DECC Distances itself from Davey

Following Ed Davey’s somewhat silly comments about the climate debate, I recently submitted an FOI request for more information.

From: Ben Pile
Sent: 22 June 2013
To: deccfoi
Subject: Foi Request – Davey speech 18 June.

Dear Sir,

On 18 June, Ed Davey made a speech at at Residence Palace, Brussels, which is published on the DECC website at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/edward-davey-speech-ambitious-and-flexible-europes-2030-framework-for-emissions-reduction

Davey: “The science is solid and accepted by pretty much every government on earth. Of course there will always be those with a vested interest in the status quo. Who seek to create doubt where
there is certainty. And you will always get crackpots and conspiracy theorists who will deny they have a nose on their face if it suits them. But the truth is this: while forecasts of the future rate at which the world will warm differ, and while many accept we will see periods when warming temporarily plateaus, all the scientific evidence is in one direction.”

Davey’s comments — now published by DECC — seem to refer to arguments made by individuals or organisations in the wider debate about climate and energy policy. However, these parties were not named. Moreover, nor were any specific claims made by these parties addressed by Davey given any substance.

I am sure that the comments made by Davey in his speech reflect the best scientific advice and research, and an impartial view of the arguments for and against the policies he is advancing.

However, in the interests of clarity and an informed debate, I believe the Secretary of State should be more candid about who he is addressing his arguments to, and what the substance of their arguments is. I would like the following questions to be treated as a FOI request.

  1. Who are the parties with ‘vested interests’ referred to by Davey?
  2. By what means was Davey made aware of these ‘vested interests’?
  3. Who are the ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ referred to by Davey?
  4. By what means was Davey made aware of these ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’?
  5. What is the science, referred to by Davey, which is contradicted by the ‘vested interests’ and ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’?
  6. How do the arguments advanced by ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ and ‘vested interests’ contradict the science?
  7. What is Davey’s (or the department’s) evidence that ‘vested interests’ and ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ have had an impact on the wider debate?
  8. Has the department had an internal discussion, or commissioned any research — internally or externally — that identifies these ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ and ‘vested interests’, and evaluates their arguments? If such discussions or research exist, may I see them?

Many thanks,

Ben Pile.

Here is the reply…

Your request has been considered under the terms of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000. However, some of the information which you have requested constitutes environmental information for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs). As such, to the extent that the information requested is environmental your request has also been considered under the EIRs.

Your request is in relation to the following two sentences of a speech made by Secretary of State Edward Davey on 18th June 2013:

Of course there will always be those with a vested interest in the status quo.

And:

And you will always get crackpots and conspiracy theorists who will deny they have a nose on their face if it suits them.

In answer to your questions 1-5, we do not hold recorded information within scope of these questions. As is made clear in the statement Edward Davey’s intent was not to point to any particular group or party, but to the practice of public relations and lobbying in all areas of public governance, some arguing for change, some arguing for no change, and how it can sometimes be reflected unchallenged in some sections of the media. His comments were informed by his personal experience, including as a member of Parliament.

The scientific evidence that Edward Davey referred to in his speech comes from the published peer-reviewed work of many research groups in the UK and around the world and from the published assessments undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other organisations, including the Royal Society, the US National Academies of Science and the Committee on Climate Change.

In answer to your questions 6 and 7, Edward Davey did not make the specific claims to which you refer in his speech, and we do not hold recorded information within scope of these questions.

DECC has not commissioned any research internal or external for the purpose you suggest. However the Department holds some information in scope of your question 8. It regularly monitors arguments and debates on climate change and the general results are often discussed internally via email or meetings. The Department also regularly publishes scientific advice and documents and commentary on its policies and is transparent in the advice it receives. The scientific advice and documents are freely available from the DECC website at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-of-energy-climate-change

After careful examination of question 8 we have determined that Regulation 12(4)(b) applies to that part of the question that concerns DECC’s internal emails, briefing papers or meeting notes where climate change issues are discussed. Regulation 12(4)(b) provides that a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that the request for information is manifestly unreasonable. In applying the exception, we have considered the public interest test in respect of your request and applied a presumption in favour of disclosure (as required by Regulation 12(2) of the EIRs). We acknowledge that greater transparency makes the Government more accountable to the electorate, increases trust and also enables the public contribution to policy making to become more effective. Gathering the information you requested would require a search of the Department’s electronic and paper records, personal email accounts and devices of staff concerned. Determining, locating, retrieving and extracting the requested information would take longer than 24 working hours. This would involve a significant cost to the Department and diversion of resources from the teams concerned and the Department’s other work. Given that a lot of the information the Department holds is already in the public domain we consider that the public interest there may be in disclosing documents through this request, and any associated benefits in increasing transparency, are outweighed by the cost of meeting the request.

It would be interesting to know what happens at DECC. For example, we know that amongst DECC’s advisers is this chap

I am Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group within the School. I work on risk, risk perception, and risk communication and as such my research is interdisciplinary at the interface of social psychology, environmental sciences, and science and technology studies. I am currently researching public responses to energy technologies (e.g. nuclear power, renewable energy), climate change risks, and climate geoengineering. I have in the past led numerous policy oriented projects on issues of public responses to environmental risk issues and on ‘science in society’ for UK Government Departments, the Research Councils, the Royal Society, and Charities. I am currently a member of the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Science Advisory Group (SAG), and theme leader for the Climate Change Consortium for Wales.

DECC’s SAG consists of these people

Professor John Shepherd FRS (Chair) – School of Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton
Chris Mottershead – King’s College London
Professor Nick Jenkins – Cardiff University
Professor Tadj Oreszczyn – Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, UCL
Professor Stuart Haszeldine – University of Edinburgh
Professor Peter Cox – College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter
Paul Watkiss – Paul Watkiss Associates (independent research consultancy specialising in climate change, environmental and economic policy advice)
Dame Sue – Imperial College London
Professor Nick Pidgeon – Cardiff University
Professor Jon Gibbins – Institute of Materials and Processes, University of Edinburgh

The stuff they get up to can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/policy-advisory-groups/science-advisory-group

DECC currently spends around £25 million annually on scientific evidence-gathering. This work supports the department’s policies, helps meet UK, EU and UNFCCC reporting obligations, and feeds into the committee on Climate Change and DECC’s work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). DECC also works in partnership with the research councils and academic community where their work has policy-relevant outputs.

What’s hard to understand is how a minister with such a brief, and such budgets for expertise, could have produced such a poor argument that his own department couldn’t get behind.

Neil, Nuccitelli at the Nottingham Blog

I have a post up at the Nottingham University/Leverhulme ‘Making Science Public’ blog, run by Warren Pearce.

What’s behind the battle of received wisdoms?

Andrew Neil’s interview with Ed Davey on the Sunday Politics show last week caused an eruption of comment. For sceptics, it was a refreshing change of scenery: a journalist at the BBC, a stronghold of environmental orthodoxy, challenging the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, an office which is rarely held to account. But perhaps because of this, it upset many of a greener hue.

Read more at http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2013/07/23/whats-behind-the-battle-of-received-wisdoms/

The Madness of the Energy (and Climate) Minister

Ed Davey’s comments have been causing a stir this week. First, there is this exchange between Andrew Neil and the Energy Secretary on the Sunday Politics show…

It’s good to see Davey finally getting a grilling about the basis for the government’s policies. And it’s even more refreshing to see it on the BBC. However, the over-emphasis on science doesn’t help the debate. As others have pointed out. Davey just returns to the same old argument, about majorities of scientists — the bogus polarisation of binary, opposing categories of ‘scientists’ vs ‘deniers’. Although Davey claims that ‘climate science is incredibly complicated – it’s new, innovative science’, he reduces it to a simple story of goodies and baddies.

The debate about the ‘science’ has been going on for years. Even if the alarmist interpretation of climate science is weakening, it won’t end environmental alarmism and the shoddy thinking that underpins government policy. There are many problems with the government’s policies and thinking, just one of which I pointed out in the previous post.

This is most concisely demonstrated by a tweet from Richard Tol, in response to the interview, in which the subject of rising energy bills was too briefly mentioned.

I particularly like the bit where @EdwardDaveyMP claims that they’re putting up energy prices to combat energy poverty. @afneil

Davey is facing a real challenge, and the fact of his impatient comments about his critics serve only to demonstrate that he is steepening his rhetoric because he is losing the argument. It turns out that the ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ aren’t so easy to dismiss as such. Hence, his open letter to the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA).

(And it cannot help poor old Davey that his predecessor at DECC, the disgraced Chris Huhne, who, barely out of prison is intent on developing tensions between the Treasury and DECC, and between the Tories and the ailing junior partners in the coalition).

Davey was taking issue with the TPA, who are running a campaign called Stop the Energy Swindle. Said Davey, about the TPA’s argument:

… it is disingenuous to seek to pin the blame on government policies using inflated assessments of their impacts while ignoring the main driver for price increases – rising global fossil fuel prices. It’s the global gas price, not green subsidies, that has primarily been pushing up energy bills. 60% of the increase in household energy bills between 2010 and 2012 was caused by this.

It is incredible that Davey should argue that the government is not to blame for rising energy bills, but that rising fossil fuel prices are. If prices can be brought down or stabilised, as Davey argues, by building wind farms and other renewables, why can’t they be brought down by building more capacity in conventional energy production? After all, the wind above our heads is as ‘free’ as the coal, oil, gas and uranium beneath our feet. The cost comes from turning something useless into something useful, and getting it from where it is to where it is needed. Emphasising restraint, and disincentivising conventional and cheaper production of energy (or conversely, incentivising renewable energy) will have the inevitable consequence of limiting the capacity of conventional energy production, pushing prices up. The scarcity of conventional fuels is a product of policy, not a fact about the world. Davey’s and DECC’s do not count the opportunity cost created by their policies.

The TPA’s reply is here.

The Liberum Capital estimate of the likely increase in total power costs is realistic. Their estimate is based on reasonable assumptions about the amount of investment needed; the higher profits in the energy sector needed to pay for that investment; and the higher prices needed to pay for those profits. Given the challenges facing the nuclear programme and the high costs of offshore wind, their estimate seems conservative.

Liberum’s analysis is pretty solid. In summary, it argues that the EMR bill will transfer risk from investors in renewable energy to the consumer. Investors have not been persuaded by the (current and previous) government’s claims that they will continue to support them, nor by the performance of renewable energy technology or policies where they have been tried (and they have failed) elsewhere. Although many wind farms and other green energy projects have been developed in the UK, the UK’s progress towards meeting its emissions reduction and renewable energy targets are short of expectations. Hence, the constant refrain of ‘investor certainty’ in the Houses of Parliament.

But you don’t even need to take Liberum’s word for it. The Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change’s own dyscalculia should be enough to persuade you…

During his grilling by Andrew Neil, Davey made the following comment:

Ed Davey: If our policies were as expensive as you suggested, we would obviously want to look at them, but – the figure you gave at the top of the programme. You said that our policies are putting £112 on people’s bills. well, let’s look at that.

Andrew Neil: That’s your figure.

Ed Davey: I’m about to – I’ll give you the breakdown of that. The vast majority of that £112 is tackling fuel poverty, making people’s homes warmer. That’s a no-regrets, because it reduces energy bills long-term. That’s what I mean. A lot of the policies we’re doing you should do anyway. Only a small part of that £112 that you mentioned, which you tried to say was the cost of climate change – completely falsely, I have to say – only a small amount is in subsidising renewable and low-carbon energies. That’s why we’re taking a very rational, sensible, moderate approach to this.

Davey is trying to claim that his policies will reduce bills, given the fact of rising prices on energy markets. Even leaving aside the problems of this assumption, we can see that this is nonsense. Not even Davey is talking about an absolute reduction in bills, but a reduction only relative to their hypothetical scenario of rising energy prices.

