Yearly Archives: 2012

From the pulpit at the Church of Crass Generalisations and Poorly Concealed Prejudice, Andrew Brown of the Guardian delivered these words on Tuesday:

There’s a first class article in Nature this week on the reasons Americans reject the science of climate change. It has wider implications for a lot of the ways in which we think and talk about rationality.

Hmm. ‘Americans reject the science of climate change’? All of them? Or just some of them in particular?

The article linked to by Brownwas authored by Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School. Kahan tries to explain why it is that controversy persists in the climate debate. People’s ‘reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment’, he says. In some senses, this is a refreshing break from the ‘deficit’ model of the climate debate: that stupid politicians are in hock to the material desires and base instincts of the stupid, fecund, consuming public. The problem is not too few powers of reason on the public’s behalf, but too much.

The reason the debate is polarised, says Kahan, is that people are very good at ‘filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers’. In other words, you believe what your mates believe, because to do otherwise would mean to commit to a life of loneliness… or something. Scepticism of climate change, then, is perfectly rational, from the point of view of sustaining your social network. The problem begins, on Kahan’s view, when the ‘communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings’.

Meanings like ‘denier’, perhaps?

Kahan’s theory is that people don’t make decisions about the facts in front of them, but are motivated by something else. He begins by challenging the theory that people are too stupid to understand the science, but ends up back in the same place. Curiously, he passes over the research that is most likely to take him in the right direction…

Social-science research indicates that people with different cultural values — individualists compared with egalitarians, for example — disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is.

… to go on to describe instead some superficially empirical test which bears out the idea that even in the face of unimpeachable expertise, people will return to the prejudices of the group to which they belong:

People with different values draw different inferences from the same evidence. Present them with a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, for example, and they will disagree on whether he really is an ‘expert’, depending on whether his view matches the dominant view of their cultural group (D. M. Kahan et al. J. Risk Res. 14, 147–174; 2011).

But the trouble for social science theorists is that you don’t need to be one of them to understand why this is. There are very good reasons why people with ‘different cultural values’ may end up diverging on the interpretation of evidence, as I’ve described here before. In brief: if you hold with a view that nature is in a permanent state of fragile balance and that human society is dependent on that balance, you will be more nervous of change in the natural environment than someone who believes that humans (especially in industrial society) are more self-dependent and robust. For entirely contingent reasons, these two positions roughly correspond to contemporary political trends that are nominatively/superficially ‘egalitarian’ and ‘individualistic’. (This idea of such a distinction is itself a bit of a red herring, but that is another blog post.)

The even bigger mistake is putting the social-group cart before the belief horse. No doubt some values are socially-transmitted. But it is primarily people’s interests which determine what circles they move in, not vice versa. Except in the most parochial of places, we — by which I mean people who are sufficiently privileged to take a view on the climate change debate — encounter sufficient diversity of opinion that few could argue that they didn’t have the opportunity to reflect their change of mind with a change of social group, albeit slowly. Things may be different for Kahan, perhaps, but I remain friends with the people who think I’m absolutely insanely wrong about environmental politics. Good friends. And our continued friendship is not predicated on our agreement about climate change.

So much pseudo-scientific social theory that passes for academic research is transparently intended to deny that people are capable of reason, or that they reason in ways that they shouldn’t. And in the process, these researchers cannot help but reveal that what they attempt to reveal in the wider public is much more true of the academy. Who would dare challenge environmentalism on the campus dominated by seemingly liberal, progressive thought? More pertinently, perhaps: who would dare to suggest that the wider public possessed sufficient faculties that the Faculty itself is is in many cases (but not all, of course) redundant, if not an actual toxic force in today’s, post-democratic politics? Perhaps people presented with ‘a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences’ aren’t inclined to bow and scrape before him, because the PhD scientist has a tendency to undermine his new acquaintance’s faculties, to say that they are lacking, and that a study of them reveal patterns of thought which are irrational and thus not capable of making decisions. The feeling is surely mutual. Kahan should worry as much less about science communication as he counsels that people should worry less about the public’s intellectual deficit; he should worry about what the science of reducing people in this way — and for what ends — says about climate ‘science’.

Back to Brown, who it is now clear was wrong to say that Kahan says anything particular to Americans in general, or American sceptics in particular. And even if Kahan had explained the mechanics of some kind of ‘group think’ at the social level, it would equally apply to environmentalists. Brown believes that,

It will take the kind of conformism and sense of moral obligation offered by religious thought and ritual if we are to save the planet

Brown continues to try to distance himself from the people-are-stupid account of scepticism in the same way Kahan does. The argument again being that individuals are making ‘rational’ decisions, but rationalising on a different basis — their social survival, rather than on the basis of the putative facts of climate science. But this leaves Brown and Kahan in a relativistic bind: if values and the basis for rational decisions are dependent on social context, what does that say about the content of Kahan and Brown’s own reasoning? If they want to sustain the idea that they have the ‘correct’ understanding of ‘the science’, then they cannot say that the sceptics are capable of reason. One can’t say that finding an answer of 5 for the question ‘what is 2 plus 2′ is ‘rational’, on the basis that someone’s friends and family believe the answer to be 5, and that he wants to keep his friendships. Such a move is putting something beforereason. Brown fudges an answer:

One explanation is that we have a problem of propaganda: the lobbyist’s rule that for every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD makes it easy for malevolent forces to blind the world with bullshit.

But saying that people can pick and choose their experts only defers the problem so far: it still suggests that one group of people with a particular belief are more vulnerable to ‘propaganda’ than another, their rational faculties being less capable of detecting it. And it is in the following passage that we discover that Brown really is vulnerable to something…

Personal experience is not infinitely malleable. Perhaps if there were anything we could do about the weather, our opinions of it would be modified by the effects we saw our actions having. But there isn’t. The weather is uncontrollable and this is even more true of climate change. What you or I do as individuals makes no difference to global warming. Even what the whole of the UK does won’t change much.

These are some curious ideas that Brown is putting forward. The weather may or may not be controllable, and ‘personal experience’ may not be ‘infinitely malleable’, whatever that means. Brown is trying not to say that weather and climate change, being forces of nature, are inevitable, whereas people can be more easily controlled. Spot the deliberate mistake in Brown’s next passage:

The kind of changes in consumption needed to make a real difference to our carbon output would require multinational action at government level.

‘Multinational action’ is above the ‘government level’. It is intergovernmental, or supranational. Or in other words, it is a new layer of governance. And the basis for this new layer of governance is, as Brown says:

… democratic governments act from perceived self-interest even more than individual voters do. Since their actions are consistently directed to an end, an economist could call them rational. Both voters and governments, in ignoring the very painful adjustments that would be needed to diminish climate change, are definitely working to a utility function. They want to minimise their own unpopularity and will see the world in ways that make their actions seem rational. In general the right has understood this better than the left (or do I say this because the misdeeds of the other side are so much more apparent?).

The main problem for Brown here is that governments — especially the UK’s — has responded to a political consensus on the climate which is not shared by the public. The UK and EU’s policies do not reflect popular will. That’s not to say that there is substantial opposition to them (yet), but that these governments were able to create these policies, in spite of the public. Brown’s argument is not a challenge to the way politics is being done, but a ringing endorsement of it.

Brown takes Kahan’s observation that social context and attitudes towards the environment are somehow/somewhat correlated, to make an attack on democracy. Just as individuals are vulnerable to what their peers think, democratic governments are vulnerable to what the aggregate of all peer-groups believe. Rationality being so malleable and fickle, democracy is therefore not up to the task of coping with material reality — climate change. It was the historic left which made the arguments for the expansion of democratic control in the past, against traditional political orders, to allow people to make political decisions precisely in their own interests. Brown now eschews the idea that reason is what makes the the individual capable of giving government a mandate through democratic processes, and asks for democracy to be suspended, and for governance to be legitimised instead on the basis of environmental catastrophe. Even if it were true that the political right’s ‘misdeeds’ in corrupting democracy ‘are so much more apparent’, contempt for the principle of democratic government is contempt for the demos, and vice versa. It’s the proles that Brown fears most.

What religious thought – and ritual – can supply is the two things absent from normative consumer liberalism. The first is a belief that the choice between ends is not arbitrary or wholly personal: that there are moral facts of the matter; that saving as much of humanity as possible is an obligation on all of us, and that this is actually true, and not just a matter of preference.

Environmental catastrophe is, I’ve argued here before, a cheap moral realism. Brown wants there to be ‘moral facts of the matter’, but doesn’t realise that he has shot himself in both feet on his quest to find shared values to which we would all be obedient. First, his own relativistic meandering left him lame as he undermined the idea that individuals are capable of reason at all — we’d rather be friends with each other. And then, hopping on one foot, he fell over when he revealed that rather than allowing people to hold with the values they do share, he wants a greater authority to be sovereign. The idea that there is a ‘normative consumer liberalism’ which makes individuals’ ends sovereign is in total contradiction with the idea that people’s views of the world are formed, or mediated by their peers. Brown continues…

The second is the kind of conformism, reinforced by all kinds of social ritual, large and small, which will enforce the social discipline needed to carry societies through some pretty ghastly changes. Let’s face it, any adjustment to an ecologically sustainable standard of living is going to be a lot nastier than anything Greece is going through now. It will need considerable determination and solidarity.

Greens for so long have promised that environmental asceticism, and the transition towards it would not just be a joyful process of transcendence in which our lives would be given meaning and authenticity, it need not even be marked by austerity. Now even that promise has faded. It will be ‘ghastly’, admits Brown. And this process towards the ghastly needs a religion, if not to police the thoughts of the individuals who absorb it freely, then to legitimise the actual policing of the actions of those who do not.

It’s hard not to wonder whose side Brown is even on. Keep writing, Andrew.

But something I’ve wondered much more about than that, is whether the desire for austerity, for conformity, and for ‘shared’ values is owed much less to what ‘science says’, than for these things as ends in themselves…

The basic mechanism of social conformism is not so much policing behaviour – that needs only outrage – but policing emotion: the kind of second-order enforcement of conformity where my failure to feel outrage becomes itself a matter for your outrage. There’s plenty of that around today.

