Monthly Archives: November 2011

I have a post at the Independent on the Battle of Ideas blog about the problems with ‘evidence-based policy-making’.

The big lie about evidence-based policy-making is that it’s based on evidence. Evidence no more produces and speaks for itself than cars decide their destinations. Policy-making begins when people perceive a need for a policy. Even when it is evidence which moves a person to speak for a policy, such evidence is always seen through the prejudices, preconceptions and presuppositions that every human sees the world through. The desire for objectivity in politics, while seemingly sensible, belies a terrible loss of self-confidence, and can typically hide what should be political decisions under the guise of ’science’.

I was trying to make the point that a lot is presumed about science’s ability to answer deeper political and moral questions, and of course that politicians and other officials are somewhat promiscuous in their use of ‘evidence’. It’s not an argument against evidence, though no doubt some people will read it that way.

So… Part two of the Climategate series is out. Popcorn is flowing.

It’s too early to say anything that isn’t already being said about what the new emails revealed. But, as per usual, what’s being said about what the emails do or don’t reveal is interesting.

Leo Hickman is the first to the scene

The lack of any emails post-dating the 2009 release suggests that they were obtained at the same time, but held back. Their release now suggests they are intended to cause maximum impact before the upcoming climate summit in Durban which starts on Monday.

The BBC’s Richard Black was not far behind, quoting the a University of East Anglia (home to many of the climate researchers)…

The university says it has “no evidence of a recent breach in our systems”, and suggests that the cache – posted on a Russian server – has “the appearance of having been held back after the theft of data and emails in 2009 to be released at a time designed to cause maximum disruption to the imminent international climate talks”.

The central argument from those invested in the climate debate seems to be that the release of these emails is a ‘deliberate attempt to derail the climate talks in Durban’.

It would seem so. But when is the best time to publish information pertaining to the climate debate? The proximity of the COP17 meeting didn’t stop the International Energy Agency announcing just two weeks ago that,

Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system [...] The agency’s flagship publication, released today in London, said there is still time to act, but the window of opportunity is closing.

And the looming meeting in Durban didn’t stop the publication of the IPCC report into extreme weather:

Regarding the future, the assessment concludes that it is virtually certain that on a global scale hot days become even hotter and occur more often. “For the high emissions scenario, it is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world”, said Thomas Stocker the other Co-chair of Working Group I. “Likewise, heavy precipitation will occur more often, and the wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase while their number will likely remain constant or decrease”.

Why weren’t the journalists at the Guardian as suspicious of the timing of these documents as they are now about the release of these emails? The two reports above, are consistent with the raised tone with which the Guardian has been reporting on climate matters recently. Fiona Harvey, for instance, covered the IEA’s report with the dramatic words:

World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns
If fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed, the world will ‘lose for ever’ the chance to avoid dangerous climate change
The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be “lost for ever”, according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure.

And Harvey was equally credulous about the IPCC report.

Extreme weather will strike as climate change takes hold, IPCC warns
Heavier rainfall, storms and droughts could wipe billions off economies and destroy lives, says report by 220 scientists
Heavier rainfall, fiercer storms and intensifying droughts are likely to strike the world in the coming decades as climate change takes effect, the world’s leading climate scientists said on Friday.

There are double standards in play: it’s okay to step up the alarm on the eve of climate talks, but to throw any questions about the provenance of climate change alarmism into the mix is to ‘deliberately derail’.

I’ve made the point about timing myself, before. It seems that each autumn, the alarmist narrative goes into overdrive. Back in 2008, for instance, the ink on the UK’s new Climate Change Act was barely dry by the time the COP meeting was underway. As I said at the time,

The point of all this is that the UK Government’s need to have successfully created a a strong climate law, in place by now, December the 1st 2008, is owed, not to the Government’s commitment to ‘saving the planet’, nor even the UK population, but to the designs its members have on being ‘world leaders’.

Timing is everything, after all.

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/11597/</em>

In late 2009, not long before the Copenhagen climate-change conference, thousands of private emails by climate researchers based at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) were leaked on the internet. The content of the emails raised questions about the propriety of high-profile scientists both at CRU and at other institutions. The authors of these emails seemed to have been taking liberties with statistics, concealing their data and methodology from scrutiny, and treating the critics of their research with contempt. In particular, one email, in which a researcher tried to work out how he might ‘hide the decline’ in temperature data, went viral.

In the wake of this affair, dubbed ‘Climategate’, Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, said: ‘Quite frankly as a scientist, I have a list of people whose papers I won’t read any more. You’re not allowed to do this in science; this is not up to our standards.’ Muller announced that he would be ‘leading a group to re-do all this in a totally transparent way’.

