of everyday life. Politics and science became preoccupied with the security of the environment, on which it imagined we all depend. But in reality, it was the idea of this dependence itself which public institutions in turn depended on. The crisis was in politics, not in the atmosphere. Now, the defence of the idea has become a battle to defend those institutions and their political power, because without the idea of a looming crisis, they are like the naked emperor.

Steve Jones, upset by the criticism of his report, has penned an angry reply.

The system shows how uneasy is the ground beneath our feet. The Earth’s shape changes as its continental plates move, and the growing bulge as they strain against each other may soon mean that, for the first time, an earthquake can be predicted (but not, alas, a tsunami, for the GPS beam cannot penetrate water). Alarmingly, the patterns of movement suggest that an unexpectedly large seismic shock may soon be due on the eastern side of the Andes, not too far from where Wallace himself made his early collections. The system does the same for volcanic eruptions, for it reveals that volcanoes heave and sag over many centimetres as the molten rock deep below swells and shrinks. Parts of Etna, for example, are slumping at around 20cm a year, which means that it will probably not erupt any time soon. GPS shows also that volcanic islands such as Tahiti are sinking into the Earth’s crust, but at no more than 5cm a century.

Jones makes an appeal to our sense of unease about the world. The ‘ground beneath our feet’ is ‘uneasy’. Science says so. Trust in science. The scientist is either a victim or a propagandist of the politics of fear. But as he penned his angry reply, Etna spewed lava hundred of feet into the air. Jones seems unaware of what is going on in the world now, never mind his grasp of science’s predictive skills. The human race has survived volcanoes before, and got better and better at it — thanks largely to science. Yet Jones and other climate alarmists — because that is what he is — now want to use science to create the view that we’re more vulnerable than ever before. He does so in defence of a political idea, and of institutions that no longer beleive in finding ways of making life better. They would prefer instead to keep things the same.

What 'Science Says', part #8099

A recurring theme of the green argument for ‘urgent’ and ‘strong’ action on climate change — usually also an argument for circumventing the democratic process — is the claim that ‘science says…{insert fatuous pseudo-scientific statement here}’ .

It’s a fig leaf, this device. It hides the bearer’s shame: his authoritarian impulse, his bad faith, moral bankruptcy, and intellectual vacuity.

On ABC Australia’s ‘Q and A’ — their equivalent of the UK’s Question Time — Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Spiked-Online, called Labor Party MP, Tanya Plibersek up on her naked fear-mongering. (Watch it here).

Plibersek:There is a serious threat to our economy and a serious threat to our environment of not acting. In environmental terms we’re looking at losing the Great Barrier Reef, losing Kakadu National Park, losing the ability to feed ourselves because our . . .

Peter Dutton: To feed ourselves?

Plibersek: . . . our fruit and vegetable growing areas . . .

Brendan O’Neill: This is the politics of fear.

Dutton: Taking it to a new level.

O’Neill: If you don’t support our policies, we will die and starve and the Barrier reef will disappear.

Plibersek: Actually, it’s called scientific consensus . . .

O’Neill: Right. OK, yeah.

Plibersek: . . . that there are effects of global warming that affect our environment and affect our fruit and vegetable growing areas.

Dutton: You do your cause a disservice with this extreme view.

Plibersek: That’s not an extreme view. That’s a scientific view . . .

Dutton: What? That we’re not going to be able to feed ourselves?

Transcript courtesy of the Australian.

It is an extreme view, of course. Plibersek takes the most alarmist interpretation of the most alarmist climate change scenarios out there. And what that speaks to is not merely the tendency to seek the most alarming stories in defence of hollow and self-serving politicking, but also the lack of nuance in the public debate. For if the climate debate were to become understood as one about many matters of degree (and I don’t just mean degrees centigrade), it would surely capsize the ship of fools that is piloted by the likes of Plibersek. We can agree, then, that there is a degree to which CO2 causes global warming. And we can agree that there is a degree to which causes climate change. And there may be a degree to which other natural processes are sensitive to climate change. And there is a degree to which we seem to be dependent on natural processes. But even if we agree to all that, Plibersek still has egg on her face. This debate does not divide into two.

The Australians and British both face absurd, counter-productive (on their own terms) and incredibly damaging climate and energy policies. In Australia, it’s the Carbon Tax that has recently caused political turmoil. In the UK, we’re already committed to the Climate Change Act, which has somehow gone without a substantial public opposition. I wish we could have the vocal public opposition to the UK’s climate policies here that seems to happen in Australia. Yet the Australian government seems as keen to ignore the public mood as UK politicians are…

Here’s the previous UK government’s Energy and Climate Change Minister, Ed Miliband, now leader of the ‘opposition’ in 2009:

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Miliband, like Pilbersek, divides the debate into two, claiming ‘science’ for himself, and to preclude a debate not about ‘science’, but about policy. Here is his successor, Chris Huhne, announcing the Conservative and Liberal-Democrat coalition’s ‘Green Deal’…

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Huhne promises the creation of 250,000 jobs in creating more energy efficient homes. Yet simple arithmetic shows that the UK’s 26 million homes would occupy a workforce of 250,000 for only 1 year, even if it took two men as long as a week to insulate each one even if it took an individual a week to insulate two homes. [See comment from David Shipley below] (26,000,000 / 250,000 = 104. 104/2 = 52). Meanwhile, of course, energy bills and unemployment in the UK have risen. And since 2004, the number of UK households living in ‘fuel poverty’ has almost tripled, rising from 2 million to 5.5 million between 2004 and 2009. The rising cost of energy has led many to express their concerns that it will simply be impossible for energy intensive industry to remain in the UK, and that consequently — and in contrast to the 250,000 temporary jobs Huhne imagines he will create — millions of jobs may be lost. So much for the new ‘industrial revolution’.

In case you were at all concerned that there is any difference between political parties, anyone with sufficient faculties to recall events as far back as 2009 will notice the similarities of Huhne’s ‘Green Deal’ and the Brown government’s ‘Green New Deal’ in which precisely the same promises about a ‘green industrial revolution’ were made:

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This is what climate change policy-making is all about. The claim that ‘science says…’ allows politicians to go about their business, indifferent to the concerns and interests of the public, and ignorant to criticism of their policies from ‘deniers’ and ‘sceptics’. Intransigence is legitimised by what ‘science says…’. Bad politics proceeds from Good Science… Or is it that bad politics precedes good science? Take your pick.