Monthly Archives: March 2014
I have an article over at Spiked, on the matter of that dodgy ‘NASA-funded’ end-is-nigh report.
The article, by the catastrophile and author of The Crisis of Civilisation, Nafeez Ahmed, was soon picked up by dozens of other newspapers, and hundreds of websites, all over the world. ‘NASA-funded study warns of “collapse of civilisation” in coming decades’, screamed the Independent. ‘Industrial civilisation “may be heading toward collapse” within decades because of its strain on the planet’s resources, NASA report finds’, yelled the Daily Mail.
It was written last week. Since then, Keith Kloor has given at least Ahmed’s version of the study a well-deserved spanking for his low journalistic standards.
Ahmed wrote an uncritical appraisal of the study. He didn’t bother to inquire about the merits of the model or its results.
Ahmed, is, though, a catstrophile, excited by the possibility of Judgement Day, and accordingly preoccupied. He responds to Kloor back at the gloomy-doomy Guardian:
Journalistic standards won’t be upheld by attempting to discredit science we don’t like
There is obviously no room, in Ahmed’s version of ‘journalist standards’, between salivating over scientific doomsayers, and rejecting all science.
Weirdly, part of Ahmed’s defence is this claim
Which links to yet another article of Ahmed’s, the optimism in which appears to be this,
As energy is the underpinning of a society, the unravelling of the fossil fuel system signifies the demise of the old paradigm. By the end of this century, one way or another, this paradigm will be obsolete. It’s up to us what will take its place – and as the death-spiral of the old paradigm accelerates, so do the opportunities to explore viable alternatives.
The new emerging paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human – values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.
The unravelling of the fossil fuel system is, of course, witnessed only by Ahmed. The rest of the world is consuming more of it than ever before, and so it is a good thing that more of it seems to have been found.
And in any case, it’s a weird kind of optimism, that is predicated on a chaotic transition from one ‘paradigm’ to another, like some kind of traumatic re-birth. Ahmed imagines the benefits of a post-economic society in an era clearly characterised by scarcity, rather than abundance. The environmentalist fantasises that we will re-discover our lost humanity through poverty — that we will have nice, fluffy politics, in spite of only a basic level of life.
In this model, households, communities and towns become producers and consumers of clean energy – and the same could apply to food.
We should reject this model.
I do not want to grow my own food, nor produce my own energy. 1. I wouldn’t be very good at it. 2. I don’t have enough time. 3. I have better things to do.
And I do not want to live in a ‘community’ which is bought together by necessity. If it floats your boat, more power to your elbows (and your comrades’ elbows). But there’s more to life than eating and sh*tting, and correspondingly, more to life than growing food and clearing up sh*t.
I would rather choose where I live, choose what I do, and choose what to have for dinner.
I don’t believe, as Ahmed seems to, that the Good Life exists in the post-fossil world he imagines. People do not discover humanity in subsistence. Yes, it is a Good Thing when humans cooperate to achieve each others’ or their shared aims. But Ahmed can only picture such ‘interdependence’ in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
This form of ethics is as crass as the motivations depicted by second rate Hollywood disaster B-movies. In such movies, some asteroid, alien-invasion, zombies or the incautious meddling of scientists, wipe the slate clean, removing the problem of determining consent for authority through political means — democracy. Only the virtuous survive the disaster, leaving intact those who were brought together by, yes, necessity. The agent of catastrophe is just a metaphor for misanthropy, or at least, the author’s inarticulate expression of rage at other people’s disobedience.
The ethics of doom are infantile. The likes of Ahmed don’t seem to be able to make a distinction between the failure to assert their will over the world and the end of the world. And they are narcissistic — consumed by themselves.
Speaking of crap films. Here is a film version of Ahmed’s thesis, in which he looks for an encompassing theory to explain ALL of the world’s problems.
As we all now know, Marcel Crok and Nicholas Lewis have written a report on the IPCC’s treatment of climate sensitivity, published by the GWPF. The GWPF’s press release is here, the long version of the report is here, and the short version is here.
Andrew Orlowski has a nice piece on the report comprising a Q&A with Lewis at the Register.
The nuts and bolts of the science have never been of interest to this blog — that is for other blogs. But what is interesting about challenges to putative mainstream climate science is the responses that they generate. The scientific controversy isn’t generally very interesting, except to those who already take a particular interest in climate science’s debates. What this blog argues is that the treatment of scientific debates often reveal much more about the prevailing politics — the context of the climate debate — than a narrow treatment of scientific questions can reveal.
