Monthly Archives: September 2013

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.

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.

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.

Post archive
  • 2016
  • 2015
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2007
  • 2006
  • 2002