Environmentalism & Freedom

Posted by Ben Pile on December 22, 2011
Dec 222011

Often, environmentalist’s sense of triumph belies their actual intellectual reach. George Monbiot calls himself the winner of a debate with director of the Institute of Ideas, Claire Fox,

Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column, I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, one of the rightwing libertarian groups that rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist party. Fox is a feared interrogator on the BBC show The Moral Maze. Yet when I asked her a simple question – “do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?” – I saw an ideology shatter like a windscreen. I used the example of a Romanian lead-smelting plant I had visited in 2000, whose freedom to pollute is shortening the lives of its neighbours. Surely the plant should be regulated in order to enhance the negative freedoms – freedom from pollution, freedom from poisoning – of its neighbours? She tried several times to answer it, but nothing coherent emerged which would not send her crashing through the mirror of her philosophy.

The debate is available here. George opens with the classic litany of ecological alarmism, concluding that the ‘vast majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is happening’. The mistake, of course, is to forget that many — perhaps even the majority of — climate sceptics believe that ‘climate change is happening’, too. What is at issue is the degree to which it is happening, and what kind of a problem climate change is. ‘Climate change is happening’ doesn’t mean anything by itself; it’s an entirely empty claim. Complex debates, presuppositions, prejudice and claims are collapsed into one neat axiom, and allowed only to be ‘true or false’. George looks at the ‘opinion of the majority of scientists’ and ‘the weight of scientific evidence’, but is unable to discuss the object of all that ‘science’ and scientific opinion. It means whatever he wants it to mean.

Given that the substance of arguments like Monbiot’s are put beyond reach — in to the hands of some scientists, somewhere, according to him — it is inevitable that any attempt at reasoned discussion will end in an impasse. And so it was, really, with the debate between Monbiot and Claire Fox. Here’s how it continued…

Monbiot: Do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?
Fox: Um. Rarely.
Monbiot: So what about the situation for instance that I witnessed in Romania, where lead smelting plants, because they’re not properly regulated, are free to produced toxic fumes which are greatly shortening the lives of peope who live nearby? That’s one type of freedom intruding on another, is it not?

Impasses such as these are often more interesting than arguments that reach a resolution. ‘Freedom’ is of course a much contested concept. And it is telling that ‘freedom’ in Monbiot’s argument is an essentially problematic thing in itself. Monbiot is convinced that Fox — a libertarian — will want to defend merely the freedom to pollute. But Fox has a more sophisticated understanding of freedom:

Fox: Well, I don’t think it’s freedom. I mean, I think there’s problems of pollution. I think no doubt that behaviour of certain big, industrial, corporate organisations is not beneficial to people.
Monbiot: I’m talking about a clear case where regulation would be reduced in the name of freedom that you’re discussing, where industries are less regulated and so more able to produce pollutants, like the lead smelters I saw in Romania. Do you not accept that those enhanced corporate freedoms to do as they wish, or enhanced freedoms of the rich people who run those plants, limit the freedom of the people who live nearby?
Fox: It’s very interesting because you said ‘those enhanced freedoms’. Freedom is not about enhancing or not; freedom by the way is a political freedom, and political freedom is not divisible. I want people to be free. And that, by the way, means …
Monbiot: [Interrupring] You’re talking about being free to pollute in this case…
Fox: Yeah… In that instance…
Monbiot: [interrupting] You want people to be free to pollute.
Fox: I want freedom. You’re… I appreciate that you are keen to get me to say that I am on the side of the nasty polluters…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] No no no no. I’m just trying to persue this question with you…

This ‘clear case…’, it seems, is a reflection on experiences that Monbiot had in Romania, in 2000. Let us put ourselves in Romania in 2000. What would we be interested in? Ever the environmentalist, rather than heading for the huge expanses of wilderness — apparently the largest and least ‘disturbed’ in Europe — he heads for the environmental disaster: people living near lead smelting plants. My question would probably be: why are people forced to live in such proximity to this kind of industry; it’s not as if there’s no space in Romania. But if we really wanted to understand the condition of Romanians in 2000, wouldn’t the events of just a decade earlier provide a better account of them?

Just ten years before Monbiot’s visit, Romania was ruled by one of the most brutal regimes in the Soviet Bloc. The context of people being exposed to fumes from lead smelting then, is a nascent democracy in the aftermath of decades of oppression. The legacy of Ceausescu’s tyranny is not the subject of the discussion, however. But shouldn’t that be the discussion? If we want to understand why there are smelting works next to human dwellings, and why people are unable to either move, or force a change of practice at the factory, we surely have to understand the political and historical situation in Romania. But George — like most environmentalists — prefers a much more simple model of the problem. The case is not as clear as Monbiot wanted us to believe.