The first results from Muller’s group – Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) – have now been released. Rather than publishing their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, however, Muller and his associates took the somewhat unusual step ofpublishing draft copies of their studies, and then made themselves available for comment in the media. Fuelling controversy further, Muller wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, which an editor titled ‘The Case Against Global Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons for doubt until now’.

The article – and particularly the title – caused delight among climate-activist journalists, scientists and other commentators. ‘Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed’,announced New Scientist. ‘BEST reconfirm: warming is happening’, said the influential Carbon Brief blog, which is staffed predominantly by activists from environmental NGOs. Channel 4 News science correspondent, Tom Clarke, wasasked, ‘so does this finally vindicate climate change science?’. ‘In a word, yes’, he replied. According to Clarke, the BEST team’s discovery that the world is warming got those implicated by Climategate off the hook.

From the copy it had generated, it would seem that BEST had ended the debate. But this interpretation of the BEST results soon started to unravel. Climate scientist, and contributor to the BEST project, Judith Curry observed, ‘the spin on the press release and Muller’s subsequent statements have introduced unnecessary controversy into the BEST data and papers’. Curry’s comments were picked up by journalist David Rose, who wrote: ‘The Mail on Sunday can reveal that a leading member of Professor Muller’s team has accused him of trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.’

Exciting stuff. But that was not actually what Curry had told Rose. ‘To set the record straight, some of the other sentiments attributed to me are not quite right’, she wrote on her blog. Meanwhile, Muller was also distancing himself from the headline of the article in the Wall Street Journal. ‘It doesn’t represent the article’, he told a journalist in New Mexico.

Confusion reigns. Sceptics pointed out that, in spite of the claims that the debate was now over, the BEST study also argued that the ‘human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated’. The data still suggested that there has been a stalling of global temperatures over the past decade, and the study’s attempt to rule out one of the main concerns sceptics have about the way temperature data is recorded appeared to have some serious shortcomings. Even Muller, the project’s leader, didn’t seem to be making consistent statements about what his research meant for the climate-change debate.

None of this fazed the BBC’s environment correspondent, Richard Black, who continued to cover the affair on the assumption that good science was under attack from irrational sceptics. For example, he declared: ‘The original “hide the decline” claim is one of the most easily debunked in the entire pantheon of easily-debunkable “sceptic” claims. [CRU researcher] Phil Jones wrote the email in 1999, immediately following what still ranks as one of the hottest years on record, and well before the idea of a “slowdown” or “hiatus” or even “decline” in warming gained currency. So it can’t have had anything to do with hiding a global temperature decline.’

The expression ‘hide the decline’ is what ultimately led to Climategate becoming such a major story. Defenders of those implicated by the leaked emails argued that ‘hiding the decline’ simply referred to a mathematical technique, rather than a conscious effort to deceive. But there was nonetheless good evidence that something untoward had been intended.

If the sceptics’ interpretation of the ‘hide the decline’ claim was as easy to debunk as Black claimed, Richard Muller would not have needed to bother with the BEST project. Rather, as Muller outlines in an influential lecture, the phrase seemed instead to relate to an unorthodox joining up of temperature datasets, which emphasised data that suited the global warming narrative and played down the data that was deemed ‘inconvenient’ to it. It was for this reason that he decided to establish the BEST project. In his attempt to dismiss the ‘hide the decline’ claim, it seemed Black had simply invented a straw man for critics to knock down.

Had Black wished to overcome the limitations of mediocre journalism, to get to the heart of the debate, there are many well-informed sceptics he could have turned to for comment and advice. One such is Andrew Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion and a report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on the Climategate affair.

‘He’s not representing what the sceptics’ arguments are’, Montford told me. ‘The majority of sceptics say “yes, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the world has warmed”.’ Montford agrees that there is no definitive ‘sceptic’ argument. This fact mirrors the many varied positive claims that are made on the other ‘side’ of the climate debate, but which seem to emerge axiomatically from the fact that ‘climate change is happening’. But the question is not ‘Has the world been getting warmer?’ but ‘How much warmer will it get in the future and what will be the impact?’. That is a much more difficult question to answer.

However, by simply saying that ‘climate change is real’, a variety of activists, researchers and politicians can deliver a great deluge of non-sequiturs about sea-level rise, species extinction, drought, famine, resources wars and so on. And a cascade of familiar remedies follows: the creation of powerful political institutions, a transformation of the global economy and the de facto rationing of energy and regulation of lifestyle. The speed with which these conclusions and policy implications are drawn suggests that this debate is as much about politics and professional status as science.

