‘Transparency’ & the GWPF – Part 2

Posted by Ben Pile on January 27, 2012
Jan 272012

A letter at the Guardian says,

Science is by its nature sceptical: scientists interrogate information and only on repeated investigation does data become science. The science of climate change has been established through numerous high-profile studies (IPCC, NOAA, Nasa) and was even verified by the sceptic-led Best report. In 2009 one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, declared climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. Denying the links between greenhouse gas emissions and man-made climate change is akin to denying the links between HIV/Aids and unprotected sex, smoking and lung cancer, or alcohol consumption and liver disease. In each of these cases, well-funded deniers have had to be exposed and confronted before appropriate health-promoting legislation was put in place.

Okay. Let us agree, you shouldn’t ‘deny the links’ between causes and their known effects. But what if people claim that if you have unprotected sex you will get HIV? What if people claim that, as soon as you have just one puff on a cigarette you will get lung cancer? And what if people started claiming that, the moment you took a sip of beer, wine or cider, your liver simply melted? What then?

And what if someone said that this was so much nonsense? What if he or she suggested that you actually have to drink or smoke quite a lot to suffer illness, and that although one could theoretically have unprotected sex just once and contract HIV, it’s very very very unlikely? Would he or she be ‘denying the links’ between such effects and their causes? Shouldn’t we start to ask questions about the nature of the ‘links’ between causes and effects? And shouldn’t we ask questions about the extent to which they are stated?

‘Links’ between causes and effects have magnitude. It is incumbent on those wishing to bring those ‘links’ to bear over public policy to enumerate them. But often, risk becomes politicised. Any non-zero amount of risk becomes, in the official jargon ‘unacceptable’. ‘One death is too many’, and so on. Crusaders elevate themselves on the basis that ‘if I can save just one life, then my work is done’. This is how proportion is lost, and how the ‘links’ between causes and their effects get amplified from weak, to huge. Theoretical risk becomes immanent danger.

And just as it ought to be incumbent on those wishing to capitalise on risks for professional and political gain to enumerate risk, it should be incumbent on them to explain how a cheque for £50,000 represents a donation to a ‘well-funded denier’. Yes, this is all about the FOIA to the Charities Commission about the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The letter continues…

The Climate and Health Council supports Nasa scientist James Hansen as he joins the campaign to uncover secret funders bankrolling climate sceptic Nigel Lawson and his lobbying think-tank (Climate experts back unveiling of Lawson thinktank donor, 23 January). The public may finally discover who is secretly influencing UK climate policy – contrary to scientific consensus – today (27 January), when the Information Rights Tribunal hears this key freedom of information case. Some anti-climate lobbyists routinely misrepresent and cast doubt on the work of climate scientists. Although Lawson and his Global Warming Policy Foundation have been discredited and attacked by numerous scientists and senior politicians, his thinktank continues to receive significant coverage, wrongfully distorting the public and policy debate over climate change.

What is the extent to which the GWPF has ‘influenced policy’, as the letter’s authors claim? Nothing.

At every leap in the argument made by the authors, all proportion is lost. All ‘links’ between causes and effect are infinitely amplified, such that any amount of CO2 is indistinguishable from total Thermageddon. A cheque for sufficient money to employ someone on a decent wage for a year becomes the total failure of the UK’s climate policy. Never mind that, as I pointed out in the previous post, there are £billions available for the PR message in the other direction. £50,000 is all that it takes to completely subvert all policy-making in the UK. And it gets worse…

Perverting the course of evidence-based policy…

What?! When was there ever a ‘course of evidence-based policy’, such that it could be ‘perverted’? The complaint clearly borrows from the offence of ‘perverting the course of justice‘, but it has no analogue in policy-making. Having an opinion and wishing to intervene in a debate about policy might qualify as ‘perverting the course of evidence-based policy’. And as we have seen, the difference between opinions amounts to the difference between having a sense of proportion and not having one at all. And it is those without who seem, somewhat ironically, to be complaining about ‘perverting’ ‘evidence-based policy’. All the more an irony, that this climate inquisition are assembled from some leading UK scientific institutions.

