Monthly Archives: November 2014

I have a review of Chris Rapley’s “play”, 2071, over at Breitbart London.

The latest development in the green colonisation of the cultural sphere is the planet-saving stage play. This year, the Royal Court Theatre commissioned Duncan Macmillian and Chris Rapley to adapt for the stage the latter’s concerns about the state of the planet when his eldest granddaughter will be the age he is now, in 2071. That year gives the play its title.

Yes, I actually went to see 2071.

I felt a bit sorry for Rapley at first. He was obviously nervous. And reviews were already saying that the performance was dull (“but important”). But then, I wondered who the hell puts themselves forward for this stuff? What colossal sense of self-importance is required to put oneself on the stage in this way, with nothing new to say?

I was going to discuss the difference between a lecture and a play in the article, but word limit precluded it. So here’s some brief thoughts not from the article.

I was lucky to have some great lecturers at university, and a few dreadful ones. If I was to do my time at uni again (which I would, without a second’s thought), I would choose more of my courses on the strength of the lecturers/seminar tutors. Of course, most arts degrees are dependent on self study. But a good lecture orients your study, lays out the coordinates, the history and the controversies of a subject, and thereby share their interest in something. Although many lecturers take quite strong positions on certain ideas, the best lecturers in my experience, were those who were not only unafraid of other ideas, but welcomed challenges to their own positions.

So my point here is not simply that Rapley’s lecture-play was dry and dull. It failed at being a play, and it failed at being a lecture too. It was more like what I imagine some kind of sermon to be, though, not being religious, I might not have understood the point of sermon’s correctly. Even preaching, I think, involves some element of putting yourself in front of a crowd with the expectation that they may challenge you.

What were the opportunities here, to challenge Rapley? It is true that The Royal Court Theatre have follow up events. But look at them:

1.30 – 2.30pm
Simon Graham, Environmental Strategist at Commercial Group, one of the biggest independent companies in the UK; Olivier Lawder, Creative Planner at Futerra, working to deliver sustainability campaigns; Bioregional Programme Manager, Tom Hill and Daniel Turner, Head of Disclosure at CDP.

It will seek to discover how and if business’ can operate commercially whilst lowering their carbon emissions.

6.00 – 7.00pm
Theatre-makers discuss responsibility towards Climate Change in their work
Speakers: Natalie Abrahami (Theatre Director), Natasha Chivers (Lighting Designer), Alison Tickell (CEO, Julie’s Bicycle) Ben Todd (Executive Director, Arcola Theatre) and Paul Handley (Production Manager, Chair).

Analysing the responsibility to climate change in their work and discussing more environmentally friendly ways of producing theatre.

11.00am – 12.30pm
Hosted by Paul Hoggett, Chairman of Climate Psychology Alliance from the University of West of England.

An interactive workshop to help audiences come to terms with psychological responses to Climate Change exploring the guilt and ambivalence we feel, and the dilemmas we face around the subject.

1.00pm – 2.30pm
Transition Town: the power of just doing stuff!
Hosted by Sarah McAdam, Transition Network and Hilary Jennings, co-founder of Transition Town Tooting.
A transition town is a grassroot community project that seeks to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction and economic instability.
Hear more about the spread of the Transition movement internationally, gain inspiration from the action communities are taking to help create a low carbon, socially-just, healthier and happier future and explore how you might get things started in your neighbourhood.

3.15 – 4.45pm
UpCycling, is it just a fad or could it be a way of life?
Let team AFRORETRO show you just how easy it is to breathe new life into your old, unwanted stuff.
In this workshop with the help of AFRORETRO; upgrade an old unwanted t-shirt into a one-of-kind, statement infinity scarf.
All materials will be provided but in the spirit of UpCycling please bring a t-shirt, the larger the better.
Sewing skills not necessary however imagination and curiosity a must.

5:15pm – 6:45pm
Hosted by Caralampo Focas, from Oxford University.
Caralampo Focas is an experienced researcher with an established international reputation. For over 25 years he has been writing, consulting and researching into transport, consumer and quality of life themes, expanding the research horizons in methodological, social, economic, comparative and policy issues.

11am – 7pm (15 minute slots throughout the day)

Jane Orton and Tony Wragg will assess your carbon footprint then discuss practical ways to reduce it.