To take one crude example, Exactly seven years ago today, Martin Durkins’ film, The Great Global Warming Swindle (aka TGGWS) was broadcast on Channel 4. TGGWS rightly or wrongly suggested that variations in solar output might be indirectly driving changes in the planet’s temperature. This may or may not have advanced science or the public’s understanding of the scientific arguments. But what it did reveal was the uglier side of the argument in favour of action to mitigate climate change. The climate change establishment mobilised against the film, calling for its censorship. “Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements”, complained Bob Ward, the charmless leader of this new inquisition.
But free speech means nothing if it does not mean the freedom to make misleading statements, either in good faith or bad. My claim here might raise eyebrows. But the obvious problem with Ward’s claim is that individuals like him will shut down any reasonable debate on the basis of ‘factual accuracy’ once the state has determined it knows best what is or isn’t ‘factually accurate’. And as this blog has argued, the political utility of a scientific consensus was understood before the consensus was formed. Indeed, there is a good argument, whether or not ‘climate change is happening’, that a consensus was sought on climate change precisely because of its political utility, other consensuses in society being so hard to achieve in the current political environment. Politics has colonised science, whether or not climate science has understood the object of its study. The point, then, is not to say that people should be free to lie, but that it is an unfortunate consequence of saying that people should be free to speak the truth to the authoritarian impulses of lunatics like Robert Ward of the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics. And it’s not just journalists and the free press that Ward has his sights on — he also wants to prevent academics producing research that might slow the progress of the climate agenda, and to prevent academic journals from publishing that research.
Similarly, and as discussed here, Matthew England’s recent discovery of the ‘missing heat’ — right or wrong — in the oceans followed years of his somewhat angry criticisms of climate sceptics rightly pointing out the missing heat, leading to their claims, rightly or wrongly that climate science had erred. Once it became obvious that the heat was missing, England decided to go find it. Sceptics, far from distorting the scientific debate, had in fact, driven scientific discovery, whether or not they had been right about any aspect of climate science. Had Matt England’s ire been unbridled by such vulgar preoccupations as free speech, democracy, and academic independence — the sort of thing he and Ward seem hostile to — science may not have made the discovery he now claims as his own (if it is indeed a discovery). Moreover, anyone suggesting that the missing heat had found its way to the oceans might have found themselves thrown out of the academy for suggesting such a thing.
Time will tell whether Ward and England have accurately represented the science. Meanwhile, we can see their politics in its bright livery and shiny boots. So let’s get back to the current story, which is Lewis and Crok’s paper, published by the GWPF. What does the response to the report tell us about the politics of today’s climate debate?
There were some rapid replies from science. Notably, Piers Foster at Ed Hawkins’ Climate Lab Book, set out his own analysis of the Lewis & Crok paper, without — as far as I can tell — any obvious ideological baggage, though some sceptics pointed out that the reply was obfuscation, rather than a serious rejoinder. The consensus police arrived, as they are inclined to, to manage the situation in the way only they know how.
[‘And Then There’s Physics’ and ‘BBD’ visit the Climate Lab Book]
The Science Media Centre soon followed with an attempt at ‘expert reaction to new report on climate sensitivity published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation‘. The SMC’s approach to climate is less about getting clear scientific advice to the public debate than it is about getting rehearsed soundbytes from scientists into the press as quickly as possible. This is PR. And so it is no surprise that Bob Ward (him again!) sits on the organisation’s advisory committee. Readers of Bishop Hill blog will already know that Chief Executive of the SMC, Fiona Fox, is chairing a ‘debate’ about the question ‘Are there really two sides to every science story?‘ later this month, apparently in the wake of Lord Lawson’s appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme opposite Hoskins, which caused so much ire. Notably, the panellists do not include anyone from the side which might claim there is more than one story to the climate debate. It is populated, however, by Bob Ward (him again), and Steve Jones, whose views on sceptics on the BBC is not so different, as reported here, back in 2011.
“I think many now agree that the hallowed principle of ‘journalistic balance’ is problematic when it comes to science and no one has made that point more than me. But I also think we have to be careful about where lines are drawn. Reporting climate change or GM crops as if there is a 50/50 split in science is misleading, inaccurate and poor journalism. But that does not mean that media debates about these controversies should be monopolised by scientists to the exclusion of other voices. I have agreed to chair this debate because I genuinely sit somewhere in the middle and think this panel guarantees a thoughtful, grown up discussion between speakers who care passionately about getting this right.”
