Monthly Archives: June 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I was on the panel for a debate on the motion ‘Britain should be a fan of wind energy’ at the Cheltenham Science Festival. John Constable of the Renewable energy Foundation was also against the motion, while arch-environmentalist Jonathan Porritt and wind energy tycoon, Andrew Garrad were in favour.
The debate is now online at http://raeng.tv/default.aspx?item=72, but unfortunately there is no option to embed the video here, and the server seems to be a little rusty.
The debate itself was enjoyable, though I found it a bit frustrating that there weren’t as many opportunities for the panel to challenge each other as I had hoped for. I think it’s clear that Porritt was also quite frustrated.
I wanted to argue that it really doesn’t matter whether you are a fan of wind energy or not; the decisions about our energy policy are neither dependent on public opinion, nor controlled by it. (Yet). I think this point is perhaps lost on many people, who still regard energy as a problem of ends, rather than means. It’s a point which certainly escapes Porritt, who can only think that an argument for cheap and abundant energy is ruinous, rather than the means by which good can be done. The delight that environmentalists seem to take in saying ‘no more’ is a peculiar thing, which I struggle to understand. That seems to me to be the point of limiting the debate about energy techniques and politics: if you allow any other imperatives to the debate — such as improving our lot — environmentalism loses all its currency.
Here’s what I said:
I have to admit, I am a little confused by the motion being debated by the debate. Energy is energy — a means to ends, not an end in itself. I doubt that many of us are ever as excited to discover that our computers are powered by our favoured technique as we are when our favourite football team scores a goal.
What we’re really talking about then, is I think, policies which have led to the construction of wind farms. And we’re talking ideas which inform those policies and the consequences of committing ourselves to them. Wind turbines are just a means.
The nature of technology is that it produces unintended consequences, which we organise our lives around as much as we do around the intended consequences.
For example, some people have rightly pointed out that the convenience of the motor car has led to towns and cities developing in a way that has left communities divided and isolated by busy roads; creating large, unnatural housing estates devoid of social space, and other amenities.
So a meaningful commitment to wind energy means committing ourselves to the limitations of wind energy — its expense and its intermittency. So what are these consequences of such a commitment?
The CEO of the National Grid, Steve Holliday says, and I quote…
The grid is going to be a very different system in 2020, 2030. We keep thinking about: we want it to be there and provide power when we need it. It’s going to be a much smarter system, then. We’re going to have to change our own behaviour and consume it when it’s available, and available cheaply. ENDQUOTE
Making the grid compatible with an increasing proportion of wind, and the replacement of existing generating capacity with wind energy is going to cost hundreds of billions. At the end of it, we will not have a better grid than we have now, capable of delivering a continuous supply of energy.
Fifteen gigawatts of electricity generating capacity is scheduled for closure by the end of 2016. To replace that capacity with wind energy at the current rate of building wind farms of about 650 megatwatts per year, with a load factor of 28% would take over sixty years. Wind energy simply cannot fill that gap. An emphasis on wind energy is going to create shortages.
As Holliday admits, the ‘Smart Grid’ will decide when we can and can’t use electricity. People will find that they cannot afford electricity deals that guarantee continuity of supply – the capacity to supply it will not exist. If you’re better off, you will be able to afford the prices that suppliers will charge when electricity is in short supply and demand is great.
I believe that this Orwellian use of the word ‘smart’ betrays some deeply regressive values. If we are going to make sensible decisions about our energy future our choice of technique must be informed by the recognition of the need for ample and affordable energy.
Wind energy lobbyists have recognised that there is a problem with rising energy prices, and claimed that wind energy only costs the average household a few pounds a year. While this may be technically true, it is disingenuous. What it forgets is first that currently only a tiny fraction of our energy supply currently comes from wind.
And emphasis on renewable energy creates an opportunity cost. Rather than seeking ways to make energy abundant and cheap, global agreements and EU and UK policies have instead emphasised ‘changing our behaviour’, reducing demand, and limiting the production of energy.
Policy-makers simply have the wrong priorities. They believe it is their responsibility to force us to change our behaviour, and to manage a diminishing supply rather than to respond to democratic will, or at least to our needs. The message is clear: you are not allowed to have cheap and abundant energy.
It would be much harder to say that about wind energy, if there had been a public, democratic, transparent debate about our energy policy, and the values which inform it. It would be harder to say that policymakers were getting it wrong if the public had expressed its view that the costs of wind energy were worth bearing.
And wind power doesn’t offer us anything intrinsically good, such as more abundant or cheaper energy. In fact it only offers us less, for more cost.
There is nothing to be a fan of, except cost, inconvenience, and a form of politics which is indifferent to our needs.
So I respectfully ask that you reject the motion.