Fox: What I’d like to then persue back to you, as you were good on asking that, is, you see regulation then, constantly, top-down, regulation, limits and so on as the way to free society. Is that right? You think that will ‘enhance’ freedom? That will allow people in Romania to have a freer society?
Monbiot: I think that if the lead smelters that I saw in Romania were less free and more regulated, then the people living around them would be more free of the horrible diseases and shortened life expectancy which they currently face. Now, I’ve answered your question, in a very straightforward way, you still have not answered mine.
Fox: They wouldn’t be less free by the smelters being regulated, because freedom is not the same as, in the way that you’re describing. Freedom is political rights question…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] Yes, and at the moment the political rights of the smelters is to be able to produce these fumes which are doing other people in.
Fox: Yes, but I’m actually talking about… I mean if you want to talk about the political freedoms of the people in Romania, what you need is actually a sense of freedom in Romania, to fight for your rights, equally. And you might then go out and fight the smelters, as it happens…
Monbiot: [Interrupting] Wait a minute, you’re dodging the question again. OK. You say…
Fox: Listen, George, I’m answering it in a way that you don’t find satisfactory. That is not quite the same as dodging it…

Fox is about to answer Monbiot’s question. Sensing progress, Monbiot interrupts. As Fox explains — or tries to — people in Romania should be free to challenge the polluting effects of lead smelting.

George’s sense of triumph was misplaced. Fox had not argued that people should be free to pollute others. But in Monbiot’s head, that was what she had been arguing for. It’s what he came prepared for. Monbiot had imagined that libertarianism stood for nothing more than simply being ‘against regulation‘, rather than an idea about what constitutes political freedom. Again, ‘freedom’ is a contested idea, but in Fox’s argument it was that a free society creates the possibility of autonomous citizens challenging polluting industry. Fox was not against ‘regulation’ after all.

This speaks about the very narrow conception of ‘freedom’ in environmentalism in general, and in Monbiot’s perspective in particular. He simply doesn’t understand the concept of political freedom, let alone the nuanced discussions about it. On that eco-centric perspective, ‘freedom’ is understood merely in terms of metabolic function: your freedom to emit substances interferes with my biological processes. Metabolic freedom, not political freedom. Absent from this view is the possibility that lead smelting can become a mutually-rewarding enterprise. No. Lead smelters can only be greedy bastards, and can only be stopped by regulation. Never mind that lead has utility in a free society, as do many other materials.

Monbiot: I don’t find it satisfactory becuase you’re not answering it. And in this particular case, what people… The very people I met… were doing were demanding that the factories should be restricted, through regulations imposed by the government. Were they wrong to do so?
Fox: I would disagree with them as that being the priority. Let’s bring it closer to home, because you will know that one of the things that happens here is that whenever there’s a dicussion for example about climate change, or the environment in this country, one of the things that is constantly urged is that people, for example, curtail their use of energy, change their behaviour, and the government are asked to impose those changes because you can’t trust the democracy to do it themselves. Now do you think that what we should do is actually have no regulations about energy use in this country — we should be able to be free to use whatever energy they want. You can try to persuade them something, but we should get rid of all green regulations, from this country, ‘cos that would be free wouldn’t it. They would be free then to make decision based on genuine political choices, rather than having it dictated by a government.
Monbiot: You precisely illustrate my point. We would be free to limit other people’s freedoms in that case, because we would be to reduce the quality of life of people who are much poorer than ourselves, who have much less agency than ourselves…
Fox: [Interrupting] No, I’ll tell you what you need for cleaner technologies, you need to actually argue for greater investment in R&D, actually have a vision that is not about limits, and natures revenege and worrying about cutting down CO2 emissions, a vibrant, healthy, future-oriented society that says the way forward is to develop lots of new technologies, to industrialise everything.
Monbiot: But let’s look at what’s going on in the UK for a moment, where we’ve got a situation right now, where we’re faced with a very clear choice. We either go down the fossil fuels route, and replace current generating capacity with gas and coal. Or we go down the low-carbon route and go to a mixture of renewables and nuclear technologies such as integral fast breed reactors and so on. Route two is not gonna happen unless route one is regulated away, because at the moment the cheapest option is to go for gas and coal.

Monbiot, the new advocate of nuclear power, argues as if he’s the first person to have ever thought of it, not as the person who campaigned against it for years. And even now he has no insight into what drove his anti-nuclear impulse. The same arguments persist in his claims about climate change that characterise the anti-nuclear argument: that it is too dangerous, that it allows profit to be made at the expense of safety, that it was being undemocratically foisted on a population that were lied to about the risks. The idea that he should have convince people of the merits of nuclear, or even the dangers of climate change, is lost on him.

Back to George’s Guardian article — an attack on Libertarianism…

Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

It’s an interesting reflection on his failure to move past his impasse with Claire Fox. The notion of political freedom lost on Monbiot, he now considers himself the saviour of the poor.

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

And this is a point answered well by Dr Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance in a letter to the Guardian.

[Monbiot] claims we “pretend … that only the state intrudes on our liberties. [We] ignore … the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free.” Not quite. We do believe that the state is the foremost violator of our right to life, liberty and property. But we also observe that banks are licensed and regulated creatures of the state, and that big business in general is only big because of state-granted privileges like limited liability, infrastructure subsidies, and tax and regulatory systems that cartellise costs and flatten competition from outside the magic circle. There is a difference between believing in free markets and supporting actually existing capitalism.