The climate debate is, in reality, as complex as the whole of human social life and natural science combined. But such a complex state of affairs does not make for easy reportage, especially by journalists who don’t seem able to digest nuance and complexity, let alone reflect meaningfully on them. And so to take issue with any aspect of the debate is interpreted as denying that the Earth has warmed approximately 0.7 degrees Celsius and that humans had some part in that warming.

So what does the BEST study really reveal according to sceptics, and how has it changed things in the post-Climategate world? Montford tells me that BEST ‘doesn’t really change anything’. For Montford, Climategate simply revealed a group of people ‘just being civil servants and trying to hide the fact that they’re not doing much’ and who have ‘commercial incentives to keep everything under wraps’. There is, in fact, little dispute about the temperature changes over the past few decades.

BEST merely confirmed what most sceptics agreed was probably happening anyway. Nonetheless, the BEST story was widely reported as representing a meaningful end to the climate debate. Muller had made ambiguous comments, which were amplified by an incautious sub-editor. A phantom news story appeared out of an uncontroversial study. Journalists were reporting from inside their own heads, not from the real world. And that is an interesting phenomenon, and one which needs some explanation.

Complex debates are reduced to simple, moral stories of ‘scientists versus deniers’, in part because of the shortcomings of news organisations and their journalists’ attachments to the debate. Anxieties about the end of the world give moral orientation to commentators. Taking a stand to ‘save the planet’ elevates journalists who, without the narrative of possible climate disaster, would quite probably struggle to overcome mediocrity and define a sense of purpose for themselves. It looks like bravery, but it is merely vacuity that drives sensationalism.

However, vapid journalism – ‘churnalism’ – is not the whole story. The controversy generated by the treatment of BEST’s result speaks volumes about wider and unrealistic expectations of science. Politicians, activists and scientists are as vulnerable as journalists to the idea that science can supply them with uncorrupted objectivity and unambiguous instruction. Given that Muller himself didn’t seem able to supply clarity to the debate – in spite of the science – it is no surprise that arguments downstream have even greater difficulty getting the story straight. In this case, science, rather than shedding light on the material world, obscures the debate.

Climategate, and other events in late 2009, such as the failure of the climate-change summit in Copenhagen to find asuccessor to the Kyoto protocol, revealed that too much had been invested in science. Science is, after all, produced by humans prone to error and vice. Climate scientists had refused to reveal their data or show their workings, and several alarming claims about climate change, such as the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, were found to be groundless.

This would have all been without consequence had there been more circumspection about the role of science. But rather than reflect on such expectations, the BEST project aimed to reproduce the science with virtue, with ‘transparency’. It made no difference, though, because before it had even been published, BEST became a peg on to which the same old prejudices, myths and politics were hung. BEST came to ‘vindicate climate science’, exonerate climate scientists and force ‘sceptics’ to concede that the Earth had warmed.

BEST says nothing about any of these things, of course. Sceptics weren’t ‘denying’ that the world had warmed. The debate wasn’t divided between climate science and its critics. And ‘Climategate’ remains an embarrassment to those who refused to release data (or concealed it) and its methodology, as Muller explained. Science cannot end the climate debate, because the climate debate has very little to do with science.

 

This story was intended for Spiked-Online, who may be publishing it at some point, but I wanted to get it out a bit sooner.


A new scientific study of the Earth’s temperature record aimed to rescue climate science’s reputation from the aftermath of the ‘Climategate’ affair. Advocates of climate policies have long argued that unimpeachable science has driven policy-making, but climate sceptics argued that due scientific process had not been observed. Climategate and other revelations  that seemed to undermine climate science seemed to make the sceptics’ case. Rather than bringing clarity to the debate, however, the new study inadvertently demonstrates that the desire for unimpeachable scientific answers belies a fundamentally political debate.

The ‘Climategate’ affair broke In late 2009. Thousands of private emails between climate researchers based at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unity were leaked onto the internet, the contents of which raised questions about the propriety of high profile scientists. Whether or not they had done anything wrong, the authors of these emails seemed to have been caught taking liberties with statistics, concealing their data and methodology from scrutiny, and treating the critics of their research with contempt. In the wake of Climategate, Professor of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley, Richard Muller said,

Quite frankly as a scientist, I have a list of people whose papers I won’t read any more. You’re not allowed to do this in science; this is not up to our standards. [...] This is why I’m leading a group to re-do all this in a totally transparent way.

The first results from Muller’s group — Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) — have been released. Rather than being released through publication in a peer-reviewed journal, however, Muller and his associates took the somewhat unusual step of publishing draft copies of their studies, and made themselves available for comment in the media. Fuelling controversy further, Muller wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, which an editor gave the title, ‘The Case Against Global Warming Skepticism — There were good reasons for doubt until now’.