Fox’s claim that she sits ‘somewhere in the middle’ is unconvincing. Notice that the SMC did not canvass anyone who welcomed the report, whether they agreed with it or not, as a contribution to the debate. Instead, the SMC’s correspondents belittled it. The SMC trades on the view that ‘science’ produces single answers to simple questions, whereas in reality, science — especially climate science — is a messy process, which investigates poorly understood, and even less clearly defined problems. (If it were otherwise, there would be no need for science). Being ‘half way’ on the question about the appropriate balance of opinion (yes, opinion) in the media is not ‘half way’ between censorship and editorial freedom. The idea that one can be half way on such a question is almost as absurd as the idea that Bob Ward can contribute to a ‘a thoughtful, grown up discussion’, much less guarantee one.
The SMC has not challenged Ward’s particular form of emphasis on the science — and it couldn’t. And it has not challenged the nonsense emerging from environmental psychology, such as that coming from Cardiff University (about which more follows) and Stephan Lewandowsky. It has not challenged the tone or the content of the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisers’ comments on climate change, nor the Royal Society’s presidents, even where they have been entirely unscientific. And it couldn’t. What use is science to society, if its advocates are not brave enough to point out the nonsense that is produced in the name of the scientific consensus?
Ward now represents an extreme position in the climate debate, which, it seems clear, organisations and individuals will want to move away from in the near future. But for now, the division that Ward wants to maintain between the orthodox position and its critics is sustained, not by clearly articulated scientific dispute, but by a single, entrenched — although perhaps unconscious — political perspective. It emerges under Foster’s attempt to define the scientific disagreement, and it is perpetuated by SMC’s attempt to control the narrative in the wider sphere. The SMC’s emphasis on ‘expert opinion’, reflects the ‘values’ recently evinced by Lewandowsky, that debate about the climate and criticism of his own work is valid only when ‘addressed through proper channels’ — it ‘should take place in the scientific literature’. Lewandowsky is a demonstration of the academy’s failure, and the SMC a demonstration of the need for climate scepticism, right or wrong.
The BBC’s Environment Correspondent, Matt McGrath, then suggested that the report might in fact represent the ‘foremost bastions of contrariness when it comes to man-made climate change, admitting that temperatures were actually rising in response to human emissions of greenhouse gases’. It’s the sort of thing we probably expect from the BBC. But it was more surprising from Reiner Grundmann, who, following McGrath, noted,
‘This raises the interesting question how much of the Lewis/Crok paper is actually endorsed by the GWPF. Providing a platform for an IPCC critical analysis does not mean the organisation shares the details, or the broader message of the paper. Maybe the motivation was to undermine the IPCC’s authority.
I’ve always found Grundmann’s writing interesting, there being a strong indication in his work that there’s more going on than the idea that environmentalism is a straightforward response to science. But the lack of sophistication in this analysis was disappointing, to say the least. Further noting Ed Hawkins’s comment that ‘if we broadly agree on this, the debate can crucially move on to what action is needed to deal with a warming planet‘, Grundmann goes on to claim,
If my reading is correct that the GWPF does not commit to this implication but is mainly interested in IPCC bashing, the invitation to Lewis and Crok may have led to a new dynamic. Commentators read this as a sign that there is some agreement emerging, despite the appearance to the contrary (because the GWPF emphasises that the sensitivity analysis is different between Lewis/Crok and IPCC).
It is now up to the GWPF to re-state their position with regard to climate policies: is there reason to act or to bury the head in the sand?
This seems to be the reasoning:
1. Lewis and Crok assess the IPCC’s assessment of the science on climate sensitivity.
2. Lewis and Crok determine that the IPCC over-estimates climate sensitivity.
3. But Lewis and Crock’s estimate is not radically different to the IPCC’s.
4. The GWPF published Lewis and Crock’s report.
5. But the GWPF are deniers of climate change.
6. The GWPF is must commit to the implications of Lewis and Crok’s proximity to the IPCC estimate.
7. The implications are still that a lower estimate of climate sensitivity means ‘there is a reason to act’.
It seems that many are surprised that the GWPF seem to have published a report that doesn’t say that ‘there is no such thing as climate change’. Yet of all the reports published by them, not one expresses a view of the debate as has been portrayed.
Jonathan Jones from the University of Oxford was the first to point out the obvious problem, in this superb comment:
It has been amusing to watch the apparent surprise of many climate scientists at their discovery that many “climate sceptics” are actually lukewarmers. Taking a rough and ready definition, that lukewarmers believe in AGW but doubt catastrophic AGW, one could reasonably place many of the more famous sceptics (Liljegren, McIntyre implicitly, Montford, Watts explicitly) in that camp, together with a number of “maverick” climate scientists (Curry, Lewis, Lindzen). Indeed it has long seemed to me that the unspoken position of Klimazwiebel itself has sympathy for lukewarmerdom.