Monbiot has been banging on about ‘libertarians’ for years. And yet had he seen just one interview with Ron Paul, for instance — not that I am his biggest fan — on the subject of the economy, he would know that conservative libertarians are fiercely critical of the extant relationships between governments and banks, even in the United States of America! To criticise libertarians for ignoring the relationship between the state and banks would be not unlike criticising environmentalists for not ‘caring about nature’.

How can a man who purports to have an expert grasp on the world and its politics, fail so comprehensively to understand the very terms of the arguments he is taking issue with?

To make matters worse, Monbiot now turns to Isiah Berlin’s ‘two concepts of liberty’ essay.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

It is something of an irony that Monbiot — who, as we have seen, has barely more than an idiot’s grasp of the terms of the debate — complains about the misconception of ‘The great political conflict of our age’. He flatters himself with the claim that ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ exist on one side of a historical battle, pitched against phantom ‘neocons, millionaires, and corporations’. ‘In reality’, claims Monbiot, ‘the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms’.

This much is plagiarised from Adam Curtis’ trilogy, The Trap: Whatever happened to our dream of freedom.

But while what Curtis’s excellent films show is a complex world without straight lines and full of paradoxes, Monbiot’s fantasy depicts just two sides: goodies (hooray!) and baddies (boo!). In article after article after article, the recurring theme is a shrill attempt to reduce the world’s complexities to simple moral coordinates: cave in to the conception of liberty peddled by the libertarians, and Africa will be scorched by drought and heat, the waves will inundate the reminder of the third world, and Romainian workers will be forced to inhale lead. This cartoonish perspective on the world reveals Monbiot’s absolute failure to see any depth in it.

The claim that ‘the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms’ is true, but prosaic. There is no ‘great political conflict of our age’. What defines this age is not some battle between One Concept of Liberty, but a dearth of political conflict — of ideas, or concepts — of any meaningful kind. The millionaires, corporations and even neocons (whoever they’re supposed to be when they’re not a figment of Monbiot’s imagination) are as likely as not to be doing all that they can to demonstrate their ‘ethical’ credentials, to be showing themselves to be ‘caring about the environment’, and the ‘social justice campaigners and environmentalists’ only too keen to help them. You cannot move in this world without bumping into eco-marketing. There are even ‘ethical banks’. There are billionaire philanthropists, who donate vast sums to environmental organisations. NGOs are given priviliged access to policy-making processes at national and supranational political institutions. There are no straight lines. There are no simple moral categories. Monbiot concludes…

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.

In real reality, however, libertarianism — of either the kind espoused by Claire Fox or more conservative libertarians — is not a political force. Yet. The idea that it is powerful, or has been able to assert itself is a fantasy. It is an illusion that is owed to Monbiot’s failure to grasp the world, and to understand the claims libertarians make, and thus to identify ‘libertarianism’ or its influence in the real world. Libertarians are perhaps environmentalism’s (and Monbiot’s) most coherent and vociferous critics, and hence they appear to him as the harbingers of doom: like a spoilt infant, he can’t tell the difference between the end of the world and a challenge to his will, or criticism of his argument. ‘Libertarianism’ becomes an encompassing explanation of his own sense of inertia, just as ‘the climate’ serves as an encompassing account of all that is wrong with the world.

The delusions of the climate technocrats

Posted by Ben Pile on December 14, 2011
Dec 142011

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/11888/</em>

It was the latest in a long series of last chances to save the planet. Like a convention of superheroes, 14,500 politicians, civil servants, journalists and campaigners from development and environmental NGOs descended on Durban, South Africa, for the seventeenth Committee of Parties (COP) meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Their agreement, if they could reach one, would save the remaining 6,999,985,500 of us from certain doom.

Just as with past COP meetings, despite the broad consensus on the need to save the planet and having all the best scientists available to them, the superheroes failed. Once again, it was not climate-change deniers and secret PR campaigns funded by Big Oil companies that caused the failure. Instead, it was the incoherence and conflicting agendas of those who wanted an agreement that made reaching one impossible. The business of cutting CO2 emissions to save the planet turns out to be more complex than simply agreeing that it’s a good idea to do so.

For instance, among the things considered by the world’s most important people who assembled in Durban were thepropositions that the ‘rights of mother Earth’ should be recognised; that international courts be established to ‘ensure respect for the intrinsic laws of nature’ and ‘to ensure harmony between humanity and nature and that their [sic] will be no commodification of the functions of nature’. With the stench of such nebulous eco-bullshit wafting around the negotiations, it’s no surprise that the fortnight-long session had to be extended in order desperately to find some areas of agreement.

Apart from the more obvious eco-waffle, however, the biggest problem for hopes of a climate agreement are the many contested alarmist interpretations of ‘the science’. The climate issue long ago ceased to be a purely technical matter and has instead become an encompassing story that explains global inequality, poverty, natural disasters, war, migration, and even the problems with capitalism. In other words, climate change has become the issue on to which any other issue or agenda can be pegged. Exhausted political ambitions are smuggled on to the international agenda under the cover of ‘science’. As a result, arguments in favour of a strong, binding agreement have sought moral capital and urgency by claiming that failure to find it will bring catastrophe on the least fortunate in the world. And so the search for victims to parade at COP17 began.