Jane Orton has been working as a psychotherapist for over 20 years. She was formerly a teacher and educationalist, member of a radical theatre group and for a long period lived in a community aiming for sustainability. She is a keen cyclist and tandem rider. She has been involved with Carbon Conversations since 2009 is a Designated Trainer and Community and commercial Facilitator.

Tony Wragg practices as a psychotherapist, but had a quite different earlier career as an engineer and research and development manager. He provides consultancy on technology and intellectual property. He continues a lifelong love affair with the Scottish Highlands and is a passionate on-and-off-road cyclist. He has been involved in Carbon Conversations since 2009 and is a Designated Trainer and Community and Commercial Facilitator.

There is no suggestion in these workshops that the academic can be challenged. Their purpose is instead instruction. You can talk to a psychotherapist about your carbon footprint, or have a group therapy session about your feelings of climate guilt. But there is no opportunity to put to Rapley or his workshop leaders that other perspectives might exist.

The only sense that a question remained unanswered in Rapley’s talk was the question he said science couldn’t answer: “what kind of world do we want to live in”, he asked. But the choice he was offering was only a world in which we did as we had been told, or face ecological Armageddon. His question was rhetorical.

But there is much to take issue with. What struck me was his glib treatment of the facts, in fact. Like many of his kind, for example, Rapley trotted out the “$500 bn a year on fossil fuels” line, that was discussed here a few posts ago.

If the academic hasn’t researched this very simple claim, how much confidence should we have in the rest of his presentation, much less the moral consequences that seem to emerge in consequence?

And there’s the problem in a nutshell. If the environmental argument is protected from interrogation, and is delivered in circumstances that preclude debate, in what sense is it based in science? How can Rapley’s epic appeal to authority be legitimised, when it is presented in such a way as to deprive it of the virtue that legitimises it?

It’s Lewandowsky time, again. ‘Are you a poor logician? Logically, you might never know‘, he observes with Richard Pancost over at the Conversation Nonversation. More about that logic shortly…

At the Nonversation, of course, comments from Lewandowsky’s critics have been removed. Meanwhile, Andy West has a three part series (one, two, three) over at WUWT examining Lewandowsky’s work in considerable detail. Lewandowsky and Pancost’s (‘L&P’ hereafter) new logic, the deleted comments and the exhaustive critique of his work reflect in microcosm the climate change debate.

It has been argued here before that the amazing thing about Lew is not simply the low quality of his work, but the failure of academe to act as a check on it. The professor of psychology makes bold claims. He believes that he understands the entire world’s relationship to the natural world. He believes he understands the natural world, and professes expertise in climate science. And he believes he knows how society should be organised. Surely he is a true Renaissance Man… A polymath… A Renaissance Polymath… Or he is an epic blowhard.

The task of taking Lewandowsky et al to task has fallen to bloggers (and latterly José Duarte). It is bloggers who have identified the problems with Lew’s claims, and tried to bring them to the attention of a largely indifferent academic community, who don’t seem at all willing to hold an academic to account.

Perhaps this is understandable. The climate debate is hostile. And in spite of claims that bloggers are the agents of this hostility, Academics can be found making statements — such as the idea that influential climate sceptics ought to face the death penalty — which don’t exactly serve to cool the atmosphere, much less shed any light on the matters of debate.

But the trouble for those academics is the fact that, if the academy’s standard is so low as is necessary to admit Lewandowsky’s work, it says something about the standards of every discipline that Lew comments on, from psychology outwards, to climate science. If the academy cannot check itself, its population have no business acting as a check on society, and on power in particular. The academy is redundant.

This not to say that academe’s rightful role is to be the check on society, or to supply policy-makers with the closest possible approximation of the the Truth. But those roles are what the academy seems to increasingly sold itself as in recent years.

Of course, someone might say that the academy — for the first time since scholasticism was eschewed — really had settled on a consensus. But a more likely explanation is that a political settlement — dogma — was established, either spontaneously or by design. The most political arguments made in the climate debate by academics are made by those pronouncing on the ‘psychology’ of climate change ‘denial’, just as psychologists were able, per the political orthodoxy of the era, to deal with political dissidents in Soviet Russia. Whether or not a scientific consensus on climate change exists, and whatever the substance of that consensus is, academics have been slow to realise that ‘climate change’ has an ideological form, no matter how well grounded in science it is. Head-shrinking your political opponents is as political act as any form of apartheid. It delimits the putative subject’s political and civil rights, and confers to the psychologist political authority over that subject.

