What is Science?

The previous post here made the point that the IPCC serves much less to inform debate than as a vehicle for any number of political ambitions or prejudices, few of which can be justified on the basis of the IPCC’s reports — assessments of what ‘science says’.

The publication of the IPCC’s reports is a ritual. Its report’s are like ceremonial talismans, which bestow whoever wields them with divine (aka ‘scientific’) right. Unless the IPCC can robustly and quickly respond to the torrent of self-serving hyperbole that is uttered by it’s self-appointed proxies, it will remain merely a cult of weird monks, who are wheeled out for ceremonial purposes, but who are otherwise ignored.

This is a hard point to explain to people who are convinced by the usual arguments about locating the best evidence, and then hoping that policymakers/politicians will make the best of it. Some recent events create an opportunity to further demonstrate the problems with the fashionable emphasis on science.

There is probably some kind of law, somewhere, which states that as a comedian’s product becomes less funny, the more likely he or she will be to attempt some kind of political posturing. NB: I do not mean political satire here. I mean comedians, seemingly eschewing comedy, to use their profile to instead tell the world how it ought to be. The previous post mentioned two such comedians — Stewart Lee and Robin Ince (who is discussed again shortly) — who were perhaps funny in the 1990s, but have been reduced to grumpy old men, ranting at the world about how stupid it is. Ince and Lee follow in the wake of two other has-been stand-ups that have chosen to save the planet rather than make people laugh: Marcus Brigstoke and Rob Newman.

Here’s Brigstocke, from 2007.

And here’s Rob Newman from the same year.

And let’s not forget David Mitchell… (Who was only ever funny in Peep Show, which someone else wrote).

There are enough of these tired one-time funny men, who have re-branded themselves as environmental Saviours, to say that this is a phenomenon rather than a coincidence. Green is the colour of re-invention, after all. Or is it the colour of an insidious mould? Nearly seven years on, and Brigstocke’s global warming continues in its stalling mode and Newman’s peak oil theory has been busted by oceans of new hydrocarbon discoveries. Neither has prompted much reflection.

The latest to join the ranks of these jokers is Russell Brand, who has been appointed guest editor of the New Statesman. This appointment, and his discussion with Jeremy Paxman has been causing a fair bit of discussion…

“Who are you to edit a political magazine”, asks Paxman.

“Well I suppose like a person who’s been politely asked by an attractive woman”, explains Brand. And it doesn’t get much deeper than that. As has been widely pointed out, Brand’s flowery vocabulary — his trademark — belies a bland and incoherent vision of a ‘revolution’. There are a couple of references to the environment — as we might expect. But I’ll leave these for the moment, and may return to them in a later post.

Brand has been appointed as guest editor of the New Statesmen to attempt to revive the publication whose circulation is fewer than 25,000. The hope, of course, is that someone with the profile of Brand might add to these figures, which, Guido points out, seem to imply that the magazine loses a whopping £1.35 a copy. In a similar stunt last year, the dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei took the chair now filled by Brand. “We chose him because of his prominence, his art, his global significance and his activism and bravery”, explained NS features editor Sophie Elmhirst. The choice of Brand, who shot to fame after presenting one of the Big Brother reality TV show franchises suggests that prominence is perhaps the most important factor in the selection process. Bravery, it would seem, is too fickle a concept, if the magazine’s statements on on climate change are anything to go by:

Denying climate change is worse than spreading the usual kind of conspiracy theory: it costs lives“, wrote former Political Editor, Mehdi Hasan, whose lefty-liberal street-credentials enjoyed a short lived boost last month when he layed into Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre on BBC TV. But Hasan’s stock plummeted shortly after, when it was revealed that just a few years ago he had written a letter to Dacre asking for a job, which had praised the newspaper’s social conservatism. Green cant is enduring: newspapers are pariahs… when they wont give you a job. And ‘bravery’ only consists of reproducing — rather than challenging — orthodox thinking.

“What I don’t want, or need, is balance between those who argue climate change is a problem, and those who argue it isn’t”, wrote staff writer, Alex Hern. The New Statesman’s editorial policy is clear. Climate change deniers are not welcome. But any old tosh from Bob Ward is.

As has been pointed out on this blog before, it seems that publications that face an existential crisis tends to perceive that crisis as something external to itself. The New Statesman, like the Independent and the Guardian have haemorrhaged readership over the years — more so than most dead tree media. Might environmental alarmism be a response to a weakened grip on the public sphere? In other words, it seems obvious that as an organisation’s (or individual’s) ability to make sense of the world diminishes, so the consequences are that fewer people will turn to it as an authority on the world, and that the search for ways to explain the world will grow ever more desperate. This naturally manifests as alarmism and as contempt for people who don’t share the increasingly shrill view of the world.

The growing hostility of many public institutions — not just the press — to the wider public is most visible in their preference for supranational politics: the EU, the UN, and of course the IPCC/UNFCCC. This in turn reflect’s the political establishment’s similar preferences for elite forms of politics. The only reason environmental correspondents at the Guardian will find to criticise politicians or the government, for instance, is because environmental policies haven’t progressed fast enough towards goals set by international agreements. Barely a word is uttered about those policies or political institutions that seemingly mandated them lacking democratic legitimacy. And public opinion matters on the view that such writers offer only to the extent that it is an opportunity to blame climate change deniers for the lack of progress. Pesky democracy! Pesky public!

Whether ‘climate change is happening’ or not, it has become an opportunity for individuals and organisations who are past their sell-by date, and who struggle to sustain an understanding of the world, to sustain their leverage in the public sphere. Every dying movement, every atrophying public institution, every vapid political party, and every hollow-headed hack has closed ranks on the issue of climate change, to form a rearguard action against their own decline.

However, Brand has not joined the ranks of Lee, Ince, Newman and Brigstocke, to become an incoherent, shouty doom-sayer as someone whose product no longer sells. Brand’s brand is still current, as his millions of twitter followers are testament to. But those followers want reality TV, goofy pop trivia, and naughty phone pranks, not a manifesto. Brand is editor of the current edition of the New Statesman to revive it, rather than himself. The spectacle is absurd.

Here’s brand introducing the line-up of stale public intellectuals in his edition…

‘The revolution’, a poet once claimed, ‘will not be televised’. But it seems the revolution does need a TV celebrity to sell its magazine.

‘Naomi Klein, she’s a journalist or summink… What’s really required is a revolution in consciousness…’ Hmmm.

Naomi Klein’s piece in the New Statesman is called “How science is telling us all to revolt“, in which she argues,

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.

It’s in Klein’s words that I think we find the nub of the problem.

Put simply — and perhaps too simply — critics of capitalism in the past were concerned in the main with its social consequences — that it pitched classes against each other. Change was sought by engaging those who seemed to lose out in the status quo, to mobilise them as a political force, to seek a more equitable arrangement. But the doyens of today’s ‘global left’ such as Klein express their ideas very differently.

First, there is the growth scepticism: ‘our relentless quest for economic growth’. Why should people who claim to be interested in ‘social justice’ be so hostile to ‘growth’? We should contrast Klein with, for example, the words of the late Marshall Berman, whose obituary in an edition of last month’s Guardian contained the following passage:

In his last book, On the Town, Berman described the awe and excitement he felt in Times Square, as a committed socialist bathing in the pulsating neon light of pure, concentrated capitalist advertisement. He saw in the way people used the space, gathering, wandering, gazing, and the way in which the lights and signs danced around them, as glimpses of a playful future that would always be constrained by capitalism. Socialism, he argues, will mean more – more neon, more cities, more skyscrapers, more people, more production, this time controlled and used consciously, rather than for the enrichment of a small group. It is a vision we would do well to remember.

It’s a shame that the Guardian doesn’t more reflect the view of the author of Berman’s obit — Owen Hatherley — than it reflects Klein’s asceticism. The ‘relentless quest for economic growth’ is a bedtime story, which belies reality, and is hostile to the interests of its would-be beneficiaries. You don’t need to be either a socialist or a capitalist to realise that growth, in just the last decades, has not merely transformed lives, but made them possible. Klein instead prefers the story that there is sufficient wealth, but that evil robber barons keep it from those who need it — a childish ‘zero sum game’ view of wealth and inequality.

But worse, Klein’s story is that the problem with robber barons is that they’re ‘killing the planet’. And this represents a departure from the view that people’s own understanding of their own interests should motivate them to organise change. Instead, Klein defers to ‘science’: ‘climate scientists have seen the data’ and have determined that ‘our relentless quest for economic growth’ is ‘killing the planet’. We don’t get to choose what to do, ‘science is telling us all to revolt’. The masses cannot think for themselves. Even worse, Klein doesn’t really have anything better to offer them.

Klein’s story starts:

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco.

Scene set…

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

In essence, then, Klein knows that ‘the earth is fucked’ because a man with pink hair told her so at a conference in San Francisco. She doesn’t understand why, but it’s good enough for her that someone claiming expertise in ‘complexity theory’ tells her that capitalism is wrong.

There’s so much wrong with this.

First, and aside from the fact that somebody with pink hair isn’t asking to be taken seriously as an authority on global matters… This is one scientist, in a novel field of questionable quality, with one unpublished, un-peer-reviewed, argument. It’s not ‘science’ telling us anything. It’s not even a scientific institution. Werner’s argument should, at the least have been published before Klein took it to mean so much.

Second, science has no business — indeed it cannot — saying that capitalism is wrong. One cannot work out from basic physics, chemistry or biology, an argument that capitalism or its alternatives are better or worse than each other. Many have tried. All have failed. And all attempts to bully people about politics by recourse to science such as this should be rejected. Yet it is science alone that seems to justify Klein’s call for a ‘revolution’:

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Are computer simulations of direction action better or worse than climate models, or models of the interactions between CO2 and the cryosphere? I argue that they cannot be, that they must necessarily be worse. And given the dismal history of such computer-based prognostications about society’s future, it seems obvious that Werner’s models are likely the weakest ever produced.

A great deal of ideology hides behind ‘complexity’ at the best of times. My favourite example being quantum physics as the fig leaf for all sorts of silly supernatural ideas, such as telepathy, ghosts, healing and homoeopathy. That’s not to rule out quantum mechanics for the woo-woo that hides behind it, of course. But ‘complexity theory’, as it is represented by Werner, is making the kind of grand claims that were made, for instance, by cybernetics in the 1970s: the promise that humanity’s relationships with the natural world could be understood through a systems perspective, and a date for the Apocalypse printed off by a daisywheel printer, watched by team of global doom-sayers. All of them dressed appropriately, in white coats. Then, as now, they were led by a showman, Paul Ehrlich.

But rather than producing insight, the field of cybernetics had more utility to politics. Over the course of the grim 1970s and the cold war, the promise of science unleashing potential to liberate mankind gave way to mere promises to save us from certain destruction. Klein continues:

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

There is, of course, no possibility of a comparison between occupy and the abolition movement. The abolition movement states its intention from the outset — abolition. The occupy movement, however, was characterised not just by an inability to set out its manifesto, but a refusal to. The other thing that characterised occupy — like many contemporary green protest ‘movements’ — was its failure to be a movement at all. Few people are interested, because the ‘movement’ — such as it is — fails to articulate anything to share. Klein flatters herself — and the occupy movement — with such comparisons. Whatever… the point was not the rights and wrongs of Occupying, but of modelling occupy. Let’s put it simply. Occupy’s effect on the course of the climate is zero — a very easy thing to model.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012, Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Klein, who is, let’s remember, constructing an argument that ‘science says’ capitalism is wrong, begins by saying that ‘scientists have been moved by their research…’ does not summon up the name of a scientist who has led at the ‘forefront of movements’. She instead chooses a capitalist, of all kinds of people, to make her point that ‘this is the crisis of our species’. And not just any old capitalist, either… Klein, in her argument against capitalism chooses to use the words of a multi-multi-multi millionaire! Albeit a green millionaire. The irony is surely lost on Klein.

Klein goes on to refer to James Hansen, ‘the godfather of modern climate science’. But the godfather himself has a bad religion. Hansen’s predictions of doom have not manifested. And worse for Klein’s apparent appeal to scientific authority, Hansen’s remaining projections are further away from the scientific consensus on climate change than many deniers’. So much for science, then.

Klein’s argument gets no better. Indeed it gets worse. As much as I would enjoy a line-by-line dissection, I don’t have the time, and it would be a distraction from the point I’m trying to make.

Away from Klein, and from Brand and the New Statesman, a video popped up on Youtube this week from a debate in April.

Geoff Whelan is joined by Jeff Forshaw, Helen Czerski, Robin Ince and Brendan O’Neill to debate the question “Is Science the New Religion?” at this particularly lively session from QED 2013.

Ince, you will remember, is discussed above, and in the previous post. And it is Ince who is determined to prevent discussion throughout the event, by throwing childish tantrums at O’Neill, who suggests that the relationship between science and politics is complex. Ince is reduced to shouting at O’Neill throughout, seemingly to defend science, but missing O’Neill’s argument entirely.

Ince’s rage needs some explanation, further to what is offered above. It’s hard to understand, firstly because O’Neill is alone in the room in criticising the existing relationship between science and the state (and the arguments for its expansion), and two far more qualified individuals sit to his left. Yet Ince is apoplectic throughout the discussion, as though O’Neill himself was the only thing in the world holding back the progress he wanted to see. This demonstrates in microcosm the problem: the Angry Ince won’t even let the scientists — to whom he is asking us to defer — speak. Thus making one of O’Neill’s points for him: that debates about public matters that science might seemingly be able to shed some light on are nonetheless drenched in politics. O’Neill:

That relationship is one where politicians frequently call on science to justify an agenda or policy they want to push forward. Scientists have been sucked into that over a long period of time. … Scientists should wriggle free from those expectations… [Interruption] They should cut loose those relationships with politicians. I think they should refuse to go along with that.

Jeff Forshaw isn’t that much better than Ince:

They’re quite hard to read those papers sometimes. You’re saying that scientists should produce their peer-reviewed papers and then not talk to any politicians to explain the content of them?