This comment came to the delight of climate activist journalists, scientists and other commentators. ‘Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed’, announced the New Scientist. ‘BEST reconfirm: warming is happening’, said the influential Carbon Brief blog, which is staffed predominantly by activists from environmental NGOs. Channel 4 News’s science correspondent, Tom Clarke was asked, ‘so does this finally vindicate climate change science’. ‘In a word, yes’, replied Clarke. According to Clarke, the BEST team’s discovery that the world is warming got those implicated by Climategate off the hook.

From the copy it had generated, it would seem that BEST had ended the debate. But climate scientist, and contributor to the BEST project, Judith Curry observed, ‘the spin on the press release and Muller’s subsequent statements have introduced unnecessary controversy into the BEST data and papers’. Curry’s comments were picked up by Daily Mail journalist, David Rose, who wrote

‘The Mail on Sunday can reveal that a leading member of Prof Muller’s team has accused him of  trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.’

Exciting stuff. But not what Curry had told Rose. ‘To set the record straight, some of the other sentiments attributed to me [in Roses's Daily Mail article] are not quite right’, she wrote on her blog. Meanwhile, Muller himself was distancing himself from the headlines of the article in the Wall Street Journal. ‘It doesn’t represent the article’, he told a journalist in New Mexico. But sceptics pointed out that Muller had said,

Without good answers to [sceptics' concerns about various attempts to measure global warming and its effects], global-warming skepticism seems sensible. But now let me explain why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.

Confusion reigns. The coverage had by now been established as so much he-said-she-said. Sceptics pointed out that, in spite of the claims that the debate was now over, the BEST study still had argued that ‘human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated’. The data still reflected a stalling of global temperatures over the past decade, and the study’s attempt to rule out one of the main concerns sceptics have about the way temperature data is recorded appear to have some serious shortcomings. Even the project’s leader didn’t seem to be making consistent statements about what his research meant for the climate change debate. None of this phased the BBC’s environmental correspondent, Richard Black, who continued covering the affair in much the same way. Wrote Black,

The original “hide the decline” claim is one of the most easily de-bunked in the entire pantheon of easily-debunkable “sceptic” claims.

Phil Jones wrote the email in 1999, immediately following what still ranks as one of the hottest years on record, and well before the idea of a “slowdown” or “hiatus” or even “decline” in warming gained currency.

So it can’t have had anything to do with hiding a global temperature decline.

The expression ‘hide the decline’ is what ultimately led to Climategate becoming such a major story. Defenders of those implicated by the emails argued that ‘hiding the decline’ referred to a mathematical technique, rather than a conscious effort to deceive. But there was nonetheless good evidence that something untoward had been intended. And it was this that moved Richard Muller to establish the BEST project, as he explains in this video.

If the sceptics’ ‘hide the decline claim’ was as easy to debunk as Black claimed, Muller — a Professor of Physics — would not have needed to bother with the BEST project. But Black had invented the claim he had attributed to sceptics, for which he later apologised. But the cat was out of the bag: rather than accurately representing the arguments made in the debate, he had picked a straw man to argue with, rather than sceptics.

Had Black wished to overcome the limitations of mediocre journalism, to get to the heart of the debate, there are many well-informed sceptics he could have turned to for comment and advice. One such is Andrew Montford, author of ‘The Hockey Stick Illusion’ and a report published by  the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on the Climategate affair (PDF).  ‘He’s not representing what the sceptic’s arguments are’, Montford told me.

The majority of sceptics say ‘yes, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that the world has warmed’. That’s really hasn’t been argued very much for a long time. There are  few people out there arguing [against] that, but really not very many. What you read about sceptic objections in the newspapers is not really what the sceptics’ objections are.

Montford agrees that there is no definitive ‘sceptic’ argument. This fact mirrors the many varied positive claims that are made on the other ‘side’ of the climate debate, but which seem to emerge axiomatically from the fact that ‘climate change is happening’. For many sceptics, too much rests on the claim, however true it is, which is in the first place a question of degree with a considerable amount of latitude, even within the ‘scientific consensus’. A concatenation of non-sequiturs cascade from the first: about sea-level rise, species extinction, drought, famine, resources wars, and so on. And these consequences seem to cascade just as ‘inevitably’ to the remedy: the creation of powerful political institutions, a transformation of the global economy, and the de facto rationing of energy and regulation of lifestyle.