Academic resistance to that observation results in hostility towards not only those who might dare utter it, but towards the public in general. Lewandowsky, amongst others, set about overcoming the impasse by belittling sceptics, primarily, but also the faculties of the wider public, and thereby to elevate academics. The public must STFU, said Lewandowsky, or challenge his work through the ‘proper channels’ — i.e. academic publishing. When that happened, and a paper he had authored was eventually withdrawn, he accused those he had previously accused of ‘conspiracy ideation’, of organising a conspiracy against him.

Because I value freedom of speech and academic freedom, I oppose and resist the bullying and intimidation employed by some opponents who refuse to engage in scientific debate by avoiding peer review. My thoughts and experiences are summarized in an article on the Subterranean War on Science.


In no way do my values suggest that debate should be curtailed: I merely insist that a scientific debate should take place in the scientific literature and that the public be put in a position where it can make an informed judgment about the voices that are opposing mainstream science on crucial issues ranging from climate change to vaccination.

The problem for Lewandowsky is that if the observation that academia and its institutions have been colonised by political environmentalism is true to any extent, there would exist a barrier against dissent passing peer review. And there is good evidence that this is the case. There are entire academic institutions and university departments given over to a particular view of climate change, and of promoting that view in the public sphere. There is almost no possibility of substantive criticism emerging from these institutions, or through academic publishers, the editors and peer reviewers of which hail from those organisations, and whose editorial policies are equivalent to a lobbying organisation’s. Lewandowsky was calling for debate to be curtailed. That is what it means to create ‘ethics’ which preclude the unwashed masses from the sphere of public debate, and that is what is meant by his studies into the ‘psychology’ of named people he disagrees with and those who have the audacity to disagree with him. That is exactly what Lewandowsky did when he used dodgy statistical techniques to attack his critics, and what he did when he hid his shameful political ideas behind dodgy mathematics

Lewandowsky and Pancost’s (L&P) new argument is that…

It is an unfortunate paradox: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance. And if you don’t know much about a topic, you’re unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance.

Is this true? I cannot play the banjo, which as anyone who has seen this scene in Deliverance knows, it looks like it would be fun to be able to play. Yet I am very confident indeed in my ability to assess my own performance. If I were to attempt a performance, it would be as obvious to my own ears as it would be to any expert’s. Yet L&P counter:

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

This is obviously bullshit, or no progress would have ever been made in any field in which it is possible to be an expert, for the simple reason that, if confidence is inversely proportional to ignorance, nobody would ever have developed the inclination to advance their understanding.

L&P refer to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which claims that people who do less well in tests of their knowledge over-estimate their performance. Say L&P:

People whose logical ability was in the bottom 12% (so that 88 out of 100 people performed better than they did) judged their own performance to be among the top third of the distribution. Conversely, the outstanding logicians who outperformed 86% of their peers judged themselves to be merely in the top quarter (roughly) of the distribution, thereby underestimating their performance.

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

The claim, of course, is that sceptical climate change experts’ confidence belies their expertise. However, L&P’s own argument defeats them. Kruger and Dunning’s observation applies to the first and second quantile of their study’s participants, not to people with knowledge. Even the unnamed subject of L&P’s broadside — Anthony Watts — has extensive knowledge of the concepts in the climate debate, whether or not he counts, on their view, as a an expert. One could not, for example, devise a study such as Watt’s Surface Stations project and formulate a hypothesis about the recording of errors in the temperature record without such knowledge. And the same holds for individuals with established expertise in climate science, like Richard Lindzen, Patrick Michaels and John Christie, who are routinely vilified by Lewandowsky’s colleagues.

L&P extend the point. The problem, they claim, is that a putative expert’s confidence is fundamental in our evaluation of their level of expertise.

Does this mean that the poorest-performing — and hence most over-confident — expert is believed more than the top performer whose displayed confidence may be a little more tentative? This rather discomforting possibility cannot be ruled out on the basis of existing data.

If this is true, it has more worrying implications for L&P’s own argument than it has for climate sceptics…

there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from our economic activities are altering the Earth’s climate. This consensus is expressed in more than 95% of the scientific literature and it is shared by a similar fraction — 97-98% – of publishing experts in the area. In the present context, it is relevant that research has found that the “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” of the few dissenting researchers “are substantially below that of the convinced researchers”.