The question is also a statement that the relationship between science and the state consists of no more than scientists and politicians talking to each other, perhaps as they passed each other in the street occasionally. It’s as if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had not been summoned into existence by a political need for a scientific consensus, the substance of which had already been determined. It’s as if research funding protocols did not put emphasis on the relevance of research to policy. It’s as if university departments had not been established to inform particular policy agendas. If Forshaw’s answer is sincere, it is hopelessly naive.

But worse than simple nativity about the substance of relations between institutional science and the state, Forshaw is ignorant about what it is that scientific institutions are tasked with under the compact which self-evidently exists, and which is qualitatively different to relationships between science and the state in the past. Some insight into this is unwittingly given by Ince a moment or so later.

This world we currently live in is built on technology and science. The Western world at the moment… If you look out that window there and look at the swirling fucking madness there… all of these things… So we can’t just go there’s politics and there’s science, because within politics… In the same way… I’m sorry… It just… This thing where… The world… When you talk about the Ancient Greeks… The world now is incredibly complex. The level of understanding… No one… Many scientists have said this before… You can… If you’re lucky you can maybe be an expert on one tiny thing. We can’t have these wonderful polymath politicians who’ll be able to understand everything. And we certainly aren’t [???] them now.

Ince, — a man whose stock-in-trade is words and their delivery — seems to be struggling to set out his manifesto. It’s as if he’d never had to think about what he is asking for, and wants to convince people of. And yet he is asking for a particular form of political organisation, which you, I, and everyone must be subject to.

His argument is that the world is complex. Thus it needs technical expertise to serve as managers of public life. He criticises O’Neill for a historical perspective that encompassed Ancient Greece, but has forgotten Plato’s Philosopher Kings — the administrators not even of a ‘swirling fucking madness’, the Western World, but merely a city state.

Far away from Plato’s Republic, in Manchester and in San Francisco, Ince and Werner invoke, not love of knowledge, but ‘complexity’ as a basis for their political treatises. But all that is revealed by invoking something so nebulous is that Ince is an inarticulate oaf, Werner is a pseud with a pseudo science, and Klein is a fool. It should be obvious that anyone appealing to ‘complexity’ in this way is admitting their own inability to understand the world. Klein and Ince admit it. Klein defers to the charlatan, who claims to be able to make sense of it by recourse to deterministic models of soap-dodging activists, and Ince merely to ‘science’.

But ‘complexity’ too needs unpacking further. What does it mean to say ‘the world is complex’? What index of complexity exists, to say that the 21st century is so much more complicated than the 20th, 19th… such that it requires a radically new form of political organisation?

Is the world really more complex? There are fewer wars. People live longer lives, and they are healthier and wealthier than at any point in history. There are more sciences, specialisms and industries, which would seem to make things more complex. But these in general make life easier. The increased complexity of contemporary life doesn’t seem to be a problem. Indeed, it seems to be a solution to our problems.

Let’s call this Ince’s Paradox. On the one hand, Ince claims that the world is complex because of the possibilities that science has created. But this complexity is a problem that conventional forms of democratic government cannot cope with. Only scientists can deal with the mess — ‘the swirling fucking madness’ — they seem to have created.

We’ve seen this before.

‘Giving society cheap abundant energy is like giving an idiot child a machine gun’ — Paul Ehrlich.

Similarly, the former president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees has, since his presidency traded on the notion that the 21st Century may well be humanity’s last. Here he is, explaining to Stewart Brand, his prediction that by the year 2020, either ‘bio error or bio-terror’ will have caused the deaths of over a million people.

The paradox deepens. Advocates of science are in fact terrified of it. It unleashes such power that in the wrong hands that might either accidentally or deliberately kill us all. Progress is terminal. It inexorably increases risk. It turns every random nut-job into a potential Hitler. And the implication is twofold: it seems that access to science must be restricted, and that risks it creates can only be mitigated by a transformation of politics.

Sounds familiar.

Risk, of course, is the predominant political concept. The prevailing ‘ideology’ is the notion that the mitigation of risk is the first order of government. Although ‘defence of the realm’ and ‘law and order’ have always been at the top of official priorities — for better or worse — the government’s role as protector has expanded in two respects. First, whereas defence and policing deal with tangible threats (albeit ones which historically have been and are overstated for political ends), the state now seeks us to protect us from a constellation of merely theoretical risks, many of which we expose ourselves to as ‘lifestyle choices’. As pointed out before on this blog, even our private, emotional lives are not beyond the reach of the state, which has grown attached to the ‘happiness agenda’ — the idea that a government’s performance is better measured by a measurement of ‘subjective sense of well-being’ rather than economic indices such as GDP. (Give me the money instead, thanks very much.) Unhappiness being a risk factor, of course. In other words, the state has identified ourselves as a risk factor to ourselves. With no ‘clear and present danger’ across our borders, the vapid state’s resources are directed against its own population.

Second, from such important things as telling us what to (and what not to) eat, drink, smoke, and when, and how much exercise to have, how to be happy and find fulfilling relationships, how to behave in public, how much time to spend online, when to go for a walk near some trees, (and the rest), there are the broader theoretical risks that governments now seek to protect us from, but which we cannot understand (complexity again): environmental change of so many kinds, and terrorism being the two most prominent. At the domestic level, this has created a new role for public institutions intended to deliver protection from risk. And of course, at the international level, this has created similar organisations, even further away from democratic oversight, in accordance with the maxim ‘global problems {i.e. ‘risks’) need global solutions’. Both of these, of course, are technocracies, and populated by or informed by putative experts in their respective fields, who are invariably drawn from academic science.

Rees, Ince, and the rest won’t admit it, but risk is a highly politically-loaded concept. There is a desire to see risk at face value. But what belies the emphasis on risk is much less extant threats than a distrust of people — a loss of faith in the idea that people can manage their own risks to themselves, to others, and can made decisions about how they are governed. The ‘swirling fucking madness’ that bothers Ince is just a mass of people he does not trust. Science — “Science” — is thus not, in Ince’s hands, a way of discovering the material world; it is a way of regulating the human world according to Ince’s own prejudices.

Putative fans of science often wax lyrical about the wonders it can reveal. But not so far behind this wide-eyed poetry is a desire to turn it from discovery into a petty-minded bureaucracy. Science reveals the mechanisms of our bodies functioning — amazing stuff. But then it seemingly says we must eat so many portions of this or that kind of food a day, and regulate fizzy drinks and burgers. Science identifies the mechanisms of our planet, but then is employed to enforce the optimum and most efficient ways of managing public affairs, in spite of people’s wants and needs, rather than overcoming what appear as boundaries and limits. Worse still, it seems that the scientists didn’t even realise that the notion of optimums, efficiencies, boundaries and limits are not scientific discoveries, but ideological prejudices they bought to their investigation.

So what is science? A point made here a lot is that there is a routine confusion between science as a process (the scientific method), and science as an institution. Ince, Klein, and the rest aren’t merely seeking authority for their arguments in science, i.e. as a source of some kind of unimpeachable objective truth or facts. They are seeking authority in a very real sense, for the sake of having an authority. It’s not a search to explain the world, but to create order within it.

Science as an institution is as mutable as any of those other institutions in this story: the press, political parties, radical movements, public organisations, and even stand up comedy, which each seem to have undergone their own, troubled transformations. Radical left organisations no longer have theoretical foundations, which inspire popular movements, but are instead led by celebrities and followed by almost nobody. Even those nominated as the left’s ‘public intellectuals’ uncritically defer to scientists… with pink hair… and multi-millionaires. And comedians themselves, who used to be middle-aged white working class men, were replaced by young Oxbridge graduates. But they grew up to be the bigots they had disparaged and displaced. They shouted at the stupid, stupid world, which refused to conform to their wishes. They penned angry rants in newspapers, which in turn struggled to connect with a readership. The newspaper, once an important part of public life, now struggles to identify its role, and is bloated by its attempts to find new audiences, and to survive in the shadow of the Internet. And political parties and politicians, like journalists, comedians and seemingly radical intellectuals, seem to be no better at making sense of the ‘swirling fucking madness’ than the next man.

It would be a mistake to say that science (or scientific institutions) was ever one thing, which is its proper function, which has been corrupted. Robin Zubrin’s Merchants of Dispair, for instance, describes a long history of science being used to legitimise some of the most appalling acts in history. Is it a history that Ince and Klein have forgotten? No doubt that they would rightly point to the ‘ideology’ behind the ‘science’ of racial hygiene, but they would forget the fact of the contemporaneous scientific consensus failing to observe it as pseudo-science. At the time, much as Malthusianism before (and again, after it), race was the encompassing framework, that could explain all of society’s moral, political and economic problems, from crime, through drunkenness, war, poverty, to recession. Now we see the same with climate. But the role that science plays, evidently does change. For example, as ‘risk’ has become the dominant political idea, and as global institutions have been established to identify and mitigate them, so we see scientific research reflecting those priorities, whereas in the past, scientific political arguments emphasised the ethno-nationalism that dominated political ideas post-Darwin.

Science doesn’t have a way of seeing the way it is itself used, or its relationship with society changes. When its champions — angry comedians — are confronted with accounts of its function, they typically respond, at high volume and high pitch about ‘ideology’ or politics as some kind of arbitrary, irrational thing. When it is suggested that science does have a relationship with politics, ‘I don’t understand. This is why I never go on fucking Question Time’, says Ince. But without the perspective that scientism seems to eschew, it’s not possible to see ideology reflected in science. It’s not possible to see it being put to political or ideological ends. Moreover, it’s not possible to interrogate that ideology, much less propose ways that science can be put to use to do real good in the world.

Notice that the climate debate descends to science — it is not elevated by it. Venture criticism of the proposal that a global scientific panel should determine the parameters of domestic energy, climate, and economic policies, and rather than being offered a defence of such a form of political organisation, you will be accused of ‘denying the science’, and you will have scientific papers waved in your face. You will be accused of being ‘ideologically-motivated’, as though the design of this form of politics was not itself every bit as ideological as eugenics, as Malthus, or less alarmingly, the promises of jet-packs, flying cars and ‘energy too cheap to meter’. ‘Climate change is happening’, you will be told. ‘Science says so’. But science has done a poor job of identifying environmental alarmism. Global scientific institutions have done zero to stop world leaders and global NGOs talking nonsense about the looming apocalypse. Even in this era, in which politics is suffering widespread cynicism and science is celebrated, scientists have not been effective in challenging the amplification of minute, theoretical risks becoming the basis of intrusive and often far-reaching policies, transforming the relationship between the state and individuals. Many scientists and their institutions have been complicit. Perhaps science isn’t so great, after all.

What is the IPCC?

Apparently some scientists have written some kind of ‘Assessment Report’. There’s lots of comment about it all over the web, media, and politics, and this probably the last climate blog to comment on the story. But perhaps there has not been as much comment as there was six or so years ago. The content of WGI’s SPM is mostly ‘scientific’ insofar as it purports to examine the ‘physical science basis’, and this blog isn’t about climate science as such. However, many things seem to be being said about the science presented in the AR5 WGI SPM which I think demonstrate that science and politics are harder to separate than anyone admits. After all, its authors are drawn from the sciences, but it is the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. A relationship between science and politics exists before the panel has been assembled, much less cast its collective eye over the scientific literature. Moreover, the IPCC was initiated by a political process. There was a need for a consensus.

It was the previous IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers which prompted this blog, the first post of which began:

April 2007. Since its release in February, the IPCC’s AR4 (Working Group I) Summary for Policymakers has been uncritically reported in the mainstream media, and its findings often exaggerated. Because of a perception that the public mood demands action to mitigate climate change, the UK government has used the IPCC findings to justify committing the country to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Like much environmental policy, this has gone largely unchallenged by opposition parties.

We believe that an unfounded sense of crisis – and therefore urgency – dominates public discussion of environmental issues. Thus, demands for urgent action to mitigate climate change thrive at the expense of genuine, illuminating, nuanced debate.

The last six and a half years have shown that there never has been a ‘perception that the public mood demands action to mitigate climate change’. Pretty quickly, we learned that political ambitions to establish international and domestic climate polices owed nothing to extant public opinion. Instead, politicians’s embrace of environmentalism more reflected their own ambitions, environmental issues seemingly being a vehicle for them. At a time when professional politicians from indistinct political parties struggled to connect with ordinary people, an overweening global crisis like the end of the planet presented politicians with a way of overcoming their own, more mundane problems. Meanwhile, environmentalists have struggled to understand the public’s unwillingness to respond to imperatives issued in breathless, urgent and shrill pronouncements — why the public were not mobilised by fear, as both green organisations and politicians had expected. Thus it would seem that the public (at least in Britain) would tolerate so much grandstanding from politicians and public organisations, but not so much the intrusion into daily life that they demanded was necessary.

At best, climate and energy policies were drafted in the hope that the public would follow — an inversion of normal politics, in which policy-making reflects the priorities expressed by the public in a contest of ideas. But climate and energy policies were not just drafted in spite of public opinion; there is another sense of ‘because of’, which makes public opinion a driver of them. It is precisely because politicians cannot connect with the public that they sought a mandate from elsewhere: from above, rather than from the hoi polloi.

However, organisations that sit above sovereign governments naturally raise questions about the legitimacy of such a configuration. The accretion of political power above democratic control is therefore typically justified on the basis of their mitigating ‘global’ risks. Indeed, sovereignty itself is seen as an obstacle to ‘human development‘ — which, not coincidentally, is defined not by humans who want for development, but typically by the selfsame and self-appointed advocates of depriving people of sovereignty and democracy. The body which aims to dictate climate policy to the world’s population, then, is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which hosts annual farces — Committee of Parties (COP) meetings — that fail to deliver, in spite of being a meeting that excludes critical opposition. Much more could be said, of course, but this is the context of the IPCC.

The IPCC is much more about ritual than scientific investigation. Every six years, it issues three reports, each with dozens of chapters and sub-sections, each dealing with a separate aspect of the climate issue. Many hundreds of lines of evidence are considered.

And then they are thrown away:

It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.

In the IPCC’s language, ‘extremely likely’ means 95%. Hence, what headlines across the world have been reporting is that scientists are 95% sure of man made climate change. This estimate has also been upgraded from the previous IPCC report, from just 90%. Hence, headlines have reported that scientists are more sure than ever of man made climate change.