Davey is right to say that the contribution of ‘subsidising renewable and low-carbon energies’ to prices rises is small. It is, in absolute terms. But fundamental to his broader argument is the claim that energy bills will be reduced by reducign demand through energy efficiency measures. Hence ‘The vast majority of that £112 is tackling fuel poverty, making people’s homes warmer.’

Some people, living in some kinds of accommodation will be entitled to ‘free’ energy efficiency measures. But this means someone else has to pay for them. Another failed policy — the Green Deal — that only launched this year is the government’s attempt to get even more people to reduce their energy needs.

Bus as has been argued here before, ‘efficiency’ is a fickle concept. Efficiency depends on what we count as good and bad. Clearly, on the green measure, ‘efficiency’ is measured only in terms of energy. But what if it was, in the final analysis, better to have cheap energy and energy inefficient homes, than to have expensive energy and efficient homes? This is the calculation I made last year in response to demands from Quango, Consumer Focus, that a whopping £55 billion be spent on improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s poorest 9 million homes. It turns out it would be much cheaper just to build some power stations and give those people electricity for ‘free’.

The Green Deal allows homeowners to take out a loan, attached to the property, to fit energy saving measures such as insulation and heating. But, noting the caveat about how ‘efficiency’ is measured above, the loan is conditional:

The key principle, or golden rule, for accessing Green Deal finance is that the charge attached to the bill should not exceed the expected savings, and the length of the payment period should not exceed the expected lifetime of the measures. This is not a government guarantee, but a guideline for customers that, typically, they should be able to expect to gain more efficient, less wasteful properties with no additional net cost from the Green Deal.

The cost of Green Deal loans is 7%. So if you borrowed £8,000 over a period of 25 years, you’d be paying back your original £8,000 plus £8,635 interest — a total of £16,635, or £56 a month for 300 months.

That means you’d have to use £56-worth less electricity and gas every month to make the loan worthwhile — or £672 a year. This is roughly equivalent to a half an average domestic energy bill for a year.

Let’s assume that it is possible to find a 50% reduction in a home, for a £8,000 investment in efficiency measures — though you wouldn’t have much change after some insulation and a new boiler. Notice that — HURRAH! — your energy bill has gone down, but the amount you pay every month has not. The home owner is now paying the gas and electricity companies, and the loan company.

And then, that’s before we’ve taken into account any future price rises. You may have cut your energy use by half, but you still have to pay for increases in energy prices. If the TPA’s claim that energy bills will increase to £2000/year by 2020 is correct, your bill will still rise by a further £400 or so.

Some perspective on historic prices may be useful here.

Up until 2005, the average bill for electricity and gas for a domestic consumer, paying by direct debit was £600. It’s now more than twice that. And between now and 2020, it will be three times that. And into the 2020s, it may even be four times the amount paid in 2005. The energy minister may want to deny responsibility for it, but now energy companies are beginning to refuse the blame put on them by Davey and his colleagues. According to the Telegraph today,

A household’s energy bill will rise from £1,247 today to £1,487 by 2020 in real terms – not taking into account inflationary increases – if usage remains static, npower warns in a report. Costs caused by government policies such as subsidies for new wind farms and energy efficiency schemes will be the main driver, adding £144, it claims.

Admittedly, NPower’s claim is substantially lower than the TPA’s. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that fewer people than ever think that the government’s policies are likely to reduce bills.

And it’s not as if Npower are against the government’s policies. NPower announced:

“Government and energy suppliers need to be much clearer about the facts behind rising energy costs, so we can present one clear message to consumers: energy costs will rise, and the only way to control of this is taking action to reduce consumption.”

So, NPower really only have themselves to blame for the government’s attempts to explain energy companies as the reason for rising energy prices.

“Government policy is rightly delivering the transformation we need to address the UK’s poor housing stock and encourage investment required in new infrastructure – but achieving these aspirations comes at a cost, and this is what needs to be clearly communicated to consumers. The fact is that if people don’t take action to reduce energy consumption, their bills are going to rise. If we can’t be upfront about that, we won’t be able to convince people to make big changes to be more energy efficient.”

Who are NPower to say that the government’s policies are ‘rightly delivering the transformation we need’? The idea that the energy company is concerned about rising energy prices is far-fetched indeed. It is manifestly the case that a return to 2005 prices would do more to improve housing stock than would be done by transforming that stock itself. There should be democratic debate about the government’s priorities

Instead, there are edicts from the annointed. The possibility of increasing productive capacity, or to prioritise lower energy prices is not given consideration by NPower, who take as ‘rightly’ the government’s policies. And it’s not given consideration by the Government, whose Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change instead invents counter-factual arguments about rising energy prices that have no basis in fact, and who resists criticism by recourse to words like ‘crackpots’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’. And when that fails, he goes on TV to reveal he really doesn’t have a grasp of the debate.

The people left out of this of course, is the public. And their attitudes towards energy companies, the government and policies has been measured by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in a new report out today. According to UKERC, the research,

… funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and carried out by a team from the Universities of Cardiff and Nottingham, reveal that people in Britain are fully supportive of the idea of energy system change.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, who led the research team, said: “Our participants saw the bigger picture of energy system transformation, and they were overwhelmingly committed to moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable forms of energy production, and to lowering energy demand”.

The research highlights key factors that influence public assessment of proposed changes. From examining these factors, the research shows that the public favours changes that are: energy efficient rather than wasteful; protect the environment and nature; are reliable, accessible and safe; allow consumers a certain amount of autonomy and power; are socially just and fair; improve on what has gone before; score well in terms of quality and performance; and, fit with a long-term, sustainable trajectory, rather than being just a short-term fix.

The research is so much waffle about opinions on Motherhood and Apple Pie. But there you have it… According to independent academic researchers, the public apparently supports the UK’s climate and energy policies…

But wait… Who are the authors? Well, according to Professor Nick Pidgeon himself:

I am Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group within the School. I work on risk, risk perception, and risk communication and as such my research is interdisciplinary at the interface of social psychology, environmental sciences, and science and technology studies. I am currently researching public responses to energy technologies (e.g. nuclear power, renewable energy), climate change risks, and climate geoengineering. I have in the past led numerous policy oriented projects on issues of public responses to environmental risk issues and on ‘science in society’ for UK Government Departments, the Research Councils, the Royal Society, and Charities. I am currently a member of the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Science Advisory Group (SAG), and theme leader for the Climate Change Consortium for Wales.

Why didn’t UKERC just ask Ed Davey to do the research? This is transparently polic-based evidence-making.

The fact that Pidgeon’s academic and activists lives converge rather more than they probably ought to is well known. Moreover, the academy has ever more sought the academy’s authority.

For instance, what Pidgeon doesn’t admit on his staff profile page, nor in his evidence to the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry on “Climate: public understanding and its policy implications” is that he is also on the Public Interest Research Centre’s Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG). The PIRC claim to be a ‘an independent charity studying & communicating vital global issues’, but are, on any definition, an activist organisation.

CCCAG’s aim is to use current academic research and practitioner-based expertise to best inform government and non-governmental climate change communications and engagement.

in 2010, CCCAG’s advice to the UK government included the following:

Private-sphere behavioural change is not enough, and may even at times become a diversion from the more important process of bringing political pressure to bear on policy-makers. The importance of public demonstrations of frustration at both the lack of political progress on climate change and the barriers presented by vested interests is widely recognised – including by government itself. Climate change communications, including government communication campaigns, should work to normalise public displays of frustration with the slow pace of political change. Ockwell et al (2009) argued that communications can play a role in fostering demand for – as well as acceptance of – policy change. Climate change communication could (and should) be used to encourage people to demonstrate (for example through public demonstrations) about how they would like structural barriers to behavioural/societal change to be removed.

In other words, the CCCAG’s advice to government was to actively encourage the public to actively encourage the government to encourage the public… etc.

The infinite recursion of environmentalism’s logic reflects the extent to which environmentalists have their heads stuck up their backsides. Here is Pidgeon, trying to explain how climate alarmism can be made to work:

In the video, Pidgeon evinces a set of theories about the public that have become known as ‘nudge’ — a practice that seeks to elicit the public’s obedience with policies. This varies from ideas about how to construct social norms, through to strategies to ‘communicate’ ‘information’ to people who might otherwise ignore it. There are two problems with this. First, it demonstrates a very cynical view of the public — that they can be ‘engaged’ given only the correct strategy. Second, it seems to posit an idea of politics in which the public must respond to the political establishment’s desires — a total inversion of normal politics.

As I’ve pointed out to Adam Corner, Pidgeon’s colleague at the Understanding Risk Research Group in Cardiff, it seems odd indeed that the Understanding Risk Research Group do not understand the predominance of risk in contemporary politics as a political, or problematic phenomenon. As the video shows, Pidgeon’s only criticism of ‘climate porn’ is that it might not be an effective strategy in ‘communicating’ or ‘engagement’. Thus, Pidegon and Corner are oblivious to their own politics. They believe that the compact between the state and the academy in the era of fear and risk-based politics is a Good Thing. They don’t want there to be a debate about policies, and the science and values that underpin them.

So there we have it — the muddled minister, being advised on energy policy by activists academics, and energy companies who are more than happy to get behind any policies that promise ‘investor certainty’.

The Phony "Green Economy"

David Rose has a short article on my report for Roger Helmer MEP on the size of the UK’s green economy.

But documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the true value of the green economy is actually between only £16.8 billion and £27.9 billion, depending on exactly how the term ‘green economy’ is defined. In other words, the official figures exaggerate the scale of the sector by up to 700 per cent.

Rose’s article is published just under James Delingpole’ article — which is also worth a read.

I’ve always thought that the government’s (current and previous) claims about the green economy were highly dubious. But they (or their staff at DECC/BIS, etc), have been very unhelpful. Last October, I asked them again for data relating to their estimates of the ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’ (LCEGS) market, after it had been claimed, yet again, that it was now worth £122 bn year. They refused, as they have done before, on the basis that the research is undertaken by a private company — Innovas, in the earlier reports, and K-Matrix more recently.

This is a defacto paywall protecting the government and its policies against anyone who wants to understand the basis of their decisions, but who is not sympathetic to them. It’s also a way of hiding dodgy dossiers and sexed up statistics. Indeed, BIS claimed in their responses to me that they had bought ‘off the self’ research from the companies.

But further inspection of earlier LECGS reports revealed that BERR/BIS had commissioned Innovas/K-Matrix, and had in fact worked with the company to develop the specification of the sector. So in fact, BIS had been lying. On this basis, I appealed against the two refused FOI requests, and an internal review found in my favour.

A scan through the LCEGS taxonomy — the list of markets included in the LCEGS sector — reveals that the government has been playing fast-and-loose with categories. It includes the production and distribution of a number of fossil fuels. It includes thing as daft as rubber-band powered cars. It counts activities that are actively polluting as ‘environmental services’.

The taxonomy given to me by BIS is here [MS Excel format] .

A draft copy of my report is here [PDF].

There are a few typos in the draft, but I’m not near a computer to fix them now. On page 15, for example, I write,

If the sales of methane, wood, wood gas, vegetable oil, biomass and peanut oil are as substantial as the LCEGS report claims, this would be remarkable. In energy terms, it is equivalent to nearly half of the UK’s energy consumption. Thus further investigation is required.

It should say

If the sales of methane, wood, wood gas, vegetable oil, biomass and peanut oil are as substantial as the LCEGS report claims, this would be remarkable. In market terms, it is equivalent to nearly half of the UK’s spend on electricity. Thus further investigation is required.

The government’s official estimate of £120 billion is, as the report explains, completely implausible. I find a figure of around £27 billion much more likely, but it may be as low as £17bn, after we exclude the emissions-trading sector, and take out the money for green taxes and subsidies to green projects.

Of the remaining market, one question I don’t ask is how much good it does, even on its own terms. If you were going to spend £16 bn a year on making a greener economy, why not just spend it on nuclear power?