‘Cape Verde minister appeals for EU support not to sign their death warrants’, tweeted Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and climate adviser to President Nasheed of the Maldives. In the entrance to the building housing the negotiations, delegates held an ‘occupation’, in which the mostly white crowd held signs saying ‘Don’t Kill Africa’, ‘Stand With Africa’, and chanted the Greenpeace slogan ‘listen to the people, not the polluters’.

The irony of demands for ‘democracy’ coming from almost 6,000NGO representatives – nearly half the total number of attendees – would be lost on them. But nobody could have been more oblivious to it than activist Abigail Borah, who interrupted US climate negotiator Todd Stern’s presentation. ‘I’m scared for my future’, she shouted across the meeting room at a pitch that matched the shrill moral tone. ‘You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions’, she demanded. ‘The United States’ government does not speak on my behalf’, she whined to a journalist.

Borah and a number of other activists were ejected from the negotiations. For so long, NGOs have campaigned for governments of the world to take such meetings seriously, to ignore the wishes of their electorates, to create a legally binding agreement. Yet here they were, making a mockery of what they had lobbied for and had been given access to. They were there, in huge numbers, but were complaining that the process doesn’t represent them.

As I’ve argued previously on spiked, there is a bizarre relationship between NGOs, national governments and supranational political organisations. In these sterile, post-political times, governments – especially in the West – have sought from supranational organisations and NGOs the mandate they once took from the electorate, to represent instead the problems the world apparently faces. People are represented in this form of politics only to the extent that their victimhood serves some purpose. Organisations such as the EU and UN, being far removed from ordinary life, recruit organisations from civil society – those which care about animals, trees, starving babies and climate change – to arm their projects with moral purpose and legitimacy.

This is the real dynamic driving the UNFCCC process. Supranational political organisations have sought legitimacy from NGOs, which have in turn cast the world’s problems as environmental problems. According to them, our profligate ways here in the West cause rains and crops to fail in Africa. This subordination of the development agenda to the climate agenda, however, has turned development NGOs against development. The expectation is that a strong, legally binding climate agreement will end poverty, but this was simply not a view shared by all parties.

Emerging economies such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the so-called BASIC group) angled to keep themselves out of any new commitments. The more industrialised countries had yet to shoulder their historic responsibility for causing climate change, and failed to meet their targets under the Kyoto Protocol, the previous agreement. So why should these newly industrialised countries sign up to anything? The development cat was out of the climate-change bag: to agree to reduce emissions is to agree severely to impede development. The anti-development and legalistic logic of environmental alarmism was the very thing that separated its most zealous adherents from its putative beneficiaries.

By the end of the two weeks, the failure of COP meetings to produce an agreement looked imminent. The process, which had been riven through by disagreement, was extended by 36 hours. This undignified ending of international negotiations looked like an heroic gesture: exhausted officials and environmental activists trying desperately to prevent the Armageddon that looms over us. But in reality, it was an operation designed merely to salvage the credibility of the process and those involved in it. An agreement for the sake of an agreement was found: an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, and a ‘roadmap’ to an agreement. What were allegedly the most important decisions to be made about the future of the world ended up being made on the hoof, at the last minute, by sleep-deprived representatives of governments, harangued by an army of environmental activists, in a debating chamber that represents nobody except bureaucrats and NGOs. Outside the negotiations, reality bites. Barely 24 hours later, the Canadian environment minister, Peter Kent, announced: ‘We are invoking Canada’s legal right to formally withdraw from Kyoto.’

The process of finding a global ‘deal’ on climate change is beset by the incoherence of its objectives. Is it about ‘respecting Mother Nature’, ‘saving the planet’ or ‘ending poverty’? Nobody at the meeting, which conflated so many issues, could claim that it was about climate change. Moreover, the desire for an agreement backed by legal force looks much more like a desire for the force itself than a desire to ‘save the planet’. If the planet really does need saving, then the processes that will save it will be technological, not technocratic.

Climate Technocrats at Durban

Posted by Ben Pile on December 14, 2011
Dec 142011

I have a story up on Spiked today…

It was the latest in a long series of last chances to save the planet. Like a convention of superheroes, 14,500 politicians, civil servants, journalists and campaigners from development and environmental NGOs descended on Durban, South Africa, for the seventeenth Committee of Parties (COP) meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Their agreement, if they could reach one, would save the remaining 6,999,985,500 of us from certain doom.

Read more at Spiked…

Dec 142011

I’m so bored… BORED… of climate change. Environmentalism is such a boring, boring, boring thing. It’s mundane. It’s banal. It obsesses about the minutiae of biological functioning only to the extent that it wants to limit the possibilities of human life, rather than extend them. And it is mean spirited — it nags you about whether children need those Christmas presents, if you need that holiday, if you really need to take the car. It’s a joyless, nihilistic chasm, which sucks the life out of life.