Unpacking these statements reveals not very much when it is considered that the warming between 1951 and 2010 amounts to 0.6 degrees centigrade. ‘More than half’ means as much as 0.299999 degrees of that warming may well have been due to natural change. Moreover, the increased estimate of confidence could correspond to less warming than had previously been attributed to ‘anthropogenic forcings’.

“Climate change”, however, means many different things to many different people. Once the claim that scientists were 95% confident in climate change was made, climate change advocates let their imaginations run away. ‘Climate change’ can mean anything you want it to mean.

Dana Nuccitelli, the Guardian’s new hyper-prolific end-is-nigh merchant was one of the first to re-interpret the IPCC’s latest report. Rather than being 95% sure about ‘more than half’ of the warming since 1951, Nuccitelli claimed that ‘100 percent of the global warming over the past 60 years is human-caused, according to the IPCC’s latest report‘. The 2007 report focussed on greenhouse gasses, he said, whereas the 2013 report included all ‘anthropogenic forcings’, including ‘the cooling effect from human aerosol emissions’.

Put it all together, and the IPCC is 95 percent confident that humans have caused most of the observed global surface warming over the past 60 years. Their best estimate is that humans have caused 100 percent of that global warming.

But it’s not what the IPCC says. And if such a concatenation of assumptions were sound, it would have been done by the IPCC itself. For example, under the ranges stated by the IPCC, the world might well have cooled 0.1 degrees over the six decades —  greenhouses gasses could have produced 0.5 degrees of warming and aerosols -0.6 degrees — and Nuccitelli would still be worrying about global warming. We might add on to that another 0.1 degrees of possible cooling, giving us -0.2 degrees, yet leaving the alarmist story intact. And conversely, the IPCC claim that greenhouse gasses may have caused as much as 1.3 degrees of warming, and that aerosols and natural variability could cause as much as 0.1 degree more each, giving us 1.5 degrees of warming since 1951. So Nuccitelli omits the range of -0.2 to 1.5 degrees — a span of 1.7 degrees, against an observed change of just 0.6 — in order to shift the reader’s understanding of the IPCC’s statement away from its actual content. But what he unwittingly reveals to any sensible numerical perspective is the ambiguity of the IPCC’s statement, and the alarmist’s tendency to make stuff up when the science doesn’t do what he wants it to do.

‘Climate change’ meaning many different things to many different people, we see different anxieties expressed not just about what ‘science says’, but about allowing the expression of voices that dissent from its edicts. While pseudo-scientific number-play suits those who pretend that the IPCC’s authority comes from science proper, other reflections are more transparently a search for authority in misery. Robin Ince — one of those alleged ‘comedians’ who have sought to make science entertaining — for example, worries about his ‘Grandchildren Spitting on My Grave, before eating me out of necessity‘.

This is not a post of facts and evidence, just an emotional one concerning my confusion over our reaction to climate change science. How can something so possibly devastating for human life be played with as if its just a parlour game for contrarians vent dummies popping out of the silk pockets of CEOs? Why is this the science that is more doubtful than most despite an impressive body of evidence? Instinctually, it seems it is because it is currently the branch of evidence based thinking that most urgently calls for a change in our consumerism and others’ profits.

Is Slavoj Žižek right that it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a change in global capitalism?

Climate change means different things to different people. For Ince, who has eschewed facts and evidence, climate change can’t just be a problem, it has to be ‘devastating for human life’. The agents that bring about Armageddon in his fantasy are that familiar villain: profit-seeking CEOs, the rest of us in thrall to global capitalism, made slaves to it by our material desires. These are the base, crude coordinates of Ince’s shallow moral universe. And then Zizek… The full quote is this…

Think about the strangeness of today’s situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.

It’s interesting to see what Ince has taken from Zizek, or more precisely, what he has left out. Zizek prompts Ince to wonder, ‘Are we losing our anticipatory animal instincts that made us what we are?’ and, ‘Are we toddlers with hand grenades?’ But Zizek’s point is surely that the contemporary left finds it easier to imagine the end of the world precisely because it cannot imagine an alternative to capitalism. Hence, the cartoonish anti-capitalism of Ince, with its comedy evil CEOs, asks us to rebel against our material instincts and our masters, not towards a better future, but merely to avoid Thermageddon. Ince talks of toddlers, but it is his own infantile perspective that causes his inability to understand the difference between failing to assert his will on the world and the end of the world. In the interests of left-right balance, however, it is worth pointing out that there are plenty of (equally nominative) conservative who have sought to use green narratives to rescue capitalism.

Staying with alleged comedians, Stewart Lee attempts a surreal satire of the IPCC report’s lack of impact

The end of the world is nigh … anyone out there interested?
A planet-destroying space god has no chance in the news schedules against someone’s dad being called a communist

Last Monday the International Panel on Planet-Threatening Demi-Gods presented the most peer-reviewed scientific paper in all human history, giving unarguable evidence that Earth will be destroyed by a malevolent super-being called Malignos at teatime (GMT) next Tuesday. I was on tour, sitting in Belfast airport departure lounge, when I read about it in the Guardian. It seemed like an important story, but I noticed other passengers skipping it in their papers in favour, for example, of a charming Daily Mail centre-spread of Photo-shopped pictures of tiny people in a world made of massive vegetables. There was some giant broccoli that a bike had crashed into and a little white man was standing next to it looking at the buckled wheel, scratching his head in astonishment. He simply couldn’t believe it. He had driven his bike straight into some giant broccoli!

Along the way, we encounter the hate figures that populate most of Lee’s ‘comedy’ narratives: people who read the wrong newspapers, The Daily Mail, Top Gear presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, common people, and people in general. And of course, people who don’t take climate change quite as seriously as Stewart Lee does. Like Ince, climate change cannot be just a problem, of degree, with a range of solutions at various timescales. It is total, and immediate. And a failure to comprehend the total-ness and immediate-ness of the problem means… “We’re fucked. We’re absolutely fucked.”

It’s been said before. In fact, nearly every year for six decades. But those prognostications, which each identified trends in the environment that pointed inevitably towards our species’ immanent demise, never materialised.

There is a link between the misanthropy expressed by Lee and the belief that, “We’re fucked. We’re absolutely fucked.” It follows that if you think the population are, as Lee and Ince have it, fecund and feckless, unchecked human nature will tip humanity towards doom, like some kind of Hieronymous Bosch painting.

Bosch, however, does a better line in surrealism than Lee. It’s hard to resist accounting for this as Bosch’s deeper reflection (than Lee is capable of) on circumstances experienced by his contemporaries. Life could be pretty tough in the fifteenth century. Yet in spite of the vast majority of the human race being Lee’s inferiors, it is not possible to compare fifteenth century life with twenty-first century life in NW Europe. Ince and Lee worry about the end of the world. Science says they should. But their anxieties are really the expression of crisis of less material origin. Whereas the Netherlandish painting reflects a nascent humanism, the smug, self-righteous and cynical comedian(!) represents that movement’s terminal moment.

Lee and Ince’s anxieties are not about the planet, but about other people. The desire to control society’s relationship with the planet belies a desire to control people. It is no accident that Ince and Lee cannot conceal their contempt for the consuming, unthinking masses. Being the arbiters of human fertility, consumption and production — the check on human nature — Lee and Ince can only imagine so many mouths to feed, which each want more and more and more. It can only end in The End.

Enough with the comedians. The avoidance of The End necessitates the construction of institutions that will check human nature. As is discussed at length on this blog, the institutions that will deliver us from climate Apocalypse are invariably global, and established above democratic control, as is discussed above. On the contemporary view, ‘democracy’ is merely an expression of consumer preference. Just as humans on the misanthrope’s view want more, more more, democracy is too easily subverted by material impulses to allow it to be the check on power. The ritual of IPCC reports replace the pomp and circumstance that used to accompany expressions of power in the past.

Take these words, for example, from Christiana Figueres, in a UNFCC press release.

“The report shows that there is more clarity about human-generated climate change than ever before. We know that the total effort to limit warming does not add up to what is needed to bend the emissions curve. To steer humanity out of the high danger zone, governments must step up immediate climate action and craft an agreement in 2015 that helps to scale up and speed up the global response,” Executive Secretary Figueres said from the United States, during her mission to the current UN General Assembly in New York.

Governments under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. They have also agreed to assess the adequacy of this limit and progress towards this goal using the best science, including this IPCC report. This formally agreed international review will conclude in
2015 in Paris, at the same time as the new, universal climate agreement. “As the results from the latest and best available science become clearer, the challenge becomes more daunting, but simultaneously the solutions become more apparent. These opportunities need to be grasped across society in mutually reinforcing ways by governments at all levels, by corporations, by civil society and by individuals,” said Ms. Figueres.

“Thankfully, momentum to fight climate change is building. We know that success is possible. We have the technology, funding and ability to respond. The many successes at domestic, international
and private sector levels to build a low-carbon society shine light on the way forward, but we do need to quickly go to scale,” she added.

Here is Figueres, announcing the IPCC report…

She says,

For me this week in New York has actually strengthened my conviction that humanity must, can and will, work together to avoid the worst effects of climate change. […] This report constitutes an alarm clock moment for the world, because this report will tell us again that everything we knew about climate change has actually been underestimated. The effects of climate change will actually be upon us faster and in a more intense fashion than we had thought. Sothe question then is of course what are governments doing to address this.

It’s just not true. The IPCC does not paint a more alarming picture of the world. Indeed, the SREX report issued just last year revealed that many of the effects of climate change had in fact been overstated.

But facts, such as they are when produced by the IPCC, do not matter. What matters is the narrative of a worsening and deepening crisis. Figueres’s words fly in the face of the IPCC, to reinvent its position, to manufacture legitimacy for the UNFCCC, which instructs governments on what they should do, no matter what the wishes of the populations represented by those governments are. Yet she claims to speak with its authority.

It would be so much harder to call this out as a transparent attempt to accumulate power away from democracy if Figueres didn’t seem to be so pig ignorant. But we see here at the top level of climate bureaucracy, a shameless and groundless lie, told by an unelected and unaccountable technocrat to service her own personal ambition.

More lowly figures than Figueres respond in a similar way — disregarding the content of the IPCC, to claim, by virtue of its headline, whatever they want to claim. Ed Davey, UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary of State said in a missive,

The message of this report is clear – the Earth’s climate has warmed over the last century and man-made greenhouse gases have caused much of that global warming. The gases emitted now are accumulating in the atmosphere and so the solutions must be set in motion today. The risks and costs of doing nothing today are so great, only a deeply irresponsible government would be so negligent.

Without urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions this warming will continue, with potentially dangerous impacts upon our societies and economy. This strengthens the case for international leaders to work for an ambitious, legally binding global agreement in 2015 to cut carbon emissions.

This report is the most authoritative , credible analysis of climate change science ever. It represents a huge amount of work by over 250 unpaid scientific experts drawn from universities and research institutes in 39 different countries around the world. We owe them our gratitude because this report makes clear what is at stake if we don’t act.

What truth there is in Davey’s message is trivial. But the judgement which develops from the appeal to scientific authority is far-reaching. Content-free science — ‘science says’ — seems to give the government a mandate to act in a certain way. To do otherwise would be ‘irresponsible’, says Davey. But is it not also irresponsible to allow debate about what looks like a disastrous range of climate and energy policies — policies which have pushed up the price of energy, leaving people poorer, in colder homes, and causing other economic effects, none of which are good? And isn’t it deeply irresponsible to deny debate about what the IPCC actually says, and its provenance? Instead, Davey expects us to take the content of the IPCC report and his government’s interpretation of it for granted.

Similarly, the IPCC report as a ritual — rather than as an evaluation of the science — allowed climate policy advocates to call for the censorship of any voice that might want to challenge the shallow interpretation of the report. Complaining about Bob Carter’s appearance on BBC Radio, director or campaigning organisation E3G, John Ashton, said, ‘By the most generous standards it is a serious lapse if not a betrayal of the editorial professionalism on which the BBC’s reputation has been built over generations’. As if one story in the same paper wasn’t enough, Fiona Harvey drew from Ashton’s words,

On Friday the IPCC, which represents the world’s leading climate scientists, produced a landmark report on the state of knowledge of global warming.

The IPCC said it was unequivocal that warming was occurring and that the dominant force behind it was human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.

The report, the first from the UN-convened body since 2007, and only the fifth since 1988, was the starkest warning yet of the dangers of climate change.

But in the BBC’s coverage of the report’s release in Stockholm, which was attended by several BBC science journalists, the voice of climate-change sceptics, who do not accept the IPCC’s core findings, got considerable airtime.

The chorus of whinges about who gets airtime continued. Bob Ward in the Guardian complained:

Global warming sceptics using media campaign to discredit IPCC
Lord Lawson’s group Global Warming Policy Foundation is attempting to distort media debate on climate change

The past seven days have shown clearly how Lord Lawson and a small clique of other climate change sceptics are able to use their political and media networks, as well as family ties, to distort so effectively the UK public debate.

Meanwhile, the Independent reported Energy and Climate minister, Greg Barker’s words:

“In the case of the BBC they have a very clear statutory responsibility. It’s in the original charter to inform. I think we need the BBC to look very hard, particularly at whether or not they are getting the balance right. I don’t think they are,” Mr Barker said.

He added: “I think there is too much focus on trying to stimulate an increasingly sterile debate on the science, given the overwhelming body of opinion that there is now in favour of the science, and perhaps if they are wanting to have an active debate they should be talking about the policy responses to that science, rather than the science itself,” he said.

“I’m not trying to ban all dissenting voices but we are doing the public a disservice by treating them as equal, which is not the case,” he told the committee.

Barker may not be ‘trying to ban all dissenting voices’ as such. But he is trying to prevent criticism of his government’s interpretation of the IPCC report, and the policies he claims are the result of an appraisal of the science. Just as with Davey, his appeals to the scientific consensus are appeals to a consensus without an object. “The overwhelming body of opinion” is used to shut down debate without any discussion about what it refers to. And what follows that denial of debate is invariably an attack on the moral character and motivations of anyone who dissents from it.

So the IPCC’s assessment reports mean nothing. They are ignored the moment they are published. In their place, people with influence and power improvise the substance of the consensus, to make it mean whatever suits their argument at the time.