… After all, the problem for environmentalists — especially outraged Guardian hacks — has been sharing their outrage. Environmentalism remains an elite preoccupation. And so it is no surprise that environmentalists’ ideas are fantasies that reflect a desire for elite forms of political and social organisation, above the reach of the hoi-polloi. The hoi-polloi — the demos — has failed to respond to environmentalism’s prophets, and so environmental mythology has developed to account for this disobedience. On the environmentalists view, the minds of individuals have been captured, and thus, being captured means they can be recaptured — it’s just a matter of taking control of the right social and political institutions, or creating new ones, such that families and social acquaintances no longer allow the ‘wrong’ values to contaminate ‘rational’ thought — and even if it did, it wouldn’t make any difference.

This is all in contrast to the view that individuals can be persuaded through reason, by appealing to people’s rational faculties. And it is in contrast to the view than people’s values, beliefs, and rational processes can be understood simply by asking people what they think and why they think it. Kahan and Brown then speculate as to what it is that ‘really’ drives the formation of opinions and beliefs about the world, as though individuals had nothing to do with it. Brown’s desire for a ‘new moral order’ belies the vacuum in his own moral perspective. It is in fact terror at the possibility of a moral order existing outside of his own control. ‘Science’ is a surrogate moral framework in an otherwise amoral, hollow perspective, held by people who, in spite of their vacuity, want to be able to assert control, in lieu of any basis on which their influence could be legitimised. ‘Science’ is (ab)used first to say ‘do this or die’, and then is used to explain why people don’t respond to such transparent moral blackmail. The thing that doesn’t seem to have occurred to environmentalists is that this isn’t science at all, and that this fact is as plain as day to everyone else.

Following the previous post here about alarmist stories of Arctic ice melt, Seymour Laxon, the scientist behind the recent spate of ‘Arctic melting quicker than we thought’ stories, replied in the comments.

Dear Ben

“Paul Matthews let me know by twitter that I was wrong to say the measurements were based just on Cryosat2. In the interview, he explains that the data were produced by using Cryosat2 and NASA’s Icestat satellite. Either way, however, the data he refers are measurements still only taken since 2010, which I still believe is far too short a time series to say anything about trends, let alone safely projecting them.”

As I stated on Today the results come from combining data from CryoSat-2 with earlier measurements by NASA’s ICEsat satellite (2003-2008). The statement in Andrew Orlowski’s article that my results are based only two years of data is therefore untrue (I have e-mailed him to point this out).

In the interview, Laxon referred to measurements taken ‘this decade’, which I presumed to mean since 2010. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to take from this understanding that Laxon’s predictions about the decline of Arctic sea ice were therefore based on a data series which is too short to be meaningful. (I am still not confident that even the 10 year sample is sufficient, but that is by-the-by as far as this post is concerned).

Most of my criticism of environmental journalists has been their apparent laziness in establishing the facts of the stories they aim to report on — of taking scientists’ claims at face value, and of failing to subject any back story, or coincident claims to criticism and scrutiny. Most of the coverage of developments in environmental science are lifted straight out of the press release, and seen through the pre-existing alarmist narrative, as I discussed in my article for Spiked this week. So it would seem that I had been pretty sloppy myself, for not having established precisely what Laxon’s method was.

Except there was nothing to find. I looked. And I looked. And I looked. I could not find a press release from Laxon’s places of work, or organisations associated with them. I could not find any new research published anywhere. No mention of it was made on the Cryosat2 website. I even asked on Twitter — where is the science?

I replied to Laxon by email, and in the comments:

Thanks for your comment, Seymour.

Could you explain where the research is published, so that we can see how you have produced these results from the data?

Many thanks,

Ben.

Laxon replied by email:

Dear Ben

As I have made clear in the media the results are preliminary.

They results are now being finalised for publication (hopefully very soon). The paper will
report on what the data tells us has happened to Arctic ice volume over the period 2003-12.

Regards

But ‘preliminary results’ are not results, as I pointed out in the previous post. Why would anyone be interested in a premature announcement of results, and how come they generated so many headlines? I asked Laxon:

Dear Seymour,

So how did the media get hold of these preliminary results? Did you
send them to newsdesks? Or did it go out on a PR newswire? And why
didn’t you wait until you had the final results before you commented
on them?

Many thanks,

Ben.

Laxon replied:

I was approached by the media (it is well know that I am working with CryoSat) and agreed to talk as long as it was made clear that the results were preliminary.

In any case the first estimates of volume from CryoSat were published on the BBC back in April, and presented at the Royal Society in front of the press, at the request of the European Space Agency.

For your information the data have been processed in a more or less identical manner to that described in Kwok et al JGR, 2009 and Giles et al GRL, 2008.

I am doing my best to get the paper and data out there as soon as possible.

Regards

At this point, I am not sure who this reflects on the worst: journalists who seem hungry for the story, or the scientist who is prepared to give it to them. Surely an experienced scientist like Laxon ought to know that research like this would provoke a great deal of interest and debate, which would be better served with the benefit of the full and final analysis, not simply headline figures about ‘preliminary results’. I asked Laxon:

Dear Seymour.

I can see by the raft of results produced by google that many journalists picked up the story.

Which media organisation/journalist approached you first in this most recent case of your ‘preliminary results’? I presume that the rest followed after just one newspaper(?) reported it? I’m trying to understand how they found out that you had ‘preliminary results’.

I’m also a bit confused about why you didn’t explain that you couldn’t comment until the preliminary results had been made more concrete.

Ben.

Laxon replied:

They were talking to one of my colleagues who was aware of my results. Scientists often share results prior to publication, that’s how science progresses.

It’s common in any case for journalists to come and talk to scientists after conference presentations which may show unpublished results and write articles about them afterwards.

If I had doubts that the final numbers might be substantially different then I might have been more cautious. However the data have been processed using well established and documented (i.e. published in peer review journals) procedures and validated using various ground data. Some of the numbers (such as the agreement of ice volume with PIOMAS) were presented to the press back in April.

Nice talking to you but I really do need to get on and finish the paper which I hope to submit in the next week or so.

That seems to be the end of the correspondence from Laxon. I replied:

Dear Seymour,

Thanks for your email, but it didn’t quite answer my question. I wondered who you had spoken to first — which newspaper/journalist?

No doubt scientists and journalists talk to each other. But most scientific developments that I am aware of, are announced to the press via press release, embargoed until the publication of the
peer-reviewed work. This process has its own problems, of course. But it surely is preferable to the obvious problems that would be created by unpublished, un-peer-reviewed research being reported in the media. Your integrity and honesty notwithstanding, we nonetheless have only your word for the soundness of your method, and of the data itself, and are left none the wiser about how either developed. I look forward to your research being published (when?) but in the meantime, the headlines have been generated, without the scrutiny that stories which [have] such far-reaching implications surely deserve? in spite of your comment that this is how science progresses, I don’t see how science can progress if it is done like this.

Best wishes,

Ben.

So maybe Andrew Orlowski and I were wrong to suggest that the alarmist headlines were based on a ‘half-baked data set‘. But maybe we weren’t. The alarmist narrative has been served, with no opportunity given to interrogate the data, the analysis of the data, and the reporting of the analysis in the media.

And there is no doubting the effect of this story. A Google search for web pages published in the last week for the terms ‘seymour’, ‘laxon’, ‘arctic’ returns 996 results:

BBC interview – Arctic ice melting faster than ever?
Arctic ocean losing 50% more summer ice than predicted
Arctic sea ice could disappear within 10 years as global warming increases speed of melting
Arctic ice could vanish in 10 years, scientists warn
Arctic ice could vanish within 10 years: Scientists
An ice-free Arctic ocean in the summer within 10 years? It’s possible
Arctic losing ice much faster than expected
Arctic Sea Ice Could Vanish In 10 Years: Study
Rate of Arctic summer sea ice loss is 50 per cent higher than predicted
Arctic ice thinning faster than thought
‘Arctic sea ice could disappear within 10 years’

And so on. Hundreds of headlines, read by millions of people. Because Seymour Laxon had a cup of tea with a journalist pal, and revealed the results of his unpublished, un-peer-reviewed work.

This is the anatomy of climate alarmism. For years it has been the claim of environmentalists that their arguments were based on peer-reviewed literature published in credible, scientific journals, and that their critics didn’t enjoy the authority that institutional science gave them. But now we see that all it takes for a story to snowball, are, in such conditions, the premature words of a single scientist, about his ‘preliminary results’. The truth is that the avalanche was ready for the first tiny impulse that would send it cascading throughout the media, across the world. And that is how unpublished, untested results from one study, told by just one man, get turned into stories about ‘science’ detecting ‘greater ice loss than we expected’. If Laxon didn’t know it, he was naive.


UPDATE:

Laxon published the following comment on the story at the Register.

Get the facts right Andrew
The statement in this article that these new results rely on just two years of data is, quite simply, false. If you wish to know why then listen to my Today interview (http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9744000/9744378.stm) where I state that the trends are derived by combining CryoSat-2 volume estimates with earlier (2003-2008) volume estimates from NASA’s ICESat mission [Kwok, JGR, 2009].
I also state that one must be cautious in extrapolating these trends forwards.
Seymour Laxon

Andrew Orlowski responds:

Cautious, Seymour?
A cautious scientist would be expected to go through the peer review process. You, by contrast, haven’t even published this work yet. It is not available for scrutiny. Nevertheless, you are willing to appear on the national media making dramatic long-term claims, based on *new* data of less than two years observations.
You have been anything but cautious.
Your science may be well turn out be sound, but until it has been independently scrutinized, we just don’t know. Your argument boils own to: “Trust me, I’m a scientist.”


William Connolley — who can’t even keep a job at Wikipedia, let alone Real Climate, such an angry rodent is he — writes at his blog, Weasel, Rat, Stoat, that Orlowski and I are ‘stupid’, ‘liars’ and ‘idiots’. He then deletes the word ‘stupid’ from my comment there, for its ‘incivility’. Environmentalists have never been very good at sticking to the standards they set for others. but that’s a trivial instance of it. The more important issue is that the emphasis on peer review and publication in credible journals is what made climate science better than anything the sceptics could throw at it.