What does not follow from this, however, is Ed’s suggestion that “the debate can crucially move on to what action is needed to deal with a warming planet”. Or to be more precise that is, as it always has been, a reasonable question, but a perfectly reasonable answer at the moment would be “little or nothing”. Many lukewarmers are also “policy sceptics”, and their view that current policy responses are hopelessly ineffective, with costs far exceeding any conceivable benefits, remains unchanged.
And straying briefly into more dangerous territory, lukewarmers can and do remain highly critical of the IPCC, the hockey stick, the climategate fiasco, the Lewandowsky nonsense, and the bizarre idea that sceptics are a bunch of “fossil fuel funded deniers”. True peace in our time requires mainstream climate science to acknowledge a few uncomfortable truths.
Similarly, Benny Peiser responded,
I’m afraid both Matt McGrath and Reiner Grundmann misunderstand the GWPF and our work. They should know better.
Our mission statement and philosophy has been known ever since we launched the GWPF in 2009 and is prominently posted on our website:
* We have developed a distinct set of principles that set us apart from most other stakeholders in the climate debates:
* The GWPF does not have an official or shared view about the science of global warming – although we are of course aware that this issue is not yet settled.
* On climate science, our members and supporters cover a broad range of different views, from the IPCC position through agnosticism to outright scepticism.
As a matter of fact, we don’t even have a collective view on the excellent new report by Nic Lewis and Marcel Crok.
We are promoting an open debate, our opponents are trying to close it down.
And reiterated the point later:
GWPF members have different views on most subject matters. The only issue we all agree upon: that there is a manifest lack of an open, frank and critical climate debate.
To encourage open discussion and critical assessment is the main raison d’être of our work and existence.
Which was denied by Grundmann:
You are trying to paint the GWPF as a group without clear direction as every member has different views. I think this is misleading. The GWPF occupies a well defined space in the ecosystem of climate change discourse.
I took the issue up with Grundmann, who tweeted, “Has the GWPF become lukewarm?”
I asked, “You say GWPF may have ‘become’ something. What was it before? Perhaps it is only prejudices that have changed.”
Grundmann didn’t want to dwell on the question. But I think it is the most interesting question in the entire debate. Grundmann claims that the GWPF can be easily defined. But it would seem he has much trouble defining it, to the point that he couldn’t answer a question about its putative transformation, reflected in the publication of Lewis and Crok.
As is discussed here often, the most powerful misconception of the climate debate is that is divides on the proposition ‘climate change is happening’. This is presented as a scientific claim, though when one tries to understand what it means, and what its consequences are, unpacking it reveals that it means precisely nothing, and the consequences might mean anything between a trivial change in the weather, through to the collapse of civilisation and the end of all life on Earth. This ambiguity turns nuanced arguments and analyses into cartoons, and would seem to put Lewis and Crok opposite the GWPF, who have published broad criticism of climate policy and also of some particular scientific questions. Worse, this tendency allows politics or ‘ideology’ to be presented as ‘science’, and so to preclude debate. All Ed Davey has to do, for instance, to wave away criticism of his energy policy is claim that it is the expression of denial of climate science. Grundmann’s thinking is no more sophisticated.
Yet Grundmann’s academic profile claims that his interests are,
Sociotechnical Systems, Social Philosophy, Power (social), Political Science, Economic Sociology, Political Sociology, Pure Sociology, Social Theory, Comparative Politics, Climate Change, Sustainable Transportation, Sociology, Sociology of Knowledge, Global Environmental Governance, Science and technology studies, and Environmental Sustainability
How do political sociologists develop such blind spots in the climate debate, such that publishing a “lukewarm” report means a tiny organisation with few resources has radically altered its presumed position? The presumption is the key. If the GWPF had stated a position on the necessity of political action with respect to the magnitude of climate sensitivity prior to Lewis and Crok, Grundmann would be right to demand some revision of it, or remain ‘IPCC-bashers’. But I’m fairly sure that what concerns the GWPF’s members is the same as what has concerned this blog over the last seven years:
1. That climate’s sensitivity to CO2 is not equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate.
2. That political and scientific arguments are routinely confused.
3. That scientific expertise is used to prevent political debate about important questions.
4. That institutional science has allowed itself to be colonised by political agendas.
This blog has never taken a particular view on climate science. The criticism here is of environmentalism, broadly defined as a political phenomenon, in which the above problems (1-4) are epitomised. Yet it finds itself categorised as a blog for ‘scepticism’ or ‘denial’. This is all anyone seems to need to know.