In the past, rituals that cemented authority and power were wrapped in pomp and circumstance, smells, bells and mysticism. The rituals of today’s political order are wrapped in ‘science’.

Here, for example, Angel Gurria, the secretary general of the OECD, created an argument for world leaders to ignore the wants and needs of the people they represent, and to put problems like unemployment, poverty, and economic hardship to one side… To put the political establishment’s needs first, and to cement power away from democratic oversight. Who cares if people are unemployed, cold, hungry, ill, or want for more, right? Won’t somebody think of the ‘future generations’?

The IPCC seemingly investigates the role of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere and its likely effects on the planet’s systems, and for human life. But soon, the limitations of that study are forgotten. The content of the IPCC’s reports is barely discussed. Instead, the IPCC’s WGI AR5 SPM is used to make arguments about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to appear on the TV and Radio. It is used to diminish dissenters, and to belittle ordinary people. It is used to justify the accretion of power. And it is used to transform the priorities of politics and all kinds of public organisations. The publication of the IPCC’s reports is a ritual. Its report’s are like ceremonial talismans, which bestow whoever wields them with divine (aka ‘scientific’) right. Unless the IPCC can robustly and quickly respond to the torrent of self-serving hyperbole that is uttered by it’s self-appointed proxies, it will remain merely a cult of weird monks, who are wheeled out for ceremonial purposes, but who are otherwise ignored.

Battling the Environment

The Institute of Ideas’ annual Battle of Ideas meets again next weekend, at the Barbican Centre in London.

On the Sunday, I’ll be discussing ‘What is Environmentalism’ with Mark Lynas, Joe Smith, and Caspar Hewett, and with Timandra Harkness in the chair.

What is ‘new environmentalism’?
Sunday 20 October, 3.30pm until 4.45pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

Like most ideologies or political movements, environmentalism has always contained different strands and shades of opinion. But in recent years, there has been increasing debate within the movement about what its core values are, which issues it should pursue and how. Since Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the founders of the US-based Breakthrough Institute, wrote their influential 2004 essay, ‘The Death of Environmentalism’, many attempts have been made to redefine the environmental perspective. Most significantly, a growing number of environmentalists now make arguments in favour of nuclear power, GM technology and even fracking, and have questioned the policies designed to protect the climate and natural environment. Accordingly, some environmental organisations are now criticised by people who could be found supporting them just a few years ago. This fresh dimension to the green perspective and reflection on environmentalism’s failures has been dubbed ‘new environmentalism’.

But what has driven this change? Have new environmentalists responded to criticism from without the environmental movement, or to scientific developments and political failures? What possibilities exist for new environmentalism to make a difference and what institutions does it need? More profoundly, what might that change look like – what do new environmentalists think constitutes the Good Life, and how does this compare to the way of life imagined by environmentalists previously?

The full timetable is outlined here — http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/index.php/2013/overview

As you can see, there’s something for everyone. However, readers may be particularly interested in the following:

The crisis of innovation: Dude, where’s my flying car?
Saturday 19 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 1 Battle for technological progress

The 20th century saw great leaps forward in technology and innovation – from the mass production of cars to nuclear power to moon landings – and ended on something of a high with the internet. Can we expect even more from this century or have we reached a technological plateau? Were those breakthroughs just ‘low hanging-fruit’, as economist Tyler Cowen has argued, and are we going to have to work a lot harder to get ahead from now on? Certainly we have been waiting a good twenty years for long-heralded leaps forward in growth and productivity. Are there prototype innovations that just don’t reach a mass market because the costs are prohibitive? Would innovation be liberated if it was freed from the necessity of making a profit or, conversely, do we need the discipline of the market to weed out the mad inventors and pipe-dreamers and reward the genuine entrepreneur? Is the state be standing in the way of innovation, suffocating it with too much red tape and regulation and stifling dynamism with rules about health and safety or minimum wages? Do we need to free the market before it can deliver the goods?

Technology and sustainability: kill or cure?
Saturday 19 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 1 Battle for technological progress

When we think about technology it is usually as a promise. New advances in medicine, say, that will cure a killer disease. New breakthroughs in engineering that might make planes lighter, faster and more economical. New developments in computing that will let us roll up electronic newspapers or ‘think’ an email. Some may protest that they don’t want the benefits of these new technologies or deny that they represent any kind of progress. Most, however, would concede that these are good things even if they are not things they want.

But what about technology that promises what we want but threatens other things we want as well? The controversial technique of fracking has created an energy glut in America that has destroyed the market in renewable energy, which was such an important part of the vision for a sustainable economy. But cheap energy is at least good for economic growth and for household bills. What about GM crops? They hold out the promise of an end to starvation and of prosperity for poor farmers; but they also threaten what has been called ‘seed slavery’ and unquantifiable harms to natural ecosystems. Even the internet is a double-edged sword. Some see the rise of online purchasing where everything is just a click away as driving levels of consumerism and debt that we simply cannot pay back. But others argue the internet has enabled collaboration between small-scale producers and even individuals (crowd sourcing) that allows them to compete with massive corporations.

Computer modelling: all about the image?
Sunday 20 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

Computer modelling is magic that turns empirical observations into our imaginary future. How many of us will need pensions, artificial hips, or houses in 2050? How much will sea levels rise or incomes fall? Plug enough data into a computer model, and out pour figures and graphs. But from pensions to climate, the line between projecting a trend and predicting the future is often blurred. What assumptions went into constructing the model of reality that underlies the mathematical model? Any projection assumes a host of factors will stay the same, or change predictably. In the real world, things are less consistent.

We need some kind of guide to how the future will probably turn out, if we are to plan anything that takes a few years to bring to fruition. Building power stations, for example, or training doctors. But we also need a good idea of how closely to trust that guide. The precision of graphs and numbers can stamp complex, informed speculation with undue scientific authority. So what are the limitations of mathematical modelling? Should we be more sceptical of its authority? And how much does it matter if some of the details are wrong?

Science journalism: the tyranny of evidence?
Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

When the Independent gave front-page coverage to the discredited scientist Andrew Wakefield’s suggestion that government policy was responsible for a recent measles outbreak in Swansea, the paper was roundly condemned as irresponsible. Similarly, energy secretary Ed Davey has attacked some sections of the press for giving ‘an uncritical campaigning platform’ to anyone sceptical of the consensus view on climate change. Meanwhile, the media are often accused of misinterpreting studies, overstating casual links, inappropriately extrapolating from research results and failing to report details such as sample size or the institution carrying out the study. And eminent scientists have called for supporters of homeopathy and ‘obesity deniers’ to be deprived of the oxygen of publicity. Science reporting is mentioned a number of times in the Leveson report, which recommends a set of guidelines to ensure scientific accuracy, with penalties for reporting that is not up to a required standard.

Whither 'Extreme Weather'…

David Whitehouse and I have produced a few films for the GWPF on the subject of ‘extreme weather’.

There are two versions — one shorter, a second longer with more detail.

Short version:

Longer version:

The videos centre around interviews between David Whitehouse, and Jennifer Francis and Roger Pielke Jr.

Unedited versions of the interviews are also online.

Jennifer Francis:

Roger Pielke:

The Guardian’s ‘Scientists Warn…’ Meme

In today’s Observer, Robin McKie channels scientists

Climate change: IPCC issues stark warning over global warming
Call to ‘stop dithering about fossil fuel cuts’ as expert panel warns entire globe is affected

This is now part of the ritual established by the Guardian whenever the routine, scheduled, planned, expected, and timetabled publishing of IPCC assessment reports or UNFCCC COP meetings occur. These events are in every case presented as always new, more comprehensive, deeper, and more ‘stark’ than previous pronouncements on climate change, even when the reports say very little or nothing at all that is new, and even suggest that things aren’t as bad ‘as previously thought’. McKie continues…

Scientists will this week issue their starkest warning yet about the mounting dangers of global warming. In a report to be handed to political leaders in Stockholm on Monday, they will say that the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have now led to a warming of the entire globe, including land surfaces, oceans and the atmosphere.

The starkest warning yet? How can he know, when it has not yet been published — indeed, it is still being written.

The scientists’ warning – the most comprehensive and convincing yet produced by climate scientists – comes at a time when growing numbers of people are doubting the reality of global warming. Last week, the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) published a survey showing that the proportion of British people who do not think the world’s climate is changing has almost quadrupled since 2005.

The most comprehensive and convincing [warning] yet produced by climate scientists…? What evidence is there of scientists escalating their warning? McKie should be more cautious. After all, if he is worried about the rising proportion of British people who do not think the world’s climate is changing he might want to think about why some people might — on his view — stick their heads in the sand.

The Guardian’s regular coverage of the climate debate is notable for two reasons. One: its attempts to sustain the climate change narrative is unremittingly alarmist and increasingly shrill. Two: it polarises the debate into binary, opposing categories of scientist versus denier, truth verses falsehood, good vs bad, thus excluding any nuance, complexity or middle ground from the debate.

These two tendencies together explain why scepticism of climate change may be increasing. The problem for the Guardian is that, when you divide and polarise the debate as it does, when the alarmist story you tell turns out to be nonsense, you force people with the sense or intuition to see it as nonsense to the other, opposing camp. In other words, if you do not let people assent to the climate story by degree, you alienate yourself in an attempt to alienate ‘denial’. And the view that the climate has not warmed for over a decade and a half is no longer controversial — only people assembled at the Guardian argue otherwise, albeit they argue the point with (far too much) vehemence. The Guardian’s ire is too much for science to sustain, even if there are plausible hypotheses about where the warming is going. Those who are making the argument that the non-warming of the surface of the planet is not a problem for the climate narrative of 2006 — the ‘travesty’, to use the word of the most vocal proponent of the ocean warming theory of the missing heat — are simply shifting the goalposts, and the whole world can see them being hoist by their own noxious petards: bogus surveys intended to shine a light into the mechanisms of the sceptical mind, to measure the consensus, and to ‘frame’ the debate in such a way as to gently coerce non-believers into ‘behaviour change’ and ‘attitudinal adjustment’. They don’t recognise themselves as the cause of so much climate scepticism. They don’t understand that it is words like McKies…

But as the IPCC report underlines, scientists are becoming more and more certain that climate change poses a real danger to the planet.

… which prompt the reader to reflect on his intransigence, and the continued framing of the debate by the climate change establishment…

Many believe the disconnection between popular belief and scientific analysis has been engineered by “deniers” explicitly opposed to the lifestyle changes – including restrictions on fossil fuel burning – that might be introduced in the near future. “There are attempts by some politicians and lobbyists to confuse and mislead the public about the scientific evidence that human activities are driving climate change and creating huge risks,” said Stern.

Stern’s conspiracy theory, is not new, of course. But it looks like an increasingly desperate move when seen in the light of mainstream scientists scratching their heads about the global warming hiatus, and the non-manifest problems that climate change orthodoxy of yesteryear promised we should be expecting by today. There has been no warming. There is no observable increase in the frequency, intensity or longevity of storms. There has been no detectable increase in the number of floods and droughts. There are not tens of millions of climate change refugees escaping worsening conditions. There has been no increase in the prevalence of diseases allegedly attributable to global warming. There is no widespread loss of agricultural land. And of course, the objections raised by climate sceptics are not attempts to ‘confuse and mislead the public’, but are attempts to point out that that is precisely what Stern and writers at the Guardian have done.

Here are some previous headlines from The Guardian’s archive, where they have issued warnings seemingly on behalf of science, but are much more owed to their own misunderstanding — to put it charitably.

Scientists warn growing acidity of oceans will kill reefs
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 4 February 2005 10.20 GMT

Scientists have given warning of a newly discovered threat to mankind, which will wipe out coral and many species of fish and other sea life.

Climate scientists issue dire warning
David Adam, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 28 February 2006

The Earth’s temperature could rise under the impact of global warming to levels far higher than previously predicted, according to the United Nations’ team of climate experts.

Global warming study warns of vanishing climates
· Scientists warn of disaster in biodiversity hotspots
· Species ‘must evolve or migrate’ to survive
James Randerson, science correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 27 March 2007

By the end of the century up to two fifths of the land surface of the Earth will have a hotter climate unlike anything that currently exists, according to a study that predicts the effects of global warming on local and regional climates. And in the worst case scenario, the climatic conditions on another 48% of the land surface will no longer exist on the planet at all.

UN scientists warn time is running out to tackle global warming
· Scientists say eight years left to avoid worst effects
· Panel urges governments to act immediately
David Adam, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Saturday 5 May 2007

Governments are running out of time to address climate change and to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures, an influential UN panel warned yesterday.

Scientists warn on climate tipping points
Alok Jha
The Guardian, Thursday 16 August 2007

Some tipping points for climate change could be closer than previously thought. Scientists are predicting that the loss of the massive Greenland ice sheet may now be unstoppable and lead to catastrophic sea-level rises around the world.

‘False optimism’ climate warning
James Randerson, science correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 30 May 2008

Climate scientists have warned that a “false optimism” has infused international climate talks and that governments must work quickly to set tough targets for global carbon emissions or risk profound consequences for the planet.

Scientists to issue stark warning over dramatic new sea level figures
Rising sea levels pose a far bigger eco threat than previously thought. This week’s climate change conference in Copenhagen will sound an alarm over new floodings – enough to swamp Bangladesh, Florida, the Norfolk Broads and the Thames estuary
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 8 March 2009

Scientists will warn this week that rising sea levels, triggered by global warming, pose a far greater danger to the planet than previously estimated. There is now a major risk that many coastal areas around the world will be inundated by the end of the century because Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are melting faster than previously estimated.

Climate change warning: ‘We’re sick of having our messages lost in political noise’
David Adam reports scientists’ exasperation at the climate change conference
David Adam, environment correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 13 March 2009 09.39 GMT

Blind date with disaster
We are constantly warned by scientists that our planet is in big trouble, so why can’t we change direction? David Suzuki, one of the world’s leading ecologists, on how humans have lost the vital skill of foresight
David Suzuki
The Guardian, Wednesday 12 March 2008

As I approach my 72nd birthday, I have reluctantly achieved the position of elder, and it is mindboggling to reflect on the changes that have occurred in my lifetime. The population of the world has tripled, while technology has exploded from early radio, telephones and propeller planes to the telecommunication revolution, computers, space travel, genetic engineering and oral contraceptives. And stuff! My biggest challenge is to staunch the flow of stuff into my life. But these great successes – economic growth, technology, consumer goods – have come at enormous cost: the degradation of our very life support systems – air, water, soil, energy and biodiversity.