Seymour Laxon joins in, amongst the commenters there, who seem much more interested in hurling abuse — and hackneyed abuse at that — than engaging in debate. Says Laxon:

Ben >>[in which I ask him for “the science” — something he wasn’t able to produce]

Ben has not actually asked me any questions about the science . If you look at the e-mail exchange you will see he has only asked “Could you explain where the research is published, so that we can see how you have produced these results from the data?”

Anyway for Ben and anyone else who’s actually interested in the science the ICESat paper on trends in ice volume (K09) is available to download here:

http://rkwok.jpl.nasa.gov/publications/Kwok.2009.JGR.pdf

In paragraph 39 the 2003-8 trends from ICESat are provided: “The trend in ice volume is -1237/-862 km3/a (fall/ winter).”

What I have done it to combine this ICESat time-series with 2 winters of CryoSat data processed in the same way as described in Giles et al., GRL, 2008, and validated in a similar manner the to comparisons shown in K09, figure 4.

So go and read those two papers and if you have any questions about the “science’ they describe (you’ll need to understand those papers to understand mine as the methodologies are more or less the same) then let us know.

In addition why not go here: file: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/wordpress/research/projects/arctic-sea-ice-volume-anomaly/data/ to download a simple ASCII text data. Once downloaded select out the September data (more or less day 244-274) since 2003, average the data for each year, and then use Excel to tell you what the slope in the data is. Then you’ll have your own trend in Arctic volume to report back.

PS. There are a dozen scientists and engineers on the paper which describes the CS-2/ICESat results.

So Laxon’s answer is: do your own science.

It’s a bit late for that now, though, isn’t it. His hundreds of headlines have been created over the last week.

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/8057</em>

The account of the climate debate that has driven most comment on it is that it is a debate between two camps: scientists on the one hand battle sceptics on the other. This misconception is the basis from which more mythology about the debate develops: scientists are united by a consensus, are of unimpeachable character and the science is unequivocal; sceptics are financed by oil interests, motivated by ‘ideology’ and are ‘anti-science’. But reactions to an incautiously worded press release announcing the discovery of an ‘unprecedented’ melting of Greenland’s ice sheet reveals that this understanding of the climate debate is deeply flawed. Nobody involved has a monopoly on science abuse or questionable motivations.

‘Satellites see Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Melt’,announced a press release on 24 July from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institution of Technology. Satellites that constantly scan environmental conditions on the planet’s surface had revealed that from 8 July to 12 July, 97 per cent of the surface of the ice sheet contained water rather than ice, whereas typically just 45 per cent of the surface area melts at this time of year. The extent of this melt is not in itself significant – just millimetres on top of an ice sheet that is 3.5 kilometres thick at its deepest point, most of which soon refreezes.

In spite of the headline, the press release itself went on to explain how the ‘unprecedented’ extent of surface ice melt wasn’t, in fact, unprecedented. ‘Ice cores from Summit [a central Greenland station] show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time’, said Lora Koenig, a NASA researcher involved in the analysis of the satellite data.

In plain sight of the fact that the melting was neither unexpected nor unprecedented, environmental journalists the world over picked up the story and ran with it. In theGuardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, wrote: ‘The Greenland ice sheet melted at a faster rate this month than at any other time in recorded history, with virtually the entire ice sheet showing signs of thaw.’

As I have noted elsewhereGuardian journalists have a fetish for stories about melting ice. In September last year, following an unusually low measurement of Arctic sea-ice extent, Damian Carrington wrote: ‘Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity.’ But the low measurement of sea ice that Carrington pointed to disagreed with at least five other continuous measurements of the Arctic, and was thus unreliable. This kind of overreaction to scientific developments is a facile attempt to turn science into stories of political intrigue. When images of the Arctic taken by US spy satellites were declassified in 2009, the headline of an article by Goldenberg and Carrington proclaimed that ‘the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide’ had been ‘revealed’.

The rash of excited articles about the dying cryosphere caused some surprising corrective responses from voices within climate research. Malte Humpert from the Arctic Institute Centre wrote a stinging response to the headline histrionics.  ‘The Greenland ice sheet, which is up to 3000+ metres thick, is not “melting away”, did not “melt in four days”, it is not “melting fast”, and Greenland did not “lose 97 per cent of its surface ice layer”.’ Humpert continued: ‘Most articles also exaggerated the importance of the melt event on global sea levels by explaining how sea levels would rise by up to 7.2 metres if the ice sheet were to melt.’

Similarly, Mark Brandon, a sea-ice scientist at the Open University, reproduced an interesting series of tweets and links to articles that showed the development of the current panic about ice, beginning with (alleged) comedian Marcus Brigstocke’s misconception of the story. To Brigstocke, an ‘unprecedented’ melt was the proverbial canary in the coal mine – a harbinger of doom. But as Brandon and his colleagues pointed out, it was a bit soon to be calling time on the human race. This was just weather.

Although it is good to see scientists engaging critically with climate alarmism, such corrections seem to have limited potential. Although climate activists and politicians have emphasised the scientific consensus on climate change, their alarmism has found its expression in the public sphere after press releases announcing scientific claims. These press-released stories often turn out to be based not on research, but on opinion or guesswork. For instance, in 2007, when Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since 1979, a rash of speculation followed about when the ice might disappear altogether. In 2008, the Observer happily reported that 2013 would be the date of the ice cap’s demise, according to just one researcher’s claim.

But this turned out to be mere guesswork, as did other estimates of the future of Arctic sea ice, which put the date of disappearance much further into the future. The fact of this speculation was lost by journalists emphasising the scientific credentials of those doing the guessing; it was guesswork, but it was scientists’ guesswork.

Science has not put a stop to climate alarmism. The dynamics of the most barren and lifeless parts of the planet have become the ground on which the climate wars have been fought. And each ‘unprecedented’ move of any glacier, iceberg or sea ice becomes a moment of significance, seemingly telling us our future. Far from being scientific, prognosticating about the future of the world on the basis of the progress of ice is like reading frog entrails.

So what has science got to say about such fortune-telling, and what can it achieve? I asked Mark Brandon about what had moved him to write his corrective of the stories that followed NASA’s press release. ‘When I talk to people who don’t really know about polar science, they look at that picture of Greenland covered in red, and they think the whole ice sheet is melting’, says Brandon. ‘This isn’t a story about sea-level rise. But that is how virtually everyone has presented it. And that is how almost everyone has interpreted it as well.’

Brandon is keen to emphasise that this doesn’t mean that Arctic ice is not melting or that such melting is not a problem. Rather, he argues that overstating the problem is not helpful. ‘I don’t think many of these stories make much sense in isolation… If you view things in isolation then geographically it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense from a climate point of view, which is what I [and other scientists] were trying to say. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s melting. I think it is. But it’s going for the headline. It’s an easy media thing. It’s a weather event. The temperature [in Greenland] only reached over zero for a few days. It would be the equivalent of a weather event going over Britain.’

If Brandon’s caution reflects the consensus position on climate science, it seems to be out-of-kilter with the wider public discussion about the climate. Endless stories about glaciers melting, polar bears, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and sea ice form the view that there is virtually no ice left on the surface of the planet. And there is no doubting the influence of such alarmism. Just prior to the 2009 COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen, then UK prime minister Gordon Brown told the world: ‘We should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue. Only last week, we saw new evidence of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice… And in just twenty-five years, the glaciers in the Himalayas which provide water for three-quarters of a billion people could disappear entirely… And the recent report of the Global Humanitarian Forum led by Kofi Annan suggests that… effects of climate change are already killing 300,000 people… and the total will rise to half a million each year by 2030’.

What was striking about Brown’s claims is that they owed nothing to science at all, let alone to the scientific consensus. Instead, the claims had come from the Caitlin mission to the Arctic – a PR and media stunt designed to highlight the shrinking of the Arctic – and from the Global Humanitarian Forum’s crude estimate of the effects of climate on poorer parts of the world that had emphasised climate, rather than lack of wealth, as the fundamental in the condition of the world’s poor.

Ironically, the deep cold of the Arctic caused the Caitlin’s equipment to fail, and ultimately the hostile weather meant the team had to be rescued. The Global Humanitarian Forum folded before the World Health Organisation’s recent announcement that incidences of malaria – one of the diseases the GHF predicted would increase with global warming – had fallen dramatically since 2000.

What most frustrates climate sceptics is the persistence of such junk science in the public and policy debates. Those who point out the problems of making arguments for policy on the back of PR stunts and junk science are labelled as ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’, motivated by profit, ‘ideology’ or simple bad-mindedness rather than the desire for a sensible debate about our relationship with the natural environment and concern about development. Brown’s errors are passed over with little criticism from science. But how to account for such errors in the first place?

One problem, says Brandon, is that a clear view of science is precluded by the expectations weighing on scientists, who may be reluctant to enter a fierce debate. He imagines a case of a researcher producing work that explained where climate models are going wrong: ‘If he or she stood up and talked to a journalist, that very good research intended to improve the models could have her work framed as saying that climate models are garbage, therefore the Arctic isn’t warming.’ In other words, in a highly polarised debate, scientific developments are taken to be decisive. Mistakes in computer models are taken to be the final word on the paucity of evidence of manmade climate change, and an anomalous measurement of Greenland’s ice sheet spells the end of the world.

Another problem is that journalists and policymakers simply do not understand the context of research. Brandon compares a lay reading of climate science to an attempt to read a Jane Austen novel at face value. Without historical knowledge of the grammatical nuances and peculiarities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society, the significance of events in Austen’s plots may be lost on the reader, and the motivations of the characters so much harder to fathom. And so it is with climate science: the caveats, context and cautions scientists attach to their work are forgotten by excited journalists who report it and who furthermore forget their roles as critics of authority, be it political or scientific.