Back in 2010, I had a look at an Oxfam report which claimed that,
According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger.
But it was not the IPCC which had said it:
In other [African] countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003). [IPCC WGII, Page 448. 9.4.4]
As I pointed out, Agoummi 2003 was not what it seemed…
There is only limited discussion of “deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture” in that paper, and its focus is not ‘some’ African countries, but just three: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It is not climate research. It is a discussion about the possible effects of climate change. All that it says in relation to the IPCC quote, is that,
Studies on the future of vital agriculture in the region have shown the following risks, which are linked to climate change:
- greater erosion, leading to widespread soil degradation;
- deficient yields from rain-based agriculture of up to 50 per cent during the 2000–2020 period;
- reduced crop growth period;
… and worse still,
the study was not simply produced by some academic working in some academic department. Instead, it was published by The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
[...]That the IPCC is citing non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific research from quasi governmental semi-independent sustainability advocacy organisations must say something about the dearth of scientific or empirical research. The paper in question barely provides any references for its own claims, yet by virtue of merely appearing in the IPCC’s reports, a single study, put together by a single researcher, becomes “consensus science”.
This was in the wake of ‘Glaciergate’, of course — the discovery that ‘grey literature’ had been included in IPCC reports, which are supposed to be produced by ‘science’. I later wrote a guest post for Roger Pielke Jr’s blog.
When I wrote the post, I was pretty harsh with science journalist, Fred Pearce, who had been involved in the Glaciergate story. My chief criticism of environmentalists — especially environmental journalists — is that they are unable to reflect on their mistakes. But Pearce seems more able than most. In the New Scientist today, Pearce writes,
Climate scientists are likely to face charges of putting politics before science, following two controversial decisions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month.
The IPCC decided for the first time to impose strict geographical quotas on the scientists who author its major assessment reports. There will also be a push to increase the representation of women among its authors.
Controversially, it also voted to increase the role in those assessments of “grey literature”: publications not subject to peer review. Using such material in the last assessment is what led to the “glaciergate” scandal in 2010, when the report was found to have vastly overestimated the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are losing ice.
The issue of grey literature persists, then. But what really caught my eye was this…
Grey literature was responsible for several embarrassing errors in the 2007 report. These included the false claim that the Himalayas could be ice-free within 30 years and the assertion that African farmers could suffer yield losses of up to 50 per cent by 2020 because of climate change. The latter claim was formally corrected at this month’s Geneva meeting.
I wondered what the IPCC had done to remedy the problem I had found. This is the result:
Based on the IPCC Protocol for Addressing Possible Errors in IPCC Assessment Reports (approved at IPCC-XXXIII held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates), substantive changes to past Synthesis Reports must be submitted to the Panel for approval, prior to posting; the Panel may delegate the approval step to the Executive Committee.
IPCC received a request for a change to two passages of the AR4 Synthesis Report dealing with projected impacts on yields of North African rainfed agriculture. The request was submitted by Drs. Pachauri, Parry, Canziani, van Ypersele, Barros, and Field.
Because the change was requested by the individuals responsible for the decision on action (the IPCC Chairman and the Co-chairs of the relevant working group), the request should move to Section 3, Step 5A of the Error Protocol.
The text in question is in the Synthesis Report (Table SPM.2. on page 11 and 3.3.2 on page 50). Both passages read: “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.” The problem with this passage is that it drops all mention of a role for climate variability, creating the impression that IPCC is projecting that climate change alone could cause agricultural yields to drop by 50% by 2020. In the background reference and in the WGII report, it is clear that this projected impact reflects the combined effects of climate change and variability.
Based on extensive discussions involving the WGII Co-chairs from the AR4, these statements provide such an incomplete message that most readers will interpret them incorrectly. This problem does not affect the text in the WGII report or the WGII SPM, where the role of climate variability is prominent.
Based on section three of the error correction protocol, the IPCC Chairman and the WGII Co-chairs from the AR4 and the AR5 propose a straightforward correction to the two statements in the Synthesis Report.
The text of the correction is as follows.
1) AR4 SYR SPM, page 11, Table SPM.2., line 3: After 50%, insert “, as a consequence of climate variability and change”
2) AR4 SYR, p 50, column 1, line 20: After 50%, insert “, as a consequence of climate variability and change” In both places, the changed statements will now read, “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rainfed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%, “, as a consequence of climate variability and change.”
The inserted wording matches, as closely as possible, the wording in the WGII SPM.
Acting on behalf of the IPCC Chairman, as well as the Co-chairs of WGII from the AR4, the Cochairs of WGII request panel approval of these two changes to the AR4 Synthesis Report.