… on climate-change adaptation and mitigation damages our health resilience, our economic prosperity and our environmental stability. Transparency around climate-sceptic funders is essential. We support freedom of information to reveal those deliberately preventing the UK’s sustainable future.
Dr Fiona Godlee Editor-in-chief, British Medical Journal
Dr. Richard Horton Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet
Professor Ian Roberts Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health
Professor Hugh Montgomery Professor of Intensive Care Medicine
Professor Anthony Costello Professor of International Child Health
Rachel Stancliffe Director, Centre for Sustainable Healthcare
Dr. Robin Stott Co-chair, Climate and Health Council
Maya Tickell-Painter Director, Medsin Healthy Planet Campaign

A few of these names are familiar. Ian Roberts, for example, was the subject of one of the first posts on this blog, back in 2007. He had argued in the New Scientist that the obesity epidemic is aggravating global warming.

We tend to think of obesity only as a public-health problem, but many of its causes overlap with those of global warming. Car dependence and labour-saving devices have cut the energy people expend as they go about their lives, at the same time increasing the amount of fossil fuel they burn. It’s no coincidence that obesity is most prevalent in the US, where per capita carbon emissions exceed those of any other major nation, and it is becoming clear that obese people are having a direct impact on the climate.

Roberts didn’t make it clear how it was ‘clear’ that ‘obese people are having a direct impact on the climate’, nor what the climatic effects of fat people were supposed to be.

Robert’s claims are sheer bullshit, of course, and the cost of allowing such bullshit to flow so readily from respected scientific institutions for the service of political ideas will be that science will ultimately undermine its own authority. If you think I over-state the point, examine the liberties that Roberts has taken with science so far in order to win a political debate.

As pointed out here:

When all that the best clinical minds can offer is the political idea that people’s desire for food and labour-saving devices (ie, higher standards of living) are expressions of a kind of false consciousness, small wonder that people complain about ‘health fascism’. Roberts has such contempt for the public that he assumes to know their political and material interests better than they do, and pretends that it is ‘capitalism wot makes ‘em do it’… that people are too fat headed to know what to eat.

It must be lean times at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, because this poverty-stricken argument is so bloated, it needs four bandwagons to wheel it onto the pages of the New Scientist: obesity, global warming, anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. All that’s missing is a photo of a polar bear perched on a dwindling ice floe.

The conceit of the scientists — if that is what they really are — who have put their names under the letter to the Guardian is that their opinions, their prejudices, their politics are ‘science’. This is obvious, because not only do they fail to give proportion to their arguments, they also completely fail to identify what it is that the GWPF have argued that is so objectionable. It is merely the fact that the GWPF exists to scrutinise climate policy at all that bothers them. And this fact, when seen alongside the fact that the GWPF hasn’t influenced policy reveals the real object of their panic…

The GWPF has pricked the consciousness of some of the public, and given institutional credibility to the cause of policy-scepticism. Public opinion, however, has not had any real influence over climate and energy policy. Indeed, the point of supranational institutions such as the UNFCC process, the UN itself, and the EU also, is to overcome the problems of domestic politics. But the attempt to build international agreements has failed. (And that failure has nothing to do with either public opinion, or the GWPF). What the signatures beneath the letter to the Guardian have in common is that the belong to individuals heavily invested in public health and climate bureaucracies, whose influence is increasingly justified on the basis that it will mitigate an inevitable disaster. Such a disaster is epitomised by Roberts: climate and obesity — two of the biggest scare stories out there.

And if you don’t believe me about the scale of this absurd phenomenon, consider this BBC article today:

Miliband attacks Cameron over chocolate oranges
Ed Miliband has attacked David Cameron for failing to stop the sale of cut-price Chocolate Oranges – something the PM complained about in opposition.

In 2006, Mr Cameron criticised WH Smith for discounting chocolate rather than fruit despite the UK’s obesity crisis.

But the Labour leader told The House magazine the situation had not changed.

“If he can’t sort out the chocolate orange, he’s not going to sort out the train companies, the energy companies, the banks, is he?” Mr Miliband said.

With politicians like these, is it any wonder that public health bureaucrats and climate change fear-mongers are in the ascendant? There is a compact between them, in which the mediocrity of the former is offset by the scientific authority of the latters. The cost is democracy. The letter, entirely devoid of a scientific argument, uses scientific authority to make a political argument, and to close down debate. The substance of the relationship between these pseudo-scientists and their backers needs to be exposed.

Greens to sceptics: show us the money!