In short, the climate debate is by definition as complex as the whole of human social life and natural science combined. But such a complex state of affairs does not make for easy reportage, especially by journalists who don’t seem able to digest nuance and complexity, let alone reflect meaningfully on them. And so to take issue with any aspect of the debate is to seemingly deny that the earth has warmed approximately 0.7 degrees centigrade and that humans had some part in it.

So what does the BEST study really reveal, according to sceptics? And how has it changed things in the post-Climategate world? Montford tells me that,

[BEST] doesn’t really change anything. People like Steve McIntyre [the climate blogger who first raised issues with how historical temperature records were created] were saying long before Climategate: you’re not going to find a smoking gun in the temperature record, and you always had the satellite records which were telling pretty much the same story. [The Climategate researchers] are just being civil servants and trying to hide the fact that they’re not doing very much, they haven’t got many quality-control procedures, and they’ve got commercial incentives to keep everything under wraps. That’s the only reason for the secrecy.

So it would seem that few, if any, sceptics were claiming that there had been no warming, or that the scientific data had been plucked out of thin air. BEST merely confirmed what most sceptics agreed was probably happening anyway. Nonetheless, the BEST story was widely reported as representing a meaningful end to the climate debate. Muller had made ambiguous comments, which were amplified by an incautious sub-editor. A phantom news story appeared out of an uncontroversial study. Journalists were reporting from inside their own heads, not from the real world. And that is an interesting phenomenon, and one which needs some explanation.

Complex debates are reduced to simple, moral stories of ‘scientists versus deniers’, in part because of the shortcomings of news organisations and their journalists’ attachments to the debate. Anxieties about the end of the world give moral orientation to otherwise disorientated commentators. Taking a stand that claims to ‘save the planet’ elevates journalists, who without climate change, would quite probably struggle to overcome mediocrity, to define a sense of purpose for themselves. It looks like bravery, but it is merely vacuity that drives sensationalism.

However, vapid journalism — churnalism — is not the whole story. The controversy generated not by BEST itself, but by the treatment of its result, speaks about wider and unrealistic expectations of science. Politicians, activists, and scientists are as vulnerable as journalists to the idea that science can supply them with uncorrupted objectivity and unambiguous instruction. Given that Muller himself didn’t seem able to supply clarity to the debate — in spite of the science — it is no surprise that arguments downstream have even greater difficulty getting the story straight. ‘Science’, rather than shedding light on the material world, obscures the debate.

Climategate, and other events in late 2009, such as the failure of the COP15 meeting at Copenhagen to find a successor to the Kyoto protocol revealed that too much had been invested in science. Science was, after all, produced by humans prone to error and vice. Climate scientists had refused to reveal their data and show their workings, and several alarming claims about climate change were found to be groundless. This would have all been without consequence, had there been more circumspection about the role of science. But rather than reflect on such expectations, the BEST project aimed to reproduce the science with virtue: ‘transparency’. It made no difference, though, because before it had even been peer-reviewed and published, it became the peg onto which the same old prejudices, myths and politics were hung. BEST now ‘vindicated climate science’, exonerated climate scientists and forced ‘sceptics’ to concede that the earth had warmed.

BEST says nothing about any of these things, of course. Sceptics weren’t ‘denying’ that the world had warmed. The debate wasn’t divided between climate science and its critics. And ‘Climategate’ remains an embarrassment to those who refused to release data (or concealed it) and its methodology, as Muller explained. Science cannot end the climate debate, because the climate debate has very little to do with science.

I have no idea about the truth of a story in the Telegraph today. As usual, however, I find that the way the facts — whatever they are — are treated is more interesting than the reality.

BBC drops Frozen Planet’s climate change episode to sell show better abroad
The BBC has dropped a climate change episode from its wildlife series Frozen Planet to help the show sell better abroad.

Hmmm. Okay, I am wondering if it is true now. You have to wonder…

British viewers will see seven episodes, the last of which deals with global warming and the threat to the natural world posed by man. However, viewers in other countries, including the United States, will only see six episodes. The environmental programme has been relegated by the BBC to an “optional extra” alongside a behind-the-scenes documentary which foreign networks can ignore.

So I’m wondering, now, did the BBC put out a press release saying ‘you don’t have to buy the seventh episode — it’s an optional extra, for non-climate sceptics’? I find it hard to imagine. So where did the story come from?

Campaigners said the decision not to incorporate the episode on global warming as part of the main package was “unhelpful”. They added that it would allow those countries which are sceptical of climate change to “censor” the issue.

Others suggested that the Corporation should have offered “On Thin Ice”, the global warming episode, for free due to the importance of the issue.