The loss of scientific context does something to explain how the significance of scientific research is amplified by stories which cover them. But there is a wider context to scientific research – especially climate research – which a view of the deficit between scientists and journalists does not capture. After all, some scientists are involved to some extent in the creation of dramatic stories about the melting of ice and the peddling of alarm in the media. Following the NASA story, Edward Hannah, reader in climate change at the University of Sheffield, wrote in the Guardian that ‘the Greenland ice sheet is living on borrowed time’, and that ‘tens of centimetres’ of sea-level rise ‘would make many coastal communities more vulnerable to flooding and storm surges’. Such a conclusion had nothing to do with the story at hand and presupposed that it was beyond the means and minds of ‘coastal communities’ a century hence to move themselves away from the shore or build coastal protection.

It is this historical illiteracy that afflicts scientists as much as it moves journalists to promote alarmist interpretations of press releases from climate science – of which they are equally illiterate. Climate change excites the imaginations of individuals – journalists and scientists included – who labour under a narrative of humanity’s close relationship with nature. On this view, ‘coastal communities’ are incapable of responding to changing circumstances, even over the course of centuries. Thus a theoretical problem that may emerge thousands of years into the future becomes an immediate danger that can only be dealt with now, and in the way preferred by the alarmist narrative: ceasing the industrial and economic progress that would afford those coastal communities a better way of life, as well as better protection from the elements. An insidious and self-fulfilling prophecy turns the observation of an unremarkable melting of a few millimetres of ice into a story about several miles of melted ice, and metres of sea-level rise.

A belief persists that is possible strictly to set the boundaries of politics and science, such that science can issue politics with imperatives on the basis of what it detects in the material world. But clearly, the poorly conceived environmental narrative and pseudoscientific factoids persist across both science and politics. The damage done by the characterisation of the debate as one between scientists and sceptics, and the view of science and politics as easily delineated processes, is that progress is made in neither politics nor science. Even correcting the excesses of environmental alarmism – or for that matter, climate scepticism – means scientists taking sides in a political war. ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, you’re still going to upset people’, says Brandon.

This should give us a clue as to how damaging the expectations of science are. Science is expected to give decisive answers to the debate and unambiguous instructions to politics. Brandon crystallises the problem: ‘In a way, it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to be part of the public debate’, he says. ‘You’ve got no right to be quiet, because the implications of some of the things that people are determining are significant’. The scientist who produces research that either tends towards or against the alarmist picture of the world finds him or herself on that side. So why do any science or make comments in public at all?

As long as there is an expectation that science can only produce uncorrupted and objective accounts of the world, the immediate significance of melting ice (and other things) will continue to be overstated. And while there is an expectation that instructions to politics can be simply read off from scientific observations, anti-progress and anti-human narratives, of the kind epitomised by the Guardian’s alarmism, will persist. It is these tendencies which allow a few millimetres of melted ice to turn into stories about several miles of melting, and many meters of sea level rise.

One way out of this impasse might be to recognise the extent to which the dramatic storyline of climate catastrophe precedes science, afflicting even scientists. It’s not enough to simply say that this or that aspect of alarmism is overcooked; the problem is with the entire outlook. Science cannot tell you that melting ice is significant; it can only explain how much of it has melted. The significance of melting ice is determined by how much we believe the future depends on ice not melting.

I have an article up on Spiked today about the melting Greenland ice cover story from a few weeks back.

‘Satellites see Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Melt’, announced a press release on 24 July from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institution of Technology. Satellites that constantly scan environmental conditions on the planet’s surface had revealed that from 8 July to 12 July, 97 per cent of the surface of the ice sheet contained water rather than ice, whereas typically just 45 per cent of the surface area melts at this time of year. The extent of this melt is not in itself significant – just millimetres on top of an ice sheet that is 3.5 kilometres thick at its deepest point, most of which soon refreezes.

In spite of the headline, the press release itself went on to explain how the ‘unprecedented’ extent of surface ice melt wasn’t, in fact, unprecedented. ‘Ice cores from Summit [a central Greenland station] show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time’, said Lora Koenig, a NASA researcher involved in the analysis of the satellite data.

I had long and interesting chat with sea ice researcher at the Open University, Mark Brandon before writing the article. Mark and I probably disagree about a number of things, but on the expectations of science, we did seem to find some common ground. What emerged most strongly for me was that, in the current atmosphere of the climate debate, the possibilities of doing ‘value free’ research are greatly reduced: any scientific development which paints a picture of things being better or ‘worse than we thought’ has immediate implications for the debate.

Coincidentally, just before the article was published, the Today Programme on BBC R4 had a feature on some ongoing scientific research:

Preliminary results from a European Space Agency satellite measuring the thickness of Arctic ice suggests it is melting faster than previously thought.

Seymour Laxon of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling said the thickness of the ice could now be measured to an accuracy of 10cm (3.5in).

He said there has been a “very strong decline” in the thickness of the ice, and if the current trend continues, the Arctic could be ice-free on a summer’s day by the end of the decade.

Any suggestion that Arctic ice — summer sea ice, to be precise — is ‘melting faster than previously thought’ should raise the question ‘how fast did you think it was melting?’ As I discussed in the article, according to ‘scientists’, the Arctic would be ice-free next year.

Although it is good to see scientists engaging critically with climate alarmism, such corrections seem to have limited potential. Although climate activists and politicians have emphasised the scientific consensus on climate change, their alarmism has found its expression in the public sphere after press releases announcing scientific claims. These press-released stories often turn out not be based on research but on opinion or guesswork. For instance, in 2007, when Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since 1979, a rash of speculation followed about when the ice might disappear altogether. In 2008, the Observer happily reported that 2013 would be the date of the ice cap’s demise, according to just one researcher’s claim.

But this turned out to be mere guesswork, as did other estimates of the future of Arctic sea ice, which put the date of disappearance much further into the future. The fact of this speculation was lost by journalists emphasising the scientific credentials of those doing the guessing; it was guesswork, but it was scientists’ guesswork.

And so it was, once again, that the narrative of doom preceded the science. ‘Preliminary results’ should not be interesting to any news desk. ‘Preliminary results’ are not results. And the interview proceeded, to abandon any attempt to reflect on the story critically, or to ask what the significance of the story really is. Ditto, the following headline from the Observer

Rate of Arctic summer sea ice loss is 50% higher than predicted
New satellite images show polar ice coverage dwindling in extent and thickness

The BBC’s Roger Harrabin tweeted,

Potentially alarming analysis of Arctic ice from UCL. Seymour Laxon interview on Today Prog. The experiment continues. http://bbc.in/SdI6D7

Only ‘potentially alarming’… But being used to alarm, nonetheless.

What seems to be beyond the capacities of BBC and Guardian/Observer journalists is to ask questions about how and when the measurements of Arctic ice took place.

As the website for the Cryosat-2 programme — the satellite that produced the ‘potentially alarming results’ — says,

CryoSat was launched in 2010 to measure sea-ice thickness in the Arctic, but data from the Earth-observing satellite have also been exploited for other studies. High-resolution mapping of the topography of the ocean floor is now being added to the ice mission’s repertoire.

So the data from which the ‘potentially alarming’ result was produced consists of a series that began in April 2010, and has thus only had the chance to record Arctic conditions over two summers and two winters.

Some results from Cryosat-2 were announced in April this year.

After nearly a year and a half of operations, CryoSat has yielded its first seasonal variation map of Arctic sea-ice thickness. Results from ESA’s ice mission were presented today at the Royal Society in London.

In June 2011, the first map of Arctic sea-ice thickness was unveiled, using CryoSat data acquired between January and February of that year.
Now, the complete 2010–11 winter season data have been processed to produce a seasonal variation map of sea-ice thickness.

This is the first map of its kind generated using data from a radar altimeter and at such a high resolution compared to previous satellite measurements.

If these really are the first data relating to the volume of ice available to science, then it really is far too early for researchers to be claiming to be able to put a date on the demise of summer Arctic sea ice. Moreover, and never mind the failure of journalists to subject scientists’ claims to scrutiny, what was Seymour Laxon of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling doing, going on a mainstream news programme — perhaps the most listened-to news programme of the entire country — to explain that science was able to put a date on the terminal point of Arctic sea ice? The only thing he should have been able to say is that ‘it’s too early to say’.

Anything else is, frankly, a lie. The variation in sea ice volume detected by Cryosat-2 may well have been no more than weather. In order to make the predictions that Laxon made, he would have to assume that any variation can only be accounted for by anthropogenic climate change, and that the trend it detected would continue.

This is as clear a case of environmental politics preceding the science as any other alarmist story. I have no idea whether or not Laxon consciously allowed himself to speak prematurely on the decline of sea ice, and I do not care. The alarmist story is allowed to proceed in spite of facts, and without scrutiny or criticism.


UPDATE

Paul Matthews let me know by twitter that I was wrong to say the measurements were based just on Cryosat2. In the interview, he explains that the data were produced by using Cryosat2 and NASA’s Icestat satellite. Either way, however, the data he refers are measurements still only taken since 2010, which I still believe is far too short a time series to say anything about trends, let alone safely projecting them.


UPDATE 2

Andrew Orlowski has an interesting article about Laxon’s claims over at the Register.

Laxon has generated a torrent of headlines in the media. It’s the silly season, of course, so this is to be expected. But what most surprises me is that I can’t track down any evidence of the ‘research’ this is supposed to be from, nor even a press release. All this headline-making seems to have happened just on the basis of one man’s opinion. This opinion, from one man, gets turned into science, produced by ‘scientists’.

According to my ‘favourite’ newspaper

Bill Clinton: cutting use of natural resources would help US economy
Former president says US would recover faster from financial crises if more effort was made to use resources sustainably

Clinton was speaking to the Re|Source conference in Oxford, and features a line-up of individuals with international profiles. Fiona Harvey of the Guardian was there, and had this to say about Clinton’s recipe for America’s recovery:

“We can grow even faster if we use less energy,” said Clinton in a conversation with the Guardian at the Resource 2012 conference in Oxford on Friday evening. “We have studies that show this. All that we need to do is find ways to finance this.”

