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.
“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…
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.
“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.