Ahhh. Campaigners. You see, it probably wasn’t an issue…

However, the BBC said it was standard practice to offer international clients only the parts they wished to purchase.

… until the campaigners turned it into one. And, moreover, until the Telegraph indulged them.

A spokeswoman for the BBC said it was not be feasible to force networks to buy the climate change episode as it features Sir David talking extensively to the camera and there are many countries where he is not famous. Many environmentalists are ardent fans of the show for highlighting the fragile beauty of the natural world.

Fragile beauty? This is the myth of ‘fragile beauty’. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, after all. And in much the same way, so is fragility. It’s not until you believe that the world is ‘fragile’ that change and ‘destruction’ become equivalents. Environmentalists presuppose ‘balance’ in the world. Thus, any change can only be explained in terms of a destructive agent — humanity. It’s this idea of fragility and balance that leads to ideas about ‘tipping points’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘gaia’. That’s not to say that the changes seen in the Arctic are neither problematic, nor our fault, but that the idea of ‘fragility’ precedes a treatment of the facts, and precludes a sensible debate about them. Hence, there are some angry voices about the fact that broadcasters are free to buy the episodes they desire. The Telegraph quotes a number of such angry voices,

Harry Huyton, the head of climate change for the RSPB, said: “Selling Frozen Planet in two parts seems rather unhelpful because it suggests that it would be perfectly reasonable not to show the bit with the climate message.

“We would encourage the networks that haven’t bought the whole thing to think again and not to censor the issue.”

Tony Juniper, an environmental adviser and former head of Friends of the Earth, said: “It raises questions about the BBC’s overall environmental coverage, which is patchy and inconsistent.”

He added that the BBC’s attitude allowed other countries to opt out of the climate change episodes for “political reasons” or because they had already covered the issue with previous programmes.
A spokesman for Greenpeace, the environmental group, said: “It’s a bit like pressing the stop button on Titanic just as the iceberg appears.

“Climate change is the most important part of the polar story, the warming in the Arctic can’t be denied, it’s changing the environment there in ways that are making experts fearful for the future.”

It’s not clear how Toby Juniper has determined that the BBC’s coverage of the environment is ‘patchy and inconsistent’. The ‘science and nature’ pages of BBC’s iplayer site reveal that the BBC is pretty keen on reporting from the natural world. Moreover, as recent controversies over the Jones report, and Richard Black’s instructions to his juniors reveals, the BBC takes a pretty dim view of climate scepticism. As I’ve argued before, greens’ lack of sense of proportion is made up for by their sense of persecution. Huyton’s allusion to ‘censorship’ is picked up by Business Green’s James Murray, who is ‘none too impressed with the BBC’s decision to censor its nature documentary for foreign audiences

Unsurprisingly, (and this is more the fault of the scientific and political community than the BBC), 10 of the 30 networks to buy the show have opted for the censored version. There is no prize for guessing the US is among those markets where TV execs have decided they do not like scientific reality to impinge upon their inspiring nature footage.

Censorship? Censorship? Really? I bought a Sunday paper this weekend, but decided to leave the supplements at the newsagents, as I wasn’t interested in them, and I had a fairly long walk up a hill home. Was I censored? I freely made a decision not to take the parts of the paper I didn’t want with me. The shopkeeper agreed to keep them, and dispose of them himself. In much the same way, the BBC, as seems to be normal practice, offers its series in parts, to broadcasters, so that they can freely chose to screen what they wish.

Where is the censorship?

‘Censorship’, in its day-to-day usage, means an official intervention, to prevent the broadcast of material. But we see now that, in the strange moral universe created by environmentalists, ‘censorship’ has been somewhat transformed. Censorship is now the failure to broadcast the official account of something. That is to say that if you don’t broadcast something which environmentalists tell you that you should broadcast, you are censoring. In other words, environmentalists have precisely inverted the meaning of ‘censorship’. This is amazing, not least because ‘censorship’ is something we typically equate to the ‘Orwellian’ use of language, and now we see the word ‘censorship’ itself being subject to revision along the lines of ‘newspeak’. But perhaps this dystopia is a better account of what environmentalists have in mind…

Perhaps this is a bit of an over-reaction. Nobody is forcing our eyes open, and holding our head to the screen. Yet. But the point remains, environmentalists seem to believe that exposure to their narrative, over images of change will provoke a change in the audience’s moral conscience. Moreover, we shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy the stunning photography, or images of the cryosphere in general,
without being told the story of climate change.

Natural history, then, becomes a morality tale. Or perhaps worse, a secular creation myth. Rather than ‘censorship’, the word James Murray and Harry Huyton were searching for was ‘blasphemy’. To show images of the Arctic without the sermon would be to puritans what the godless celebration of Christmas and Easter is, without the story of Christ: mere hedonism.