He said the current financial system favoured the building of major projects such as coal-fired power stations, despite their energy intensity, because the value of energy efficiency was underrated.

Big financial backers are used to weighing up the finances of major infrastructure works, because they have long developed the financial models to work out the payback on their investment over the project’s lifetime.

But financing efficiency projects is more complex, and has received much less attention from investors, because the payback is spread more diffusely – among thousands of companies and individuals.

“This is the problem with going aggressively for efficiency, as we need to,” Clinton said. “If I want to finance efficiency savings, I need to go to lots of people and add all those savings together. But if I want to build a new coal-fired power station, I go to a few [backers] and I’ve done it.”

“We can grow even faster if we use less energy”… Has Clinton discovered some new principle which contradicts all existing scientific knowledge? Have the laws of thermodynamics changed? Does this hold true for any amount of ‘less energy’ used? Could we use less and less energy indefinitely, and ‘grow’ indefinitely? Is less, really, and in fact, more?

Of course not. And dear old Bill is confused about the difference between ‘using less’ and ‘efficiency’. He believes that somehow, inefficiencies are built into some kind of ‘system’. He believes you can change the system by ‘financing efficiency projects’. And this will somehow made it possible to ‘grow faster’.

This is nonsense, of course, unless you’re facing a shortage of the resource in the first place. We’re not. There are plenty of resources. But they are expensive at the moment. So it could be argued that making processes more energy efficient might lower the total cost of energy, leaving more money for other things. But this would depend in the first place on the ‘efficiency project’ being worthwhile. You could install a $million worth of things that improve efficiency, but only realise $100,000 worth of fuel savings a year. And then you’d have to decide whether you’d get a better return on the $million spent on efficiency, or some other thing.

Clinton wants to make efficiency an end in itself. This is a reinvention of the concept of ‘efficiency’. And as discussed in a recent post here, this reinvention of ‘efficiency’ in environmental terms, cannot produce growth, except in the twisted logic of environmentalism. Making this reinvented ‘efficiency’ the end of policy and of the production of energy means precisely the opposite of ‘growth’.

Nobody ever needed to tell the designers and financiers of of power stations to be ‘efficient’. If a team of designers could not produce increasingly efficient generator designs, they would quickly find themselves working in other fields. (Perhaps they might find themselves either working on the Guardian, or advising former presidents). And if financiers did not put emphasis on efficiency in their briefs to designers, they would soon find their stock falling. Designers being able to produce something more efficiently than existing systems is what makes financiers get their chequebooks out. And it’s not as if there is no incentive, what with oil prices being what they are.

But environmentalism holds that there is only one form of ‘efficiency’. And it’s not for anyone else to determine what the measure of ‘efficiency’ is — i.e. to make calculations of something’s efficiency in the terms that are of interest to them. Environmentalists believe they have invented — rather than reinvented — ‘efficiency’, and that nobody had ever heard of it.

And it’s an interesting rhetorical trick, a bit like the invention of the concept of ‘sustainability’. To be critical of ‘sustainability’ would sound like being critical of something that common sense tells you is right. Who is for ‘unsustainability’? It’s only when we look at the endless stream of nonsense that is produced by advocates of ‘sustainability’ that we discover that the common sense understanding of ‘sustainable’ is not the principle operating within the agenda. They’re talking about ‘sustainability’ in terms strictly narrowed by environmentalism. Nobody is against efficiency.

‘Efficiency’, says Clinton… And the room gives him a standing ovation, as though, for centuries, it had been the missing part of liberte, egalite, fraternite.

What does Clinton know about ‘efficiency’? What is the reason he was invited to the Re|Source conference? For sure, he might be able to shed some light on what happened in politics during his reign. But what does he really know about how much CO2 a power station produces? As much as Al Gore? He’s a celebrity, of course, and that’s why he turned up. He was briefed on what to say by his researchers. He’s just an actor. This was just a performance.

And the performance is extended onto the pages of the Guardian, where another actor, playing the part of a journalist called Fiona Harvey, penned the article. It looks like journalism. It looks like an article in a newspaper. But a vital component is missing from the scene, making it it impossible to suspend disbelief, and to find the performance convincing. The journalist has suspended disbelief. She believes the play she is in. And she forgets to notice that Clinton is talking unmitigated bullshit.

As the article points out, David Miliband and Peter Mandelson were also in attendance.

Earlier in the conference, Miliband warned of the destructive effects of resource overuse and scarcity, and Mandelson called for an end to subsidies that encouraged the overuse of fossil fuels and an increase in support mechanisms for clean energy, such as sun and wind power.

Mandelson said: “Some kinds of subsidies are key to opening up the new world but on the other hand there are some kinds which are the biggest obstacles to making progress.

Isn’t it odd that when politicians say ‘environment’, journalists’ brains switch off. It’s as if there were no reason to be sceptical of these politicians’ words. No need to check the facts, or to scrutinise the logic… when the politicians are talking about climate change in the right way.

Barry Gardiner MP has a written an article for the Guardian, which complains that ‘This government’s energy policies are a timebomb‘.

Sometime in 2018 or shortly thereafter, the UK will experience a crisis. Electricity supply will not be enough to meet demand. When this happens, people will look back to 2012 and the disastrous policy decisions taken by the UK.

Yes, indeed, it is true. Between now and 2015, 11.8GW of conventional generating capacity will be shut down. And between 2016 and 2019, a further 6.1GW of nuclear generating capacity is scheduled for decommissioning. Just 7 years from now, nearly 18GW of capacity will be lost. We seem to be in agreement with Gardiner. So what’s the issue?

The first is the publication of the draft bill on electricity market reform. The second is the imminent decision to cut potentially as much as 25% from onshore windfarm subsidies.

This complaint seems to be that uncertainty about the details of energy market reform, and the possibility of a cut in subsidies have dented investor confidence. No investment, no wind farms. No wind farms no plug to fill the UK’s energy gap.

What has become clear is that the government cannot rely on the market to supply the £110bn of investment in generating capacity that will be required to replace the old nuclear and coal power stations, which are likely to be turned off after 2017.

If this is news to the coalition, it must be news to Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party. And it was under that party’s administration that the existing arrangements were made. They came to office fifteen years ago, and made the environment central to their policy-making. Miliband himself sought to champion the climate issue internationally, and fought for tougher emissions and renewable energy targets in the UK, in the EU, and in the world.

Gardiner’s emphasis is on the financing of low carbon energy. Now he is in opposition, he has the luxury of criticising the coalition’s policies. But the current and previous government have both operated on the basis that the right policy framework would… for sure… create the conditions for investment in renewable energy. And compare the difference in rhetoric. In 2008, politicians like Ed Miliband and Peter Mandelson were talking, not about ‘keeping the lights on’ — avoiding an energy gap — but a ‘green industrial revolution’. The UK was set to become a world leader in renewable energy and other green tech. As I wrote in 2009, the government believed that nearly half a million jobs would be created by 2017, meaning that 1.3 million people would be working in the provision of environmental goods and services. Since then, unemployment has risen by nearly half the number of jobs promised. And the promises of jobs and an ‘industrial revolution’ have turned into threats about ‘timebombs’.

Gardiner should admit that if the current government is wrong to believe that the market would supply the finance for the UK’s energy ‘transformation’, so were his own colleagues in the Labour Party.

In the words of one senior city analyst: “The government’s policy is based on a lie.” He is too generous. It is based upon three. The government wants to tell people that their electricity will become cheaper. It will not. The government wants people to believe that new nuclear can be built without government subsidy. It cannot. The government wants to persuade people that it is neutral as between technologies. It is not.

The current government’s desire desire to change the energy market and subsidies for renewable energy are not whimsies. They may be poorly conceived, but they are at least owed to political, economic and material reality: there is no real public appetite for renewable energy, and it has embarrassed the current and previous government; it is expensive and increasingly so, and the level of subsidisation is further embarrassment, and likely to cause further hardship; and renewable energy as it currently exists simply doesn’t work as it is intended. If the current government’s policies existing and planned policies are ill-conceived, messy, and likely to fail, then so were the Labour government’s.

In the words of one senior city analyst: “The government’s policy is based on a lie.” He is too generous. It is based upon three. The government wants to tell people that their electricity will become cheaper. It will not. The government wants people to believe that new nuclear can be built without government subsidy. It cannot. The government wants to persuade people that it is neutral as between technologies. It is not.

The real lie that afflicted both governments was that you can pull policy levers, and material, economic and political realities will adjust themselves accordingly. Promises of money for investment, in the form of subsidies for renewable energy did not cause wind industry to boom. The following graph shows the cumulative capacity of planned, approved, refused, and built onshore wind farms in the UK, data from the Renewable UK website.

As the graph shows, onshore wind capacity has grown linearly, at a rate of about 485MW per year. In spite of claims that it was wind farm campaigners and climate change sceptics that stalled this progress, the rate at which wind farms have been given planning consent is more than double the rate at which they have been built. Clearly, therefore, there has been very little investment in the machinery which installs wind turbines. One explanation for this is the possibility that investors were never confident in the UK renewable energy market, in spite of the UK’s policies. Another possibility is that grid integration problems have stalled progress. A third explanation is that developers were ensuring the highest profits by ‘gaming’ the Renewables Obligation system — putting too much capacity onto the grid would mean devaluing the fake commodity (Renewables Obligation Certificates) invented by the government, to encourage investment.

Whatever the cause of the wind sector’s inertia, Gardiner’s own lie is the idea that this inertia could ever be overcome. At the rate at which wind farms have been built in the UK, and assuming a load factor of 80% for conventional and nuclear generating capacity and 30% for wind, it would take an entire century to fill the UK’s energy gap with onshore wind. So in order to have the 18GW gap closed by 2018, the rate of build would have to increase by a factor of 16 — and we have not even considered the problems of backup and intermitency. Does Gardiner really believe that the difference between the coalition’s policies and his own analysis amounts to this much?