It’s not clear to me from this whether the changes will also be made to mentions of Agoumi 2003 in the other parts of the WGII report, or are limited to the Synthesis Report and Summary for Policymakers. Either way, however, it hardly seems sufficient to merely add a caveat. The issue is that the original literature is grey, doesn’t seem to be supported by other studies, was extremely limited in its scope, was highly speculative, and was produced by a sustainability advocacy organisation. Shouldn’t it just have been removed entirely, rather than embedded in another layer of caveats?
The 50% crop failure ‘meme’, as they do, ‘went viral’ in early 2007. It was brought to the attention of the IPCC in 2010. It’s not until now — mid 2012 — that the IPCC has responded to an error that should not have been in its reports in the first place. It would be impossible to measure the impact of this one problem, which has been reproduced, with many others, in many reports that aim to urge political action on climate change. And to point out the problems with the IPCC that led to the questionable claim achieving such prominence, or to seek to challenge the claim is to identify oneself as a ‘denier‘, and to draw questions asking what qualifications we have to speak about the IPCC’s reports — seemingly the work of ‘thousands of the world’s best scientists’.
The IPCC gets the criticism it deserves. If it can’t cope with the problem of grey literature, and will be including more of it, as Pearce suggests may be the case, maybe it should just admit to being political, not a scientific organisation. After all, as Pearce explains, the new emphasis on ‘grey literature’ is intended to make it more ‘inclusive':
Krug told New Scientist this would correct an imbalance in the assessments as it is harder for people in developing countries to get research findings into the major peer-reviewed journals. [...] Richard Klein, an IPCC stalwart from the Stockholm Resilience Institute in Sweden, told New Scientist this was mostly a formalisation of current practices. “Membership has always been based on expertise, geographical balance and gender.”
So it doesn’t matter if total waffle is produced by unheard of academics, on the instruction of Western NGOs and advocacy organisations… The next IPCC report will produce politically correct science, which must surely be nearly as good as ‘truth’. So will this let Greenpeace smuggle its agenda into AR5, on the basis of ‘positive discrimination’? We’ll have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, however, I’m wondering if any critics of environmentalism from universities in developing economies will be allowed to the party. I think the thought experiment is revealing enough… It didn’t happen here. This must be what is meant by ‘grey literature’ — it is to be produced by black people, but according to a distinctly white agenda, dictated by wealthy green NGOs.
Given that Lovelock predicted in 2006 that by this century’s end “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”, this new laissez-faire attitude to our environmental fate smells and sounds like of a screeching handbrake turn.
Indeed, earlier this year he admitted to MSNBC in an interview reported around the world with somewhat mocking headlines along the lines of “Doom-monger recants”, that he had been “extrapolating too far” in reaching such a conclusion and had made a “mistake” in claiming to know with such certainty what will happen to the climate.
But Lovelock is relaxed about how this reversal might be perceived. He says being allowed to change your mind and follow the evidence is one of the liberating marvels of being an independent scientist, something he has revelled in since leaving Nasa, his last full-time employer, in the late 1960s.
This raises some points of discussion that Hickman has in the past shrunk away from, and no doubt, given his green leanings, is made uncomfortable by. Kudos to him for that. But as I pointed out in my review of Mark Lynas’ attempt to reformulate environmentalism, these uncomfortable issues might well have been confronted years ago.
Environmentalism, ignorant to criticism, has thus developed inside an insular, self-regarding bubble. Perhaps only someone from within it could prick that bubble, revealing to its members what those outside it have been telling them for decades.
Lovelock observes, for instance, that environmentalism has developed into something resembling a religion, which is mirrored by a religiosity amongst some sceptics. On the first point, Lovelock is hardly the first to point it out. And though as a description it seems to explain the excesses of environmentalism, it isn’t enough to explain how green thinking developed in this way. And the second point seems to present environmentalists as equal and opposite forces, which is inaccurate, as we know, because ‘scepticism’ simply isn’t a political force — it has very little institutional muscle through which it can assert itself . Similarly, the substance of many arguments on Hickman’s own articles seems to have been that a handful of tiny and barely-funded organisations have been able to thwart the progress of huge NGOs and governments seeking to establish global political institutions to ‘tackle climate change’.
The interview concludes, after Lovelock’s entirely correct pointing out that ‘sustainability’ is a meaningless concept:
Lovelock says he’s doubtful that internationalist efforts of this sort achieve much: “Whenever the UN puts its finger in, it seems to become a mess. The burden of my thoughts are very much that the climate situation is more complex than we at present are capable of handling, or possibly even in the future. You can’t treat it as a scientific problem alone. You have to involve the whole world, and then there’s the time constant of human activity. Look at how long ago the Kyoto treaty was – 15 years ago – and damn all has been done. The human time constant is very slow. You don’t get major changes in under 50-100 years, and climate doesn’t wait for that.”