Scientists warn carbon dioxide may soon make coral reefs extinct
Alok Jha
The Guardian, Monday 6 July 2009 19.22 BST

David Attenborough joined scientists today to warn that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already above the level which condemns coral reefs to extinction, with catastrophic effects for the oceans and the people who depend upon them.

Climate scientists warn of wild weather in the year ahead as El Niño begins
El Niño expected to increase drought, floods and other extreme events, and cause a hot summer in the UK
John Vidal, environment editor
theguardian.com, Monday 13 July 2009 16.30 BST

Climate scientists have warned of wild weather in the year ahead as the start of the global “El Niño” climate phenomenon exacerbates the impacts of global warming. As well as droughts, floods and other extreme events, the next few years are also likely to be the hottest on record, scientists say.

Climate change scientists warn of 4C global temperature rise
Team of experts say such an increase would cause severe droughts and see millions of migrants seeking refuge
Damian Carrington
The Guardian, Monday 29 November 2010

A hellish vision of a world warmed by 4C within a lifetime has been set out by an international team of scientists, who say the agonisingly slow progress of the global climate change talks that restart in Mexico today makes the so-called safe limit of 2C impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet’s temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.

Extreme weather will strike as climate change takes hold, IPCC warns
Heavier rainfall, storms and droughts could wipe billions off economies and destroy lives, says report by 220 scientists
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 18 November 2011 13.38 GMT

Heavier rainfall, fiercer storms and intensifying droughts are likely to strike the world in the coming decades as climate change takes effect, the world’s leading climate scientists said on Friday.

Agriculture needs massive investment to avoid hunger, scientists warn
Group of leading scientists urge investment in sustainable agriculture to solve hunger crisis and reduce global warming
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
theguardian.com, Wednesday 16 November 2011 13.30 GMT

Billions more investment is needed in agriculture and food distribution systems around the world in the next few years, if widespread hunger is to be avoided, according to a group of leading scientists.

Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists
Water scarcity’s effect on food production means radical steps will be needed to feed population expected to reach 9bn by 2050
John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian, Sunday 26 August 2012 19.00 BST

Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.

These are just a random selection — the first results from a quick Google search. But in each case the story is the same — scientific opinion of variable provenance — has been uncritically reproduced, or wildly exaggerated, often to the point of actually contradicting the science, or to be later contradicted by scientists. Guardian writers use ‘science’ as a puppet to act out morality plays, in which their own fantasies are seemingly given authority by the invoking of ‘stark’ or ‘dire’ — typically, the ‘starkest’ or ‘direst’ yet — ‘warnings’ that things are ‘worse than previously thought’.

But that’s not how things have turned out. And it doesn’t look to any sensible perspective that things are going to turn out to be ‘worst than expected’.

The question that remains then, is, how come all this emphasis on ‘science’ — calls to put ‘science’ at the heart of policy-making and information provided to the public — hasn’t been able to change the quality of the pronouncements made by the likes of Stern and the Guardian? Why hasn’t it been able to challenge alarmist memes finding their way into cheap and shrill Guardian copy? And why is pointing out that the climate change pudding has been over-egged is still dismissed as ‘denial’ by the climate Great and Good? The reason the public switch off is that it is by now completely obvious that there is more to the climate debate than science vs denial, and anyone claiming otherwise is pulling your leg. The only people who don’t understand this are writing for the Guardian.

Australian Elections – a Test of Climate Politics?

Over at the new-format Spiked, Rob Lyons has a short piece on the Australian elections.

One of the biggest issues in Saturday’s Australian election will be the ‘carbon tax’. Coalition leader Tony Abbott said this week: ‘If the Coalition wins the election on Saturday, the carbon tax will go. No ifs, no buts, it is gone… We will do whatever is necessary to abolish the carbon tax.’ He has declared the election to be a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’, which Labor has pledged to retain if it hangs on to power.

Lyons confidently predicts that Labor are going to be ‘getting a kicking over carbon’.

Climate policies suffer from a democratic deficit. If the Australian elections are, as Abbott has called it, a referendum on the Carbon Tax, this is perhaps the first attempt to measure the public’s appetite for climate policies in the Anglosphere. Canada, of course, fell out with the UNFCCC process last year, though not after a test of the public mood. In response to the withdrawal, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said,

“Whether or not Canada is a Party to the Kyoto Protocol, it has a legal obligation under the Convention to reduce its emissions, and a moral obligation to itself and future generations to lead in the global effort,” she said. “Industrialized countries, whose emissions have risen significantly since 1990, as is the case for Canada, remain in a weaker position to call on developing countries to limit their emissions.”

But who is Figueres to tell Canadians what their priorities should be? After all, nobody voted for her. And nobody voted for the UNFCCC process. Climate politics were all about establishing political power above democracy.

This has led to the situation in which Labor are going to be ‘getting a kicking’. But let’s not be hasty…

There has been an obvious attempt to turn the climate debate into an issue of Left vs Right (in terms of party politics). In the UK, Australia and USA, it is the putative Left that has sought to champion the climate agenda. But the Right has been, at best, supine. In fact, in the UK, the Conservative Party argued for stronger climate targets than the then Labour-led government. When Julia Gillard back-tracked on her promise that there would be no climate tax, UK Conservative Party Leader and PM, David Cameron praised the move, saying,

I was delighted to hear of the ambitious package of climate change policy measures you announced on 10 July and wanted to congratulate you on taking this bold step.

Yep, lying to the public is certainly a ‘bold step’, alright. At opposite ends of the planet, unpopular leaders of weak political parties — parties not strong enough to form governments by themselves — slapped each other on the back, from across the political spectrum. What better demonstration of the contempt for the public and for democracy could there be?

In the USA, the Republican Party didn’t create as robust a response to climate politics as many wanted, or as the US Left claimed — a fact discussed in Marc Morano’s interview with Topher Field for the the 50-to-1 project. It has taken a long time for the problems caused by environmental policies to develop into an issue that really can divide politics on party lines.

But only just. And there might not be much else to celebrate about Left/Right party politics in the Anglosphere — which is probably why the climate issue somehow came to dominate, and cross-party consensuses formed, albeit by default.

It would be a good thing if the Australian result sent a message to other climate champions throughout the world that, if they want to be green, they must really seek the public’s consent before they press ahead with far-reaching and expensive policies. But an indication of what is more likely to happen is given in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald… (H/t Paul S.)

How human psychology is holding back climate change action
Behavioral scientists have emphasized that in their private lives, people sometimes display a form of myopia. They may neglect the future, seeing it as a kind of foreign country, one they may not ever visit.

For this reason, they might fail to save for retirement, or they might engage in risk-taking behavior (such as smoking or unhealthy eating) that will harm their future selves.

In a political context, citizens might demand protection against a risk that threatens them today, tomorrow or next month.

But if they perceive climate change as mostly a threat to future generations – if significant sea-level rises seem to be decades away – they are unlikely to have a sense of urgency.

Climate change lacks other characteristics that spur public concern about risks. It is gradual rather than sudden. The idea of warmer climates doesn’t produce anger, revulsion or disgust.

Psychologists, much more than climate scientists, are going to be the experts that politicians consult to establish a basis for their policies and power.

A wind of Change – or an Unchanging Windbag?

Amongst a number of things going on in the climate debate, two things caught my eye last week.

The first is this video from 350.org

350 want to use the names of prominent climate sceptics, rather than an list of names in alphabetical sequence, to refer to tropical storms and hurricanes.

But their petition suffers from the fact that, as pointed out by the IPCC SREX report last year, there is no anthropogenic signal in the frequency, intensity or longevity of these weather events, according to observations.

There is however, a much stronger association between incautious climate and energy policies and a deleterious effect on human welfare. Should we propose, then, that events of mass human suffering be attributed to prominent environmentalists, because their backwards, anti-human and anti-developmental ideology has created a huge cost?

How about the Ed Miliband 27,000 excess winter deaths of 2008-9?

How about the 2002 Greenpeace Southern Africa famine?

And how about the 10 million annual deaths that are first order-effects of poverty each year… Let us call name them in turn, the Oxfam Slaughter, The Sustainability Massacre, the UNFCCC Mass Killing, the Save the Children Butchering, and the Friends of the Earth Genocide… and so on.

As I have pointed out before, supranational political institutions and transnational NGOs have an unchecked, undemocratic and self-serving control over the development agenda. Yet they do not prioritise development. They instead purposefully restrict it, limiting it with that fluffy-sounding prefix, “Sustainable-“. As Reuters recently reported:

The World Bank’s board on Tuesday agreed to a new energy strategy that will limit financing of coal-fired power plants to “rare circumstances,” as the Washington-based global development powerhouse seeks to address the impact of climate change.

People in developing economies are to be denied a tried, tested, cheap form of energy. Meanwhile, the country that has most championed green energy — Germany — has increased its coal use and has plans to open up to nearly 6GW of new coal-fired capacity by 2020.

An interesting passage at the bottom of the article demonstrates the toxic neocolonialism at play:

The World Bank last approved funding for a coal-fired power plant in 2010, in South Africa, despite lack of support from the United States, Netherlands and Britain due to environmental concerns.

It is one thing for the likes of Ed Miliband to determine energy policy in the UK. But the climate zealot is not troubled by such concepts as democracy and sovereignty, and would happily foist his preferences for energy production over others.

A second thing caught my eye. Referring to the 350.org campaign, Leo Hickman of the Guardian announced:

Of course, the campaign has zero chance of succeeding. Hell would glaciate before the WMO would consider such a request. 350.org knows this. It’s just their inventive, tongue-in-cheek way of further highlighting the US policy makers – predominantly Republicans – who “deny climate change and obstruct climate policy”.

Hickman might want to notice that Washington was one direction from which the World Bank has been pressured to change its policy towards finance for energy projects in the developing world, against the interests of poorer people and their own governments. Perhaps what provokes those who “deny climate change and obstruct climate policy” is the anti-development, anti-democratic and anti-human tendency and character of environmentalism and their preferred policies. It’s a possibility that Hickman shows little evidence of ever having considered.

Which is odd, in itself, because Hickman reminds us that this is is 16th and final year of covering environmental issues at the Guardian.

after 16 years working as a Guardian journalist, this is my final article. Next month, I will take up the role of chief advisor, climate change at WWF-UK. Journalism has undergone so many changes over this time, but one that has excited me the most has been the increased interaction with readers via comments under the blogs such as this, or through online platforms such as Twitter. (I can’t quite believe it is 13 years since I wrote the first-ever post for the Guardian’s “weblog”!) Even though the debate can be passionate at times, I have cherished this dialogue. I believe it only acts to strengthen journalism and, personally, has led me to develop collaborative reader/journalist initiatives such as the Eco Audit. So I just want to use this opportunity upon my departure to say a sincere thank you to all those who have taken the time over the years to engage constructively and that I hope to continue that debate from time to time here on the EnvironmentGuardian site once settled into my new role.

So what has Hickman learned over this time?

He cannot claim that he doesn’t know that there is, beyond the scientific questions about climate change, very real questions about democracy and development, and that there are more objections to climate alarmism than simply dissent from the putative scientific consensus on climate change. I’ve pointed it out to him on a number of occasions. Yet rather than investigate these arguments, Hickman chose instead to focus on my relationship with one of my clients.

Hickman’s mock-concern was a pretext for frustration that I received £2,000 a month for research into climate and energy policies, and that EU rules on transparency do not extend to researchers. They have neither power nor influence. Hence, they are accountable to the representatives they are employed or contracted to, not to the public. If they were, they would surely be pad more than £2,000 per month.

An equally ignorant hack writes, seemingly in the light of what Hickman has written:

Much of the scientific underpinning for UKIP’s climate scepticism comes from Ben Pile, a part-time researcher, who contributes to the contrarian Spiked journal, and runs an anti-environmental blog called Climate Resistance.

A cascade of bullshit begins at 90 York Way, London. I have never provided the ‘scientific underpinning for UKIP’s climate scepticism’. Nor have I been asked to. But making up facts never bothered the conscience of environmental campaigning journalists. Irony indeed.

Perhaps coincidentally, UKIP are mentioned in Hickman’s swansong:

What we are now seeing more of, though, are climate policy sceptics. Yes, some of these are the same characters as before, but who have subtly, artful repositioned themselves over recent years. So rather than claiming that climate science is a hoax, a fraud or fundamentally flawed, they now say the proposed climate policies will have little, if any, impact on the planet’s temperature gauge and are therefore a waste of time and money. They know that this is a more tenable (and electable?) position from which to argue their point. (In the UK, only two political parties – Ukip and the BNP – proudly state in their manifestos that they doubt, or reject, climate science; proof, if it were ever needed, that climate scepticism is predominantly built upon a foundation of ideology rather than science. Additionally, the work of James Painter at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has also highlighted how cultural/media support for climate sceptics varies greatly from country to country.)

This blog has always identified itself as sceptical of environmentalism — environmental politics, especially climate politics — rather than climate science. Had Leo taken an interest in what was written here, rather than who the author associates with, he might better have understood the point. But moreover, he might have developed a better understanding of the concept of ‘ideology’. His misunderstanding of ideology reveals much about his failure to have developed his perspective over the course of his career, and sheds light on his own ‘ideology’.

Heaven forfend that political parties should be ‘ideological’. Hickman might just as well attack them for being ‘political’ or ‘parties’. What this squeamishness about ‘ideology’ reflects is a phenomenon that has been pointed out often, and in depth on this blog. Environmentalists like Hickman simply do not recognise their own perspective as ‘ideological’. ‘Ideology’ is what other people do. The conceit — in all senses of the word — being that the environmentalist simply takes ‘science’ at face value, whereas those he points his fingers at refuse to see the science because they are somehow blinded by ‘ideology’.