Of course, there are other ways of producing energy that both governments have considered. The point is to emphasise that wind energy cannot, as Gardiner seems to believe, make any meaningful contribution to the closure of the energy gap by 2018. The point is, his own claims do far more to injure his own argument than they do damage to the Government. For instance, he continues,

In principle, a contract like this should work to incentivise investors and dispel their concerns over any future price uncertainty. The problem is that our government has caused real disquiet among the investment community because it has prevaricated about just who will sign these contracts. The government initially claimed that National Grid would be the counterparty, but National Grid has said it will not sign the contracts. The government first claimed that in the event of a default it would be the government who was sued in the courts, but claims it is the public who have to pay the contracts through their bills, and that government would not be liable. The whole thing is a mess and the uncertainty is choking off investment appetite.

He is right to say that the proposed policy is a mess, incoherent, full of contradiction, and likely to fail. He is right that investors are being put off, and were never very confidfent in the first place. But it was ever thus with the UK’s renewable energy policies, and it is unlikely to change while policy-makers labour under the misapprehension that you can simply set targets and make promises to reward investment, and LO! Britain will have a wonderful new energy grid. While this belief persists, expensive failure will follow expensive failure. It’s not the detail of the policy which is the problem, it is policies of this kind. What Gardiner forgets is reality.

Of the three low-carbon options, onshore wind is far and away the cheapest to build. So a government that simply wanted to produce a lot more electricity without producing a lot more greenhouse gas would likely favour onshore wind technology. In fact, onshore wind is the government’s least favoured option, as the Guardian has reported.

Never before has the UK required investment in its utilities sector on the scale this government must achieve, nor in a timeframe so brief, in order to keep the lights on past 2018. The government has begun to close down its energy options and the British public are going to pay the price.

Gardiner is simply wrong. The government itself has no objection to onshore wind at all. But it senses that it is a political embarrassment: increasingly, people don’t want them. Visible wind turbines were huge monuments to the pioneering of energy policies, but quickly came to stand instead for politicians’ intransigence, expensive energy bills and high profits for energy companies.

And worse, Gardiner uses the energy gap — as much a problem of his own making as it is the government’s — as a weapon against the government. Here we see that the poison presented as the antidote. Ambitious renewable energy targets and over-emphasis on wind created the problem, and now Gardiner suggest more wind will be the solution. No, it’s worse than that. The problem goes back further. The failure to permit the development of new generating capacity created the problem. For decades, UK governments have been terrified of environmentalists, to the extent that they simply rolled over, rather than allowed or comissioned the construction of new nuclear, gas, coal or oil-fired power stations. The public interest was sacrificed to avoid embarrassing political conflict. Governments didn’t believe that they had the muscle necessary to fight street-level environmentalism. So they dithered, and involved the environmental movement in policymaking, an unholy union epitomised by David hug-a-husky Cameron announcing his party’s energy policies on the rooftop of Greenpeace’s London offices. Now that the problem has come to fruition, manifested in the form of an energy gap, Gardiner’s proposition is that the government ignore the growing scepticism of renewable energy policies, and anger about increasing prices. It is a lie, says Gardiner, that we can have cheaper energy. He is a liar.

We can have cheaper energy. And we can close the energy gap. It would be quite simple.

All it involves is the repeal or suspension of the Climate Change Act, and other energy policies, including the EU’s renewable energy targets. Gardiner has all but admitted that this is inevitable. There is no chance of sufficient wind or nuclear power stations being built by 2018 to close the gap, and the alternatives are fossil fuel-fired power stations. The cost of energy would be reduced by allowing different technique of finding, extracting and producing it to be developed and to compete. While policies privilege inefficient forms of energy, there is no incentive to produce any.

By invoking the ‘time bomb’ analogy, Gardiner has revealed the truth of the energy debate: renewable energy and emissions-reduction policies were always dangerous, and were gambling the UK’s energy generating capacity for political expediency. ‘Tackling climate change’ was never as straightforward as simply creating the right policies, and watching the green economy blossom. That was hyperbole — the conceit of self-serving politicians.

The Guardian… as ever… are reporting that

British consumers have an estimated £30bn worth of clothing that they have not worn for a year in their wardrobes, a new report from the government waste body Wrap reveals today.

As a statistic, it may or may not be interesting. I work it out to be approximately £500 per person — US$777 at today’s exchange rate. And I do not find it surprising. Some of the clothes in my wardrobe are 10 years old, and no longer fit me, because over the last decade, I have eaten too much. If we assume the growth of my waistline (and the rest) to be linear, it would mean that £50 worth of clothes a year go to the back of the wardrobe. That could be as little as one shirt. In my experience — I don’t often spend that much on one shirt — it might be one shirt and one pair of trousers. If you were budgeting, it could be three such items. And if you went to Primark, you may come away with a fair bit more for £50, but it probably wouldn’t last five years.

Our outward expansion is the cause of all this redundant clothing, as the report notes.

The average UK household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes, but around 30% of that clothing – 1.7bn items – has not been worn for at least a year, most commonly because it no longer fits.

So what’s the big deal?

The report does not advocate that people should stop buying clothes, but that the active life of clothing is extended and the amount going into in landfill is cut back. Just under one-third of clothing at the end of its life goes to landfill every year – around 350,000 tonnes, worth £140m every year, based on Salvation Army estimates of their value.

Wrap said that extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in their carbon and water footprints.

What is interesting about this is the way in which the environment is used as the pretext for expanding the role of government bodies, making it their responsibility to monitor lifestyles.

Some might say that I’m over-stating things here, and that this is just an attempt to understand how people are living, so that public services can be better organised. But the report isn’t about planning public services, as I will explain shortly.

The organisation that produced the report, WRAP — The Waste and Resources Acton Plan — are a curious form of public body that has emerged in recent years. They aren’t statutory bodies, and as such have no real authority, but are established to deliver a public function of some kind, a bit like the QUANGOs — Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations — of previous years. Increasingly, these take the form of non-profit-making companies, financed by government. In the case of wrap, the financing is substantial. According to WRAP’s annual statement, it received £79 million in 2011. £12.4 million of that pays the salaries of its 253 staff. And it’s nice work if you can get it. Four of the senior staff at WRAP earn more that £100,000 a year. A further 25 earn more than £50,000 year. A further 104 earn between £30,000 and £50,000. And what do they do? According to their ‘about’ page

We have two priorities; minimising resource use and diverting priority materials from landfill.

Between 2011-15 we aim to:

* Encourage better design and more informed consumption which will help us all waste less
* Make it easier to recycle, repair and re-use as much of our waste as possible, wherever we are – in the home, at work, or away from home
* To enable others to recover as much value as possible from the waste that’s collected – whether as resources that can be used again and again, or as energy
* Help others to keep resources moving round the economy – the more money we save, the less the demand on ever-scarcer natural resources

Organisations like WRAP deserve our full contempt. They are established by governments at ‘arms length’, but in reality this means that they are also out of our control. Their agenda is determined by whichever minister woke up one morning with the bright idea, and then the possibility of debating the function of that organisation is kicked into the long grass. WRAP have a huge staff, and £Millions to spend on influencing the public debate and policy, but where is the possibility of countering it, or putting forward competing analyses about how to organise public services? There isn’t any. The best you can hope for is blogs like this, run without funding, in spare time, with zero budget.

This brings me to the second interesting thing. Being at ‘arms length’ from government means appearing as an actually independent organisation. And that means idiot journalists taking WRAPS’s report at face value, rather than asking questions about its mandate, its legitimacy (the mandate notwithstanding), its agenda, and the basis of its project to get us all to ‘Reduce! Re-Use! Recycle!’. Such credulity is not just naivety, it’s the signature of utter mediocrity. And it is the duty of every mediocre journalist at the epitome of mediocrity, the Guardian, to report verbatim what those in authority tell them.

Liz Godwin, chief executive officer of Wrap, said: “The way we make and use clothes consumes a huge amount of the Earth’s precious resources, and accounts for a major chunk of family spending. But by increasing the active use of clothing by an extra nine months we could reduce the water, carbon, and waste impacts by up to 20-30% each and save £5bn.”

The report cites the recently launched M&S and Oxfam “Shwopping” initiative as evidence of retail awareness and customer interest in new approaches. Retailers are being urged to set up “buy back” schemes that would enable customers to sell retailer own-brand clothes they no longer want back to the retailer to prepare for re-sale.

Lord Taylor, minister for environment, said: “Making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth, cutting carbon emissions and building a strong and sustainable green economy. This report shows that there is a huge potential for both businesses and households to save money and the environment by thinking differently about the way we produce, use and dispose of clothes. Used clothing has a massive commercial value, yet over 430,000 tonnes is thrown away in the UK every year.”

The idea that “Making better use of our resources is integral to economic growth” is green flim-flam. There has never been a need for official intervention to help individuals or companies find more efficient ways of producing or consuming. It is only necessary to spend £tens of millions a year on such ends when the idea of ‘efficiency’ has been re-conceived. Re-conceived, that is, according to the tenets of environmentalism. One of those tenets, of course, being the idea of ‘ever-scarcer natural resources’ — an idea which has no basis in material fact, and is historically illiterate. Once again, we see environmentalism, given as the operating principles of a public body, put beyond the reach of proper democratic control, such putative virtues taken for granted.

Concomitant with re-inventing ‘efficiency’ according to environmentalism’s precepts is a transformation of the relationship between the public and private spheres. So it is no surprise that we now find official bodies poking around in people’s wardrobes, and writing reports giving ‘advice’ like this…

A combination of good practice – lower wash frequency, lower wash temperature, less tumble dryer usage in summer time and larger loads – could cut the footprint by 7%.

Yes, folks, for £79 million a year, the Climate Resistance blog would also be happy to tell you to wash your clothes less, to “save the planet”. The report concludes:

This report has set out a number of opportunities for the clothing sector to reduce carbon emissions, resource use and waste – and gain business benefit from doing so. While many of the opportunities are up to businesses themselves to evaluate and take forward, one action that organisations across the sector can take is to sign up to the forthcoming Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 Commitment.