Lovelock is influenced at present by US biologist EO Wilson and his study of social insects. “He’s come up with an extraordinary theory that the nest is the unit of selection, not the individual insects. That has enormous consequences. Now consider that applied to humans. If we all move into cities, they become the equivalent of a nest. Then another thought comes immediately from that: if that’s the way the flow is going, don’t stop it, let’s encourage it. Instead of trying to save the planet by geo-engineering or whatever, you merely have to air-condition the cities.”
This Logan’s Run vision of the future – where we all live in megacities to better manage dwindling resources – might not appeal to all, he admits. “But you don’t even have to do the experiment. You only have to go to Singapore. You could not have chosen a worse climate in which to build a city. It’s a swamp with temperatures in the 90s every day, and very humid. But it is one of the most successful cities in the world. It seems to me that they are treading the path that we are all going to go. It’s so much cheaper to air-condition the cities and let Gaia take care of the world. It’s a much better route to go than so-called ‘sustainable development’, which is meaningless drivel.”
The last few posts have been about the application of the precautionary principle. In some green perspectives, precaution operates overtly, and arguments about risk are made explicitly. In other cases, the precautionary principle still operates, but is hidden from view, which is to say that the precautionary principle prefigures in the argument, but it is not until the argument is unpacked that its influence is revealed. In this respect, the anti-GM protesters of last week were more more honest, consistent and reflective about their own argument than their pro-GM critics in the green camp, even if their arguments are irrational. The pro-GM critics didn’t notice their own use of the precautionary principle; it is hidden by the sheer volume of literature, policies, and institutions that are involved in the debate. In other words, the fact of a scientific consensus obscures the content of that consensus and the way in which it was established.
Back in the climate debate, I think I may have stumbled across the most remarkable attempt to formulate — or reformulate — the precautionary principle I have ever seen:
It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend. We have seen that greater uncertainty about the evolution of the climate should give us even greater cause for concern. We have seen that all other things being equal, greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought. We have also seen that greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated, and that the allowance we must make for sea level rise will also be greater than anticipated. All of those results arise from simple mathematics, and we do not even have to resort to any economic modelling to understand how greater uncertainty translates into greater risk.
These words belong to Stephan Lewandowsky, who is Winthrop Professor and Australian Professorial Fellow at the School of Psychology, University of Western Australia. Lewandowsky has a series of posts up at the ‘Shaping Tomorrows World’ blog, which is funded by the University of Western Australia and the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University. So, presumably, these words are no joke. But they are an incredibly tortured attempted to alternate between word play and maths abuse.
Lewandowsky, over the course of three posts – one, two, three — reinvents the precautionary principle without ever calling it the precautionary principle. This is interesting in itself… An academic in the field of climate policy has forgotten that the precautionary principle already exists, is already applied to the science, and is already manifested in policy.
Angry computer scientist, Steve Easterbrook, tweeted a link to the posts:
Steve Easterbrook @SMEasterbrook
Denialists often use uncertainty over future climate change to argue for inaction. But uncertainty is nobody’s friend
As previous posts have pointed out, the issue is not whose friend the precaution principle is — indeed, the point was made that the precautionary principle might apply to the precautionary principle. Thus, precaution may leave us in a dizzy spin of infinite regress. The issue for ‘denialists’ is instead that the application of the precautionary principle passes weak theoretical risk off as certainty; it turns possibility into story lines, about which ‘something must be done’.
This is the point I made to Keith Kloor — and I was perhaps a bit unfair to him, by lumping him in with the Easterbrooks of this world. After all, it was Kloor who pointed out that Easterbrook’s advocacy of climate science was out of kilter with his distrust of GM technology:
For the climate science community, climategate was a galvanizing event, in which many of them, such as Easterbrook, have risen to publicly defend their honor and profession. Thus, you might think that he (and other environmental scientists) would naturally come to the defense of plant scientists whose work and profession has also come under assault–by anti-GMO activists.
Not when it comes to genetic engineering.
It seems that many in the environmental community have a visceral dislike of biotechnology, especially GMO’s (genetically modified organisms.) It’s an interesting little quirk, which is worth exploring in more depth.
Meanwhile, Easterbrook has just offered up a long treatise that essentially lays out his misgivings about genetically engineered crops. [...]
Easterbrook’s tweets about ‘denialists’, and his offering the link to Lewandowsky reformulation of the precautionary principle do much to make my point: that climate-preoccupied environmentalists really aren’t that interested in what ‘science says'; precaution is in fact the operating principle.
I won’t attempt to discuss Lewandowsky’s workings here, because his opening statement on the third of his posts — quoted above — is sufficiently… well, mad… to make my point. I hope that others may want to take a closer look, and I suspect that each of the paragraphs on each of the three posts could be the basis of an entire blog post, so stuffed full with presuppositions, special pleading and prejudice that they are… A case study in the mechanics of climate alarmism. So let’s visit the above quote, line-by-line…
It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend.