UPDATE: my FOI Internal Review request. (More to follow)

Security & Information Rights (SIR) Department for Business,Innovation& Skills

Attached documents

APPENDIX A – Ben Pile – BIS communications Correspondence in relation to Innovas/Kmatrix LCEGS reports
APPENDIX B – passages from BIS/BERR and Innovas/Kmatrix LCEGS reports
APPENDIX C – BIS Response 1
APPENDIX D – BIS response 2

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to request an internal review of the decision not to release data that forms the basis of the ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’ (LCEGS) reports, published by BIS (and formerly by BERR), and produced by Innovas/K-Matrix.

The LCEGS reports estimate the size of the LCEGS sector and are produced annually. To my understanding, this involved the creation of a database consisting of two main parts: i) a hierarchy of market sectors at five different levels of detail (i.e. column headings) ; and ii) data relating to market size, and employment etc, for each sector (i.e. data).

As the correspondence I have attached explains, my concern is that the data in question has been used to inform policymaking and the promotion of certain policy options in the public debate, but that the public have been denied the benefit of knowing what the LCEGS sector consists of. The published LCEGS reports contain only the top two levels of the database in categories so broad they may well encompass almost the entire productive economy rather than, as is implied, simply the ‘green economy’. The use of these reports to inform policy decisions or to make arguments in favour of certain policy options therefore creates opacity where there should be transparency.

This is a criticism I have raised with the department, and with the author of the first LCEGS report, John Sharp, shortly after it was published in 2009. However, the department continue to publish these reports in the same way.

In November last year I made a request for information about the database itself, and about the circumstances of the database’s creation. In particular, I wanted to see the column headings for each level of detail 1 through 4, though I would like now to see the same for levels 1 through 5. I also made a request for the estimates of each market sector.

My requests for the information under the FOI act were refused. However, there is a lack of consistency in the arguments offered by BIS, which furthermore do not tally with existing information, published by BIS itself. There are also some questions about the relationship between the department and Innovas/K-Matrix which are not properly answered. In spite of my requests, is still not clear whether Innovas/K-Matrix were either commissioned to produce research or simply sold an existing product to the department, off-the-shelf.

In email Appendix A.1, on 14 November (prior to the FOI request), Matthew Barker informed me that “The Low Carbon Environmental Goods & Services (LCEGS) report was commissioned by BIS”, but that the “agreement with k-matrix does not extend to releasing the unpublished data sets”.

In view of this, I asked (email Appendix A.2) for clarity on the agreement between BIS/BERR and Innovas/K-Matrix. Specifically, I asked what in the agreement prevented the release of the data. I was also puzzled about why the department would enter into such an agreement.

I received a reply on 11 December (Appendix C), which reiterated Matthew Brown’s earlier comment, and that the data “is exempt from disclosure under section 43 (2) commercial interests and should be withheld” (Appendix C, section 3) , on the basis that it “would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person” (Appendix C, section 4).

The response also pointed out that the data I had requested “is not ‘publicly funded research'” (Appendix C, section 5) and that “the company created the dataset to fill an information gap in the market”, that BIS had paid “a commercial rate to use the data” as do “multiple users from [other] sectors” .

The response went on to outline a “public interest test” (Appendix C, sections 6 through 11), the logic or meaning of which is opaque, at best only re-iterating the protection of third party commercial interests.

Seeking clarity on this new decision, I submitted a further request for information (email Appendix A.9). In particular, I explained my view that the public interest test seemed arbitrary, and that a stronger argument in favour of transparency could be made (email Appendix A.2.2). I also asked how the department knew that Innovas/K-Matrix did not want the data I had requested to be made available, amongst other questions.

I received a reply on 1 Feb (Appendix D). According to this reply, the department had contacted K-Matrix in relation to my request (Appendix D, Section 3), but that this was a courtesy and that the decision ultimately lay with the department. K-Matrix were themselves unwilling to allow me to see the information, as was revealed by the email correspondence between them and the department (Appendix E).

The response also re-iterated the department’s view that “the public interest in favour of withholding this information outweighed the public interest in its disclosure”, (Appendix D, section 3), but without explaining the process by which the public interest was weighed against any competing interest.

However, literature published by Innovas and the department jointly challenges the advice given by the department following my enquiries.

For instance, in the first edition of the report, authored by John Sharp of Innovas, the introduction states that “The authors worked solely on BERR’s instructions and for BERR purposes” (Appendix B, 1.i)”. (My emphasis). The same report goes on to explain that BERR were involved in designing the specification of the database: “This hierarchy of sector‐specific markets and activities is built up from the product market level, and then aggregated into higher level activities agreed in consultation with BERR.” (Appendix B, 1.ii). This database had been intended “To provide BERR with the detail it requires for policy and strategy development” (Appendix B, 1.iii).

Furthermore, the BIS website advises that “BIS (then BERR) commissioned Innovas/K-matrix to undertake a market assessment of the size of the UK low carbon and environmental goods and services (LCEGS) sector in 2008”. (Appendix B, 2.i).

By definition, the advice that BIS/BERR commissioned Innovas/K-Matrix to undertake research and were consulted in the design of the research contradicts the advice that the department purchased an existing off-the-shelf product from the company/companies. For example, the advice in Appendix D, section 11, argues that “…regardless of the supplier of the database the Department would merely be a licensee of the intellectual property subsisting in the database and would be subject to the requirements of the FOI Act. If the Department were to pay for the data to be publicly available the costs would be significantly higher”.

The claim that the department purchased a licence to existing intellectual property seems to be untenable. The LCEGS reports, authored by the company themselves speak about the work being commissioned by the department, and designed according to its specification. Either the information in the report or the arguments offered by the department to explain its refusal to let me see the data are false.

Moreover, it would seem that while the department intended to make data available to business and non-profit organisations, critics of government policy or anyone simply wanting to understand the department’s “policy and strategy development” would be denied the opportunity, creating a problem for the department’s claim to be ‘set[ting] data free’. “The publication of the data is part of the coalition’s commitment to set data free by publishing it in a convenient format to enable business and non-profit organisations to use it easily and at minimal cost” (Appendix D, 2.i). Evidently, the intention was to put data into the public domain that would enable the promotion of certain policies, but not data that might reveal what was in fact meant by the term ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’.

In spite of the department’s claim that the research in question was not publically funded, at least £125,000 has been spent by the department on producing revisions of the report, which is only “one element of the contract” (Appendix D, section 5) between the department and Innovas/K-Matrix. It would seem that this report has been useful in the promotion — if not the design — of certain policies by the department itself and other organisations such as the CBI (“The Colour of Growth” report, 2012 – http://www.cbi.org.uk/media/1552876/energy_climatechangerpt_web.pdf ) and the REA (“Renewable Energy: Made in Britain” report, 2012 – http://www.r-e-a.net/resources/pdf/61/Renewable_Energy_-_Made_in_Britain_Executive_Summary.pdf). I note also that the London Mayor’s office has used the same data.

The department seems, by commissioning the work, to have effectively both created a market for the research, and marketed the company’s product and services to the wider governmental, third-sector, business associations and companies with an interest in environmental policies.

This in turn suggests that a much closer working relationship between the department and the company exists, again belying the department’s statements that an off-the-shelf product existed before it engaged the company to produce its research.

The research designed by BIS and completed by Innovas/K-Matrix has, at the very least, influenced the wider public debate. Meanwhile, claims made in that debate have been protected from scrutiny and criticism by a ‘paywall’ — the department’s claim to be protecting a third party’s intellectual property and commercial interests. In order to challenge the government’s policies, the advice that the department produces, or the arguments produced by other organisations in the wider public debate, it would be necessary to buy access to the database, and a licence to reproduce it for public consumption — something that is clearly beyond the means of most individuals and organisations.

In summary, it is clearly the case that the LCEGS sector has no meaning to anyone who lacks access to the complete list of column headings from the database, yet this research has influenced the direction of public policy. Thus, if transparent policymaking is important, there is a real public interest in releasing this part (column headings) of the research in question. I believe that the department’s ‘public interest test’ has not been reasonable, and that the department’s claim that the database is the intellectual property of Innovas/K-Matrix is at best incomplete, possibly misleading and certainly opaque. Furthermore, I believe that the responses to my requests for information have not been conducted in the spirit of the FOI Act. Finally, I believe that refusal to release data on the basis of protecting commercial interests is at best disingenuous, and raises serious questions about the use of third party research to advance policy decisions and arguments.

I would also like to draw your attention to the inclusion of my name in correspondence between the department and Innovas/K-Matrix. I believe that I am entitled to the same privacy that the department granted to individuals at the department and at the company, whose names were redacted in the correspondence between them, sent to me following my second request.

I look forward to your reply,

The Global Guardians and the League of Extraordinary Nutjobs

An outbreak of thinking has occurred at the Guardian. In response to George Monbiot’s book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, Steven Poole observes that the ‘pastoral literary genre has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, and that it reflects a regressive form of politics. Poole doesn’t make too big a deal of the politics, but highlights a parallel between the hand-wringing about invasive species, and immigration. It seems Poole’s point, however, is less that this congruence has any major significance, but that it’s riddled with contradictions and inconsistency — as so much nature-worship surely is — and is a bit, well, daft.

What irks Monbiot about the insatiable hunger for lebensraum of “invasive species” is, finally, just that they will make everything duller to the eyes of naturalist aesthetes. “There is a danger,” he writes, “that ecosystems everywhere come to contain a similar set of species, making the world a blander and less surprising place.” Indeed, the spark of his desire for “rewilding” is, as he readily confesses in his intellectually generous and disarmingly enthusiastic book, that it would bring him more aesthetic pleasure. He came to the idea in the first place because he felt “ecologically bored”. What could, on the other hand, be less boring than seeing the sabre-toothed tiger roaming the streets of Shoreditch, the hippo snoozing outside the Hippodrome?

Monbiot, on cue, is livid at having been compared to racists. ‘I love nature. For this I am called bourgeois, romantic – even fascist‘, he complains. But to be fair to his critics, Monbiot did discover his ‘bourgeois inner self‘ only last Christmas. This leaves him trying only to defend himself against the charge of romantic fascism.

But there is a strange tension in this defence. On the one hand, Monbiot wants to hold with the aesthetic view of nature…

I see a love for the diversity and richness of nature as an aesthetic and cultural impulse identical to the love of art. It is a form of culture as refined and intense as any other, yet those who profess it tend to be regarded as nerds, not connoisseurs (that’s true snobbery for you). Poole and people like him position themselves among the philistines – those who see no value in the wonders with which others are enchanted.

… but on the other, Monbiot is saving the planet…

So those of us whose love of the natural world is a source of constant joy and constant despair, who wish to immerse ourselves in nature as others immerse themselves in art, who try to defend the marvels that enthrall us, find ourselves labelled – from the Mail to the Guardian – as romantics, escapists and fascists. That, I suppose, is the price of confronting the power of money.

… from the power of money.

So George’s aesthetic preferences are given global, and political signifiance by nothing more than his emotional attachment to an idealised account of nature. Whether or not that counts as ‘fascism’ depends on how far he is willing to defend this notion of a wild nature. He doesn’t say. But it’s certainly Romantic, nonetheless, with just one exception — Monbiot’s appeal to science.

Comparing those who describe [invasive species] to racists is the intellectual equivalent of stating that evolution through natural selection is a coded attack on the welfare state, or that the first law of thermodynamics was hatched by green campaigners intent on conserving energy. It is to see the words but not to understand the science they describe. This fallacy – mistaking scientific findings for cultural concepts – was deliciously ripped apart by Alan Sokal’s satirical paper Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.

It is something of an irony that Monbiot would admit that his aesthetic preferences for nature is equivalent to a love of art, but then invoke Sokal’s criticism of those who conflate scientific and cultural ‘concepts’. The nature Monbiot witnesses is scientific fact, he protests. The further irony being that biological determinists like Monbiot, are bound to reproduce the excesses of postmodernism in perfect mirror image. All culture is, on the biological perspective, nothing more than the expression of some gene or other. After all, it is environmentalists like him that want to impose a political order, seemingly determined by science, over all culture, including, of course, money.