Posted by Ben Pile on January 25, 2012
Jan 252012

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12005/

The first question asked about anyone making a non-conforming argument in the climate debate is ‘who funds them?’ And so it is with the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) – a three-man, cross-party, independent think tank with charitable status, which dared to challenge climate orthodoxy. The Charities Commission rejected an Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request demanding to know who gave the GWPF its first cheque of £50,000. Several climate scientists have backed the call for the Charities Commission to reveal who backs the GWPF.

The GWPF’s charitable status allows its donors to be protected from the FOIA. This has angered climate activists, who are determined to connect climate-change ‘denial’ with oil interests. Accordingly, Brendan Montague of the Request Initiative submitted the FOIA request on the basis that ‘the public has a right to know if any donor is related in any way to the oil industry’. The Commission refused the request, and Montague took his complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which also rejected the claim. This crusade for honesty and transparency is confounded, however, by two huge problems for the GWPF’s critics.

The first is that it is transparently the case that, whatever the GWPF has said about climate change, it has enjoyed no influence over policy whatsoever. Neither the present nor the previous governments have taken the slightest notice of any sceptics, other than to condemn them. Far-reaching national and international climate policies have been enacted with minimal opposition or scrutiny within Parliament, and in spite of sceptics’ arguments and public opinion.

Second, whether or not it was honestly given (and I find it hard to give a stuff, either way), the £50,000 donation at the centre of this absurd story is a fantastically small amount. Even the £500,000 that the GWPF received from donors in its first year of operations fades into insignificance when put in perspective.

For example, it would take the combined resources of 25 GWPFs to produce an equivalent of the UK government’s extraordinarily patronising Act on CO2 campaign. The Committee on Climate Change spends more than eight times that much each year on its own operations. In 2010, the quasi-independent Carbon Trust and Energy Saving Trust received government grants worth £156million and £70million respectively. That’s a total of 452 times as much public money as the GWPF took from donors. The billionaire Jeremy Grantham – who has around $1.5 billion worth of stock in oil companies – is the benefactor of the influential Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change, headed by Lord Nicholas Stern, who wrote The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and WWF enjoy gifts of millions of pounds from the UK and EU governments. And the EU funds associations of renewable energy companies to lobby politicians to the tune of millions of euros per year.

It would be an astronomical understatement to say that the environmental activists banging on about the GWPF lack a sense of proportion and have incredible double standards. The GWPF’s resources are far less than even a thousandth of what is available to the government for research and PR – through its departments, the quangos and NGOs that are recruited into its green agenda, and firms and other associations that will profit by it. And yet this tiny operation has seemingly achieved such reach, to punch far above its weight, against the collective force of all the above.

The Guardian‘s environmental ethicist, Leo Hickman, has covered the latest turn in the progress of Montague’s crusade against the GWPF – an appeal against the ICO’s decision, which will be heard at the Information Rights Tribunal on Friday. Hickman, clearly entirely credulous towards this information-seeking hero, recites the complaints against the think tank – generally limp and petty criticism which takes more liberties with the facts than they accuse the GWPF of.

One such critic is James Hansen, the NASA climate-scientist-turned-amateur-dramatist who suggests that future generations will find the GWPF ‘guilty of crimes against humanity and nature’. With such a high-profile scientist expressing such shrill and irrational opinions, it becomes hard to take his scientific claims seriously. But perhaps the most remarkable claim is Hickman’s complaint that ‘Last November, a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which analysed climate coverage in the UK media, concluded that the GWPF had been “particularly successful” at courting media attention and that Lawson and the foundation’s director Benny Peiser were “by far” the most quoted climate sceptics.’

The Guardian‘s ethicist must be scratching his head over why the organisation he writes so many articles about enjoys such attention in the media. But anyone even barely acquainted with common sense will know that the vast majority of the public have never even heard of the GWPF, let alone seen its efforts, and so will be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

There are several answers. The first is that both establishment and street-level environmentalists are far better at losing friends and alienating people than their critics are at winning influence. Yet environmentalists like to believe it is sceptics who are preventing them from saving the planet. The GWPF, being among the few critics, serves as a convenient villain in such moral pantomimes. Second, as is obvious from Hansen and Hickman’s verbiage, there is little attention paid to anything the GWPF actually says. The mythological ‘denier’ precedes a view of the debate, yet it is hard to find anything radical within the GWPF’s output.