To the main point: what’s wrong with enjoying the BBC’s epic photography, for it’s own sake, eschewing the moral message? It would be hard to deny that the BBC’s natural History unit has a unique sense of spectacle, and some extremely talented staff. There is nothing wrong with it, of course, except for the fact that enjoying such images, divorced from the environmentalists’ narrative is ultimately to enjoy distance from nature. What you see, when you watch these programmes is not intrinsic beauty, but the culmination of thousands of man-hours, and £ millions of technical processes: skilled camera operators and production crews, and expensive and time consuming post-production, recolouring, re-timing, and editing the footage.

If you were actually sat at the Arctic, you would, after some moments of awe, likely become quite bored quite quickly, and yearn for home, even if it is, like mine, a flat in a fairly brutal 1970s block of cubic modernity. You would also get quite cold. And hungry. ‘Beauty’ — aesthetics in general — would become less and less of concern, and thoughts about what you’d prefer to eat would give way to actual hunger, which would force you to eat regardless of taste. You would be less concerned with the ‘fragility’ of nature than with your own imminent demise.

It’s only with such distance that natural history as a morality tale makes any sense. It’s only when were not subject of nature’s whims that nature seems to be ‘fragile’. It’s only when we’re warm and snug that we can be forced to consider what life would be like without warmth and snugness. And that’s why various greens have got their knickers in such a twist about the BBC not forcing overseas broadcasters to buy its miserable, moralising follow-up.

Predictably, the UK’s first shale gas fracking plant has become the site of ‘direct action’. Once again, a small number of protesters have decided to inflict themselves on the rest of the world. The Guardian reports this morning that,

Protesters from the UK’s anti-fracking network Frack Off have invaded a test drilling site in Lancashire and occupied its drilling rig.

A group of nine people ran on to the site operated by Cuadrilla Resources at Hesketh Bank near Preston before dawn and used climbing equipment to clamber up the metal structure. They have fixed themselves on top and said that they plan to stay as long as possible. Other protesters are expected to hold a rally at 3pm outside the site.

This is the MO of the small number of environmental activists in the UK. Previously, they have trashed crops and attempted to shut down power stations and airports, and even parliament itself.

Isn’t the point of a protest to demonstrate popular support? Yet few of these instances of direct action ever muster more than a few dozen people. The environmental movement’s attempts at conventional forms of protest have resulted in disappointment — no more than a few hundred will turn out. Thus, to elevate their campaigns, environmental activists turn to spectacle: dangerous stunts that guarantee media coverage. For decades now, this has been the way environmentalists have attempted to engage the public. Yet they are more isolated than ever, and have completely failed to share the values and ideas which inform their actions.

For instance, there may be perfectly legitimate reasons to protest about the development of fracking. People living nearby may feel that they are inadequately protected from any possibly accidents, and that the fracking company will not be held sufficiently liable for any damage they cause, and may be encouraged to take risks. Hell, who could object, even to a protest about carbon emissions? But these are not the complaints of the fracking protesters. Their website reveals the real object of their criticism:

The actual problem we face is that civilisation has too much energy, not too little. This addiction to fossil fuels has driven a binge of extreme exploitation of our environment and our social structures, that is threatening our very existence. Fancy technological schemes to try to continue our present orgy of consumption and waste indefinitely are inevitably doomed to failure. Only a transition to a much less energy intensive way of living can save us from complete disaster.

It is civilisation itself — not hydrological fracturing — which annoys the protesters.

They should tell the 5 million households in the UK who live in ‘fuel poverty’ that ‘civilisation has too much energy’. They should tell the families and friends of the 2,700 people who die each year as a consequence that there is a ‘a binge of extreme exploitation of our environment and our social structures’. They should explain to the 1.6 billion people in the world who don’t have any access to electricity that ‘a much less energy intensive way of living can save us from complete disaster’. The Guardian quotes protester, Colin Eastman:

Conventional fossil fuels have begun to run out and the system is moving towards more extreme forms of energy like fracking, tar sands, and deep water drilling.

The move towards ‘extreme energy’ is literally scrapping the bottom of the barrel, sucking the last most difficult to reach fossil fuels from the planet at a time when we should be rapidly reducing our consumption altogether and looking for sustainable alternatives.

In the UK fracking for shale gas is planned alongside, not instead of, extraction of conventional fossil fuels like coal.