I find it hard to let the problem of invasive species ruin my sleep. They are, in reality a problem for some government department or association of people whose lives it may affect — most likely farmers. They are not front page news. They are a fact of life in a world in which geography matters less, as does the ‘balance’ of nature, if it ever even existed. They’re a side effect of the most incredible period in history: the expansion of transport and technology — things that make Monbiot’s indulgence of the natural world possible. Without them, he’d find nature, as ‘red in tooth and claw’, and his life, ‘nasty brutish and short’.

Someone else with a comprehensively daft view of the world is Stephen Emmott. Geoff Chambers did a good job of debunking Emmott here a while back, and has continued at his own blog with some more posts following the media’s thirst for his Oxford-University-accredited doomsaying.

As many have observed, Emmott’s prophecy shouldn’t cause much concern outside padded cells. It’s tempting to say that it’s sufficiently nutty for the Guardian to have realised it. Indeed, The Guardian have reproduced Chris Goodall’s fairly comprehensive criticism of it, from his Carbon Commentary blog. Says Goodall:

Stephen Emmott’s book on global ecological challenges is attracting much attention. The work is extremely short – perhaps about 15,000 words – and is in the form of notes that provide terse commentary on a series of graphs. It is little more than a Powerpoint presentation turned into a slim paperback. Although any attempt to increase mankind’s alarm at the threat from climate change is welcome, Emmott’s book is error-strewn, full of careless exaggeration and weak on basic science. Its reliance on random facts pulled from the internet is truly shocking and it will harm the cause of environmental protection. As might be expected, the best sceptic bloggers are already deconstructing its excesses line-by-line.

This blog is in its seventh year of line-by-line deconstructions of the excesses of environmental alarmism. They have all been unpicked. The only thing that seems new in the climate debate is that it is now the case that some environmentalists seem to be taking their less cautious colleagues to task. But the value of this new reflectivity amongst the environmentalists is limited. They want to sustain their cake and eat it:

Things are indeed pretty bad. The steps to address climate change are lamentably slow and ineffectual. Biodiversity is in sharp decline in some parts of the world. Water supplies are becoming tighter in many countries. The pressures on global forests are declining but still acute in some places. Air quality is appalling in big cities in Asia and quite bad in major Western capitals. But we don’t help solve these problems by exaggerating their seriousness and picking up gobbets of data from dodgy sources we found on the web.

It’s as though these were new problems. It’s as if no human had ever thought about water shortage or air pollution. These problems have solutions. Where they have been experienced in other parts of the word, they have been remedied without the need for restraint. And in spite of Goodall’s call for arguments to be constructed from more reliable provenance, there is no interrogation of environmentalism’s concepts, such as ‘biodiversity’ — as nebulous and pseudo-scientific an idea as has ever been conceived of.

Elsewhere in the Guardian’s digital pages, the ‘Political Science’ blog is running a series of pieces this week on the precautionary principle. It started on Monday, with professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, Andy Stirling defending the idea, which is a stellar example of how paying people to think often ends up with no more a positive result than leading a horse to water. (And perhaps flogging it later on).

But, in the end, the picture is quite optimistic. Far from the pessimistic caricature, precaution actually celebrates the full depth and potential for human agency in knowledge and innovation. Blinkered risk assessment ignores both positive and negative implications of uncertainty. Though politically inconvenient for some, precaution simply acknowledges this scope and choice. So, while mistaken rhetorical rejections of precaution add further poison to current political tensions around technology, precaution itself offers an antidote – one that is in the best traditions of rationality. By upholding both scientific rigour and democratic accountability under uncertainty, precaution offers a means to help reconcile these increasingly sundered Enlightenment cultures.

This is followed by Tracy Brown of Sense About Science, with a more compelling argument that The Precautionary Principle is a Blunt Instrument:

However simple we might wish managing uncertainty about the future to be, it’s not. The precautionary principle misleads us into thinking it is. Its advocates arm-wave about complexity and the unknown future, but they are producing a response that implies the exact opposite. In place of informed, real-world choices that include the potential implications of both doing something and not doing it, we have simplistic bans, precaution’s monotonous answer to every challenge.

But like Goodall’s reply to Emmott, this too fails to interrogate the context in which the precautionary principle has developed:

A world of over seven billion people faces some pretty complex questions about the trade-offs involved in producing food, using resources, reducing disease and achieving the societies and environments in which we want to live. […] In agriculture, energy and so much more we need big changes, even if some people do want to stop the world and get off. Realistically, to make these changes needs an approach to innovation that is permissive and watchful – that is, one that takes more responsibility – rather than banning and assuming you’ve done good, which is the real hubris here.

Why is a world of seven billion people (or more) understood to face bigger, more and more complex challenges than a world of just six, five, four or three billion people? In spite of the growth in our populations, there are far fewer people struggling to survive (hence there are so many more people), and there are more than ever people whose day-to-day challenges consist of no more than ‘where can I plug my iPod in?’. It is increasingly the case that there is less and less need for global institutions to oversee the production of food and resources. Yet the idea that there is ever more need dominates debates. There’s little point in challenging the precautionary principle without taking a critical view of its context and the issues to which it has been applied. After all, the idea is not new, yet achieved more purchase as a basis for new global, environmental political institutions was being sought. Coincidence?

Speaking of new global institutions seeking a legitimising basis, Roger Pielke Jr. Tweets…

Apparently, this proposal by scientists to stand above governments in an “Earth League” is not a spoof –> https://t.co/tB7dsmWeLu

The link takes us to the following document:

The Earth League
Towards a Global Research & Assessment Alliance

Humankind has become a quasi-geological force on Planet Earth. Our species is the most successful ever, still growing in numbers and absorbing more and more natural resources for its industrial metabolism, which is largely based on fossil fuels and other dwindling stocks. As a consequence, societies around the world are currently witnessing severe crises that call for a “Great Transformation” toward sustainability. Climate change might be understood as just one manifestation of the emerging complex problem or as a driver. Many other challenges such as the distortion of ecosystem services, the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of land, sprawling urbanization, worsening water scarcity, the disturbances in terrestrial and marine food chains or the ubiquitous pollution of all environmental systems have to be taken into consideration.

It seems the convenors of The Earth League (Da daa daaa!) believe that there is not a sufficient global organisation to direct research into the natural world, or, more precisely, the effects of human society (aka ‘our species’) on it. A more concise account of what The Earth League (Da Daa Daaa!) aims to be is given at the Imperial College website:

Imperial welcomed the inaugural meeting of the Earth League, a voluntary alliance of scientists addressing earth science and sustainability challenges

The inaugural meeting of the Earth League, a voluntary alliance of leading scientists and institutions addressing earth science and sustainability challenges, took place at Imperial College London yesterday, 7 February 2013.

The world should, by now, be used to pompous, self-regarding planet-savers convening meetings. And it should be bored of them. Some familiar themes emerge…

This international group of prominent scientists from world class research institutions will work together to respond to some of the most pressing issues faced by humankind, as a consequence of climate change, depletion of natural resources, land degradation and water scarcity.

By coming together in a self-organized alliance, the Earth League members will be a united voice in the global dialogue on planetary issues.

League members will meet annually to discuss a key earth science and sustainability issue in depth, using their combined expertise to assess the various solutions available. The findings from these discussions will be used to initiate new research activities or communicate new knowledge to high-level decision makers.

[…]

At the official launch at Imperial College London the League called for a step change in sustainable living, arguing that truly transformational strategies would be needed to overcome the climate crisis and the many other pressing issues facing humankind today.

Because there has never been a global meeting of global scientists to discuss global issues of global sustainability before.

And not with these people, either…

  • Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, UK (Sir Brian Hoskins);Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil (Carlos Nobre)
  • Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, London, UK (Lord Nicholas Stern)

Because the world has not heard enough from the likes of Sir Brian Hoskins and Lord Nicholas Stern, there needs to be another talking shop, where these bureaucrats-posing-as-scientists can, like Emmott, and like Monbiot, and pretty much like their new critics (their erstwhile comrades) carry on doomsaying.

Robber Lords and the Marketplace of Bad Ideas

I watched the entire debate — if it was a debate — on the Government’s Energy Market Reform Bill (EMR) in the House of Lords today.

For a chamber that is populated by people who are appointed on the basis of merit, replacing the feudal system, it was a very disappointing experience. It’s not simply that I disagreed with many of the comments; the problem is with their total mediocrity. Nigel Lawson and Matt Ridley made good arguments, but the putative ‘rebuttals’, were all of the kind we’re so used to hearing: the deference to the scientific consensus, and the litany of climate catastrophes that await us. The latter invariably consists of cobbled-together factoids. And the former, as ever, allows someone with very little brain power to marshal ignorance against a better-informed argument.

That much is old news. We’re used to that. But one theme came up often in the arguments in favour of the Bill that I hadn’t given too much thought to before: the apparent need to create ‘investor confidence’ in the renewable energy sector.

Hansard isn’t up yet, so I can’t refer to any of these arguments directly. (I imagine they’re still struggling to decipher Lord Prescott’s speech). But here are some comments made outside the house:

Lord Deban:

in order to secure maximum economic benefit for the UK, it is crucial that the Government gives certainty to investors by legislating to chart a clear course well beyond 2020. Only then will we be able to insure against the risk of much higher future energy prices; enhance Britain’s energy sovereignty; and protect ourselves against dangerous climate change.”

Michael Fallon:

EMR will provide certainty to investors with long-term electricity price stability in low carbon generation

Ed Davey:

CfDs are designed to boost investment in low carbon technologies, including renewables, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and potentially nuclear, by providing certainty to revenue streams, encouraging investment and finance

The government’s thinking appears to be that creating ‘certainty’ — i.e. eliminating risk — for investors will make them rush to put their money into the UK’s energy infrastructure.

But hold on a minute. When was ‘investment’ ever conceived of as a risk free opportunity?

I thought the deal with capitalism was that those who are fortunate enough to have surplus capital risk it for the possibility of a return. The idea is that you make decisions about what to invest on, based on your own knowledge, or someone else’s knowledge of a market.

When you take out a pension plan, for instance, you’re sometimes asked to state your attitude to risk. Risk and potential yield correlate. But note that, even with a low-risk pension, you’re not being sold certainty.

So what does this say about the Energy Market Reform Bill?

In what sense is it ‘reforming’ a market, when you promise investors that you will eliminate risk? In fact, in what sense is it a ‘market’ at all, if there is no risk? No risk, no competition, no market.

What the government seem to be proposing with the EMR is something more like a loan.

Moreover, some of the arguments for this ‘reform’ include the suggestion that big energy suppliers should be forced to announce their prices up to two years in advance, so that a more competitive retail market, and smaller scale producers can emerge. That can only push prices up. thereby benefiting the ‘investors’ — a surprising number of whom turned out to be speaking in the House of Lords today.

The Lewandowsky Papers

This essay was written for Spiked-Online, and will be published on Spiked at some point.


As the influence of environmental thinking has increased its hold over the political establishment, the failure to win the public support that might create the basis for decisive action to save the planet has also increasingly been blamed on climate sceptics operating on the internet. On this view, bloggers have thwarted international and domestic action to prevent climate change. Accordingly, the nature of the blogosphere and the workings of the minds of climate sceptics have become the focus of academic research, just as the mechanics of the climate system have been the subject of climate scientists. But this attempt to form a pathological view of a complex debate says much more about the researchers than the objects of their study.

A recent study by academic psychologist, Stephan Lewandowsky at the University of Western Australia aimed to identify climate change sceptics’ tendency towards conspiracy theories. According to Lewandowsky’s paper published in Psychological Science, links were placed on climate blogs, inviting readers to take part in a survey that measured each respondents’ political orientation, attitude to climate change science, and adherence to popular conspiracy theories such as those about the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King and Diana, the 911 attacks, aliens in Roswell, and the 1969 moon landing. Hence, the title of the paper NASA faked the moon landing — Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science, which claimed to find a correlation between belief in the principle of a free-market, rejection of climate change science and ‘conspiracy ideation’.