According to Hickman, the BNP and UKIP’s climate manifesto either doubts or rejects climate science, which is ‘proof’ that climate scepticism is ‘ideological’. Had parties which have attached themselves to ‘climate science’ successfully eschewed ‘ideology’, then he might well have a point. But unfortunately for Hickman, the old parties’ adherence to the scientific consensus is as ‘ideological’ as any manifesto. ‘Ideology’ is much less that which is not contested than that which is. A political consensus is a surer sign of ideology at work than is a disagreement over the interpretation of facts.

Putting it simply, the ‘ideology’ of the political establishment is a system of ideas that would put political institutions above democratic oversight, and under the direction of panels of technical experts. But one can agree or disagree with the scientific consensus independently of one’s view that political institutions should be arranged in that way. One can disagree with policies independently of the consensus. In other words, the idea that the scientific consensus is equivalent to the configuration of supranational and national political institutions and their respective policies is ‘ideological’. Indeed, as this blog has also pointed out, ad nauseum, the notion of the scientific consensus is used in political and policy debates at all levels, with no regard for the substance of the consensus. As I explain it elsewhere, it is a consensus without an object.

The consensus being an object of ideology at least as much as it is a product of scientific investigation (but not that the two are the same), it ought to have been more widely interrogated by the media, amongst others, who claim to be holding power to account. Hickman’s failure to do so, and his haste to say that, on the contrary, interrogating or challenging the consensus is ‘ideological’ is a perfect demonstration of an ideology in operation. For it is only if we’re driven by some ideology that we can take his claim for granted or give it any significance. That knowledge must be presupposed. UKIP’s 2010 manifesto in fact said only this:

UKIP accepts that the world’s climate changes, but we are the first party to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims. We called for a rational, balanced approach to the climate debate in 2008, before the extensive manipulation of scientific data first became clear.

Whether or not one believes that it is (or was) clear that there had been ‘extensive manipulation of scientific data’ (my views, contrast with UKIP’s and are here) the view is not itself ‘ideological’. Granted, the manfiesto should say more. But the fact that it doesn’t say enough isn’t a licence to presume anything about what it says. It is perhaps a shortcoming of the manifesto that it refers only to ‘global warming claims’, but conversely, many claims made about global warming are equally ambiguous, lacking any precision or basis in science. Nothwithstanding the fact that there are a number of people within the UKIP fold who do take issue with the consensus proper, even they would identify a greater problem existing with the excesses of environmental alarmism. The substantial point here being that even if one denies climate science comprehensively, one can nonetheless be committed to the idea that such a perspective needs to make the argument, and to win it, in order for it to prevail over policy-making. Nobody hiding behind the consensus believes in winning the debate in that way.

IN any case, what would an ‘ideologically-motivated’ rejection of science really look like?

It’s a tough question, the toughness of which only highlights Hickman’s glib treatment of the climate debate. On the one hand, it seems possible to say anyone that doesn’t believe that something which is manifestly true because some other view clouds their judgement is a victim of ‘ideology’. The first problem, however, is whether or not ‘science’ can stand in for ‘manifestly true’. Clearly, on Hickman’s view it can. But what are the claims and counter-claims in question? Do UKIP claim ‘climate change is not happening’? No. Are UKIP denying the possibility of any anthropogenic climate change whatsoever? No. Is there room to interpret UKIP’s position as one consistent with criticism of manifestly undue alarmism? Absolutely. And even Hickman cannot deny that many NGOs, politicians, and activists have been found exaggerating the possibility of climate change and its effects — he admits as much himself, although, frankly more to effect some kind of impression of balance. While he might occasionally criticise Greenpeace’s statements, he isn’t able to criticise their politics, or the politics which has enabled the NGO to thrive. It’s not enough to say of one’s political opponents that they are driven by ideology; one must explain how the ideology causes a particular view to form. And it’s not enough to say that they reject a thing (science) because they prefer some other thing (profit, for example).

What we see operating in Hickman’s thinking is the tendency to turn the climate debate into sides, or binary, opposing categories: true and false, good and bad, ideology and science… because ultimately, it’s easier to lump ‘policy sceptics’ in with ‘climate sceptics’, and link climate sceptics to ‘ideology’ than it is to deal with the arguments in currency. It’s about arguing with empty nouns and categories — sceptic, denier, party, ideology — rather than the perspectives that give rise to them. Once you identify the nouns, you see, it’s much easier to let the ‘ideology’ do the work — to fill up those empty categories.

Ideology is a more complex idea than Hickman has the faculties to cope with. (When editors decided to appoint journalists to cover environmental issues, they confused passion with knowledge. This accounts for the quality of environmental journalism across the media.) When trying to understand ‘ideology’, some self-reflection is required. This failure to reflect was also loudly absent from the report, mentioned by Hickman, by James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Poles Apart claimed

climate scepticism is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, found most frequently in the US and British newspapers, and explores the reasons why this is so.

I asked Painter if he had considered the possibility that climate scepticism appeared to be an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon because climate alarmism, and the eco-centric perspective more broadly might be Anglo-Saxon phenomena. (In other words, that environmentalism, insofar as it is a cultural and political phenomenon, is ‘ideological’.) He agreed that he hadn’t.

But evidence that environmentalism is an ideological phenomenon, with a regional bias, is fairly obvious when we remember that Painter is married to the niece of none other than Crispin Tickell — a former senior British diplomat, a man credited with coining the term ‘climate change’, and having helped push climate change up the national and international agenda in the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, the Tickell family has spawned a number of famous environmentalists. Ideology is reproduced socially. We should note that environmentalism has not been nearly so successfully transmitted through less well-heeled strata of British society, much to the frustration of environmentalists, whose failure to build a mass movement has resulted in their turning against the masses.

The reason for the need for self-reflection is obvious. One cannot look at the phenomenon of climate scepticism apart from the object of that scepticism. But for Painter to ask questions about the object of climate scepticism and the parallel permeation of the environmental perspective throughout the British establishment would mean asking question about his wife’s uncle and the conditions that allowed his family to prosper. It cannot be sheer coincidence that so many Painters and Tickells have become part of the global warming Great and Good.

The problem is not now, nor has it ever been, ‘ideology’. Ideology has not itself turned people blind to science or anything else. ‘Ideology’ is nothing more than a system of ideas, or beliefs, much of which is embedded in, and transmitted through, culture. Yet the contest of ideology — especially in the first part of the previous century — gave rise to the view that ‘ideology’ was stuff like Communism, Fascism, or the Guardian’s favourite: ‘unbridled capitalism’. ‘Ideology’ is never applied to ‘nice’ political ideas, like Social Democracy, Environmentalism, or any of the preferences of the Guardian’s staff.

The problem is instead an inability to reflect — a lack of self-awareness, like Painter’s inability to see the perspective from which he attempted an analysis of the media. Rather than attempting to understand the categories of his own thought by interrogating them, his project — much as with the 97% survey and its attempt to make ‘the consensus a concrete object — was strategic. Such projects, then, turn strategies into ideology — they bring uncontested and untested ideas and prejudices into their view of the world. Not recognising their own perspective as thus formed ‘ideologically’, they see only other people and their arguments in terms of blind and arbitrary ‘ideology’, rather than arguments and ideas that might give rise to a different perspective on the same issue. The problem, then, is the same as with any religious zealot, ideologue, tyrant or bigot. Proponents of orthodoxies do not recognise themselves as vulnerable to ideology. Why should they, since prevailing hegemonies don’t need to justify themselves — their preferences and prejudices appear to them as manifestly ‘common sense’, and challenges to their authority seem impertinent and obtuse.

But back to Hickman, who, it should by now be obvious, does not know what he means when he utters the word ‘ideology’. What about his theory that climate sceptics have re-cast themselves as policy-sceptics?

John Abraham made an astute point the other day when he said that it rarely gets noticed that climate sceptics have actually conceded a lot of ground over recent years when it comes to the science. Many have begun to adopt a so-called “lukewarmer” position, which means they now accept the basics of climate science but don’t think it’s worth investing heavily today to prevent or limit a problem that will increasingly hit home in the decades ahead.

Even if we take the observation in question at face value, there is a contradiction here between arguing on the one hand that sceptics are blinded by ideology, but on the other hand arguing that they have changed their argument.

But there are other good reasons for believing that Abraham’s claims are nonsense. He sees a growth in the ‘lukewarm’, policy-sceptic argument because it is displacing the alarmist narrative, but the direction of migration is not from denialism/scepticism to lukewarmism.

The lukewarm camp was established by Lomborg in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In more recent years, following events such as Climategate, and fatigue with the over-stated messages from the environmental movement and world leaders, the disarray of the UNFCCC process, and a 17 year long hiatus in surface warming, this camp is now respectable. It now has the Pielkes,  Currys and Tamsin Edwards of the world, none of whom, contra Abraham’s claims, are crypto-deniers. But they do recognise a problem with the environmental narrative as it has led to the formation of policy, and with the quality of public debate about climate science and policy.

Abraham needs to lump this growing camp in with the sceptics because, like Hickman and Painter, he needs the world to resolve into binary, opposing categories. No such angry division is necessary across the lines of debate between the remaining perspectives. After all, the main object of concern for sceptics is not the fact of scientific claims, but the arguments — political and scientific — that are protected from interrogation by the putative consensus. A nebulous consensus, divorced from its substance, licences intransigence and an undemocratic tendency. Abraham and Nuccitelli’s 97% blog, after its namesake, is a rearguard action against a more nuanced and productive debate, where climate change might still be a problem, but one in which debate about a response is possible. It’s a difference between ‘there is no alternative’ and there being many options. Environmentalists have always needed to claim that the imperatives they assert are a necessary consequence of the science.

This rearguard action begins with the lumping together of sceptics and lukewarmers, but its most interesting manifestation is the Consensus Police. The likes of Abrahams and Nuccitelli and their blog-warriors descend on the lukewarm blogs the moment it looks like any ground is being conceded to ‘deniers’. For instance, my recent post at the Nottingham University’s Making Science Public blog, drew attention from the 97%-ers, not because they wanted to take issue with the argument, but because they wanted to sustain the notion of consensus according to their form of environmentalism. Nuccitelli’s ire, he admitted, owed less to the argument I offered than to the fact that it was reproduced on the website of a respectable institution — a strategic loss, on Nuccitelli’s view.

Nuccitelli’s and his colleagues’ rage intensified when the Guardian’s Political Science blog hosted views from Tamsin Edwards, Nottingham’s Warren Pearce and Robert Wilson, each of whom criticised the framing of the political debate with respect to science. The consensus police descended. How dare these people admit nuance into the debate that they had spent so much energy framing in simple terms of scientists and deniers?

Wilson is one of those contributors who give the lie to Abraham’s claim. “The green movement is not pro-science”, he pointed out, and that “If we are to win against climate change, greens need to replace spin with sober analysis”. A curious fellow, Wilson combines the shouty excesses of the 97%ers with the reason of the lukewarmers, though directs his ire at sceptics and environmentalists. To his discredit, he gives sceptics’ arguments zero consideration while pronouncing on them nonetheless, but his blog (now retired) offers many, very well-argued and in fact sober criticisms of green energy policies and incautious renewable energy evangelism. The ‘lukewarm’ camp is populated by many who mostly want some kind of political response to climate change, to a greater or lesser extent.

It’s not enough, you see, merely to lump the sceptics and lukewarmers together. Doing so comes at the expense of an understanding of the arguments. But the idea of a rigid, unequivocal, unimpeachable consensus needs to be sustained, as does the ideas that the scientific consensus reduces to a simple and robust statement, and that the consensus is contradicted in its entirety by ‘deniers’. The claim that Abraham makes, which Hickman dutifully reproduces, is an attempt to sustain the mythology — the strategy-cum-ideology — of the climate debate according to environmentalists. The growth of the lukewarm argument is not a sign of the climate sceptics changing their argument, it is a sign that the alarmist narrative is unravelling, making room for more perspectives in the climate debate.

The reason for its unravelling is unwittingly revealed in Hickman’s closing remarks, each of which epitomise environmental ideology, and demonstrate that 16 years of journalism have not led to his forming a more progressive analysis…

As I have noted many times before, I think this is a profoundly risky and irresponsible strategy. But, then again, I’m not a politician whose survival depends on a four-to-five year election cycle. Nothing exposes our species’ “future flaw” more than climate change – rarely, if ever, have the history books demonstrated a generation acting selflessly, or with sacrifice, for the sole benefit of generations to come. We are an extraordinary animal in so many ways, but one of our weaknesses is that we operate firmly in the present tense. We jump only when we are in imminent danger ourselves. If not, we prevaricate, delay or turn our heads away. Climate change requires us to fast overcome this flaw…

First there is the contempt for democracy, which is followed by contempt for humanity. Like some kind of eco-Taliban, Hickman believes he is so elevated that he can pass judgement on the rest of world and their shortcomings. From his vantage point, he has a long view, whereas the rest of us feckless scum are stuck in the immediate, driven only by selfish material impulses — Jahiliyyah. These are the ‘ethics’ of the Guardian’s ‘ethical’ correspondent.

But what a curious ‘ethics’ this is. The only way Hickman can conceive of selfishness in moral terms is to tell a story about planetary danger. For most of Hickman’s career, he’s been writing stories about how to follow an ‘ethical’ lifestyle. But rather than being about ‘ethics’, stories about how one must behave in order to avoid a catastrophe are no more than moral blackmail. The concept of right and wrong on this system of ethics correspond, once again, to those binary, opposing categories. Actions which are bad take us towards the apocalypse, whereas actions which can be judged good offer us only mere survival… And survival only in an austere world. Desire for anything else is selfish, after all. Moral stories in such stark, black and white, and shrill terms speak much more about the author’s degraded moral framework, rather than moral judgement. Environmental ethics are to the Good Life what painting-by-numbers are to fine art — the numbers in Hickman’s ‘ethics’ being supplied by carbon footprint calculators, not from the moral agent himself. The concept of moral autonomy has been abolished. (And yet some greens will still claim to be the true heirs of the enlightenment).

The real ‘ethics’ of environmentalism are perfectly crystallised by Hickman’s 16 year stint. The smug ‘ethics’ he evinces are nothing… zero… without the possibility of the looming disaster, from which there is no alternative course of action, but that seemingly issued by the cartoonish consensus. There must be a consensus, deniers, and an ‘ideology’ to drive the deniers, because without them, there is no overweening crisis, there is room for debate, and there are room for different perspectives. Such complexity is anathema to the ‘ethical’ journalist, who prefers his ‘ethics’ black and white, good and evil, right and wrong.