It’s a myth that conventional fossil fuels are running out. ‘Extreme forms of energy’ are being developed because civilisation is getting better at finding more abundant sources of energy. That’s what civilisation is: it creates the possibility of better and better ways of living, of more freedom and greater material progress. The Frack Off campaigners are intolerant and nervous of it. Their claim is that we are inviting ecological disaster, but this belies anxiety about disorder in the human world: on their view, nature serves to discipline our sinful, profligate selves. Civilisation means finding new things, rather than existing in a kind of social stasis, in back-breaking ‘harmony’ with nature.

The moral argument for more energy — for ‘extreme energy’ needs to be reclaimed. Cheaper, and increasingly abundant energy is a good thing because it increases the possibilities of human lives. Being restricted to Nature’s Providence is a bad thing, because it limits the possible freedoms humans can enjoy. Most people realise it, and only a few are prepared to climb drilling rigs to campaign against civilisation. Yet they’re the ones who get in the papers.

Something of a brouhaha is developing in the debate about the extent of subsidies for renewable energy in the UK. Green energy campaigners are complaining about a proposed cut in the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) scheme which promises owners of domestic solar PV up around £0.433 per kilowatt hour, but which will ‘only’ give them £0.21 per kWh. James Murray, editor of Business Green said in the wake of the leaked proposal that,

The government is about to deal a crippling blow to a fast expanding green industry that is serving to cut carbon emissions and create jobs.

In the same article, Murray also claims that the solar industry employs more people than the UK’s nuclear energy sector. According to many of the government’s new critics in the green energy sector, there are 25,000 jobs in solar energy in the UK.

That seems like an extraordinary claim to me. According to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics, nuclear power provided 69,098 gigawatt hours (18% of total) of electricity to consumers in 2009, whereas there were only 50 megawatts of installed solar PV capacity on the grid in the same year. That makes a comparison in equivalent terms of output difficult. DUKES doesn’t even bother, the sums are so small, so it lumps production from solar PV in with wind. But if we assumed that solar panels were 100% efficient (had a 100% load factor), and the sun shone 24 hours a day, the UK’s fleet of solar panels would have produced just 438 gigawatt hours — a 160th of what the UK’s fewer nuclear energy employees produced. But the sun doesn’t shine every day, and solar PV struggles to produce a load factor of more than 20%. Let’s call it 15%. It now looks like solar PV in the UK produced just 66 GWh of electricity in 2009 — less than a thousandth of what the nuclear energy sector did, with fewer people.

But there’s an even better way to show that the figure is bogus. Even if the UK’s solar PV fleet increased by 50MW (50,000 KW) of capacity each year, that would mean that each job in the sector only produced 2KW of capacity. That is less than one domestic solar PV installation per year, per sector employee.

Then let’s imagine that each of those jobs costs £25,000 a year. That would mean a total of £625 million. So in order to compete with nuclear in labour terms, the solar sector needs to become 1,000 times more efficient. Anyone who wants to defend subsidies to solar energy on the basis that it ‘creates jobs’ needs to take a reality check. There are much better things that could be done with that money. It’s hard to think of a more futile and costly gesture. It would be better to simply give 25,000 people £25,000 each, every year, because then there would be no need to pay for the solar PV panels and no need to subsidise their pitiful output.

I had a look to see the source of the 25,000 jobs claim. The closest thing I could find was this article, which claimed that

According to the latest REAL Assurance data an estimated 25,000 UK jobs have been created as a direct result of the feed-in tariff (FiT). Despite already exceeding all expectations, the Renewable Energy Association (REA) believes even this huge figure is likely to be underestimated as the REAL team only deals with companies working on small-scale installations.

It looks like James Murray was confused about the statistics…

In the solar industry alone there are currently 4,000 companies registered with REAL in the UK with approximately 100 new members signing up each month. Each one of these companies has from 1-2,500 employees, showing the sheer dominance the solar sector has in the UK. At this growth rate the REA estimates that solar jobs will exceed 7,000 by April 2012, with more jobs created providing the industry remains supported.

But the more accurate figure hardly puts the solar PV sector in a better light, if you’ll pardon the pun. It means that the average solar PV job produces just 7KW of installed capacity per year (assuming that capacity is increased by 50MW per year, which is more than optimistic).

Stuff the subsidies for solar PV. They make no sense. At all. Just as the statistics produced in defence of the UK’s energy and climate policies make no sense. I’m struggling to not to use expletives and other words that are no stronger than ‘innumerate’ to describe the nonsense that we’ve seen over the last few weeks (see previous posts). Forget hockey sticks. Forget ‘hiding the decline’. The real statistics-abuse happens closer to home — in the policies and politics of the climate and energy debate. With such liberties taken with arithmetic, it makes no difference what graphs depicting global temperature change say.

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