However, in spite of the title of the paper linking the idea that the moon landings were faked with scepticism of climate science, just 10 of 1145 respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement ‘The Apollo moon landings never happened and were staged in a Hollywood film studio’. Of those 10, six of them either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with statements representing the scientific consensus on climate change. Of the remaining four who disagreed with the climate consensus, two ‘strongly agreed’ with every conspiracy theory, another agreed either ‘strongly’ or ‘very strongly’ with each of the 14 conspiracy theories listed in survey. The single remaining climate sceptic either genuinely believed that the moon landings were faked, or was another person seeking to game the survey’s results with a more sophisticated approach than his colleagues’.

A title that better reflected the survey’s results, then, might have been NASA faked the moon landing — Therefore (Climate) Science is Real. But the problems with the study don’t stop with the researcher’s haste to give his work a compelling name.

The paper, now known as LOG12, was published on Lewandowsky’s website last July, well ahead of its publication in the journal Psychological Science in March. In spite of not yet having been published,  a ‘pre-press’ version drew a great deal of attention from people across the climate debate. For environmentalists it was proof that their counterparts were textbook nut-jobs. For sceptics, it was a poorly-conceived and improperly-executed smear job with only superficial academic credibility. The paper was circulated by the green media and blogosphere and taken apart by sceptics on the web.

Many problems with the paper emerged. The authors had claimed to have asked the operators of blogs popular with people at different ends of the climate debate to invite their readers to take part in the survey. As the research admits, none of the sceptic blogs responded, leading to the criticism that sceptics had not in fact been asked to participate. More fatally for the paper, it seemed that the researchers had let slip their intention to link climate scepticism with a tendency to produce conspiracy theories, and some blog commenters openly discussed their intentions to respond as sceptics to influence the outcome. Even worse, the paper drew criticism from Lewandowsky’s own colleagues.

Lewandowsky amplified these problems by refusing to answer questions about the survey, choosing instead to write a series of blog posts attacking his critics who were trying to understand his method and analysis. Through the acrimony, it emerged that Lewandowsky had anticipated that as he was well known for his own hostility to climate scepticism, sceptical bloggers would not be willing to participate in his survey. In order to overcome the problem, he asked the University’s ethics committee for permission to send the invitation from other researchers. However, though these emails were found, they had been ignored by the blog owners as the kind of spam bloggers often get, and were discarded, meaning that, nonetheless, sceptics hadn’t really been invited to participate.

Consequently, only 127 people that could be described as sceptics of climate science responded to the survey against the 1018 respondents that Lewandowsky categorises as ‘pro-science’. This should strike us immediately as a ridiculous starting point for an investigation. We would not survey the users of a Star Wars fan website to find out why some people don’t like science fiction movies. Nonetheless, from just 127 suspect responses, Lewandowsky proceeded to make statements about the phenomenon of climate scepticism.

But worse than Lewandowsky’s approach to gathering data is his method for analysing it. Whereas most surveys give results than can be understood fairly simply — eight out of ten cats prefer… — Lewandowsky’s approach was more complicated than his task warranted. And whereas we might expect significant differences between different groups of people to show up when their responses to questions are averaged, in fact few differences between the groups emerge when the data from the surveys is analysed through simpler methods than those deployed by Lewandowsky.

For instance, if we divide the respondents into ‘sceptics’ and ‘warmists’ on the basis of their assent to/dissent from the statement, ‘I believe that burning fossil fuels increases atmospheric temperature to some measurable degree’, and then compare those groups’ assent to/dissent from popular conspiracy theories, we get the following result:

As this table demonstrates, the average (and on this test, it must be noted, fairly militant) sceptic is not much more prone towards conspiracy theories than his putatively ‘pro-science’ counterpart. In fact, the ‘warmist’ is more likely (though only just) to buy into conspiracy theories relating to the 911 and Oklahoma attacks and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Both groups are broadly inclined away from conspiracy theories, with the exception being the only positive assent to the conspiracy theory that — ‘The claim that the climate is changing due to emissions from fossil fuels is a hoax perpetrated by corrupt scientists who wish to spend more taxpayer money on climate research’.

Similarly, a graph showing sceptics’ attitudes to consensus science reveals that not much separates the two groups.

As we can see, and as we might expect, sceptics and warmists only really disagree on matters relating to climate science.

The third variable that Lewandowsky sought to relate to sceptics’ attitude to climate science and conspiracy theories was their views on the economy. (In some of these statements, the scoring was reversed, so that 1 = agreement, 4 = disagreement, denoted by ‘R’.) Here we see slightly more disagreement.

However, this part of the survey asks questions that, in the main, in fact ask the respondent to prioritise the economy versus the environment, rather than to express his views on the economy independently of his views on the environment. This is a problem for Lewandowsky’s subsequent claim that a person’s views on the economy can ‘predict’ his view on the environment. Yet nonetheless, the survey results simply do not suggest that a big difference exists between sceptics and warmists. The average sceptic is, after all, with a score of 2.51, precisely undecided about whether or not ‘I support the free market system but not at the expense of the environmental quality’. Meanwhile, if these statements really reflect opposite ends of some kind of eco-economic axis, we would expect people who are ‘pro-science’ (i.e. ‘warmists’) to dissent more strongly from the statement ‘Free and unregulated markets pose important threats to sustainable development’.

Across these three groups of statements, there is very little disagreement on much other than on the environment. Yet Lewandowsky claimed that ‘Rejection of climate science was strongly associated with endorsement of a laissez-faire view of unregulated free markets‘, and that ‘A second variable that was associated with rejection of climate science as well as other scientific propositions was conspiracist ideation‘.

It seems fairly obvious that Lewandowsky was at best mistaken. The data simply do not support his conclusions. His claims differ remarkably from what the difference between an averaged profile of a ‘sceptic’ and his counterpart look like.

What produced Lewandowsky’s result is a statistical technique called structural-equation modelling (SEM). SEM is a complex process used mainly in the social and behavioural sciences to test and explore assumptions about relationships in observational data. Though this may be an appropriate tool in some cases, its usefulness to the job of shedding light on what people think about complex political and scientific issues is debateable, and may in fact reveal more about Lewandowsky than sceptics. First, there is the problem of Lewandowsky’s assumptions: he confuses categories of economic and environmental ideas; he fails to test for conspiracy theories that might be more coincident with environmentalism than the ones he chose, (for example the idea that climate scepticism is a phenomenon produced by covert PR operations, paid for by fossil fuel companies); and he fails to achieve a robust definition of climate scepticism. Second, a much more simple method — averaging — show that, no matter what the slight statistical tendency of sceptics is, on aggregate, there is no clear line dividing lunatic sceptics from the enlightened climate scientists and their disciples. The more complex method, though, has the virtue of being a larger fig leaf for Lewandowsky’s bad faith.

This would not have been Lewandowsky’s only experiment with statistics-abuse. In June last year, using what he called ‘simple mathematics’, but which in fact depended on Bayesian statistical methods, he made a series of extraordinary claims, concluding that, ‘greater uncertainty about the evolution of the climate should give us even greater cause for concern‘, that ‘greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought’ and that ‘greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated’. This astonishing claim barely needs unpacking to demonstrate as so much nonsense cloaked in mathematical jargon.

This should raise questions about exactly what it is that Lewandowsky is trying to achieve through the use of dubious statistical methods, and his attempt to understand the minds of climate sceptics: is the point to advance understanding and knowledge, or is it a strategic move in a political battle that there can be no doubt he has taken a stand in.

But to suggest that either bad faith or incompetence has driven Lewandowsky would be, on his view, a conspiracy theory. This was his claim in a subsequent paper published in March by open access journal, Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, in which Lewandowsky and colleagues attempted to draw conclusions about responses from the climate sceptic blogosphere to his previous paper, LOG12.

In the paper, Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation, Lewandowsky claimed to, ‘identify and trace the hypotheses that emerged in response to LOG12 and that questioned the validity of the paper’s conclusions. Using established criteria to identify conspiracist ideation, we show that many of the hypotheses exhibited conspiratorial content and counterfactual thinking.’

This involved compiling a database of the criticisms made against the first paper and categorising them. For example, one such comment posted by Richard Betts at the Bishop Hill website run by author of the Hockey Stick Illusion, Andrew Montford read as follows:

The thing I don’t understand is, why didn’t they just make a post on sceptic blogs themselves, rather than approaching blog owners. They could have posted as a Discussion topic here at Bishop Hill without even asking the host, and I very much doubt that [Montford] would have removed it. Climate Audit also has very light-touch moderation and I doubt whether Steve McIntyre would have removed such an unsolicited post. Same probably goes for many of the sceptic blogs, in my experience. So it does appear to that they didn’t try very hard to solicit views from the climate sceptic community.

This comment was put into a table with about 110 others that Lewandowsky et al reckoned to be evidence that their authors ‘Espouse conspiracy theories’. Each of the comments were put under different category of ‘conspiracy theory’, such as ‘didn’t email deniers’, ‘Warmists faked data’, and ‘Emailed warmists before deniers’. However, this raises the problem, much as with the previous study, in the way categories are defined before they are tabulated and analysed.

If Betts’s comment is evidence of climate sceptics doing ‘conspiracy theory ideation’, then the test for it is set very low indeed — the comment was a straightforward criticism of Lewandowsky’s attempt to gather data, not speculation about why he had taken such liberties. Saying that Lewandowsky’s attempts to get responses from sceptics was inadequate is nothing like saying that the CIA killed Martin Luther King. Bogus categories and a seemingly objective method allowed Lewandowsky’s prejudices to prevail — a statistical technique serving as a fig leaf, again.

Even more unfortunate for Lewandowsky, however, the comment in question did not belong to a climate change sceptic at all. Richard Betts is a climate scientist, an IPCC lead author, and head of climate impacts research at the UK Meteorological Office.

The fact that Lewandowsky could put Betts into a category of ‘climate sceptic’, and his comment into a category of ‘conspiracy theory’ should be an object lesson about letting prejudice influence research for those seeking to understand and explain the climate debate. Lewandowsky’s confusion is owed to the fact of Betts’s very different and unusual approach to overcoming the climate debate: actually having the debate. Betts was able to criticise Lewandowsky after taking the opinions and discussion between climate sceptics seriously, rather than by taking it for granted that they were wrong.

Lewandowsky worked from his prejudice — that all sceptics are, a priori, wrong. His objective was to expose the ‘motivated reasoning’ that lies behind climate scepticism. But in doing so, he managed only to expose his own bad faith. This raises serious questions, not only about the categories and perceptions of ‘climate scepticism’ that dominate the language of anti-scepticism, but also broader questions about how such naked politicking can be passed off as academic research.

Across three papers based on the same data (a third appearing in the journal, Nature Climate Change), Lewandowsky, either unwittingly or deliberately allowed his prejudices to form the basis from which his study proceeded. On his view, climate scepticism is a ‘rejection of climate science’, which sits in contrast to ‘pro science’ opinion. But debunking this claim is easy. We can find climate scientists who give lower estimates of climate’s sensitivity to CO2 whose arguments are better grounded in science than any number of eco-warriors whose arguments are irrational, emotional, and lack any sense of proportion. One can either believe or disbelieve in the idea of anthropogenic climate change independently of science.

Second, Lewandowsky wanted to claim that this rejection of science is ‘motivated reasoning’ — that something else prefigures in the minds of sceptics, that causes them to reject climate science. This too, is easily countered, not just with a more straightforward analysis of Lewandowsky’s own data, which shows otherwise, but also by questioning this conception of ‘motivated reasoning’ itself.