It seems entirely natural that the journalist who was so concerned about the £2,000/month I was paid to research climate and energy policy should take a position at the undemocratic and unaccountable WWF UK, which receives £millions each year from the EU and UK government to be their Chief Climate Advisor. It is entirely appropriate that someone who makes such a big deal about listening to scientific advice on climate change should take a role as a climate change advisor, even though he has no scientific background. And it is fitting that somebody who complains so much about other people’s ideology should work for an environmental activist organisation. Were these things to be seen as contradictions, it would be a sure sign that ideology had been transcended.

Hickman, of course, knows little of his specialist subjects. He doesn’t understand the debate. But he has got an address book. And he knows which journalists are sympathetic to the WWF’s agenda. Thus, he knows how to get WWF campaign press releases to fellow churnalists. It’s the same story with Richard Black, who went from the BBC to the Global Ocean Commission (which sounds official, but it’s a Pew Charitable Trust project), and Damian Kahya, who went from the BBC to Greenpeace. Environmental political activism isn’t about science; it’s about strategy.

Science without an Object

In my post at the Nottingham Uni’s Making Science Public blog, I discussed the possibility of an empty consensus:

The consensus referred to by Davey and Nuccitelli, then, is what I call a consensus without an object: the consensus can mean whatever the likes of Davey and Nuccitelli want it to mean. Davey can wave away any criticism of government’s policy simply by invoking the magical proportion, 97%, even though those critics’ arguments would be included in that number. Consensus is invoked in the debate at the expense of nuance. A polarised debate suits political ends, not ‘evidence-based policy’.

Would a debate between two climate scientists, or an interrogation of climate scientists have produced anything more useful? At face value, a scientist seems less likely to make such a vapid appeal to scientific authority. But on the other hand, we often see many scientists in the climate debate doing precisely that –even chief scientific advisors — and equally failing to get a handle on the claims of climate sceptics as Davey himself. Moreover, one thing it would not reveal is the consensus without an object operating in government thinking on climate policy. Evidently, ministers are being briefed about developments in climate science partially, defensively, and strategically.

The consensus without an object is the thing that is wielded in debates about the climate, but which the wielder needs no knowledge of. In the remarkable case of Ed Davey, he was able to shut out data that may even be consistent with ‘the consensus’ — the temperature hiatus, etc — not on the basis of an engagement with the science, but by invoking the consensus. This shifts the debate from the substance of the science, to a battle of received wisdoms.

Some of the defenders of the Cook et al paper have found this idea troubling. To take issue with the consensus without an object is still seemingly to be taking issue with the science. But it isn’t. I think this idea can be extended further…

On the Shelagh Fogarty show on BBC Five Live today, Andrew Montford debated Greenpeace’s John Sauven about the death of a single polar bear. This prompted a discussion about the plight of polar bears across the entire Arctic…

John Sauven: If you look at the recent IUCN polar bear specialist group they said that of the 19 populations of polar bears, 8 are declining, 3 are stable, and one is increasing.
Andrew Montford: OK, well I’ve actually looked at that…
JS: IF you look at their previous study it shows that the rate of decline in terms of the number of polar bear species has increased. And I don’t think Andrew you can deny what is happening in the Arctic is quite dramatic. I mean it’s lost 75% of its volume in…
Shelagh Fogarty: Let’s allow him to reply John,
JS: Quite a radical change that’s happening in the Arctic today.
SF: John Sauven. let him reply, go on..
AM: I have actually read that study on the polar bear numbers. The problem is that it’s not based on counts of polar bears. It’s based on computer models. So where they have counted the polar bears, as I understand it, all but one sub-population of polar bears are increasing. And there’s one in which a small, and as I remember it, statistically insignificant decrease in numbers. Al the rest of it is computer simulations, based on ice-declines therefore the populations must have gone down. Again, this is a hypothesis, it’s not science.
JS: Well, this is what scientists, you can deny these scientific reports, Andrew, but this is scientists who are producing these reports, and they have the same,
AM: You can hypothesise all you like — create computer models that are as sophisticated and wonderful as you like, but they are only hypotheses.
JS: Well…
AM: So they’re, you know, it’s not denying anything; it’s me pointing out that they have come up with nothing more than a hypothesis.
SF: Hang on let John Sauven respond to that. Yeah, I’ll come back to you Andrew Montford.
JS: You know, Andrew can say the world is square and if all the scientists say the world is round, I have to accept the world is round even if Andrew thinks the world is square. I mean the thing is you can pick up every single scientific report there is and start trying to pull it apart. But these are reputable scientists who are saying these things and it’s also logical…
AM: No, I’m not denying they’re reputable… but they are inly hypothesising.
JS: And it’s also fairly logical and rational, even for an ordinary person who isn’t a scientist to understand that if polar bears need sea ice to hunt for seals and that sea ice disappears, then those polar bears are going to be in trouble. And that’s exactly what you are seeing is happening today.
AM: No, you’re not seeing it. That’s what I’m saying. They have hypothesised that this is happening, but we haven’t seen it. Where they count polar bear populations, the polar bear populations are largely going up. We know that a few years ago, there were many many few polar bears, but population, as you said yourself, is up to 25,000.
JS: Andrew I think you need to go away and read that report…

The issue of alleged polar bear population decline has been discussed on this blog before. At the end of 2011, and in the wake of the BBC’s series on the world’s poles had led to similar claims. But as I pointed out, there was no evidence for this decline. There is more data also at http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/dynamic/app/

Sauven’s comments to Montford are extremely irritating, not least because he cannot even pronounce the word ‘Arctic’, which becomes ‘Artic’ in his language.

But more significant is his deference to ‘science’. It is, like the consensus without an object, science without an object. Sauven has no idea what the substance of the science that he waves at Montford is.

But science should be about something. It is odd indeed that self-appointed proxies of science can emphasise the authority of science, but when an understanding that science is attempted, it is held by the proxy as a rejection — a denial — of science. The proxies of science are, paradoxically, anti-science. They deny that the scientific method can challenge scientific authority — that the institutions of science have more to say than the process of doing science.

Curiously, Sauven credits the layperson with sufficient capacity to join the dots…

it’s also fairly logical and rational, even for an ordinary person who isn’t a scientist to understand that if polar bears need sea ice to hunt for seals and that sea ice disappears, then those polar bears are going to be in trouble

… but not with sufficient capacity to read and understand the research itself, so as to criticise the claim that it seemingly produces: that polar bear populations are declining. To observe that the estimate of populations isn’t owed to observation, but to presupposition, is to claim that the world is square.

Science without an object dominates debates about climate science and the impacts of climate change. But the fact that so many activists really don’t know what they’re talking about has barely raised an eyebrow. Science is routinely divorced from its context, and turned into glib soundbytes that journalists, politicians and celebrities reproduce, largely to elevate themselves. But to my knowledge this extraordinary phenomenon is not the subject of many science and technology sociologists, nor of those with expertise in the field of ‘science communication’. Their attention is consumed by the conflict between climate scientists and sceptics. Yet the effect of green pseudoscience is arguably much further-reaching.

Even more curiously, many environmentalists have attempted to claim that climate sceptics are ‘anti science’. This needs some unpacking.

Being anti-science ought to mean standing against the scientific method. If climate sceptics were really anti-science, they would not making any claims about the particular evidence or the status of theories that are produced by climate science. They would instead say that recording observations, experiments, and the testing of hypotheses against data are futile. Conversely, being ‘pro-science’ means emphasising the value of the scientific method.

Warren Pearce recently asked ‘Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method?‘, which was met by a colossal, world-wide whinge from climate activists. As Pearce pointed out, ‘sceptics cannot simply be written off as anti-science’.

However, I think the likes of Sauven and Greenpeace can be written off as anti science. The use of science without an object is anti science. Rather than emphasising the scientific method — of understanding the substance of the (seemingly) scientific claims he was making — Sauven instead appealed to the authority of the scientists. This gesture throws reason out of the window. Sauven had closed down any possibility of debate. He had surrendered his own rational faculties to a fantasy version of science. Much less Nuliius in verba than my science is bigger than your science.

Here’s another example of science without an object, this time being worn as an object:

The phenomenon of turning science into gloves is something I (co)wrote about at the time:

Back at Climate Camp, a final irony is that the ‘peer reviewed science’-cum-gloves worn by the protesters as a symbol of their unassailable righteousness wasn’t peer reviewed science at all. It was the front page of a report by the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University that developed policy recommendations for a low carbon future (Bows et al. 2006). Even more ironic, in the light of the fuss made over the corrupting influence of oil money, is that it was commissioned by Friends of the Earth and the Cooperative Bank. But again, don’t expect anyone to worry about such details. Because this isn’t really about science – it’s about climate science. And as the Heathrow protesters, the Royal Society, NASA, journalists and politicians demonstrate, climate science can be anything you want it to be.

Eco Films

World Write — an educational charity that produces excellent videos made by volunteers in East London — invited me to appear on their talk show about environmental movies and emotionalism recently. The three films discussed were The Age of Stupid, An Inconvenient Truth, and The Day After Tomorrow.

Movie chat has rarely captured what’s at stake so effectively as this bar room banter. In a discussion on three well known apocalyptic eco-films, An Inconvenient truth, The Day after Tomorrow and Age of Stupid, a trio of guest experts take us beyond the usual finger pointing at doom-mongers. A palette of emotions: fear; loss and regret, are used to shortcut politics and convince us to change our behaviour or be seen as morally circumspect. Worse still, we learn, these films portray us as unable to deal with problems altogether. This is environmental determinism summed up; what matters to ecologists is what the climate or science will make us do, not what we decide we want to do about our future. Our options to think big, take control and develop what we need to manage climate change should we want to, are closed down. Given their hysterical claims of looming catastrophe, planetary extinction and ice ages it’s revealing that all we are advised to do is change a light bulb. Treating us like children consigned to the ‘naughty step’, as a scourge on the planet and ultimately ‘stupid’, these films are profoundly anti-human. While these films resemble ‘the rant you’d get from an eco-warrior in a pub’ we’re told, they nonetheless represent ‘the full download of prevailing perceptions’. These films are worth discussing because they represent a political culture that needs to be challenged if we are serious about reclaiming the idea of destiny as something we should control.

Here’s the result.

Tom Curtis Doesn't Understand the 97% Paper

My post over at the Nottingham University ‘Making Science Public’ blog has ruffled some feathers. This was caused in no small part by Mike Hulme’s intervention:

Ben Pile is spot on. The “97% consensus” article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it. It offers a similar depiction of the world into categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to that adopted in Anderegg et al.’s 2010 equally poor study in PNAS: dividing publishing climate scientists into ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. It seems to me that these people are still living (or wishing to live) in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?

We see now why many environmentalists are so hostile to debate. Permitting debate — even giving the possibility of debate a moment’s thought — shatters the binary opposing categories that have been established in lieu of an actual debate of substance on climate change and what to do about it. The division of the debate into scientists versus deniers is a strategy, but one which has worn thin, as Davey’s performance on The Sunday Politics show revealed, and which Hulme alludes to.

It gets worse for the polarisers. Judith Curry echoes Hulme’s remark:

Ben Pile’s characterization of ‘consensus without an object’ is spot on IMO; this has degenerated into the use of ‘consensus’ by certain individuals as a power play for influence in the policy and political debate surrounding climate and energy policy.

It’s long past time to get rid of the concept of ‘consensus’ on climate change. An excerpt from the Conclusions to my paper No Consensus on Consensus:

Judith Curry’s longer discussion about the consensus is here.

It has been somewhat gratifying that almost all of the criticism of my post I have seen so far is from angry trolls, mostly on twitter, but one or two popped up to comment on the post. From what I can tell their argument is circular: it is irresponsible to give air/blog time to sceptics because there’s a strong scientific consensus that says they’re wrong.

Martin Lack made a more reasonable (and more dignified) attempt to defend the paper. Nuccitelli himself turned up, after some demanding that he be given a right to reply… As though the comment boxes weren’t sufficient to make his case.

This entire blog post made my head spin. After reading nearly every sentence I thought to myself “I already addressed this misconception in the articles that Ben Pile claims to be responding to.” For example, quoting Roy Spencer claiming to be in the 97% after I already pointed out that Spencer is actually in the < 3%. That’s not speculation, that’s where he fell in the abstract ratings. Did Pile even read my articles? I don’t know if he only read a few sentences, or if he’s just ignoring the inconvenient bits (like 75% of what I wrote), or what, but this post is rather appalling.

I had read Nuccitellis articles, and his paper. And I explained to him why, even using his own categories, Spencer still doesn’t belong in the 3%.

This seems to be a theme. The authors of the Consensus Project and their supporters don’t seem to understand the paper itself.

Angered by Hulme, an anonymous and distinctly troll-like blogger going by the moniker ‘Wotts Up With That Blog’ has penned some kind of response, aimed mainly at Hulme…

I don’t want to say much about the actual post, but it does seem to be written be someone who thinks it’s more important to philsophize about science, than actually do science – or maybe, more correctly, someone who thinks they can judge science by philosophizing about science.

The author must have missed my point.

The consequence of excluding non-expert opinion (other than expert opinion’s cheerleaders) from the climate debate is, paradoxically, the undermining of the value of expertise. Rather than engagements on matters of substance, a hollow debate emerges about whose evidence weighs the most, whose arguments are supported by the most experts, and which experts are the most qualified. The question ‘who should be allowed to speak’ dominates the discussion at the expense of hearing what they actually have to say.


And those who shout most loudly about science turn out to be advancing an idea of science which, rather than emphasising the scientific method, puts much more store — let’s call it ‘faith’ — in scientific institutions. Hence, the emphasis on the weight, number and height of scientific evidence articles, and expertise, rather than on the process of testing competing theories.

The author then scratches his head, trying to understand Hulme, and comes up with this interesting account of the Consensus Project:

Cook et al. is {sic} not trying to claim that the science is settled because there is a consensus. It’s trying to point out that a “consensus” exists so as to address those claiming that it doesn’t.