The “overwhelming consensus” might well be, on L&P’s admission, nothing more than the product of so many self-deceived experts’ over-estimation of themselves, except for their caveat that experts are “those who publish in the peer-reviewed literature in their area of expertise”. It’s a surprising thing for a Chair of Cognitive Psychology at University of Bristol and a Professor of Biogeochemistry, Director of the Cabot Institute at University of Bristol to admit about debates about climate science, in a non peer-reviewed journal such as the Nonversation. L&P still defeat themselves.

The more substantive problem with the argument, if we take it at face value, is it’s own inability to understand the terms of the climate debate. L&P serve, again, as an object lesson in ‘the consensus without an object‘. As is discussed in the previous post, journalists tripped over their own ignorance of the debate. The idea of consensus preceded their knowledge of the consensus. So when their knowledge of the arguments in currency did advance, it appeared to them as a change of argument in the climate debate. The facts were plain: the journalists didn’t know what the consensus was, nor what the argument of the sceptics was, and so they didn’t notice that the putative sceptics’ arguments were not in fact outside of the consensus at all.

L&P play a similar game. Equally there is no object — no substance — to the consensus they propose. It means nothing to say “there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from our economic activities are altering the Earth’s climate”, because the statement is not quantified. This is the point also discussed in the previous post. If L&P quantified the consensus, they would be forced to notice that the putative sceptics’ claims, also quantified, do not exist outside of the consensus. The consensus is broad.

L&P’s logic is a binary logic applied to a debate to which binary axioms do not apply. Even at its most simple, the debate about global warming is a debate about a property of the Earth, which is a question of degree. The ‘consensus’ position encompasses a range of estimates, produced by research, none of which is true (or closer to the truth) by virtue of its proximity to others. To reduce the debate to a matter of binary logic is make statements equivalent to the claim that ‘the economy is true’, or ‘Wednesday is purple’.

L&P’s omission of nuance is startling, given their claim to be concerned about misinformation by ignorant non-experts. I don’t think they’re ignorant. I think they do it deliberately. If I have over-estimated their intelligence, I apologise to them.

One of the things I’ve tried to point out here is the emptiness of the categories and concepts that dominate reporting on the climate debate. In particular, the notion of ‘consensus’ has become so entirely divorced from its substance that those who invoke it often have no idea what it refers to. It is a ‘consensus without an object‘.

The idea that there is a scientific consensus, and a tiny opposing minority then informs coverage of the debate. These coordinates are forced over any story about the climate, which dares to raise the subject of the climate debate, rather than the inevitable doom. There are scientists, and there are sceptics, and never the twain shall meet.

But this polarisation exists much more in the heads of reporters than real life. The consensus is far more nebulous than many will admit.

Take BBC’s Environment Analyst, Roger Harrabin’s recent report on Nic Lewis’s research in the light of IPCC reports, for example.

‘Are the Climate Wars over?’ asks the presenter, introducing Harrabin… “We have reached the point now, where many climate sceptics are singing off the same hymbook as mainstream science over the effects of CO2..”, he claims.

Harrabin’s claim is brilliantly illustrated by Josh over at Bishop Hill.

It sounded like Roger thought sceptics were now changing their tune but clearly, with lower sensitivity, The Pause and no hope of any global policy harmony on the horizon, the strains that are coming from the alarmist camp now have much more of a sceptic air.

Indeed, and it has to be pointed out to Roger — other mistakes about his reproduction of Lewis’s research to one side — that the IPCC’s estimated range of climate sensitivity has changed, as is revealed by the AR5 WGI SPM [PDF]:

The equilibrium climate sensitivity quantifies the response of the climate system to constant radiative forcing on multi-century time scales. It is defined as the change in global mean surface temperature at equilibrium that is caused by a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. Equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C (high confidence), extremely unlikely less than 1°C (high confidence), and very unlikely greater than 6°C (medium confidence)16. The lower temperature limit of the assessed likely range is thus less than the 2°C in the AR4, but the upper limit is the same. This assessment reflects improved understanding, the extended temperature record in the atmosphere and ocean, and new estimates of radiative forcing.

And the footnote:

No best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies.

The consensus changed between AR4 and AR5. But does this bring sceptics and the consensus closer together than they were?