According to some definitions, ‘politics is the art of the possible’. I was reminded of this by two videos I came across recently.

The first is this misery-fest from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI).

Yeah. Merry Christmas.

What we have in that little animated skit from the greens is the art of the impossible. On the Post Carbon Institute’s view, “We have to live within nature’s budget of renewable resources at rates of natural replenishment.” These limits become the parameters of our existence: the complete regulation of our productive lives.

But there are other ideas in the world, which don’t seem to conform to this stifling orthodoxy.

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY from jason silva on Vimeo.

Taking his inspiration from physicist, David Deutsch, Jason Silva says, ‘If you look at the topogaphy of the island of Manhatten today, that topography is a topography in which the forces of economics and culture and human intent have trumped the forces of geology… extrapolating… that will be the fate of the whole universe.’

Trumping the forces of geology is, of course, anathema to the PCI.

I have no idea whether Jason Silva and David Deutsch would thank me for offering them as examples of thinking which sits at the opposite end of an axis to rank gutless miserablism. Perhaps the climate debate is one they would rather avoid — sensibly. It strikes me, however, that this should be the geometry of the debate about the future. To the PCI, history is a series of mistakes, which have taken us to the point of crisis. To the optimists, it is the foundation of ever greater leaps. The PCI speak of constraint, whereas the optimists speak about unleashing ever more creative potential. But there is an even more important difference.

Whereas the likes of the PCI have been able to turn their bleak vision into a system of ‘ethics’ and politics, the optimists’ ideas don’t seem to have any immediate moral consequences. There is no Intergovernmental Panel on Trumping Geology. On the contrary, there is only an intergovernmental panel on sobbing at our utter vulnerability in the face of geology. The impossibility of overcoming it — to any extent — is presupposed in the very foundations of the UNFCCC process: it discovers natural limits, and we are expected to codify them in international law. This is bizarre, not least because there are so many problems that can be faced by not taking seemingly ‘natural’ limits for granted. But also, because so much positive good cold be done in genuinely transforming the conditions of our existence by transcending such boundaries. Environmentalists seem to want them to remain in place. ‘Science’ in that arrangement is restrictive. On the optimists view, however, it liberates.

Environmental politics is about nothing more than regulation of eating, shitting, sleeping and f***ing: human life is reduced to these things, and each must be done ‘sustainably’, lest any opportunity for a more meaningful life opens up between them. So, the pessimists’ approach to the immediate problems facing the world is to regulate them out of existence. But poverty, war, famine and disease could not be abolished from the world by acts of international law intended to make the weather more ‘predictable’. Even if that did succeed, what would human life look like? A drab, miserable existence characterised by subsistence, in which each generation’s existence is identical to its parents’.

We see in the PCI’s animation, active hostility to progress — it is impossible. In the optimist’s video, there is dedication to the idea — the possibilities of human life expand indefinitely. We can argue forever about what ‘science says’ about the climate; the real debate is about its interpretation. The optimists need to recapture the moral and political ground from the miserablists.

The Polar Bear Affair. Part 1001.

Posted by Ben Pile on December 8, 2011
Dec 082011

The BBC’s Frozen Planet is continuing to fuel controversy. First, as discussed previously on this blog, the BBC’s decision to sell the seventh episode of the series — David Attenborough’s personal view of climate change and the crysophere — as an option led to screams and shouts from environmentalists. Environmentalists turned natural history into a morality tale.

A new brouhaha has broken out. A short opinion piece in the Radio Times — the BBC’s ‘what’s on TV’ guide — by Nigel Lawson has got polar Open University Polar Oceanographer Dr Mark Brandon all hot and sticky. Said Lawson,

Sir David Attenborough is one of this country’s finest journalists, and a great expert on animal life. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to global warming he seems to prefer sensation to objectivity.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have pointed out that, while satellite observations do indeed confirm that the extent of arctic sea ice has been declining over the past 30 years, the same satellite observations show that, overall, Antarctic sea ice has been expanding over the same period.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have pointed out that the polar bear population has not been falling, but rising.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have mentioned that recent research findings show that the increased evaporation from the Arctic ocean, as a result of warming, will cause there to be more cloud cover, thus counteracting the adverse effect he is so concerned about.

Had he wished to be objective, he would have noted that, while there was indeed a modest increase in mean global temperature (of about half a degree Centigrade) during the last quarter of the 20th century, so far this century both the UK Met Office and the World Meteorological Office confirm that there has been no further global warming at all.

What will happen in the future is inevitably unclear. But two things are clear. First, that Sir David’s alarmism is sheer speculation. Second, that if there is a resumption of warming, the only rational course is to adapt to it, rather than to try (happily a lost cause) to persuade the world to impoverish itself by moving from relatively cheap carbon-based energy to much more expensive non-carbon energy.