This may be true. But then, some have more to gain by championing precaution than others. Those of a green persuasion are invariably inclined to emphasise catastrophe in their arguments for political action. The predominant mode of contemporary politics is, with or without environmental issues, a politics of fear. This was the point made four years ago on this blog, in reply to Naomi Oreskes’ ‘merchents of doubt’ thesis:
Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.
The Environmentalist narrative of catastrophe, doom, and apocalypse, once given superficial scientific plausibility (in that science cannot exclude the possibility of such things happening – which it never could), provides doubt and uncertainty about the security of the future, which in turn provides political momentum and legitimacy for environmental policies.
Oreskes had written the precautionary principle out of the history of environmentalism’s development, and written it back in as the construction of climate sceptics in response to scientific certainty. Now Lewandowsky’s reformulation writes it back in to the unfolding story. ‘Uncertainty is nobody’s friend’, he says, but he makes a lot of capital out of it. Or tries to.
We have seen that greater uncertainty about the evolution of the climate should give us even greater cause for concern.
In other words, ‘the less we know, the more we should worry’. This has a curious implication. Whereas Oreskes had claimed that science had always been certain — that an unequivocal consensus had always existed — Lewandowsky must now claim that the consensus had not advanced its understanding of the climate: that we don’t know more than we did. And indeed, this reflects an ideological presupposition of environmentalism: that progress is itself a problem. For if certainty was actually achievable — if the parameters of climate change were actually understood — then ‘tackling climate change’ would become a straightforward technical problem. Instead, policies intended to tackle it are founded on the idea that the possible impacts of climate change are uncertain, precisely in order to head off any possibility of a solution that is not mitigation. In other words, if you know what kind of problem you are facing, then you deprive those who have made the <i>undefined</i> problem central to their perspective and their arguments about the urgency of their cause. The urgency of the problem is owed only to the fact that we don’t know what kind of problem it is.
We have seen that all other things being equal, greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought.
This is a palpable nonsense. All other things being equal, things are the same, no matter no matter what we think about them, or how certain we are about what we think about them. Things in the world are not dependent on the degree of certainty we have about them. Leaving the distracting pseudo-jargon to one side, and taking the part of the sentence that could make sense reveals only at best a tautology: ‘greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought’. Indeed, the condition of uncertainty means precisely that what you think about a thing could be mistaken. Moreover, even certainty is no guarantee of security; things could be ‘worse than we thought’, in spite of certainty. Certainty and actuality are not the same.
We have also seen that greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated…
This is an extraordinary claim indeed, which requires some unpacking. This part of the sentence puts the degree of uncertainty into a necessary (i.e. it cannot be otherwise) relationship with what we have anticipated, and the outcome of events. The condition of uncertainty itself multiplies the anticipated result, to yield an impact of greater magnitude. This is an absurd claim, because the condition of uncertainty has no bearing on things. If you’re unsure about what the result of a throw of a dice will be, but you anticipate that it will not be the number you want it to be (the odds are just 1 in 6 that it is, so it’s a good bet that it isn’t), your uncertainty does not reach out to the dice to prevent it turning the face with your number on it upwards.
But that is the implication of the term ‘necessarily’ in the sentence. So let’s mediate it, to see if it makes any more sense: ‘greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change
will necessarily may possibly be greater than anticipated’. Again, this is at best a tautological truism, identical to the previous sentence’s meaning: ‘greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought’. Notice, then, that the ‘will necessarily’ in this sentence contradicts the previous sentence’s ‘could be’.
… and that the allowance we must make for sea level rise will also be greater than anticipated.
Again, this language is tortured. The object of the sentence is ‘the allowance we much make for sea level rise’. The meaning of the sentence then, is that the ‘allowance will be greater than anticipated’. This cannot be true, because the ‘allowance we make for sea level rise’ will be at least equivalent to what we anticipate sea level to be. (I say ‘at least’, because the precautionary principle allows us to expand our estimation of what sea level rise may be.) Perhaps this academic struggles with the English language. Perhaps logic and proportion escape him. Or perhaps this is some kind of clumsy attempt at a sleight of hand. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s imagine that what he wants to say is that ‘sea level rise will be greater than anticipated’. But this still doesn’t work, because it is still an anticipation that is clouded by uncertainty… Uncertainty, then, necessarily implies under-estimation, on Lewandowsky’s view. He is wrong. My not knowing if I’ve got the winning lottery ticket does not make my winning the lottery any more or less likely.
All of those results arise from simple mathematics, and we do not even have to resort to any economic modelling to understand how greater uncertainty translates into greater risk.