This leads to a third answer, which is that a preoccupation with who-is-funded-by-whom epitomises the vacuity of contemporary politics. It is a way of avoiding criticism, rather than engaging with it. Montague’s reckoning appears to be that the criticism offered by the GWPF is answered, just so long as he can tie the name on the cheque to the fossil-fuel sector.

This he-who-pays-the-piper-calls-the-tune nonsense is a familiar motif in the climate-change debate, but it is not unique to it. The wider phenomenon of increased emphasis on ‘evidence’ in public policy inevitably leads to claims that others are ‘denying’ scientific fact. The irony of evidence-based policy-making, then, is that it locates the debate, not on the ground of evidence, but on who is the least impeachable provider of it. Thus, environmentalists are preoccupied with the follow-the-money argument, oblivious to the financial interests stacked up in favour of green energy.

A further irony is that Montague’s outfit sells itself with these words: ‘Request Initiative uses information law to deliver government data into your hands, enhancing your organisation’s media, research and campaigns work. We work exclusively for the third sector.’ It is remarkable, then, to note that the GWPF is one of just a few critics of government policy, yet has earned the wrath of the third sector. Indeed, Request and Montague are doing the establishment’s work here, with NGOs, environmental activists and the Guardian all nodding in approval at the attempt to use state apparatus to quash unorthodox opinion, rather than facing it in public debate. In conclusion: there should be more GWPFs.

FOIA and the GWPF

Posted by Ben Pile on January 25, 2012
Jan 252012

I have a piece up on Spiked today, about Brendan Montague/Request Initiative and their ongoing attempt to use the FOIA to ‘find out’ about the GWPF’s donors.

The first question asked about anyone making a non-conforming argument in the climate debate is ‘who funds them?’ And so it is with the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) – a three-man, cross-party, independent think tank with charitable status, which dared to challenge climate orthodoxy. The Charities Commission rejected an Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request demanding to know who gave the GWPF its first cheque of £50,000. Several climate scientists have backed the call for the Charities Commission to reveal who backs the GWPF.

Read it here.

I’ve never been a fan of the follow-the-money argument, as all we need to do to show that the other argument is just as lame is to follow the money in the other direction. But perhaps more importantly, energy corporations don’t really care where they get their money from. If they can get more of it by doing less, so much the better for them. (Have they forgotten Enron already?)

This silly case must indicate that environmentalism is suffering intellectually lean times. Leo Hickman’s Guardian article on the case was especially poor, and the thinking lopsided. I perhaps unwisely suggested in a ‘tweet’ that the quality of the article reflects him being a w**ker. This led in turn to some Twitter exchanges, in which it was suggested I was a ‘troll’ rather than a proper sceptic, and the complainant — a somewhat naive and a little bit daft climate scientist — dropping me from her Twitter feed.

Funny, I suggested, that one can claim that the GWPF are guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’ — i.e. that their words are morally comparable to the systematic murder of people — and nobody bats an eyelid, but suggest that members of the Guardian’s environment department play with themselves, and your a troll. All the more an irony that the claim comes from the Guardian’s ‘ethical’ correspondent, whereas it was my ethics that were questioned, as though I had lost my moral compass.

A sense of proportion is all that it takes to see through environmentalism.

The the-End-is-Nigh Genre

Posted by Ben Pile on January 13, 2012
Jan 132012

In a moment of boredom, I watched a few minutes of this Channel 4 documentary on the Mayan prophecy that the world will end this year.

Prophecies of doom and destruction crop up in all cultures and at all times throughout history, with dire predictions about the end of the world, and even the end of time itself.

But one prophecy stands out from the rest and seems to be gaining more and more credibility: a belief that cataclysmic or transformative events would occur in 2012, pinpointed thousands of years ago in Central America by the Maya.

Film-maker Paul Murton explores what has become known as the ’2012 phenomenon’, travelling to the United States and the rainforests of Guatemala to find out if there is a future after all.

It’s pretty silly stuff. But a couple of interesting things emerged. First, it turns out that the descendent of the Mayans aren’t all that bothered about the prediction, and the end-of-the-world phenomenon seems to be much more located in the West. Second, a woman who runs a company specialising in providing equipment and training necessary to survive the coming apocalypse said that she didn’t want to sound like a religious fundamentalist.

Of course not, she just wanted to make some money. She was referring of course to the ‘End Time’ and ‘Rapture’ movements, in which the Earth will be cleansed of all the nasty people, etc. Unless they’ve bought survival bunkers, of course.