Other BBC staff clearly got Harrabin’s memo. Yesterday, the GWPF’s Benny Peiser then appeared on BBC News 24…

The interviewer said to Peiser:

If you look at the whole argument… If you look at the historical difference between [sceptics vs scientists] The sceptics have said initially there’s no warming, then they’ve said it’s not down to man, and now they do seem, you do seem to be coming more into line with the international body of thinking over what is going to happen in the future. […] Take Nic Lewis, leading sceptical scientist, recent report coming out with forecast figures that are very much in line with the UN’s.

But how much have the sceptics changed their tune in relation to the consensus?

Going through some old articles of mine, I found my review of Iain Stewart’s BBC series, Earth: The Climate Wars for Spiked in 2008 — six years ago. The series had been co-written by Naomi Oreskes.

After a section featuring Christopher Monckton and his views that much climate science was fraudulent near the end of episode two, Stewart said,

To me, such attacks are a sure sign that the scientific battle is over. And sure enough, perhaps the most surprising thing at the sceptic’s conference is what I heard at the keynote speech.

The film then shows Patrick Michaels taking the stage at the 2008 International Conference on Climate Change. Stewart continues…

For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet today he’s in surprising agreement with advocates {sic} of global warming. […] He accepts the globe is warming. But the truly astonishing thing is he also accepts that we are partly to blame. […] [to camera]: You know I’ve heard things here that’s really surprised me. I’ve heard things I really didn’t expect to hear climate sceptics to say. They say global warming is happening. Temperatures are going up. And that humans are somehow implicated in some degree. That’s amazing. Those issues, it looks like, are behind us.

Stewart had claimed, six years ago, that Pat Michaels — who is in the first division of the environmentalist’s demonology — had changed his mind about climate change. But as I reported at the time,

‘For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet, today, he’s in surprising agreement with the advocates of global warming’, said Stewart. Michaels is then shown giving his talk, saying ‘global warming is real, and in the second half of the twentieth century, humans had something to do with it’. But there is nothing surprising about Michael’s apparent turnaround, because it isn’t one. A 2002 article in the Journal of Climatic Research, authored by Michaels et al argued for a revision of the IPCC’s projections for the year 2100. Instead of saying that there would be no warming, the paper concluded that rises of ‘of 1.0 to 3.0 degrees Celsius, with a central value that averages 1.8 degrees Celsius’ were more likely than the IPCC’s range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius. Hardly climate change denial.

The abstract of Michaels et al 2002 [PDF] is as follows.

Temperature projections for the 21st century made in the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate a rise of 1.4 to 5.8°C for 1990–2100. However, several independent lines of evidence suggest that the projections at the upper end of this range are not well supported. Since the publication of the TAR, several findings have appeared in the scientific literature that challenge many of the assumptions that generated the TAR temperature range. Incorporating new findings on the radiative forcing of black carbon (BC) aerosols, the magnitude of the climate sensitivity, and the strength of the climate/carbon cycle feedbacks into a simple upwelling diffusion/energy balance model similar to the one that was used in the TAR, we find that the range of projected warming for the 1990–2100 period is reduced to 1.1–2.8°C. When we adjust the TAR emissions scenarios to include an atmospheric CO2 pathway that is based upon observed CO2 increases during the past 25 yr, we find a warming range of 1.5–2.6°C prior to the adjustments for the new findings. Factoring in these findings along with the adjusted CO2 pathway reduces the range to 1.0–1.6°C. And thirdly, a simple empirical adjustment to the average of a large family of models, based upon observed changes in temperature, yields a warming range of 1.3–3.0°C, with a central value of 1.9°C. The constancy of these somewhat independent results encourages us to conclude that 21st century warming will be modest and near the low end of the IPCC TAR projections.

By the standards of IPCC TAR, Michaels was not outside the consensus in 2002. And by the standards of AR4 in 2008, Michaels was not outside of the consensus when Iain Stewart made his films. The only ‘surprising’ thing revealed — as the punchline — by the second of three episodes of Climate Wars is that Stewart was ignorant of the debate he was reporting on. He had begun his film with a preconceived idea about the climate debate, as one divided into two camps — sceptics and deniers — disagreeing about a single proposition: “climate change is happening”. And then, when he encountered the more nuanced reality, he imagined that it was sceptics who had changed their position. It was Stewart’s desire to frame the debate that led to his misreporting.