The Guardian’s resident eco-gossip columnist, Leo Hickman is reporting that Brandon penned an irate response to Lawson’s article, calling it ‘”patronising”, wrong and the “usual tired obfuscation and generalisation”‘. A more sober rebuttal appears on the Open University’s website. The following passage about polar bears caught my eye.

Is it true that polar bear populations are rising, and not falling as reported?

Many bear populations are dropping, as we say. Longer summers with no ice are probably the main reason why many polar bear populations are dropping. So what is happening to the bears? Different things in different parts of the Arctic, but here is what the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission say about it:

In 2009, of the 19 recognised subpopulations of polar bears, 8 are in decline, 1 is increasing, 3 are stable and 7 don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions. Figure 1 below compares the data for 2005 and 2009.

It is clear that the area of red (bear population trend decreasing) has significantly increased from 2005 to 2009 and the area of green (bear population trend increasing).

Pie charts struck me as a very peculiar way of representing population decline. It says less than nothing about population. For instance, the graph could be true, yet the total number of polar bears have increased in just the one region under study. Indeed, a million billion trillion zillion new polar bears could have landed in the one area from nowhere, and the graph would look exactly the same. Brandon seems to have taken his stats from the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, and in particular this page which shows the different regions of their studies, and this table, showing the available data.

The 19 polar bear populations are divided as follows, according to the IUCN.

But if we rule out those 7 which ‘don’t have enough data to draw any conclusions’, we begin to see a problem.

There is insufficient data to say anything about the entire Eastern side of the polar region. Now let’s add the regions where populations are understood to be stable or increasing.

There are now 7 regions, of the 19, which are our focus. Working our way down the image, however, we find at Chukchi Sea that,

Abundance estimates are not available. The trend is believed to be declining and the status relative to historical levels is believed to be reduced based on legal/illegal harvest levels that were thought to be unsustainable. Sea ice loss is one of the highest levels in the Arctic. Combined impacts of high levels of legal/illegal harvest with rapid sea ice loss suggest that the risk for depletion is likely high.

In other words, the population of polar bears in this region have not been the subject of a population study.

Moving on to the Southern Beaufort Sea (SB), we discover the comment that ‘Estimated risk of future decline is based on vital rates estimated from the 2001-2006 data used in matrix-based demographic models that incorporate sea ice forecasts’. Models, not population studies are what see peril for polar bears. And indeed, going deeper into the analysis, it turns out that that,

The size of the SB subpopulation was first estimated to be approximately 1,800 animals in 1986. [...] Through the 1980s and early 1990s, observations suggested that the SB subpopulation was increasing. Amstrup et al. (2001) found that the SB subpopulation may have reached as many as 2,500 polar bears in the late 1990s. However, that estimate was not considered reliable due to methodological difficulties, and management decisions continued to be based on a population size of 1,800. Results from an intensive mark-recapture study conducted from 2001-2006 in both the USA and Canada indicated that the SB subpopulation included 1,526 (95% CI = 1,211 – 1,841) polar bears in 2006 (Regehr et al. 2006). This suggests that the size of the SB subpopulation declined between the late 1990s and 2006, although low precision in the previous estimate of 1,800 precluded a statistical determination. [...] Subsequent analyses of the 2001-2006 data using multistate and demographic models indicated that the survival and breeding of polar bears during this period were affected by sea ice conditions, and that population growth rate was strongly negative in years with long ice-free seasons[ ...] Thus, the SB subpopulation is currently considered to be declining due to sea ice loss.

Again, we see that it is models which predict population decline, not actual population studies. On to Lancaster Sound (LS), the comments for which are that

A population size of 2,500 bears was estimated in 1998 using mark-recapture methods. Population is through {sic} to be declining, because of highly selective harvest of male polar bears. [...] Demographic data are 11 years old. Population has highly selective harvest for males; however it is likely that selective hunting will decline with less sport hunting.

There’s an awful lot of estimating going on, about estimates of population done 14 years ago. Is this safe? Over to the Western Hudson Bay (WH).

The distribution, abundance, and population boundaries of the Western Hudson Bay (WH) subpopulation have been the subject of research programs since the late 1960s (Stirling et al. 1977, 1999, Derocher et al. 1993, 1997, Derocher and Stirling 1995, Taylor and Lee 1995, Lunn et al. 1997, Regehr et al. 2007). [...] Between 1987 and 2004, WH declined from 1194 (95% CI = 1020, 1368) in 1987 to 935 (95% CI = 794, 1076) in 2004, a reduction of about 22% (Regehr et al. 2007).

At last, we seem to have a number of studies to work from — a 22% reduction, even though the confidence intervals are quite wide, and do not exclude the possibility of there having been no population reduction at all. Over to Kane Basin (KB), which is,

A small subpopulation of approximately 150 polar bears, estimated in 1997. Harvest is thought to be unsustainable, and the population declining.

Thought to be… Maybe even good reason for thinking it… But it’s still just a thought. Anecdote, not data. On to Baffin Bay,

The current (2004) abundance estimate is less than 1,600 bears based on simulations using vital rates from the capture study (Taylor et al. 2005) and up-to-date pooled Canadian and Greenland harvest records.