War and conflict was pretty high up on the list of things being discussed. Apparently, war is a sign that The End is upon us. But according to this book (which I’ve just added to my optimists-vs-pessimist-reading list),

the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.

I’m not sure about the cog-sci approach to these questions, but I’m looking forward to reading the book, nonetheless. What needs explaining, then, if Pinker is right that the world is a less violent place than it has been, is why does everybody think it’s all going to hell in a handcart?

The other theme of the Channel 4 documentary was, inevitably, ecological catastrophe. The film itself is unremarkable for its comments. It merely demonstrates the ubiquity of doom in today’s culture. It’s funny how secular liberals have developed their own Rapture movement. I came across a series of online films that reflect precisely that tendency. According to the Youtube channel,

Peak Moment is a biweekly series about resilient, locally reliant living for these challenging times. Programs feature host Janaia Donaldson’s conversations and tours with guests responding to accelerating energy and resource decline, climate chaos, and economic uncertainty.

You can find out what to eat, it seems…

And how to get around town…

And find out how big a house you deserve…

You see, doom has become the measure of all things for some people. It informs their choices about their lives, jobs, relationships, children… Everything. It’s all answered by the doctrine of doom.

I don’t think the claims made by Janaia Donaldson and her associates are worth debunking. They are as absurd as they are unpopular. Few are going to be convinced in the mainstream. There are some fairly extreme cases of environmentalism, but they’re generally completely alienated, rather than influential. What is interesting, however, is to see just how internalised the idea of doom has become for some people — how central it is to their outlook.

Back to the Mayans. If they really were so good at telling the future, it wouldn’t be 2012 they were worried about.

Panic on a Plate (not climate related)

Posted by Ben Pile on January 12, 2012
Jan 122012

Nothing to do with climate change… Or not much, anyway… Food, rather than climate alarmism…

If you’re in or near Oxford next week, you may be interested in an event I’m hosting….


The Oxford Salon will launch in the new year. Our first event will be kicked off by Rob Lyons, deputy editor of Spiked, and author of Panic on a Plate  - How Society Developed an Eating Disorder.

From the Amazon.co.uk review:

The availability, range, cost and quality of food in Western societies have never been more favourable, yet food is also the focus of a great deal of anxiety. There are concerns that our current diets will mean we will get steadily fatter and more unhealthy while consuming junk food’, with consequences for our quality of life, our children’s behaviour and even the environment. This book challenges these ideas and places the food debate in a wider context. As the political imagination and the scope of social policy have narrowed, the focus on the personal and corporeal has filled this gap, creating an inward, individualised perspective that breeds a personal sense of vulnerability and distracts from issues of broader social importance. The book also examines the current use of food as metaphor the way that bad food and obesity, for example, have become code words for an elite disdain for the masses, implicitly promoting the idea that the consequences of poverty are the fault of the poor, and that a solution to the problems of social inequality lies in the consumption of five fruit and veg a day. The author also discusses how health fears around food are used as a lever for greater official control of our everyday lives, from lunchbox inspections and school food crusades, to endless media health advice and scientifically-dubious healthy labelling initiatives. The upshot of these connected trends is misplaced anxiety and wasted effort fixing what, for the most part, does not need to be fixed. Our modern food system allows us to be healthier than ever before, while transforming food from fuel into a source of entertainment, pleasure and choice.

Rob Lyons will present the main arguments from his book, which will be followed by Q&A and a discussion about the issues raised, such as:

  • What is meant by ‘junk food’?
  • Are we really getting fatter and does it really matter?
  • Is it right for the state to offer us guidance on our diets, and to try to get us to eat healthily?
  • Are campaigning celebrety chefs and nutritionists good for us?

More information on the Oxford Salon website and Facebook group.

And here’s the author himself, talking about his book.

Moonbat — still at it…

Posted by Ben Pile on January 8, 2012
Jan 082012

Following the recent post on Monbiot’s war on ‘liberatians’, Alex Cull points towards Monbiot’s latest article in his ….

Bruenig explains what is now the core argument used by conservatives and libertarians: the procedural justice account of property rights. In brief, this means that if the process by which property was acquired was just, those who have acquired it should be free to use it as they wish, without social restraints or obligations to other people.

[...]