All reasoning is, to a greater or lesser extent, ‘motivated’ — why would we reason, were it not as a means to some ends or other? However, the implication of Lewandowsky’s claim is that those who believe in climate change have transcended such human faults. Yet we can see that a great deal of presupposition and ‘ideology’ exists prior to the science in the arguments put forward in the debate about the environment. As I have argued previously on Spiked, in order to make the claim that climate change is dangerous, many environmentalists have to presuppose that society’s sensitivity to climate is equivalent to climate’s sensitivity to CO2 — a highly deterministic claim which is not borne out by history, let alone has any grounding in science, and which necessarily precludes the possibility of development mediating the vulnerability of society to climate.

Environmentalism’s presuppositions prefigure much more in Lewandowsky’s analyses than anything he can identify working in the minds of sceptics. This calls into question the ability of psychology to offer insight into the climate debate. For instance, much is made of the scientific consensus on climate change by researchers hoping to understand the phenomenon of climate scepticism, for example by asking whether or not respondents agree or disagree with positions that are assumed to represent the consensus position. However, this method is highly sensitive to the researcher’s ability to accurately represent the consensus, and to elicit from the respondent an accurate picture of his opinion. But as we have already seen, psychologists can quite easily put climate scientists into the category of climate sceptics. Researchers with misconceived ideas about what the science pertains to at best measures the public’s agreement with their own misconceptions. Unfortunately for Lewandowsky and others engaged in the same attempts to form an understanding of climate scepticism from the psychological perspective, the objects of their study may well have a much better understanding of climate science and its problems than they possess. In this way, complex arguments and nuances are lost in the researcher’s desire to reduce multi-dimensional arguments into categories of right and wrong, good and bad, pro-science and anti-science.

Thus, the consensus on climate science is removed from its scientific context, and becomes a consensus without an object: it can mean whatever climate change psychologists want it to mean. Research into the public understanding of science, where that science has implications for public policy, becomes a vehicle for researchers to manifest their own prejudices as policy.

So what might appear at first pass as an inconsequential squabble on the internet between an arrogant researcher and recalcitrant bloggers in fact has significance for the debate about science’s role in public life. How was it that such shoddy, prejudiced, and partial research passed the seemingly objective tests of peer-review, and that such errors of category, method and analysis were nonetheless deemed worthy of publication by editors of scientific publications?

The answer here is twofold. First, there is the insidiousness of the objectless consensus: the mythology of the climate debate precedes the climate debate. The idea of there being scientists on the one hand, opposed by irrational sceptics on the other has been established so concretely that few editors, peer-reviewers or journalists even bother to ask questions about the content of the consensus, much less about how it is contradicted by the substance of climate sceptics’ arguments. Climate change orthodoxy allowed Lewandowsky’s work to go unchallenged by the checks and balances we might expect to catch out, or at least, criticise, such bare-faced framing of the debate.

Second, there is the political utility of the scientific consensus. The desire for policies to have a grounding in science is ubiquitous amongst a class of ‘policymakers’ (PKA politicians) and institutional science. Research such as Lewandowsky’s would not be significant, were it not for the (wrong) belief that climate scepticism’s influence over public opinion is the chief impediment to climate policies. For instance, in February, Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee called for submissions to an inquiry into the public’s understanding of climate change, following a report that had advised that ‘should scepticism continue to increase, democratic governments are likely to find it harder to convince voters to support costly environmental policies aimed at mitigation of, or adaptation to, climate change.’

In the era of ‘evidence-based policy-making’, public opinion is an afterthought rather than the measure of a democratic mandate. Only once a political consensus has been achieved between political parties do today’s ‘policymakers’ seek ways of convincing the public that their policies are a good idea. The extent of this upside-down form of politics is revealed by one of the questions asked by the select committee: ‘Does the Government have sufficient expertise in social and behavioural sciences to understand the relationship between public understanding of climate science and the feasibility of relevant public policies?

The academy increasingly replaces the ballot box in public affairs. And in particular, the science academy. On the face of it, it looks like a good idea. Expertise, is of course, almost always better placed to answer technical questions than is the man-on-the-street. But when the man-on-the-street becomes the object of the ‘social and behavioural sciences’, which are, in turn, employed to elicit his obedience, politics undergoes a radical transformation.

Material and social scientists have not been forthcoming in their criticism of the growing compact between the academy and the state. Indeed it much better serves those who we might expect to be the best critics of power to serve it instead. Lewandowsky, who has now moved from Australia to be the Chair in Cognitive Psychology in the School of Experimental Psychology, at the University of Bristol, has been given the Royal Society’s Wolfson Research Merit Award — a scheme designed ‘for outstanding scientists who would benefit from a five year salary enhancement to help recruit them to or retain them in the UK’. Says the university:

‘Professor Lewandowsky receives the award for his project entitled ‘The (mis)information revolution: information seeking and knowledge transmission’, which addresses how people navigate the blizzard of information with which we are faced on a daily basis, not all of which is accurate or truthful. The project emphasises how people update their memories and under what conditions they are able to discount information that turns out to be false. The project also examines how people interact with, and influence, each other to understand how information spreads through a society.’

Lewandowsky is well placed to speak about filling the public sphere with information ‘not all of which is accurate or truthful’. But what contribution to either science, or society has he really made that is worthy of such an award? And why would the Royal Society be so keen to chuck £tens of thousands at what can be called at best, cod psychology? If this award reflects the Royal Society’s priorities, it says a great deal about them.

As I’ve reported previously on Spiked, the Royal Society has sought an ever expanding role in policy-making, mostly in environmental matters. In particular, the academy published the results of a two year study into population and the environment last year, which coincided with their award to another researcher notable for his failures — population environmentalist and neo-malthusian doomsayer, Paul Ehrlich. It would seem that the closer the Royal Society get to policy-making, the more distance is put between itself and science. In spite of the failures of Ehrlich and Lewandowsky, their claims still have political utility.

It follows that the science academy’s growing desire for influence in the public sphere causes it to seek evidence that the public aren’t capable of managing their own affairs without it. The premise of a technocracy is, after all, the inadequacies of democracy. Thus we see in the Apocalyptic rants of the likes of Paul Ehrlich FRS and Lewandowsky the beneficiary of their generosity not simply claims about the material world, but claims about the shortcomings of human faculties. Between them, these men paint a picture, from the psychology of the individual, through to the functioning of the planet’s natural processes, in which humanity simply cannot help but steer a course for catastrophe without their intervention.

To point this out, though — to point to the problems with the science, or to ask questions about the political assumptions and consequences of these arguments — is to seem to be ‘anti-science’, or to betray a mindset that is preoccupied with conspiracy theories. To point out that the science is, in fact, groundless and speculative crap, and that it is intended, not to advance knowledge, but to serve a political function is to seem to stand out as a denier of science.

Scientists such as Lewandowsky are better at self-justification than scientific research. Rather than being an investigation into the workings of the material world, Lewandosky’s ‘research’ — a poorly executed and error-prone online survey, seen through dodgy statistical methods and bogus categories — is a naked attempt to explain why people dare challenge scientific authority. But there are good reasons for challenging it. Science has turned its gaze on the public as politicians have sought to remedy their diminishing public support by recruiting the academy. It is not a coincidence that the scientific agenda increasingly reflects the prejudices and problems of elite politics.

This would be an anti-science conspiracy theory if it were a claim that Lewandowsky and the Royal Society were engaged in science proper, and were aware of what they were doing. But what Lewandowsky reveals is the consequence of confusing science as a process — a method — and science as an institution. A shonky web survey is given respectability by its author’s professorship and tenure at a university, by peer-review, and by publication. The institutional apparatus of science allowed prejudice and politics to be passed off as objective study. Criticism of the survey — i.e. about the research’s adherence to (or departure from) the scientific method —  was defended on the basis that it challenged, not the scientific argument (i.e. science as a process), but scientific authority (i.e institutional science).

A culture of intransigence has developed in the shadow of the compact between politics and science, which can be seen in the Lewandowsky affair in microcosm. Lewandowsky’s work unwittingly demonstrates that what is passed off as peer-reviewed and published ‘science’, even in today’s world, is no more scientific than the worst ramblings of the least qualified and nuttiest climate change denier on the internet. It looks like science, certainly, but the product only survives a superficial inspection. The only difference being the institutional muscle that Lewandowsky has access to, but which unhinged climate change deniers do not. The object of the Professor’s study is really his own refusal to debate with his lessers.

The consequence of this should be alarming to everyone who takes an interest in the climate and other scientific debates, no matter what their view on climate change. Lewandowsky demonstrates that the academic institutions do not produce dialogue that has any more merit than the petty exchanges — flame wars –that the internet is famous for. Dressing political arguments up in scientific terminology risks the value of science being lost to society — its potential squandered for an edge in a political fight. After all, if Lewandowsky’s work is representative of the quality of scientific research in general and the standards the academy expects of academics, what does that say about climate science and the quality of the scientific consensus on climate change? If the scientific argument about the link between anthropogenic CO2 and climate change is only as good as Lewandowsky’s claim that ‘Rejection of climate science [is] strongly associated with endorsement of a laissez-faire view of unregulated free markets’, then perhaps climate sceptics should be taken more seriously.

Climate Science — a Game of Musical Chairs?

Opinions in the climate debate are typically given weight according to the qualification of the pundit to speak. One such victim of this idea that only the anointed may speak on matters climate-related for instance, asks “Ben Pile: Qualified Pundit or Bullshit Artist“.

In spite of the question, however, I rarely venture an opinion on climate science — this blog and most of my work in fact relates to politics, policies, and the ideas that underpin the response to what is claimed to be climate science. The point being that what is claimed to be climate science often isn’t, and one doesn’t need to be a climate scientist to recognise it.

Over at Bishop Hill, Andrew Montford has posted a video that would be hilarious if it wasn’t quite so tragic: the sight of climate scientist, Gavin Schmidt, refusing to debate with Roy Spencer on the John Stossel show. One does not need to be a climate scientist to recognise that there is a problem with climate scientists refusing to engage in debate. You don’t need to have a science qualification at all to know that there is something wrong with intransigence. It’s even more tragic, since Schmidt was given the “EarthSky Science Communicator of the Year” award last year. It seems that ‘communication’ isn’t a two way street.

But the logic of ‘communication’ without dialogue aside, here’s the video.

Here is the exchange which I found particularly interesting:

Stossel: Assuming this is true, why is it necessarily a problem? Warmer might be better. More people die from cold than warmth.

Schmidt: We have built a society, an agricultural system, and cities and everything that we do based on assumptions that basically the climate is not gonna change. The fact that we have so much infrastructure right near the shore is because we didn’t expect the sea level to rise. The damage that we had from Hurricane Sandy was increased because sea level has increased by ten to twelve inches in this area over the last hundred years.

Schmidt’s profile page at Real Climate lists his background as follows:

He received a BA (Hons) in Mathematics from Oxford University, a PhD in Applied Mathematics from University College London and was a NOAA Postdoctoral Fellow in Climate and Global Change Research.

So, let’s make our slightly facetious point first — i.e. in the spirit of those who demand we only speak about what our qualifications entitle us to speak of.

Even advanced degrees in applied mathematics do not qualify anyone to speak about what assumptions on which society is founded are. But what a degree from Oxford might demonstrate is that, in fact, the assumptions that society is founded on are fairly enduring. I grew up there. Two things are obvious to anyone who spent any time there with their eyes open:

1. Some of the buildings are very old indeed.
2. It floods a lot.

In fact, the city is clearly shaped by the flood plains that surround it, and cut through it. People have always known that rivers rise and and fall. Occasionally, the plains are insufficient, and houses in newer parts of town are flooded. But this is a problem caused, in the most part, by land and water management, rather than a radically different climate than those that the founders of Oxford City experienced.

So the — slightly facetious — point is, although Schmidt may well be well qualified to speak about climate systems, from a mathematical perspective, is he at all qualified to speak about the wider implications of climate?