The initial subpopulation estimate of 900 bears for [Davis Strait] (Stirling et al. 1980, Stirling and Killian 1980) was based on a subjective correction from the original mark-recapture calculation of 726 bears, which was felt to be too low because of possible bias in the sampling. In 1993, the estimate was again increased to 1,400 bears and to 1,650 in 2005. These increases were to account for the bias as a result of springtime sampling, the fact that the existing harvest appeared to be sustainable and not having negative effects on the age structure, and TEK which suggested that more bears were being seen over the last 20 years. The most recent inventory of this subpopulation was completed in 2007; the new subpopulation estimate is 2,142 (95% log-normal CI, 1811 – 2534). Using new recruitment and natural survival estimates (Tables 3, 4), the 10-year mean un-harvested geometric population growth rate is 0.98 ± 0.001 (Peacock 2009; see Research in Canada, this volume). DS is currently declining based on survival rates calculated from data collected up to the conclusion of the mark-recapture study in 2007. Ecological covariates associated with survival suggest that the decline may be as a combined result of short-term and local density dependence, stabilization of harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) numbers and declining ice conditions.

So in fact the population of the Davis Strait increased over the last 30 years, in spite of global warming, from 726 to 2,142. But now it is supposed that they are in decline, in spite of there being no actual population study.

I’m not impressed. I believed that claims about polar bear population declines were based on polar bear population studies. But in two of these seven populations (Davis Strait and Southern Beaufort Sea) there was good evidence from actual population studies that numbers were increasing, which was overturned in the final analysis by ‘estimates’ of decline. Of the remaining 5, one region seems to have a robust claim to have shown a decline in population, but the rest are claims made on ‘estimates’ and simulations. Time to update the map.

Black shows the areas where there is insufficient data. Green shows regions where there is evidence of increase or stability. Red shows decrease. And yellow shows regions whose polar bear population numbers have been guessed. Grey is N/A.

Moreover, the main emphasis made by the PBSG is not the effect of global warming on polar bears, but humans shooting them. They discuss ‘sustainable’ levels of harvesting these creatures, which are ultimately dangerous pests as far as humans are concerned.

Brandon’s silly population pie charts seem to me to epitomise the way ambiguous data is concealed, and given a façade of scientific certainty. More to the point, it was wielded in a public and political debate about global warming policy. And this is the interesting thing about the cryosphere. Since it is so hostile, data series longer than 30 years are hard to come by. It is no surprise then, that this is where we find arguments about catastrophic climate change bury themselves — in uncertainty and ambiguity. The same is true of polar bear populations as it is of sea ice extent and air, sea and surface temperature. Where there are gaps in the knowledge, prejudices, assumptions and speculation fill the void. We see, as a matter of routine, claims that there are only N years left before the summer sea ice will be completely gone from the Arctic, and repeated claims that ‘the Northwest Passage has opened up for the first time in recorded history’. The Arctic and Antarctic are where fears about ‘runaway global warming’ and speculation about positive feedback systems are grounded, precisely because these regions are so poorly understood. And this lack of understanding is the reason idiot self-publicists go on futile missions to swim to the North Pole, or to trek across it ‘while we still can’ with moron scientists in tow, doing far more PR than research. In this respect, the cryosphere is is to climate change alarmism what quantum mechanics is to people preoccupied with parapsychology: it offers a possible mechanism to explain telepathy, ghosts, and even homoeopathy.

Thoughts on Climategate r1

Posted by Ben Pile on December 1, 2011
Dec 012011

I thought it might be worthwhile posting this presentation I gave in Edinburgh in Spring last year, following the first Climategate. It seems to me that the same is true of Climategate 2 as was true of the first: if there had been a more transparent debate, Climategate would not have have had the impact is has had. Some are calling for transparency in science, which I agree with, but I think it is a mistake to believe that even completely transparent science would answer the debate. It would make it harder to hide environmentalism’s political and ethical claims, perhaps, but it would be no guarantee, either of that or a bit more reflection on certain claims and why they exist, not just in the climate debate, but more widely also. For instance, the precautionary principle, and the deference to science, and the prostitution of its authority aren’t at all exclusive to the climate debate, but are almost ubiquitous in contemporary politics.

We often get comments on Climate Resistance that ask us what qualifications to speak about climate change I and my colleague, Stuart Blackman, have.

Neither of us are climate scientists.

To take issue with the moral and political arguments that emerge from the climate debate, is seen as equivalent to taking issue – to denying – climate science.

What I think this speaks most loudly about is the weight of expectations that climate science has to bear.

What makes climate science’s relationship with the social political sphere special and unusual, compared to other forms of science is that there is so much moral and political capital invested in the idea of a climate catastrophe.

It seems to me that that something like Climategate was bound to happen, and will continue to happen in the form of things like as Glaciergates and Africagates for instance as people start to see what climate science is and isn’t capable of producing for their moral and political arguments.

George Monbiot is one of my favourite writers, because you can always find something to say about what he says. And the thing I’ve chosen today is that George Monbiot believes that gay people are more moral than straight people, because they won’t produce any carbon-emitting babies.