Climate change, industrial pollution, ozone depletion, damage to the physical beauty of the area surrounding people’s homes (and therefore their value) – all these, if libertarians did not possess a shocking set of double standards, would be denounced by them as infringements on other people’s property.

It is frightening to think that Monbiot has taught politics and environmental policy at UK Universities; the students really would be better taught by simply being at the pub. Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons is a primary text in any course on environmental politics:

An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. It seems to me that, if there are to be differences in individual inheritance, legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination continually makes a mockery of the doctrine of “like father, like son” implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions, and a trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

In 1968, private property was understood — by Hardin at least — as the way to best protect the environment from over-exploitation. How can Monbiot not know this?

Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons lays the ground for much environmental regulation. Carbon markets are owed to the logic he proposes: the privatisation of the ‘commons’ — the atmosphere. What Monbiot doesn’t get is that you can use the ‘environment’ to make an argument for the abolition either of the commons, or of private property. The argument made on this blog is that between Hardin’s and his own times, political arguments are increasingly framed in terms of their environmental ‘necessity’, precisely because advocates of the arguments fail to make them persuasively on their own terms. It is moral blackmail, in other words… ‘Abolish private/public property, or the planet gets it…’ rather than an appeal to your conscience or ability to reason.

And that is why those of a greenish bent also seem preoccupied with the general public’s faculties of reason. Monbiot questions it routinely. Chris Mooney goes even further, suggesting that the differences between individuals on the left and right can be explained biologically, as can such individual’s attitudes towards scientific evidence. As discussed previously on this site, the fact that Mooney, the liberal, finds that liberals are more rational hardly needs an explanation. What is interesting, however, is the tendency of many — not just of the left, as it happens, as Hardin shows — to form scientific perspectives on the political/social world.

I feel somewhat annoyed that I may have flattered Monbiot by making him the subject of the last three posts here. In fact, I think he gets too much attention. It would be generous to say that he has even a mediocre grasp of his subject. The fact is though, that in this respect, he epitomises environmentalism. Ideas such as Monbiot’s and Mooney’s are in vogue amongst a narrow, sector of society. But it would be a great mistake to imagine that Monbiot and Mooney had much to do with their success.

Monbiot’s attempt to explain ‘denial’ as an expression of a particular political idea or philosophy is an attempt to draw lines over the debate: to give it dimensions and coordinates, not unlike ‘left and right’. As long as he can make ‘libertarians’ and conservatives just look greedy by their emphasis on private property, he feels he can explain the climate change debate. Never mind what libertarians actually believe, what they have traditionally argued for, and that the history of these ideas crosses with environmentalism’s development. Monbiot wants simple categories — nouns, to which he can put faces, at which he can shout. And he wants simple coordinates to the debate: goodies and baddies. It’s not really a matter of his simplifying matters for expediency, it’s more a case of him struggling to fit the world into a schematic that already exists in his head. His rants about ‘libertarians’ are an attempt to have a debate without understanding it, and thus it reduces ultimately to being about the world’s failure to conform to Monbiot’s will. It’s all the fault of ‘libertarians’.

The fact that Monbiot has no idea what ‘libertarians’ are, nor what they say or stand for, nor how they were able to engineer the world as they wanted it is immaterial. They’re just against him, on his view. And that’s enough, for someone who can’t tell the difference between Monbiot and the world, to think that ‘libertarians’ want the end of the world. Environmentalism, if it is anything at all, is mediocrity and narcissism combined.

It’s That Monbiot Again…

Posted by Ben Pile on January 3, 2012
Jan 032012

Happy new year.

Over in the Grauniad today, George Monbiot gets his new year knickers in an unfestive knot over the failure of the Daily Mail’s prediction of a cold winter.

“Brrr-ace yourselves! Britain to shiver in -20C in WEEKS as councils stockpile extra grit”. So the Mail on Sunday warned us in October. Blizzards, snowdrifts, locusts with the faces of men and the teeth of lions: we would become, it cheerfully assured us, prey to every nightmare nature could devise.

Last week the story flipped. “December has sprung! Spring blooms arrive early and autumn blossom lingers… so what happened to our winter?” I scoured the text but could find no mention that the Mail had forecast the polar opposite.

The issue for Monbiot is that the Mail takes a more sceptical view of climate change than the paper he writes for.