Like many reports intended to influence behaviour, debate and policy, it is insipid and stuffed full of glib statements about how to produce — at best — a marginal actual benefits to the individual/company and a very contestable environmental benefit. It’s the quality we would expect from an organisation that has no real demand put on it by the public to perform, and isn’t subject to scrutiny either from above or from below. The flow of money is secure. It is the sound of a detached political class, speaking to itself, up its own arse… the bland pieties it reproduces being nothing more than echoes reverberating through public institutions… ‘save the planet’… ‘reduce our impact’… ‘scarce natural resources’… ‘2020 sustainability commitment’… uninhibited by reason.

The proper journalistic response to any official report — take note, The Guardian — is incredulity. The first job is to say ‘f*** off!’, rather than take things at face value. The job of the journalist is to ask people in authority ‘who the f*** do you think you are?’ You’re supposed to be following the money, exposing the agenda, and asking difficult questions. When you fail to do so, you turn the Fourth Estate into the first. Shame on you, the Guardian.

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12599/</em>

Some 50,000 delegates and 100 world leaders met at the Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ last month to settle on ‘the future we want’. They failed.

‘Let me be frank. Our efforts have not lived up to the measure of the challenge’, said UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, at the opening ceremony. What ‘we want’ turned out to be the opposite of what he thought we wanted. Ban continued: ‘For too long, we have behaved as though we could… burn and consume our way to prosperity. Today, we recognise that we can no longer do so. We recognise that the old model for economic development and social advancement is broken… Our global footprint has overstepped our planet’s boundaries.’

Rio+20 was presented as an opportunity to determine ‘the future we want’ as though there was a free choice to be made. The next moment, the ugly truth was revealed: choice had been excluded. Science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’ – the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis revised for the twenty-first century – which, with the imperatives of ‘sustainable development’, had already decided what kind of future we should be allowed.

A lot is expected of ‘science’. However, the failure of Rio+20, like the failure of many global conferences to produce agreements, such as the meetings at DurbanCancun andCopenhagen, reveals once again that the real function of ‘science’ is a fig leaf for their delegates’ bad faith. One of the first to reflect on the failure of Rio, for instance, was UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called the agreement produced by the conference ‘insipid’. He should know – before setting off to Rio, he wrote in the Guardian that ‘developed economies must not sacrifice long-term sustainability in the name of short-term growth’, that ‘national governments [must] broaden their understanding of wealth’, and that ‘Rio must set out a plan for the future’.

Rio+20 was the ideal marketplace for such bland pieties. It’s not as if economic growth, short- or long-term, is a problem the UK enjoys. Politicians and ‘thinkers’ who lack the ideas necessary to produce positive change – growth – turn the concept of growth into the enemy. The anti-growth lobby congeals at events such as Rio, where there’s ample opportunity to swap ideas about how to turn their own mediocrity into a worldwide political project under the pretence of ‘saving the planet’. In reality, the desire for powerful global political institutions owes much more to politicians’ own domestic crises of legitimacy than it does to any real threat to the world’s rivers, trees and oceans.

This fact of environmentalism’s political utility to disoriented and useless politicians was epitomised on a recent episode of the BBC interview programme, Hard Talk, in which the former secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, said: ‘All through human political history, you have had governments that have tried to set up particular objectives and have realised they can only go so far so fast without the rest of the world going along with them. For example, back in the bad old days of communism, you had the whole argument about whether Joe Stalin could have socialism in one country. You can’t have environmentalism in one country.’

By winning whatever passes for the hearts and minds of the political establishment, environmentalism has been installed throughout political institutions without ever having won a democratic contest of its ideals. Such is the extent of this insidious colonisation that any public debate about the future, especially of energy policies, is already prefigured according to environmental precepts. Party-political debates about the environment in the UK have consisted of no more than oneupmanship: who is taking the climate issue most seriously.

Similarly, debates in the wider public sphere consist of little more than terrifying stories about our imminent demise. Opportunities to challenge the premise of such alarmism are limited to discussing, for example, energy as an end in itself – which means of generating power is the least problematic – rather than as a means to solve human problems of scarcity. The rights and wrongs of political environmentalism – its designs for political institutions, the reorganisation of economic and industrial life, and the management of lifestyles according to environmental diktats – are rarely, if ever, exposed to discussion.

Nowhere is environmentalism more protected from scrutiny than at conferences such as Rio+20. They are held well beyond the reach of democratic politics and far from critics. Yet some are not convinced that such institution-making is put far enough outside our control. Just as the basis for political environmentalism is seemingly justified on ‘what science says’, so resistance to environmentalism’s political projects is explained by its advocates in pseudoscientific terms: that we are all addicted to consumer society.

This assumption that the masses are suffering from consumption addiction allows world leaders to step in and make the big decisions about the future on our behalf. Yet conferences like Rio+20 are not about protecting us plebs; these shindigs are really about protecting the elites. The real reason Huhne couldn’t build ‘environmentalism in one country’ is because nobody in that country wanted it. The way around such stumbling blocks is to establish a basis for political institutions internationally, away from such troubling concepts as democracy.

NGOs are only too happy to help. As I have argued previously on spiked, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to establish itself as a popular movement. Instead, environmental NGOs – a pale imitation of mass movements – were given access to political institutions to overcome the disconnect between political elites and the public. As ‘pressure groups’, they pretended to be holding governments to account, but by raising the issues the government wanted to identify with, NGOs were actually doing governments’ bidding.

This supranational institution-building needs its own legitimising basis: environmental crisis. And this is where the science is recruited. Scientific organisations all over the world plan for years to produce the most ghastly predictions from measurements of our relationship with the natural world. Most notably, the Royal Society began its quest to investigate ‘the links between global population and consumption, and the implications for a finite planet’, published shortly before the Rio conference two years ago. The reality of The Science is, however, that ‘planetary boundaries’ have no more been detected than have the mechanisms which supposedly reduce politics to a search for the expression of neurotransmitters associated with pleasure. Boundaries are presupposed rather than discovered.

The desire to organise society according to ‘scientific’ principles inevitably treats humans like trash, without exception. Prejudices are smuggled under cover of science.

A proper perspective on the context of Rio gives us many more clues about what it is really intended to achieve than The Science does. Hollow politicians escape their domestic problems to pose in front of cameras as planet-savers. Morally bankrupt and self-serving NGOs appoint themselves as the representatives of non-existent future generations and the poorest people in the world, while campaigning for a form of politics that puts political power beyond the reach of democratic control. Sociopathic public-health control freaks and weirdo Malthusian scientists – the rightful heirs of the eugenics movement – get to parade their anti-human hypotheses as virtues. A supine media, in search of drama, declares this the final opportunity to save us from ecological Armageddon.

It would be easier to swallow the claim that science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’, and that it was necessary to create certain political institutions to deal with the problem, if the claims stopped there. But instead of stopping there, environmentalists have developed an entire ideology, premised on the idea that humans are incapable of reason, and concluding that powerful institutions are necessary to contain our impulses. That framework is expedient to the current mode of politics: the endless construction of historically illiterate technocracies that lumber from crisis to crisis, to the extent that they now need crisis to legitimise all the lumbering.

But what about The Science? If there really are problems with humanity’s relationship with the natural world, then what really impedes an understanding and solving of those problems are these anti-human precepts that dominate at least half of the calculation. It is no surprise that, when you take such a low view of humanity, you discover that things are ‘unsustainable’.

Leo Hickman has collected a number of seemingly sensible statements from climate scientists about the claims that the recent unusual weather in the USA can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Says Leo,

This week, scientists have been queuing up, it seems, to explain how the wildfires in Colorado, the heatwave across the eastern seaboard, and the “super derecho” are all indicative of “what global warming looks like”. Most pulled back, though, from directly blaming global warming for such weather events.

This more sensible approach sits in contrast to articles elsewhere on the Guardian’s website. For instance, this screechy vignette of what happens in the mind of Bill McKibben:

Global warming is underway. Are we waiting for someone to hold up a sign that says “Here’s climate change”? Because, this week, we got everything but that:

• In the Gulf, tropical storm Debby dropped what one meteorologist described as “unthinkable amounts” of rain on Florida. Debby marked the first time in history that we’d reached the fourth-named storm of the year in June; normally it takes till August to reach that mark.

• In the west, of course, firestorms raged: the biggest fire in New Mexico history, and the most destructive in Colorado’s annals. (That would be the Colorado Springs blaze: the old record had been set the week before, in Fort Collins.) One resident described escaping across suburban soccer fields in his car, with “hell in the rearview mirror”.

• The record-setting temperatures (it had never been warmer in Colorado) that fueled those blazes drifted east across the continent as the week wore on: across the Plains, there were places where the mercury reached levels it hadn’t touched even in the Dust Bowl years, America’s previous all-time highs.

• That heatwave was coming at just the wrong time, as farmers were watching their corn crops get ready to pollinate, a task that gets much harder at temperatures outside the norms with which those crops evolved. “You only get one chance to pollinate over 1 quadrillion kernels,” said Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a Omaha-based commodity consulting firm. “There’s always some level of angst at this time of year, but it’s significantly greater now and with good reason. We’ve had extended periods of drought.”

McKibbin’s recent twitter feed has been reading like a latter-day Revelations. Indeed, if isn’t enjoying the spectacle of homes and fields going up in smoke, he’s nonetheless milking it.

But such screeching isn’t going to convince anyone else, and doesn’t seem to come with the blessing of the scientists quoted by Hickman. Kerry Emmanuel, Peter Stott,Michael Mann, Clare Goodess, Doug Smith, Michael Oppenheimer, Harold Brooks, and Michael F. Wehner were each far more reluctant to make an unequivocal attribution of any event to human induced climate change than McKibben was. Mike Mann is perhaps the keenest to make the link, but typifies the response:

I like to use the analogy of loaded dice. Here in the US, we’ve seen a doubling in the frequency of record-breaking heat, relative to what we would expect from chance alone. So far this year, we’re seeing those records broken at nearly 10 times the rate we would expect without global warming. So there is no question in my mind that the “signal” of climate change has now emerged in our day-to-day weather. We are seeing the loading of the random weather dice toward more “sixes”. We are seeing and feeling climate change in the more extreme heat we are witnessing this summer, the outbreak of massive forest fires like the one engulfing Colorado over the past week, and more extreme weather events like the Derecho that knocked out power for millions in the eastern US during a record-breaking heat spell.