If Anon. had read the post he would realise that the problem is not a question about the existence of the consensus, but the object of the consensus:

The consensus referred to by Davey and Nuccitelli, then, is what I call a consensus without an object: the consensus can mean whatever the likes of Davey and Nuccitelli want it to mean. Davey can wave away any criticism of government’s policy simply by invoking the magical proportion, 97%, even though those critics’ arguments would be included in that number. Consensus is invoked in the debate at the expense of nuance. A polarised debate suits political ends, not ‘evidence-based policy’.

It’s not a complicated point. If we all agree on a point, X, and then someone says ‘Y’, the consensus on ‘X’ still exists, it’s just been misrepresented. But it’s a point that Anon. seems unable to fathom. He continues…

I realise that many are using the Cook et al. paper to argue that science isn’t done by consensus and hence that the paper illustrates a fundamental problem with climate science, but I still think that such a paper has value. Eventually, the message will have to get out there and it will become clear that there is strong agreement about the science.

So, here Anon. unwittingly reveals that the consensus paper is a strategy. Still scratching his head, he asks his readers for help.

Tom Curtis (who is, as far as I can tell, a partner in the Skeptical Science blog enterprise) obliges, with archetypal green invective.

There is a large measure of idiocy in Ben Pile’s post, and in Mike Hulme’s endorsement of it.

The architects of the new consensus — Cook et al and their pals — really ought to understand the dynamics of a consensus. If you begin your defence of a consensus by calling those who might belong to it ‘idiots’, the only possible outcome is that the consensus will diminish. He moves on… Sort of. A long discussion about other people’s arguments about the Consensus Project’s methods follows – none of which relates much to my criticism. Then Cook says,

The fact is that claims of a low consensus bar are refuted by the classification system in the paper. Based on the paper, if you “explicitly minimize [or] reject AGW as less than 50%”, you reject the consensus. So, we now know, apparently that all those AGW critics believe that AGW is responsible for 50%+ of warming over at least the last 50 years (and possibly over the twentieth century). There is no other coherent way to read the paper.

This is a stunning revision of the paper. And it proves my point that the argument about the substance of climate science is obscured by second hand arguments about the consensus.

In fact, this is how the paper categorises abstracts:

(Click for larger version)

Curtis is wrong. The paper gives three categories of ‘endorsement’, and three of rejection. Of these six, only one makes a test as Curtis has described — and that is for ‘explicit rejection’: “Explicitly states that humans are causing less than half of global warming”.

This leads to the possibility of paradoxes. You could argue in a paper that only 49.9999999999999999999999999999999% of global warming was caused by mankind, but as long as you said in the abstract something to the effect of Emissions of a broad range of greenhouse gases of varying lifetimes contribute to global climate change, your paper would be counted as an ‘endorsement’ (i.e. part of the consensus). But swap the two claims around — put the 49.9(etc) figure in the abstract, and the endorsement in the body of the paper — and suddenly you’re a denier.

So it would seem that Curtis doesn’t even understand this survey he is defending, and from this misunderstand he calls me — and worse, Mike Hulme — an idiot.

Curtis’s rant gets worse…

I know for a fact that many of those critics endorse very low climate sensitivities that imply that anthropogenic factors cannot be the cause of most of global warming, even since 1980. They routinely say as much, indicating that while anthropogenic factors may have contributed some part of the warming, the warming is overwhelmingly natural in origin. Therefore, I can only assume that their claim to belong to the “consensus position” of Cook et al it tactical. At best it is dreadfully misinformed.

Ben Pile should have known this. He certainly should have suspected it, given the known position of his informants. He absolutely should not have only taken the opinions of known critics of AGW and Cook in forming his view of how the consensus was defined in Cook et al. Doing so shows him either to be entirely partisan in his outlook, or idiotic.

I certainly do know for a fact that some people’s estimates of climate sensitivity are so low as to at least imply, contrary to the IPCC statement, natural variability might account for more than 50% of the warming in the second half of the C20th. My argument, however, was that the Consensus Project is too clumsy to capture such a position.

For instance, I point out in my reply to Martin Lack that Roy Spencer’s paper has been misclassified. The abstract read as follows:

“We explore the daily evolution of tropical intraseasonal oscillations in satellite-observed tropospheric temperature, precipitation, radiative fluxes, and cloud properties. The warm/rainy phase of a composited average of fifteen oscillations is accompanied by a net reduction in radiative input into the ocean-atmosphere system, with longwave heating anomalies transitioning to longwave cooling during the rainy phase. The increase in longwave cooling is traced to decreasing coverage by ice clouds, potentially supporting Lindzen’s “infrared iris” hypothesis of climate stabilization. These observations should be considered in the testing of cloud parameterizations in climate models, which remain sources of substantial uncertainty in global warming prediction.”

Notice that the abstract makes absolutely no statements about the relative contributions to C20th warming of natural variation and anthropogenic CO2. Yet the paper was categorised as being an ‘implicit rejection’, the definition of which is:

(5) Implicit rejection – Implies humans have had a minimal impact on global warming without saying so explicitly E.g., proposing a natural mechanism is the main cause of global warming. Example: “‘. . . anywhere from a major portion to all of the warming of the 20th century could plausibly result from natural causes according to these results.”

Of course we know that Spencer is a critic of the IPCC. But one must abandon such prior knowledge if one is to execute such a test of abstracts as the Consensus Project’s intended.

The point here is not just about this prior knowledge influencing a subjective reading and classification of the paper — i.e. the method and its execution. The point is that there is something wrong with the categories themselves — the research design. These categories aren’t useful to the debate. Even if we were to find some better categories, they would still obscure the substance of the debate.

Curtis concludes much as he started, just in case anyone had forgotten he was calling Mike Hulme an idiot for agreeing with me.

And in endorsing Ben Pile’s comment, Mike Hulme (who is certainly not partisan) shows his intervention to be idiotic and ill informed. He has merely accepted the propaganda of climate science deniers and treated it as straightforward fact. He has done so without any attempt to check with the original authors as to whether or not the opinion was fair. Frankly, from a scientist, such ill informed and inflammatory comments are a disgrace.

It’s all about endorsing with these guys, isn’t it… Endorsement and rejection. Hulme should have rejected Pile and endorsed Cook et al, because Pile rejects the consensus, whereas Cook et al endorse it, as do most climate scientists. They want agreements and disagreements to be black and white, yes and no, true and false, science and denier.

Curtis continues his attack on Hulme further on in the comments…

Unfortunately his insistence that the policy debate is not determined by the science (which is true) clouds him to the fact that you can’t have the real policy debate while one side of politics is determinedly ignoring the science.

Again, we see here the circular argument, which is itself preoccupied with cartoonish antagonisms: ‘sides’. One side of politics is ignoring the science. The evidence for half of this statement is, of course, the study.

But as I explain in the post, in the case of Davey, the science is being ignored by a politician, it having been displaced from the debate by the 97% figure. Moreover, as we have seen in Davey, his predecessors, and his superiors, you can say anything you like about climate change, as long as it doesn’t contradict this view of sides. You could say, for instance, that there will be 10 metres of sea level rise by 2100 and that therefore climate policies are necessary. This claim would exist far away from ‘The Science’. But it would seem to be correct according to the tests applied to it by the Consensus Project. This is disappointing, because Curtis is nearly on to something…

Further, he appears to have picked up that strange censorial attitude noteworthy also in von Storch which presumes that because they do not believe that AGW will lead to catastrophe (which is a respectable position inside the consensus), that therefore scientists who do believe that it will (also a respectable position inside the consensus) must not state that belief in public.

Surely this is a frank admission that there is no consensus on catastrophic climate change? If so, then Curtis is now in a real bind, because this deprives the ‘warmist’ crowd of their moral imperatives. Moreover, most complaints from sceptics are that the catastrophism we are all too familiar with is undue — not that there is no such thing as climate change. And what Curtis seems entirely oblivious to is the extent to which catastrophic stories have political utility. Curtis then descends to simple transference:

Perhaps it is a weird reflection of the pernicious practice of reporting (or claiming) that “science says” this or that, as if science was an independent person. Science says nothing, but scientists say much, and much that disagrees with each other. It appears that Hulme and von Storch want to maintain that monolithic voice, while insisting it be as cautious in its claims as they are.

Curtis should have read my post more carefully:

Some might still sense no problem with such an expertisation of politics, and may even prefer it to what appears to be the arbitrary landscape of politics and ideology. But what the squabble over the Sunday Politics interview reveals is that political debates descend to science; they are often not improved by science and evidence as much as they degraded by undue expectations of them. Being an advocate of science seems to mean nothing more than shouting as loudly as possible ‘what science says…’, second hand.

And those who shout most loudly about science turn out to be advancing an idea of science which, rather than emphasising the scientific method, puts much more store — let’s call it ‘faith’ — in scientific institutions. Hence, the emphasis on the weight, number and height of scientific evidence articles, and expertise, rather than on the process of testing competing theories.

Finally, in a third attack on Hulme, Curtis makes some extraordinary claims:

As to what is said, for somebody who prattles on about the importance of different ways of knowing, and the need to include humanities within the ambit of the IPCC, Mike Hulme is pretty clueless. Had he a slight clue he would know about such important matters in the humanities as conversational implicature, and context.

The first is a simple point dressed up in so much verbiage:

So the first thing that is evident is that Hulme, in his comparison of supposedly distinct statements, is simply ignoring conversational implicature. In consequence he is treating two phrases which convey the same information to anyone who has not set out ab initio to score rhetorical points as being entirely distinct.

In essence, Curtis is excusing the Consensus Project’s word play by saying that Hulme is playing with words. But, as has been shown, the wording of the specification of categories in the paper was problematic. It was ambiguous, and it was a transparent attempt to project its authors prejudices into the debate. They are meaningless categories, and the defence that an attempt to point out that they are meaningless categories is semantic play is dishonest, since it ultimately depends on nothing more than Curtis’s claim that the authors are honest. Sadly for Curtis, we are allowed to believe that they are not honest, and to demand a higher level of argument.

But this is even more incredible, given Curtis’s own misconception of the study’s categories: (emphasis added)

Second, and this is an inexcusable lapse as interpretation in context is a cardinal rule in all academic disciplines, he ignores context. In this case the essential context is the actual definitions of the ratings categories, and the need to interpret them (if at all possible) as mutually consistent and non-overlapping. Given those constraints, any abstract indicating that that “Humans cause global warming”, and therefore “Humans cause global warming” is seen to be short hand for “Humans have caused most of recent global warming.”

As was shown above, by reference to the paper itself Curtis is wrong to say that the categories divide the abstracts according to the 50% measure. Moreover, as was shown above, the categories are not mutually consistent, and do overlap. There are many arguments that could belong to one or more of the categories, on both putative sides of the division. For example, one could very easily construct an argument that met the definition of an “Explicit endorsement without quantification” (category 2) and an “Explicit rejection with quantification” (category 7). The test of this would be a contradiction in the following statement:

‘Emissions of a broad range of greenhouse gases of varying lifetimes contribute to global climate change’ BUT ‘The human contribution to the CO2 content in the atmosphere and the increase in temperature is negligible in comparison with other sources of carbon dioxide emission’

Does this hypothetical statement belong in category 2 or 7? It meets the criteria of both, but doesn’t contradict itself. It is only seen as a contraction when an attempt is made to force it into the papers’ schema: bogus categories. The authors impose their own prejudices and misconceptions of the debate on to the debate. QED.

Worse, even than that projection is this statement…

In fact, there exists a concerted disinformation campaign one of whose key strategies is to underplay the level of scientific agreement about global warming. Given that, it is perfectly appropriate for somebody to what to actually assess the level of that agreement; and perfectly reasonable to want to counter the false arguments that the level of scientific agreement is small. And whether or not the level of agreement in the literature to the claim that humans have caused greater than 50% of recent warming is near 97% or closer to 50% is very relevant to that issue (and the correctness of my ascriptions of which side is indulging in disinformation.)

Curtis cannot demonstrate a “concerted disinformation campaign” exists, nor that it intends “to underplay the level of scientific agreement about global warming”.

But what we can see now is that there vividly exists a campaign — and it looks like a “concerted disinformation campaign” to me — to OVERSTATE the “level of scientific agreement about global warming”. Some climate scientists seem to agree. Curtis’s response is to call them idiots.

Then there is the special pleading. “it is perfectly appropriate for somebody to what to actually assess the level of that agreement”, says Curtis. But wait, hasn’t he been calling anyone who has tried to establish what the level of agreement is, and more importantly what the agreement consists of, an idiot? Curtis doesn’t want anyone to know what the substance of the agreement is. He just wants them to know that the agreement is substantial. That way, as I pointed out in the post, it can mean whatever he wants it to mean.

Finally, then, who is Tom Curtis?

According to the about page on his own blog,

I have noticed at least one person refer to me as a scientist, which I am not. […] But if not a scientist, what am I? By training, I am a philosopher, with a particular interest in ethics, logic and epistemology (in that order).

So, not a climate scientist. And a bit of a failure at logic and epistemology, too.

If this survey had not influenced the arguments of Obama and Davey, and thus perhaps influenced UK policy, I might actually feel sorry for the paper’s authors and their fans. Instead, seeing for myself just how shallow their thinking is, and how transparent their politicking is, I am more terrified that it is so easy for such a collection of mediocre minds to achieve such prominence, merely by flattering politicians with such rank pseudo science.


Tom Curtis has a response to the above over at the site in question. His defence is rather interesting…

tlitb1, I have read that appalling piece of crap. It may convince those who want to be convinced, but not any discerning critic.

At one point Pile argues against my contention that his interpretation of “endorses global warming” is incorrect because it makes the classification system unnecessarily inconsistent by simply asserting the classification system is inconsistent. Apparently he has never heard of the principle of charity in criticisms, ie, that in interpreting the works of others you construe them as consistent if it is possible to do so. In this case it is certainly possible to do so so choosing the inconsistent interpretation so that you can criticize the paper for inconsistency merely indicates that you are determined to criticize the paper regardless of its actual merits.

I’m glad to discover that Tom Curtis is in favour of a charitable reading of other people’s arguments. But if being ‘charitable’ means calling Hulme (and me) ‘idiots’, I would hate to see what being uncharitable looks like.