This question does not imply that Gavin shouldn’t take an interest in the wider effects or ‘impacts’ of climate, or speak about them. It’s just to say that the logic of demanding that those who want to speak about climate change have qualifications in climate science in fact excludes climate scientists from making statements about society, and the bases on which it has been built.

This leads us to a more serious question. How does Schmidt know that we have ‘a society, an agricultural system, and cities and everything that we do based on assumptions that basically the climate is not gonna change’? Whose assumption is it? When was it made?

In fact, as I’ve argued a lot on these pages, it’s the presupposition of environmentalism, not the assumption of society. It is only on the environmentalist’s perspective that the environment exists in stasis, such that change to it are catastrophic.

His comments on Hurricane Sandy are revealing here. He notes the sea level rise over the 20th Century, only some of which can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change, if at all.

(image from wikipedia.)

Sea level rise is a problem that society would have to contend with, with our without global warming. Though it is a problem, with or without global warming, that as the ice2sea project reveals today, has been over stated. According to the research:

The ice2sea projections based on simulations of physical processes suggest lower overall contributions from melting ice to sea-level rise than many studies published since AR4. […] To explore these remaining uncertainties, ice2sea has used a less-formal approach of an “expert elicitation.” This method concluded that there is a less than 1-in-20 risk of the contribution of ice sheets to global sea-level rise exceeding 84cm by 2100.

Nonetheless, the alarmist press were ready to spin the good news into bad:

There is a 5 per cent chance sea level rise could go up by 84cm due to melting ice.

Said Louise Gray, the Telegraph’s Environmental Correspondent, apparently forgetting that ‘less that 1-in-20’ is less than ‘a five percent chance’. The same inability to use numbers prompted Gray’s headline:

Sea levels around Britain could rise by more than one metre (3ft) due to climate change, according to a new assessment of melting ice sheets and glaciers, causing floods in London and other coastal towns.

Only slightly less daft is Fiona Harvey in the Guardian:

Sea-level rises could send floods driven by storm surges over London’s Thames Barrier regularly by the end of the century, if nothing is done to bolster the UK’s flood defences, scientists warned on Tuesday.

But it turns out that the barrier, which was originally only intended to last until 2030, on the basis of up to 8mm sea level rise a year — much more than what we have seen since the construction of the barrier in the early 1980s — and will be replaced in 2070. In fact, the Guardian pointed these facts out in 2007 — here — so it is remarkable to see Harvey, six years later, revealing that the Thames Barrier may well be past it’s use-by date nearly a century after its construction. Journalists just don’t like good news.

The point of this, in relation to Schmidt’s claims about an assumption of a static environment is that it simply isn’t true. The concern that prompted the design of the Thames Barrier was a number of floods in the 1950s that caused hundreds of deaths in London. In the 1960s, the plans were drawn up, and construction began in the 1970s, and completed in the 1980s.

In 1968, Roger Cooke MP told the House of Commons in an appeal for the funds for the Thames Barrier:

Professor Bondi’s full report on the London flood barrier proves that the risk is real even if the floods were only a foot or so above the 1953 level. Why do we think that the risk of this surge is considerably greater than it was even a few years ago? First, geologists and geographers tell us that the South-East of England is sinking at the rate of between 7 and 12 inches every century. Therefore, even since 1953 the South-East has sunk an inch or so.

So the idea of a stable environment was not an assumption of planners nearly half a century ago. The Victorians, a hundred years earlier, were no less ignorant of the changes around them…

In 1879, an act was passed by Parliament mandating the construction of river walls and other floods defences.

So what is unusual about London, since the 1950s, is its lack of flooding. In spite of geological effects, and the consequences of settling next to tidal waters, which, contrary to Schmidt’s claims were understood to a greater or lesser extent, Londoners have been safer in the second half of the 20th Century than the first. And they are safer precisely because nobody assumed that things would remain the same.

There has never been an assumption that the environment will remain the same. The interactions of land and water causing problems for society feature regularly in recorded history. Similarly, agricultural productivity, in the same era, increased as we developed means to decrease our dependence on natural processes. Far from being premised on the idea of a stable climate, urban, agricultural and industrial development is premised on the idea that a better life can be be found by distancing and protecting ourselves from the elements and their whim. We work in offices, factories, studios, schools and hospitals, rather than toil in fields. We are less dependant on, and and less vulnerable to changes in the environment.

The idea of a stable world, and our dependency on it belongs to the environmentalist. It is a political idea, but which is passed off as ‘science’ in order to mandate the construction of political institutions. I came across the most explicit declaration of this I have ever seen yesterday. In the FT, the paper’s chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, bemoaning the concentration of atmospheric CO2 reaching 400ppm opined:

Most people believe today that a low-carbon economy would be one of universal privation. They will never accept such a situation. This is true both of the people of high-income countries, who want to retain what they have, and the people of the rest of the world, who want to enjoy what the people of high-income countries now have. A necessary, albeit not sufficient condition, then, is a politically sellable vision of a prosperous low-carbon economy. That is not what people now see. Substantial resources must be invested in the technologies that would credibly deliver such a future.

Yet that is not all. If such an opportunity does appear more credible, institutions must also be developed that can deliver it.

Neither the technological nor the institutional conditions exist at present. In their absence, there is no political will to do anything real about the process driving our experiment with the climate. Yes, there is talk and wringing of hands. But there is, predictably, no effective action. If that is to change, we must start by offering humanity a far better future. Fear of distant horror is not enough.

This blog has argued that, whether or not the climate is changing, there is no need for special political institutions, or special forms of politics (i.e. environmentalism) to cope with the problems of the environment and changes within it. Rather, the ‘need’ for such institutions belongs not to the population in general, but to the political establishment. Changes to the environment did not cause the politicians of 1878 or 1963 to call for the creation of new political institutions, though the evidence of a changing environment was stark: the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of people, the loss of and damage to property, and the obstruction of day to day life. To the Victorians and the MPs of the 1960s, changes in the environment were simply engineering problems. Now changes to the environment are seen as problems caused by mankind himself — as though events like the destruction of Pompeii really could be explained by the decadence of the city’s population angering the gods, requiring that political institutions be created to ensure obedience.

Schmidt seems oblivious to the criticisms that can be made against his wondering from theoretical climate science, into total speculation about society and its functioning, and its dependence on the natural environment. He wants climate science to be able to make statements about how society works, and relates to the natural environment, and should be organised and regulated. This desire should be a clue that there is more going on in climate ‘science’ than simply science.

Worse than his obliviousness is his refusal to engage in debate about it. At least we can see in the Hansard, in the 1870s and 1960s, that debate about our relationship with the natural environment, based on the actual experience of actual people (rather than computer simulations) was allowed, was a response to people’s actual needs, and was acted on.

Perhaps the ‘sellable’ institution that Wolf is searching for, then, but the name of which escapes him, is democracy. Meanwhile, Schmidt’s silly game of musical chairs is perhaps the most acute demonstration of why environmentalism has failed: it won’t stand up for itself. It can’t stand up for any other reason than to walk away from debate. The assumption of a stable environment is defended from criticism by brute ignorance.

Did Richard Dawkins Invent Thatcherism and Environmentalism?

The death of Margaret Thatcher has brought all sorts of history back under the microscope. But often, such retrospectives become revision, revealing much more about the viewer in the present than the facts of the past. Much of this is less than dignified. Thatcher’s critics today, for instance blame her for seemingly turning some kind of social democratic utopia into a living hell. But Britain in the 1970s was dominated by deep economic crises, industrial disputes, and an encompassing geopolitical conflict. As Brendan O’Neill points out, today’s (and indeed many of yesterday’s) critics and fans of Thatcher and Thatcherism credit her with too much and the people who voted for her with too little.

Throughout the 80s, as chunks of Britain’s working-class voters abandoned the decrepit Labour Party and annoyed the hell out of the bien pensant classes by being vulgarly materialistic, it became fashionable to argue that these plebs must have been brainwashed by that mistress of might.

One such revision caught my ear this weekend. On BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme (I.e. the Saturday evening news for those not familiar with it) a feature on Thatcher’s environmentalism claimed that one of her most famous maxims — there’s no such thing as society — was inspired by Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, famous at the time for his book, The Selfish Gene, but more recently for his militant atheism. Here is the section, as broadcast. (A transcript of the section is available here).


But how true is this? To what extent was Thatcher influenced by the ecological perspective?

Controversy about what Thatcher meant by ‘there’s no such thing as society’ persists. Her actual words, in an interview for Women’s Own magazine are recorded at  http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 but the important points are:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” […] and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation […]. “

Thatcher’s point, it seems fair to say, is rather more subtle than has been claimed by those who have taken ‘no such thing as society’ out of context. What her words sounded like to many on the left was ‘every man for himself’, and ‘sod the rest of you’, but one doesn’t need to be a Thatcherite to agree with her that reciprocity is a necessary condition, or possibly even a definition of ‘society’ — that ‘society’ cannot be taken for granted. What critics of Thatcher might have said, was that if life on the dole really was better than life working, then there’s a real problem with wages, rather than the dole. Unfortunately for them, they chose and continue to choose to make the cheap points. Unfortunately for her, unemployment and inflation continued to be problem for much of her time in office, and beyond, and the welfare bill rose.

So far, however, this discussion seems to have little to do with political ecology. Yet on iPM, it was Ian Swinglands view that,

“Thatcher eschewed the idea of society because of a high table dinner at Magdalen College at Oxford. Richard Dawkins convinced her there was no such thing as society, just individuals. I, as a lowly researcher said she should emphasise environment in her administration, which was missing at the time”.

My girlfriend had just won a first prize fellowship at Magdalen. And as a result, I was invited to the Judge Randolph dinner in March of 1978, only eighteen months after Richard Dawkins had published The Selfish Gene. And I was close to Thatcher and I know Richard Dawkins was there. John Cribbs I think was there. A lot of us who came from the Zoology Department in Oxford. And she was heard to say that society is the building block for the future.

And immediately, many zoologists, lowly post-doctoral researchers like me said society doesn’t exist, and this was joined by a mighty chorus from those more senior than I. And this put her back and she challenged why we were saying it. And that brought us to essentially the argument from the evolutionary ecologists which indeed did prove that individuals mattered more than society.

Swingland proudly announces that zoologists disproved the existence of society, helping Thatcher to formulate Thatcherism at a dinner. This is a curious and extravagant claim, not least because it seems to have no relation to Thatcher’s comments or actions about society. Moreover, Thatcher’s argument is about relationships between people — reciprocity — and in particular, benefits, not about ecology. What can biological scientists really tell you about the rights and wrongs of welfare?

More importantly, how can an ecologist make a claim, from the biological sciences, that ‘society doesn’t exist’? ‘Society’ is not an object of the biological sciences. Moreover, it is not true that Thatcher ‘eschewed society’: she simply didn’t think it could be taken for granted. This is odd indeed: natural scientists making claims about the social world, and taking credit for the development of political ideas, which weren’t actually made.

It might be that the professor of zoology is a world-class expert in moth-counting and badger-spotting. However, zoologists rarely develop a deep understanding of or insight into the political or social world by mere dint of their native field of study. Indeed, they frequently labour under the misapprehension that it is possible to see the human world in the terms of zoology or ecology.

They are wrong. If ecologists really did demonstrate that there was no such thing as society (in the literal sense) one reason for this claim might be the inadequacies of ecology and ecologists’ hubris, rather than the power of this scientific perspective.

I have argued in the past that there’s no such thing as ecosystem. What are the boundaries of an ecosystem? There are none, so in what sense can there be said to be ecosystems at all? What gets determined to be an ‘ecosystem’ depends on what aspects of that ecosystem one focuses attention on. But any ecosystem is part of something larger, and may consist of many exchanges that are beyond the scope or sense of any study. Perhaps worse, ecology seems either to be premised on the idea that these systems tends towards ‘self-correction’, or that ‘balance’ is an ’emergent property’ of these complex systems. Yet such mechanisms have never been identified in situ and even less so at scale. It seems that in spite of ecology’s limited potential as a material science, it nonetheless has proven itself very useful in the political sphere. Ecologists may have something useful to say about fields, and the management of certain areas of land, but their sights are set on ‘planet management’.