I’m not pointing it out to say that gay people are immoral, but because I don’t see how they can be any more or less ‘moral’ than people who happen to be born straight.  This is just a bizarre moral framework.

We also hear from the likes of the New economics foundation and the green party that there are just ten years left to save the planet. If you go to the NEF website, you can even hear the clock ticking, down from 100 months.

According to Susan Watts, the science… Science!… Editor of BBC Newsnight, ‘scientists have calculated that Obama has four years in which to save the planet

So these are the kind of arguments people are trying to support with climate science.

But it is not just journos and activists. This is academics from many different disciplines,

Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine tells us that fat people contribute more to climate change than thin people do. Because as they get fatter, they enter a positive feedback system, in which they increasingly use labour-saving devices to cart their increasingly fat bodies around, as they become less and less physically able. So they use escalators, lifts, cars, etc, pumping out CO2 all the while.

Using carbon is the equivalent of slavery, according to Jean-Francois Mouhot, a historian at the University of Birmingham.  If we compare our current attitude to fossil fuels and climate change with the behaviour of the slave owners, there are more similarities than one might immediately perceive.

There are now special climate change ‘ethics’, that occupy the minds of philosophers. The scientific certainty that we are destroying the planet has made black and white the moral questions that have haunted moral thinkers since ancient times.

This cheap moral realism gives purpose to special climate change psychologists, who are employed to find out why the moral message isn’t getting through to the public.

They set about working out how to communicate climate change to people who don’t believe it, and try to locate the processes that may be going on in the heads of those who refuse to believe it… The deniers.

There doesn’t appear to be an area of public life that has not been framed in the terms of climate change. The idea of climate catastrophe has become the prism through which we see ourselves, the world, and our relationship to it.  Everything is captured in this one idea that the world is about to be destroyed.

This is a political and ideological phenomenon, not something which has just emerged from climate science, to which conventional politics has simply responded after considering it carefully.

And yet, if you look at how the arguments within this system are constructed, they nonetheless all begin with the claim that “climate change is happening”. I think this is mistaken view. Not that climate change isn’t happening, but that it is a mistake to [allow] ‘climate change is happening’ [to be] the beginning of all these moral calculations.

What happens at UEA, then, appears to be the keystone of all the arguments that ensue.

And so it is no surprise that this is where people have been focussing their hacking efforts. And it is of no surprise that what has been found reveals that the source of all these moral and political arguments is not so clear cut.

I think sceptics have made a mistake here. And that a peak behind the firewall didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know.

Rather than a process of the science informing the political or otherwise social, the dynamic is the other way round. That is to say that the politics is prior.

Monbiot puts it best: It [the campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.


Monbiot has had to make his apology, because he has invested his entire perspective on the world, in “The Science”.

David Attenborough is even less reflective. He says.

“Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it’s time to control the population to allow the survival of the environment”.

The President of the Royal Society – the organisation that promotes the scientific view of the world, Martin Rees, writes in “our Final Century” that our odds of surviving the next 100 years are just 50/50.

I mention Rees because he was on the Today program this morning, talking about the IPCC review — a review of the review by the reviewers — and it struck me more than ever that Rees’ role was once occupied by people who were proud to speak truth to power. Now, he, the Royal Society, and so many institutions that have attached themselves to the climate issue, instead speak Official Truth FOR official power. And I think that is a dangerous thing.

The sense of overwhelming crisis is being used to give authority to the kind of political ideas I think we ought to reject. These political ideas, since they make a virtue of being anti human, depend instead of our consent, on empirical substance for their moral authority. That substance comes from organisations like of the CRU.

So there are two sense in which the politics is prior to the science.

First, there are the ideological presuppositions that we are powerless to address the things produced by our sense of alarm and imminent doom. We passively accept our fate, and the fate of others.

For instance, the Global humanitarian Forum released a study last year which claimed that 300,000 people a year die from the effects of climate change. This doubles the WHO’s estimate from 2002. They project that half a million people will die, in 2030, they say, from the same malaria, malnutrition and diarrhoea, caused by climate change. This, they say makes climate change the biggest issue facing mankind.

Never mind the 10 million people who died according to the WHO in the very same report, from first order effects of poverty.

We feel so unable to understand the social world, that the only way we can conceive of its problems is by naturalising them through ideas about the environment and climate change.

Second, there are the searches for authority in the statistics and projections such as those produced at the CRU.

The academy, government, and the media each seem to have rooted themselves in this crisis, and define themselves by it.

The crisis gives orientation to journalists who are disoriented by a world that no longer divides into left and right, and East and West.

It breathes new life into dusty old academic departments who have had relevance and targets foisted upon them from above.

And it gives the government legitimacy in a time when no one can be ‘bovvered’.

Finally, then, in order to make productive sense of what the science ‘says’, we need to be sure that we know what science has been asked, and what it has been told, and what it is really studying.

The climate crisis — and all of its little debates and fights like Climategate– are a projection of much deeper problems and crises in society.

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