Let’s be far too fair to Lewandowsky: he is nothing more than a bullshit artist. ‘Simple mathematics’ have nothing to do with his claim, and the mathematics he offers on his blog posts are as tortured as his language and logic. Uncertainty has no relation to actual risk. The degree of risk is the same, no matter what the degree of certainty is. To say otherwise, is to say that the world is moved by nothing other than the confidence we have in our thoughts, and that I could will a dice to produce a 6 on each throw, merely by being sufficiently confident in the outcome: a Disney version of reality. Even the best sense we can make of his claim — that uncertainty implies the underestimation of risks — is a nonsense, because we know that it is possible to over-estimate risk, even in the face of uncertainty. And we have precedents: the Y2K bug; BSE; flu pandemics of recent years; acid rain; ozone depletion; and the entire torrent of turgid crap produced by Malthusians such as Paul Ehrlich over the last half century. This is yet another of one of those Emperor’s New Clothes moments, in which an academic has attempted to identify with the environmental issue. Rather than advancing knowledge, he revealed not only his own inability to reason, but also his actual contempt for knowledge. Only sophistry underpins his conclusion.
Environmentalists have claimed to speak for science, but only have the monopoly on over-estimation of risk. Indeed, it is only by virtue of their over-estimations of risk that environmentalism has achieved any influence at all. And this is the reason why environmentalists cannot abandon the precautionary principle. To eschew this tendency to produce wild speculation, and the use of ‘science’ to construct superficially plausible story lines from that speculation, would mean to abandon the political capital and urgency that is generated by the mere possibility of risk. Take away the environmentalist’s licence to speculate, and the idea that the world needs special forms of politics and powerful political institutions to deal with the ‘climate crisis’ is suddenly redundant.
The precautionary principle — risk analysis without numbers, and without a sense of proportion — gives greater weight to speculation than to knowledge. That is the nature of the politics of fear: you can’t rule something out, so in order to survive, you have to assume that anything you can speculate about is actually the case, and act accordingly. In the wake of criticism of the precautionary principle, environmentalists and those invested in the environmental agenda attempted to distance themselves from it, to emphasise certainty instead: the unequivocal consensus that ‘climate change is happening’. But the precautionary principle did not go away. It took on a new form, and lurked in the background. Rather than saying that the risks of climate change were beyond estimation, environmentalists invented a horizon of uncertainty: the limit of 2 degrees, beyond which lay ‘dangerous climate change’. But this limit was intangible. It wasn’t detected by science; it was invented to meet the needs of policy-makers. It mediated some of the excesses of the precautionary principle by reasoning that we know more about what will happen before 2 degrees of warming than what will happen following it.
But hiding the precautionary principle from environmentalism’s critics concealed it also from the environmentalists. They too forgot the ground on which their perspectives were formed. And now we see in Lewandowsky’s silly posts that the ugly creature wants to crawl back out of the hole it has been buried in. Lewandowsky’s posts will, by themselves, likely achieve no great influence, but what this shows is the irrepressible, irrational and incoherent nature of environmentalism. Environmentalists will continue to be divided by the precautionary principle as it continues to embarrass them and their claim to be grounded in science and reason. The precautionary principle will be reformulated and hidden again, and then reinvented, ad nauseum, long after environmentalism’s demise.
UPDATE: Apologies for some typos in the above post, which must be annoying in a post about someone else’s language abuse. My only defence is that it is a long weekend here in the UK, with more parties than usual.
Two numbers from this weekends Guardian/Observer…
The first is 25%. Damian Carrington whinges that
George Osborne demands massive cuts to windfarm subsidies
PM’s ‘greenest government ever’ claim undermined by chancellor’s move, which follows pressure from Tory MPs
The Observer has learned that George Osborne is demanding cuts of 25% in subsidies, a reduction the industry says would “kill dead” the development of wind power sites. The Treasury’s stance has put the chancellor at loggerheads with the Liberal Democrat energy secretary Ed Davey, whose party strongly supports more renewable energy.
The article doesn’t substantiate the figure — it is just attributed to ‘sources’. But wherever it came from, a 25% cut in subsidies for wind energy is not ‘massive’, given that wind farm operators enjoy generous subsidies through the Renewables Obligation (RO) scheme, which will last until at least 2027. So on top of getting the cash for the electricity they produce, onshore generators receive an additional £50/MWh, and offshore generators receive about £75, adding between 50-75% to the cost of the electricity. Wind energy lobbying group, Renewable UK — formerly the British Wind Energy Association — say this about the costs of wind energy:
The cost of generating electricity from wind has fallen dramatically over the past few years. Between 1990 and 2002, world wind energy capacity doubled every three years and with every doubling prices fell by 15%. Wind energy is competitive with new coal and new nuclear capacity, even before any environmental costs of fossil fuel and nuclear generation8 are taken into account. The average cost of generating electricity from onshore wind is now around 3-4p per kilowatt hour, competitive with new coal (2.5-4.5p) and cheaper than new nuclear (4-7p). As gas prices increase and wind power costs fall – both of which are very likely – wind becomes even more competitive, so much so that some time after 2010 wind should challenge gas as the lowest cost power source.