The blind spot is a phenomenon that political sociologists ought to be conscious of, and to make an object of their study. I pointed out the problem to Grundmann on twitter, passing him a link to a new study coming out of the Tyndall Centre:
What is climate change scepticism? Examination of the concept using a mixed methods study of the UK public
Capstick, S., and N. Pidgeon
The holding of doubts about climate change is often referred to as ‘scepticism’. However, there has been a lack of clarity in previous work as to what exactly this scepticism comprises. We integrate data obtained from discussion groups and a nationally representative survey, to interrogate and refine the concept of climate change scepticism with respect to the views of members of the public. We argue that two main types should be distinguished: epistemic scepticism, relating to doubts about the status of climate change as a scientific and physical phenomenon; and response scepticism, relating to doubts about the efficacy of action taken to address climate change. Whilst each type is independently associated by people themselves with climate change scepticism, we find that the latter is more strongly associated with a lack of concern about climate change. As such, additional effort should be directed towards addressing and engaging with people’s doubts concerning attempts to address climate change. © 2013 The Authors.
What is much more interesting to this “climate sceptic” than any claims about whether or not ‘climate change is happening’ is the implication of Capstic and Pidgeon’s abstract, that it is their role, as academics, to direct ‘additional effort … towards addressing and engaging with people’s doubts concerning attempts to address climate change’.
Imagine, for example, that researchers at a school of psychology at a university had authored a paper that aimed to understand why people voted for a particular mainstream political party, which then suggested ways that interventions might be made to encourage them to vote for another. NB, I am not suggesting here that researchers should not be allowed to have such biases, or even that the academy should not be a place where people are able to develop persuasive political ideas — on the contrary. But there is something weird about this form of ‘research’ which aims to change the dynamics of debates about public policy in this way.
Capstic and Pidgeon’s paper, like many investigations into climate scepticism — Lewandowsky’s, for instance — makes it an object of study rather than the ground of a debate. In table two, for example, they identify a list of 20 expressions of scepticism:
* There is too much conflicting evidence about climate change to know whether it is actually happening
* Current climate change is part of a pattern that has been going on for millions of years
* Climate change is just a natural fluctuation in Earth’s temperatures
* Even if we do experience some consequences from climate change, we will be able to cope with them
* The effects of climate change are likely to be catastrophic
* The evidence for climate change is unreliable
* There are a lot of very different theories about climate change<comma> and little agreement about which is right
* Scientists have in the past changed their results to make climate change appear worse than it is
* Scientists have hidden research that shows climate change is not serious
* Climate change is a scam
* Social/behavioural scepticism measures
* Climate change is so complicated, that there is very little politicians can do about it
* There is no point in me doing anything about climate change because no-one else is
* The actions of a single person doesn’t make any difference in tackling climate change
* People are too selfish to do anything about climate change
* Not much will be done about climate change, because it is not in human nature to respond to problems that won’t happen for many years
* It is already too late to do anything about climate change
* The media is often too alarmist about climate change
* Environmentalists do their best to emphasise the worst possible effects of climate change
* Climate change has now become a bit of an outdated issue
* Whether it is important or not, on a day-to-day basis I am bored of hearing about climate change
There’s plenty of material coming out of Cardiff to occupy political sociologists. But they seem more interested in the putative transformation in the GWPF than in reflecting critically on the new role of academics, and the diminished understanding of the public.Rather than positions to be argued with, the entries on this table are taken as merely arbitrary expressions of some kind of irrational motivation. But the consequence of this is that, far from developing an understanding of ‘what scepticism is’, the researchers only engage with their own prejudices. There is no dialogue. They aim to sample scepticism, by analysing sceptics (which ones?) comments, but only end up sampling their own heads, rather than testing the categories and ideas they have developed. Thus, Capstic and Pidegon tell us more about themselves than about sceptics.
Grundmann, Capstic, Pidgeon, Lewandowsky, The SMC, McGrath, and Ward, although their tones and their general approaches to the climate debate differ, cannot help but merely reproduce their own ignorance of their subjects. The GWPF’s position is a mystery to them. So when it becomes obvious that there is lukewarmism amongst the GWPF fold, the coordinates on which that ignorance rested are disturbed. Rather than seeing the ignorance as the cause of that disturbance, it appears as a radical shift in the position of the GWPF. In the same way, a dizzy person sees the world spinning. If sceptics were taken more seriously, if there was a debate… if there was a political, or academic culture which accepted debate… Cardiff wouldn’t produce such rank pseudo-science, and social scientists in Nottingham could be more confident about the definition of ‘space in the ecosystem of climate change discourse’, but probably would chose his words — and his coordinates — more carefully.