The scientist is saved from having to do anything as silly as linking a single event or series of events to a single cause by invoking probability — the ‘loaded dice’ analogy. Oppenheimer makes the same point:

The link between extreme events which have occurred recently and the build-up of the greenhouse gases is best represented by the “loading the dice” analogy – as the world warms, the likelihood of occurrence (frequency), intensity, and/or geographic extent of many types of extreme events is increasing. The events are individual data points in a broader pattern, akin to pixels on a computer screen. You can’t say much from any one pixel, but a picture emerges when you step back and look at the pattern. That said, for a few types of extreme events, particularly heat waves, it is sometimes possible to connect the pixel to the bigger picture more directly. The best case is the European heat wave of 2003. According to computer simulations of climate, the likelihood that such an event would occur was about doubled by the buildup of the greenhouse gases. A few other events have been examined using similar techniques, including the 2010 heat wave in Russia.
As for the willingness of scientists to make such statements: as the climate signal due to the ever-increasing greenhouse effect strengthens and emerges more and more from the noise in the system, and as statistical techniques for doing such “fingerprinting” studies as I mention above improves, scientists have become more confident in making such claims, which is to be expected.

It’s a yes-but-no-but answer to Hickman’s question — Is it now possible to blame extreme weather on global warming?

Indeed, the answer — which depends to some extent on who you ask — is more complicated than the question permits an answer to.

The real answer is no, of course. But let’s imagine that it was possible, and we could say that we could attribute events to AGW. What then?

Even if science could do this, would its answer be any more instructive? Let’s imagine that the dice analogy holds true, and that it is possible to say that the extreme weather in the USA is X times more likely… Does it make Bill McKibben’s imploring the world to act any more rational?

No, this is a greed problem. In the last five years, Exxon has made more money than any company in history. For the moment, Exxon and other’s desire to keep minting money – and our politicians’ desire for a share of that cash – has conspired to keep our government, and most others, from doing anything to head off the crisis.

In other words,should we head off this ‘crisis’ if it is possible to say that extreme weather has been increased by our CO2 emissions?

No.

The problem is created by asking climate scientists to pass judgements on human greed, and politician’s intransigence. McKibben does it it explicitly, Hickman does it by implication. The expectation is that science can be instructive — that once we can establish that there are links between our emissions and weather extremes, we know we have to ‘do something’ about it.

But this is a mistake. The real question to ask is ‘are we more vulnerable to climate extremes’, to which the answer is…

No.

The problem is epitomised by Michael F. Wehner’s answer.

This risk of extreme weather, particularly very severe heat waves, has already changed significantly due to human induced global warming. For instance, the chances of the 2003 European summer heat wave, responsible for as many as 70000 additional deaths, at least doubled and likely increased by a factor of 4 to 10. The chances of the 2010 Russian and 2011 Texas events also undoubtedly increased. While these events could have occurred without the human changes to the climate, it is important to know that the amount of climate change that we have experienced so far is very small to what is projected to occur by the middle and end of this century. By 2100, today’s most extreme weather events will seem relatively normal.

I only wish that I could be around long enough to see his prognostication fail to come to pass. Failing that, I will be content to go to my deathbed having seen the deaths attributed to the European heat wave of 2003 instead attributed to the failure to look after people. It’s quite simple: you can make sure that people have enough water to drink and that there are ample fans or air conditioning units available. Few — if any — of those 70,000 deaths can be attributed to ‘the weather’, which can in turn be attributed to CO2 emissions. The preoccupation with climate distorts our priorities, and our understanding of how we relate to the natural world.

On the view evinced by Hickman’s correspondents, we seem to be passive objects, shoved around by the dynamics of the climate. But this is a self-evidentially a misconception. There are many places in the world where the elderly and infirm survive hotter and drier places than Europe in the summer of 2003. And there are places on the planet which are hotter and drier than Colorado. What ‘climate change looks like’ cannot be understood merely in terms of the magnitude of the climatic phenomena. As I pointed out in my previous post, in order to understand environmental ‘impacts’, you need to understand what it is impacting upon. If you take the view that humans are passive/stupid, then it follows that you will overestimate the impact.

Climate ‘ideology’ is what loads the dice, and loads the question. Climate ‘extremes’ have become part of environmentalism’s mythology because it holds that we cannot survive them, and that they happen to us. In reality, however, what determines a climate extreme’s ‘impact’ is determined by our ability to cope with the climate. A simple thought experiment proves the point: what would have happened if the same wildfires and drought had happened in a much poorer part of the world? The answer is that there would have been many times the number of casualties.

It’s of no comfort to the people whose lives have been turned upside down by the weather, of course. But such things are a decreasing fact of human life, in spite of what doomsayers tell us. So, perhaps we do face an increase in the frequency and intensity of climate ‘extremes’. But their potential impact reduces by a greater factor each time we give the matter thought. In which case, reducing our vulnerability to climate by a factor of 4X at the cost of increasing the frequency and intensity of extremes by X seems to me to be a price worth paying. But don’t expect climate scientists to agree.


UNPDATE: Judith Curry has some interesting comments on ‘what global warming looks like’. Interesting that another journalist was canvassing scientists’ views but decided not to publish Curry’s sober comments… Only doom sells papers, after all.

I have a story on Spiked-Online today.

Rio+20 was presented as an opportunity to determine ‘the future we want’ as though there was a free choice to be made. The next moment, the ugly truth was revealed: choice had been excluded. Science had detected ‘planetary boundaries’ – the ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis revised for the twenty-first century – which, with the imperatives of ‘sustainable development’, had already decided what kind of future we should be allowed.

A lot is expected of ‘science’. However, the failure of Rio+20, like the failure of many global conferences to produce agreements, such as the meetings at Durban, Cancun and Copenhagen, reveals once again that the real function of ‘science’ is a fig leaf for their delegates’ bad faith. One of the first to reflect on the failure of Rio, for instance, was UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called the agreement produced by the conference ‘insipid’. He should know – before setting off to Rio, he wrote in the Guardian that ‘developed economies must not sacrifice long-term sustainability in the name of short-term growth’, that ‘national governments [must] broaden their understanding of wealth’, and that ‘Rio must set out a plan for the future’.

The most obvious thing to say about Rio is of course that it failed. But the failure of these huge environmental conferences doesn’t seem to limit their number or ambition. It’s almost as if the failure of things like Rio are what drives the process ever further from normal democratic politics. We hear often from the green camp that climate change may be too big an issue for democracy — that by representing people’s interests and desires, it fails to respond to things which are beyond individuals’ understanding.

What I also wanted to show was how the ‘ideology’ of environmentalism — its political culture, its presuppositions and prejudices, and so on — now consists of more than just the claim that humanity’s relationship with the natural world, it now makes claims about humans. So the claim that democracy cannot cope with the problem of environmental degradation now has a (pseudo-) scientific premise that our brains are too limited. A couple of paragraphs on this point didn’t make it into the final version of the article:

And nowhere is environmentalism more protected from scrutiny than at conferences such as Rio+20. They are held well beyond the reach of democratic politics, and far from critics. Yet some are not convinced that such institution-making is put far enough outside our control. Just as the basis for political environmentalism is seemingly justified on ‘what science says’, resistance to environmentalism’s political projects is explained by its advocates in pseudoscientific terms. The failure of Rio+20 was, according to George Monbiot, the result of a politics dominated by the ‘[pursuit of] the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need’ — consumer society, to which we are ‘addicted’. We have ‘stone age brains equipped with space age technology’, said Paul Ehrlich — our minds and bodies are built only to respond to the limited pains and pleasures of hunter-gatherer lifestyles, not to advanced technological society.

No doubt Ehlrich, Monbiot and the mob at Rio would protest that their primary concern is for humans and their interests — that they are therefore ‘humanists’. But this ‘concern’ amounts equally to contempt. If their outlooks are ‘humanism’, then it is a form of humanism equivalent to animal husbandry, which would lock us in kennels, and entitle us to no more than subsistence. Theirs is a ‘metabolic humanism’, in which humans are seen not as subjective agents capable of rational thought, and determining our own ends — the premise of any sensible definition of humanism — but on the contrary, mere machines  hardwired to consume beyond satisfaction. Thus, rather than escaping or criticising the shortcomings of consumer society, Mobiot and Ehrlich assimilate its vile logic in its entirety, to view humans as merely consumers. The only difference between the consumer society they offer and the one they criticise is that theirs is one characterised by scarcity, rather than the promise of abundance.

Once you take the view — as Monbiot and Ehrlich have, and which is implied by the very premise of the Rio meeting — that humans aren’t capable of making decisions even about what to eat and buy, let alone about decisions about how to organise society, you allow yourself to make decisions on their behalf. World leaders ‘seem more interested in protecting the interests of plutocratic elites than our environment’, moaned Monbiot, when it was revealed that Rio was doomed to fail. Yet the protection of elites is what conferences such as Rio are all about. The real reason Huhne couldn’t build  ‘environmentalism in one country’, is because nobody in that country wanted it. The only alternative is to establish a basis for political institutions internationally, away from such troubling concepts as democracy.

There are three orders of scientific claim in currency here. First, there are the claims made about the world as it is — temperature changes, and their consequences. I.e. there are observations. Second, there are models, models and more models about the interaction of natural processes — the functioning of the entire planet. And third, there are these arguments about individuals’ capacity to understand the problem, and their predisposition to ‘ignore evidence’, and carry on consuming. While we can have (some) confidence about the first category — observations — the second and third are presupposed. As useful as observations are, they point to an imbalance or antagonism between our minds and the ‘biosphere’, only if we presuppose the second and third categories. in other words, it’s only if we hold with a ‘strong Gaia’ hypothesis and contempt for stupid humans that we get ‘unsustainability’ out of the calculation.

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