So if wind power is cheaper than the conventional and nuclear alternatives, why would cutting the subsidy to them, ‘”kill dead” the development of wind power sites’, according to the wind energy industry, according to Carrington? It’s just not clear. So clearly, something is missing from the story, or Carrington is struggling with his maths again.
Which brings us on to number number two…
The Observer (the Sunday Guardian) is reporting on a Greenpeace PR stunt, featuring brit-pop artist, Jarvis Cocker,
Greenpeace is preparing to launch what it hopes will be the ecological campaign of our generation, and Jarvis is the frontman of the UK part. As you may have deduced from Jarvis’s iceman get-up, this seminal campaign concerns the Arctic, which is losing ice and gaining unwanted attention. Temperatures in the region are rising faster than anywhere else on earth, causing the ice cap to melt. Scientists think the North Pole could be ice-free in summertime within 20 years.
Environmental correspondents at The Guardian and Observer get their knickers in a twist about facts and figures leaked from the government, it seems, but are quite happy to reproduce any old nonsense spouted by huge NGOs and idiot celebrities…
Jarvis has been to the Arctic. “Not that I’m a massive expert, but when I heard that they wanted to dig it up, I thought: hold on a minute – that’s not good,” he says, in his undramatic way. Back in 2008 he joined a Cape Farewell expedition to Disko Bay, north of the Arctic Circle (“And we did have a disco, too, one night,” he clarifies), with KT Tunstall and Marcus Brigstocke. Cape Farewell is a project created by artist David Buckland to set a cultural context for and response to climate change (it’s the sort of concept that leaves climate-change deniers foaming at the mouth). The main idea is to set up a partnership between cultural and scientific institutions to improve the public’s engagement with changes in the climate. Creatives who’ve got involved and visited areas affected by global warming include Jude Kelly, Yann Martel, Martha Wainwright, Ian McEwan and Gary Hume. It’s hoped that the expedition will loosely influence their work, but it’s not linear. “David doesn’t go: ‘Right. We’ve got you up here where you can’t escape – write a song’ or ‘McEwan, I want 10 pages now,'” says Jarvis.
Actually, what annoys the ‘climate deniers’ is claims such as ‘Scientists think the North Pole could be ice-free in summertime within 20 years’ — which is a highly contested claim, anyway, and which has been deferred from the present year a number of times during the lifetime of this blog. The claim is repeated yet again, with no hint of reflection on the incautious claims made about the disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice in recent years. But worse than this, the article goes on to claim that,
Of the Arctic sea ice, 75% has been lost over the past 30 years. Last year saw sea-ice levels plummet to the second-lowest since records began. It is estimated that the North Pole could be ice-free in the summer within the next 10-20 years.
And this claim has even less foundation, as Anthony Watts explains. ‘The Guardian is only off by 7.675 million square kilometers…close enough for journo work I suppose’, says Watts. It’s a good point. The Guardian’s journalists want to claim that the ‘deniers’ have got it wrong, but they don’t seem able to stop themselves making up the numbers to support their campaigning.
Speaking of such numbers-abuse, the Arctic, Damian Carrington and WattsUpWithThat… Back in September, Carrington wrote,
Last week saw the annual summer minimum of the Arctic ice cap, which has now shrunk to the lowest level satellites have ever recorded.
This was, once again, palpable nonsense, as I reported at the time. Carrington had begun his article with some emotional anthropomorphism…
Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity. From the frosted plains of the Arctic ice pack to the cool blue caverns of the mountain glaciers, the dripping away of frozen water is the most crystal clear of all the Earth’s warning signals.
… But emotion is no substitute for checking the facts. Carrington’s claim was not supported by five out of the six measurements of Arctic sea ice. But who would want to let the facts get in the way of a good sob story?
And it is simple facts, and simplistic telling of complex stories that characterise the Guardian journalists, Greenpeaces, and the celebrity pal’s perspective. Here, for instance, is Jarvis Cocker’s attempt to explain contemporary geopolitics… (I am obliged to point out that the lyrics of this song are not ‘work safe’, and may offend some people.)
Thank God for the artist.. How would we understand the world without their sophistication, and their unique insights.