Is this what appealed to Thatcher?

Swingland’s misunderstanding of what Thatcher said is matched by a misunderstanding of what his fellow diner, Richard Dawkins said. Contrary to Swingland’s claim, Dawkins had worked from George C Williams’s ideas, to overturn the prevailing view that selection works at the level of species, groups, and individuals. Dawkins did not say that there were only individuals. Instead, Dawkins emphasised a gene-centric view of evolution — that genes, not individuals or groups of individuals compete.

However, these confused ideas, in contradiction against themselves and against reality did seem to reflect, if not influence political thinking at the time, just as they do today. Not, as Swingland claims, directly to encourage Thatcher to take the political establishment towards environmentalism, or to take a different view of the individual, but in a deeper sense.

The implication of the zoologists’ and ecologists’ environmental determinism and Dawkins’ genetic determinism took agency away from people. Genes, rather than the self, were the decisive agents that drove the behaviour of individuals and groups. People merely exist as the half way point between the gene and the environment. Indeed, the gene is, on this view, a description of the environment as much as it is a description of the organism. Thus the idea forms that changes to the environment represent maladaptation of the individual organism: ecological niches shift, leaving the world’s population ‘homeless’ in an ecological sense.

The idea of genes, rather than individuals ‘having’ agency was extended into the social world by Dawkins himself in The Selfish Gene, and then more so by thinkers that followed. Ideas, suggested Dawkins, could be thought of as analogous to genes: they could be copied, but copied unfaithfully, leading to the possibility of mutation. Thus, the idea that evolution occurred at the level of the gene, not at the level of the individual has a metaphysical analogy: ideas do the ‘thinking’, and people’s minds are merely the vehicles for those ideas. Some even suggested that the sense of self — of subjective experience — was itself a product of ‘memes’ (mental analogues of ‘genes’) developing a strategy to better aid their propagation.

This narrow and hollow version of humanity was explored in Adam Curtis’s series of films, The Trap: Whatever Happened to Our Dream of Freedom. In this section of the film, Curtis demonstrates that the notion of individuals being driven by mechanical forces has a political, rather than scientific antecedent, which Dawkins, rather than being the discoverer of, merely reifies.

It would be too much to say that this strange, anti-human metaphysics can be seen being brought to every political decision that has been made since the Selfish Gene was published. But we can see this idea gaining influence across many areas of public life since long before 1970s.

So although Thatcherism has been understood to celebrate the individual over society, in fact what emerges over the era of Thatcherism (and Major, Blair, Brown and now Cameron, of course) is a very much reduced understanding of the individual. This has found its epitome in the policies of recent governments that have been discussed on this blog. In particular, the early Blair government conceived of a ‘Quality of Life Barometer’, which would measure things that were considered to be essential to a sense of wellbeing, including the amount of birdsong people were exposed to. The coalition government have gone further, developing a ‘Happiness Index‘. More sinisterly, the government have created a ‘behaviour insights team‘, which aims to find ways to elicit the cooperation of the public with the government’s policies — a strategy known as ‘nudge’. On this view of people, the relationship between state and individuals is transformed, fully in accordance with the idea of people as actors driven by mechanical forces, rather than by reason and an understanding of their own interests.

So the paradox of the ‘individualism’ is that it depends on a degraded sense of the ‘individual’. It is not the enlightenment concept of the individual that dominates in the post-Thatcher Britain. It is instead an object that needs to be managed by benevolent authorities. We are not ‘individuals’ in the sense that we can decide what to eat, drink or take, or know how to behave or manage the other risks we are exposed to. Concomitantly, therefore, this transformation of the individual, and of the relationship between the state and individual undermines the basis of democratic governance. If people aren’t even capable of making decisions about their own emotional lives, how might they be able to vote the right way on matters as important as climate change and other ecological crises?

Thatcher is then credited with kicking off the climate issue. A barely coherent Roger Harrabin claims:

Well Mrs. Thatcher had an absolutely remarkable effect on the environmental movement, and how the environment is perceived in the wider public. I think it was the fact that a Prime Minister always adds legitimacy to what they say, the role adds legitimacy, the fact that she herself was a research chemist, and the fact that she was coming from the libertarian right at a time when the environment movement was dominated by, I suppose you might say the soft-green-left, lent a massive weight to two speeches that she gave, which I think a lot of people will may have forgotten. One of them was to the Royal Society, both at the back end of the eighties, these, one of them to the United Nations. They were absolutely extraordinary blistering environmental speeches, warning of the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, the oceans and the Earth itself. And if you speak to the people who were running Friends of the Earth at the time, they will say their membership profile changed. You suddenly noticed the environment appearing on the front pages of the newspapers instead of the inside pages, and the front pages of serious papers, leading the BBC, which it hadn’t tended to do before. It was absolutely extraordinary galvanising speeches. Now the policy often didn’t match up with the speeches. And later on she recanted in a major way, saying that climate change was some sort of leftist plot to redistribute global wealth, which, it’s easy to see it that way. But the effect she had on society in general and on institutions and their change was very very profound.

This, of course, pertains to Thatcher’s 1988 speech to the Royal Society. But rather than kick-starting the climate change issue internationally, the content of the speech reveals a different story:

The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development.  Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century and one in which I am sure your advice will be repeatedly sought.

The concept of ‘sustainable economic development’ was brought to the global agenda a year previously, by another female Prime Minister — of Norway at the time — Gro Harlem Brundtland. Brundtland was commissioned by the UN to establish the World Commission on Environment and Development, and to produce a report on both matters. The implication — the working assumption — is, as per the claims of ecologists describe above, is that development occurs at the expense of the environment, or disturbs its ‘balance’.

Brundtland’s report, ‘Our Common Future’, thus set out the scheme for ‘sustainable’ development and the global institutional apparatus and relationships necessary to achieve it. The report and its consequences have been the subject of much discussion on this blog, the most important parts of which are: that establishing supranational political authorities and agencies deprives domestic politics of democratic processes; that the report proposes new relationships between international agencies, ‘civil society’ or NGOs, and national governments, expanding the role of NGOs on the global stage; that ‘sustainability’ is in fact toxic and hostile to development; and that the desire for supranational political organisations preceded the need for them being identified by ‘science’ and is owed in the main part to domestic political crises, in particular those experienced by the West.

It was Brundtland, then, who did much more than Thatcher to expand the roles and profiles of environmental and development NGOs, bringing them and their issues to the world stage. Brundtland had set a place for them at the international table. Contra Harrabin’s somewhat UK-centric view of things, these international processes had been going on since at least the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the Club of Rome and the Ehrlich’s dire prognostications. And as has also been noted here previously, the emergence of climate change as the dominant issue occurred precisely because the failure of those prognostications to provide the basis for the political compact sought by Brundtland: fears about acid rain, ozone depletion, peak resources and over-population turned out to either be non-existent or otherwise too easy to solve. A more encompassing crisis was needed.

Harrabin claims that ‘Maggie Thatcher did try and at least put environment on the map’, but it was already well established. Public opinion, which Harrabin cites, as I’ve argued here, was immaterial to the ascendency of the environmental issue, because the point of establishing international political institutions is to facilitate politics in spite of it. Green NGOs are not pressure groups in the fashion of grassroots organisations formed in the public; they are, by design, part of the establishment. They may have looked like unruly anarchists, but they were drawn from the highest strata (which is perhaps one reason why it was harder for policemen to hit them over the head with truncheons than it was to mete out the same to miners and hippies), and they were funded and encouraged by supragovernmental organisations. Moreover, whereas Harrabin claimed that Thatcher’s emphasis on environment, which was ‘ dominated by, I suppose you might say the soft-green-left’, ‘may have run completely counter to her libertarian approach’, the environmental movement of the 1980s could not be so described. Much of the left was in fact hostile to environmentalism, and was dominated by trade disputes. In fact, early thinking on the environment was precisely right wing. The first incarnation of the UK Green Party, formerly Ecology, formerly PEOPLE, had been established by a group of Conservatives, who had been moved by the thinking of Paul Ehrlich, who was himself a member of the GOP. From the same cloth, Garret Hardin’s influential essay, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ argued for the privatisation of all land and natural resources as the best way to protect them from over-exploitation by ‘free riders’.

It’s interesting to note Hardin’s and Ehrlich’s use of mathematics to hide political claims. Whereas ideas about the rights and wrongs of private property had been discussed in terms of principles, and relations between people, this new political idea looked instead at the exchanges between society and the natural environment in a zero-sum game — thinking which of course inspired Dawkins to a greater or lesser extent. In Hardin’s mathematical description of the natural world, its inhabitants –‘people’, but of a kind not credited with faculties of reason beyond those which inclined them to become ‘free riders’ — could not use shared resources without over-exploiting them. The political right’s flirtation with environmentalism represents the hollowing out of its moral argument. Ditto the nominative left, following its comprehensive collapse in the 1990s. It was numbers which now ruled.

Thatcher was not the author of contemporary political environmentalism in the UK. Nor was she the author of the international climate change agenda. Though she no doubt played her part, in reality these phenomena were produced by political necessity — it is politicians, not people, who blindly respond to their environments. By the time Thatcher had been persuaded to make statements about the environment, had been conceived of as the basis for global political dialogue and had been on the international agenda for decades. She was simply doing what was determined by that agenda: her ‘government espouse[d] the concept of sustainable economic development’.

And neither Thatcher, nor Dawkins, nor the Ecologists at the High Table of the Formal Dinner at Magdalen College authored the strange, mathematical models of the environment and the twisted fiction of the individual as automata. Those ideas had existed for well over a decade, and were born out of the peculiarities of the cold war. But they did do a lot to make those ideas real.

In the same way, Roger Harrabin and Ian Swingland rewrote the history of Thatcherism, political ecology, and the climate issue. But it was a history they have no grasp of, much less clear sight on. Even the academic who was there at the time, and the reporter who has been covering the issue for nearly as long can not get the facts straight. Accordingly, they tell the story backwards, from the present: environmentalism is at odds with conservative thinking; that Thatcher proposed ‘there is no such thing as society’ and invented individualism; that such individualism is apart from, and opposed to global political environmentalism rather than essential to its thinking; and that climate change politics began in Magdalen College in 1978. Contemporary mythology is rewritten as ‘history’: the myth of humans as machines, dependent on a fragile natural world were expedient to the academy and the political establishment in the -60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s just as the myth of Thatcherism is handy to the environmental correspondent in 2013. Myths that seem to explain the world in reality only give temporary comfort to those who feel disoriented by it. After all, it wasn’t until the wobbly end of Thatcher’s administration that she sought to identify with the environmental message, much as it was wobbly conservatives who had their own green epiphany as the sixties drew to a close, and the wobbly left went green in the 1990s.

This has been the hardest thing for environmentalists and environmental commentators to understand. Right and left produced their own variants of ‘green’, and both demand that big, supranational organisations fill the void. And then both got upset that the functions of those organisations better meeting the purposes of the other. And instead of looking for deeper historical reasons for environmentalism’s ascendency, many green journalists prefer to work from the idea that scientists identified a problem, to which politicians have responded — some for, some against, divided on rigid lines. But as the short BBC piece on Thatcher and environmentalism reveals, there are no straight lines in the environmental debate, and the scientists and politicians were as confused about science and politics then as they are today.

It is possible that Richard Dawkins did tell Thatcher that he and his colleagues had proved that society didn’t exist and that the individual was the agent in world, though it would seem to contradict his own work. It is also possible that Thatcher took the inspiration for her late environmentalism from the ecologists in 1978, though it took her a decade to do anything about it. Better accounts of what happened exist. The hubris of ecologists, the diminished concept of the individual, the supranational apparatus and political malaise was established long before the ecologists’ self-regarding dinner party had served up its starters.