This is the newspaper group which led the crowing about the barbecue summer that never was. In April 2009 the Meteorological Office announced that “summer temperatures across the UK are likely to be warmer than average and rainfall near or below average for the three months of summer”. In the event, the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth. From its offices on Mt Ararat, the Daily Mail called down the wrath of God on the weathermen, who had been proven “hopelessly wrong” and were now “left red-faced”.

According to Monbiot, the UK Met Office had refused to confirm predictions of a cold winter given by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Phil Hammond at the Conservative Party conference in the Autumn. The Met Office, of course, had been embarrassed by a slew of precisely wrong long-range weather forecasts about mild winters and ‘barbecue summers’. The Mail, and other papers, had sought instead forecasts from private forecasters.

Who are they, and what are their credentials? I have been trying to obtain answers from Exacta since 20 December, without success. Among other questions, I asked whether it is true that the company consists of one undergraduate student and a computer.

You have to admire the bravery, tenacity and a tonne of other virtues possessed by this noble investigative journalist. OTHER NEWSPAPERS ARE GETTING THE WEATHER WRONG, AND I’M FINDING OUT WHY…

It’s not FAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIR, discovers Monbiot.

Unlike the Met Office, the alternative forecasters are neither roasted nor frozen out when they get it wrong. In 2010, for example, the Daily Mail announced that “the country really is on course for a barbecue summer”. This time, it told its readers, the prediction “comes from a forecaster with a somewhat better record on the subject than the poor old Met Office”. This was PWS – which has no published record at all. PWS told the Mail that “there will be stifling temperatures, making it possibly the warmest UK summer on record”. In fact it was an unremarkable summer, but there were no “red faces” at PWS. Nor has Philip Hammond been denounced as “hopelessly wrong”.

Monbiot seems to think that it is remarkable that there should be no outrage when an independent forecaster gets the weather wrong.

There is a subtext at work. The Met Office, like the BBC, is the subject of intense tabloid hostility, because it refuses to accept the consensus in the rightwing press that man-made climate change is a myth. Perversely, it prefers to rely on data. The incompetence of the Met Office and the superior skills of other forecasters are now part of the litany of climate change denial. Weather forecasting, in the hands of the press, has become a political science.

Well, by ‘right wing press’, Monbiot means only the Daily Mail. And it would be hard to detect a ‘consensus in the rightwing press that climate change is a myth’. There is no such consensus evident on the pages of the Times, for instance, nor the Telegraph, nor the Sun. The Telegraphs own environment correspondent, Louise Grey gets to hang out on Greenpeace’s ship with pop stars. What ‘consensus in the right wing press’?

There is no consensus, of course. What Monbiot does is imagine that the other newspapers have as inflexible editorial lines as The Guardian, and confuse his own need to conflate the issues of weather and climate for theirs, also. The two things being established in his own head as equivalent stories, any story about the weather which doesn’t contain a climate change narrative is, by fact of this omission, delivering ‘a subtext’. The problem for Monbiot is that his own subtext is far more noisy.

It was of course that the BBC and Met Office routinely used the weather to talk about climate change that drew the ire of sceptics. And rightly so. Warm winters and hot summers (oh, for a hot summer!) were canaries in the coal mine, harbingers of doom, and were causing the extinction of rare creatures on these shores. And even when the weather misbehaved, and was, erm, as it had been before climate change, there was still an opportunity for the climate message to be shouted. In January 2009, Monbiot wrote,

I have spent the last two evenings skating. Last night we laid lanterns out across the ice and swooped and swung and fell flat on our faces on this silent lake in mid-Wales, for hours by moonlight. I should have been in bed – I have a chest infection and a cold – but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

For the exhilaration of this primal game was shaded with sadness: all of us knew that this time might be our last. It is many winters since most of the lakes in England and Wales have frozen hard enough to support a skating party; with every year the chances of another one recede. The fuss this country has made about the current cold snap reminds us how rare such events have become.

A year later — in the middle of another very cold winter, Monbiot teamed up with the resident eco-ethicist, Leo Hickman to snap that

This is called weather, and, believe it or not, it is not always predictable and it changes quite often. It is not the same as climate, and single events are not the same as trends. Is this really so hard to understand?

By the return of the winter that year — which was extremely cold, once again — Monbiot needed a new narrative.