There’s nothing worse than wealthy pop stars complaining about how cruel the world is…
If Jarvis seems more flippant than your usual eco warrior it’s probably also a defence mechanism. Those with a high profile have to be prepared for some derision if they extol eco credentials while continuing to live a comfortable celebrity lifestyle. Even his Cape Farewell expedition, for which he did relatively little publicity at the time, caused one music critic to refer to him as the “Indie Sting”. “I’m sure Sting’s a lovely guy,” he says, attempting the diplomatic approach. “It’s just that nobody wants to be seen as that holier-than-thou thing. That over-earnestness is a bit of a problem with people in bands and celebrities or whatever. There is that irritating thing where people just try and give themselves a bit of extra gravitas, like: ‘I’m not just in Transformers III – I’m saving the world!’ I know it’s irritating. All I can say is I feel a bit of a personal involvement in the Arctic because I’ve been to that part of the world.”
Yep, the luxury of being able to take time off from a ‘busy’ schedule of writing crass lyrics and formulating cod theses about how ‘f*cked up the world is, man’, affords the pop-star philosopher the right to lecture the world about melting ice, and to pretend he’s not doing so. He escape the excesses of Sting’s embarrassing attempts to save the planet by swearing instead of posing with native Americans in the rain forest. But it’s just as embarrassing… Someone claiming not to be consumed with their own sense of self-importance but playing the planet-saving super-hero nonetheless.
This coolly-understated self-importance, contrived by geeky spectacles and unlikely hairstyles, is the thing that the pop star has, and that the NGO wants…
According to Sauven at Greenpeace, its new campaign will require unprecedented global public support, and we will have less than three years to come together to avoid catastrophic ecosystem destruction. “If this campaign is successful,” Sauven says, “it will be because people like Jarvis have lent their support and their ability to reach out. We urgently need this to happen globally.” It raises the question: how far is Jarvis willing to go for the planet? Might Britpop’s chronicler of contemporary life be one day remembered more for fighting off bulging-eyed Arctic plunderers than for “Common People”?
Only three years left to save the planet? You see, when the Greenpeace spokesman says it, it’s not credible because they’ve been promising that the end is nigh for decades. But lend it the credibility of a pop star… and… Well, it’s just as naff really. But that doesn’t stop the NGO attempting to borrow the cultural authority from the pop star, just as they borrow scientific authority from ‘scientists’. This is a good time to remember the words of Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, whose poetry is nonsense, but whose prose is sublime. Speaking about arch-miserabilist eco-warriors, Radiohead, Gallagher said,
“They’re middle-class boys worrying about pushing an envelope somewhere, and all that carbon footprint and all that bollocks. Every time there’s a polar bear on his tiptoes on an ice cube in the middle of the Antarctic, you know whose fault that is? Rock stars’. That’s their fault. Any time there’s food running out somewhere– ‘Let’s do a gig. That’ll sort it out. Let’s do a big fucking gig. Let’s fly everybody in from all over the world and pontificate to poor people about how they should be saving the planet.’ Go fucking kiss my ass. It’s very easy to just say, ‘We’re going to become difficult now and challenge our audience.’ I like my audience. They paid for my swimming pool. I’m not fucking challenging anybody.”
Gallagher has an understanding of his relationship with his audience, whereas the preachers from Pulp and Radiohead are uncertain of and uncomfortable with theirs. Gallagher seems content with the idea that pop and rock are about no more than enjoying life, whereas seemingly intellectual artists have traded on the idea that they have sought something deeper. It’s weird… The gig becomes an entirely different institution, in which the stage becomes a pulpit. The pop star, unhappy with the idea that his commodity is ephemeral like any other, his fame fleeting and arbitrary, and his words only salient by virtue of the effort of aggressive A&R men and record companies, seeks historical significance and is recruited by the NGO.
The Guardian, meanwhile, barely notice the real significance of the story of pop stars and Environmental NGOs collaborating while making up statistics and reinventing Mayan prophecies about the end of the world, to become part of the phenomenon. There is an unholy trinity here — the newspaper, the popstar and the NGO — each of them elevating themselves by this spectacle. They are 100% alarmists. And this 100% alarmism has nothing to do with the real state of the planet, but all to do with the fragility and arbitrary nature of their ascendency. They have extraordinary privilege, wealth and influence, yet, as Cocker points out, ‘c**ts are still running the world’. The only argument for their ascendency and roles as ambassadors for higher causes that the vacuous pop star, the vapid journalist, and the hollow NGO can offer is the portrayal of the world as a place which is terrible, and can only get worse without them. That’s what 100% alarmism is about: having nothing to offer, but being unwilling to negotiate. Hence, as the authors of culture, they invent fictions: 75% ice loss, 3 years to save the planet, and the idea that ‘something must be done, now’. The only comfort in all this is that, if the world really does end, at least it will take them with it.