That snow outside is what global warming looks like
Unusually cold winters may make you think scientists have got it all wrong. But the data reveal a chilling truth.

Yes, Britain had suffered three record cold winters in a row… because of global warming.

And this year… There is not yet the severe cold that there has been in the previous years. And yet somehow… somehow… Monbiot has managed to spin a climate change story out of it!

On his own site, the subtitle to his most recent article pronounces that ‘weather forecasts became a political issue’.

If it is true, it was not the ‘rightwing press’ which politicised forecasts. It was the Guardian, the BBC, and the Met Office. The British have a fascination with weather, probably because it is so variable, which is why the Mail would have run the story. The failed weather forecast that the story covered, about which Monbiot now complains was not ‘politicised’. The story is politicised now, by Monbiot. It is he who gives it significance; he reads ‘subtext’ into a fairly uncomplicated article about the winter.

Delving deeper into the Climate Resistance archives, we find Monbiot making other claims about the Met Office and their predictions…

In 2008, Monbiot’s colleague, James Randerson wrote that,

This year is set to be the coolest since 2000, according to a preliminary estimate of global average temperature that is due to be released next week by the Met Office. The global average for 2008 should come in close to 14.3C, which is 0.14C below the average temperature for 2001-07.

The Guardian, of course, wanted to explain that this didn’t mean that global warming wasn’t happening… (read more here)

Monbiot saw the reaction to the article on the papers website, and threw a tantrum

The most popular article on the Guardian’s website last week was the report showing that 2008 is likely to be the coolest year since 2000. As the Met Office predicted, global temperatures have been held down by the LaNiña event in the Pacific Ocean. This news prompted a race on the Guardian’s comment thread to reach the outer limits of idiocy.

According to Monbiot, the commenters below the line were an army of unthinking drones, as was pointed out on this blog.

Monbiot is frustrated that he has failed to convince people of his perspective. But rather than reflect on his own argument, which, as we can see is constructed out of sheer bullshit, he finds ways to show faults with people – ordinary, normal, everyday people, not just ‘bloggers’ – and damns the entire human race in the process. We are unthinking automata, objects, blindly obeying the forces that surround us. Only he knows the truth. But the truth that most people can sense is that Monbiot uses the status of scientific factoids, such as the Met Office’s dubious ‘prediction’ to convince people in the same way that a caveman seeks to persuade people with a club.

The Met Office had predicted the decline in temperatures, so that meant that the ‘evidence’ belonged to the global warming narrative. Equipped with The Official Truth, Monbiot was now free to pronounce on the mental acuity of the online masses, who saw things differently: they had been brainwashed.

But as had been pointed out here, the Met Office had not ‘predicted’ the cold temperatures.

At the beginning of 2007, the Met Office had predicted that the year would be one of the warmest yet. The BBC and Guardian covered the story credulously. La Nina turned up to upset them all.

The weather is our immediate, and perhaps our only day-to-day interaction with concept of ‘the climate’. Everything else in the climate debate is highly abstract, and removed from our experience by statistics. There was a desperate need to connect environmentalism’s claims to real life. Thus, climate alarmism emphasised the likelihood of increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather. Any outlier or other anomaly was explained as ‘a taste of things to come’. Monbiot pondered about ice-free winters. All the hopes for the future that environmentalists had were pinned on things like the progress of Arctic sea ice. Environmentalism needed a real-time event to give itself some purchase in the world — pictures to feed the rolling news world. It needed a 9-11, or a Cuban Missile Crisis, or maybe a tsunami. But Environmentalism’s Hollywood moment simply hasn’t materialised, as Monbiot lamented in 2007.

We see Monbiot here claiming to be an optimist and to have a positive view of human nature. He’s only kidding himself. The Met Orifice and perhaps others have learned their lesson: nature will not obey forecasts. Monbiot, if he’s learned that lesson, still has to remember that he cannot un-write the past. It’s still all there, in black and white, and available to anyone capable of reading. It was Monbiot and co who politicised weather forecasting. He was the one foretelling doom, and saying that we must urgently prepare ourselves for The End. He was the one crying ‘fools’ at those who did not believe him, and claiming that the non-believers had been brainwashed by evil, mind-controlling forces. He was the one making weather — and weather forecasts — the centre of his moral and political argument. He can’t now pretend that it’s the ‘rightwing press’ who are ‘politicising’ weather forecasts by not politicising it.

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