Harrabin tells me via email that there wasn’t enough time in a three-minute slot to cover the nuances of the debate. But Stewart, with his three-part series of hour-long episodes cannot make such a claim. And this error characterises so much BBC coverage of the ‘Climate Wars’. Unfortunately for Harrabin, who thinks the convergence of the sceptics and the consensus is new, and therefore an interesting development, the Climate Wars series and Michaels’ 2002 paper show that sceptics’ estimates haven’t changed much.

And the BBC’s treatment of climate sceptics hasn’t changed much either. It is surely a welcome thing that, be it on the Today Programme, or BBC News 24, or Earth: The Climate Wars, sceptics’ arguments at least get a little airtime. But the substance of those interviews, and the narrative around them, the editorial decisions about what is included from those interviews, and the questions asked are all informed by the same preconceived and false understanding of the debate, and the positions within it.

BBC journalists in particular trip over their own framing of the climate debate. They imagine it to be sharply divided, but when they discover nuance, they report a shift in positions with respect to the consensus, like the misconception of the Sun’s displacement through the sky leading to the misapprehension of a geocentric universe. They’re not reporting developments from climate science, or from the climate debate, just their own misunderstanding of what they see.

Here’s my talk from the recent Battle of Ideas festival session — Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children? — which some readers may find interesting. Some context: it begins with a reference to the proposal to ban smoking in public parks in Britain.

The assumption in arguments to ban smoking is that smoker and non-smokers cannot negotiate between themselves. The no smoking sign when it is required by law then, is functionally equivalent to a no thinking sign.

I can see why some people might find that claim far-fetched. It’s not a huge inconvenience to say, ‘you have to go over there to smoke’. Smoking is smelly, after all.

Banning things like smoking may seem trivial, but underpinning the banning is a fundamental shift in political culture that can be seen more broadly, operating at different levels of society, finding different expression in various aspects of public and private life.

My interest is in debates about the environment, and the political ideas which underpin those debates. I don’t think it’s enough to take the interventions we’re talking about – that treat adults as children — at face value, as face-value treatments of real problems.

For example: I wasn’t surprised to see that Alan Johnson MP had written an article in the Guardian called ‘If I were king for a day, I would ban coca cola’. That company, he believes, forces people to drink sugary pop. “My power allows me to save adults from themselves”, he said “to push them towards healthier beverages such as rooibos tea and mango juice”.

When Sir Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society was asked by Prospect magazine what he would do if he ruled the world. He said that “Only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely”.

REES: “Space-ship Earth is hurtling through space. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their entire life-support system is vulnerable to break-downs. But there is no ‘captain’ —no authority to safeguard the planet’s future.”

So I believe the premise of both Rees and Johnson’s positions is roughly the same: if we’re not even capable of deciding what to drink, how can we possibly take part in big decisions about the environment, or the management of the economy?

If it were only Martin Rees or Alan Johnson saying it, it would be easier to take their arguments at face value. But every political institution seems to be making the same order of claim.

On Rees’s view, democracy is not a sufficiently capable captain of “spaceship earth. It’s not enough for Rees that we should decide who the captain should be, and what his standing orders are. The public are simply not competent to make that choice. They lack the knowledge, expertise, and intelligence to make choices about their government.

What I think is going on here in political terms is that rather than seeking a mandate from the public, political authority increasingly turns to researchers, doctors, scientists and special interest groups. It is from them we get the claim that sugar is like crack cocaine, and that the planet is like a spaceship without a captain, careering towards its doomsday.

Researchers are commissioned to identify risks – even the most theoretical risks – give power to arguments for something to be done, and for new political organisations to see that something is done.

Nicholas Stern for example, author of the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, which set the ground for much UK climate policy, claims that ‘policy making is usually about risk-management’.

Stern gives the game away. Back when people were mostly able to manage their own exposure to risk, “policy makers’ used to be called ‘politicians’, and policy-making was called politics.

But politics has been hollowed out in this new political settlement and debates descend to the parent-child or doctor-patient metaphors because these are the zero-level of dependent relationships. And this is all about creating dependent relationships, rather than relationships based on assent, or consent, by willing, engaged subjects.

In conclusion then, I don’t think we should take the attempt to eliminate risks from public and private life at face value. Risk Society, as it was conceived by Ulrich Beck and Blair’s favourite sociologist, Anthony Giddens has been used as a political instrument, not to mitigate risk.

That’s not to say that risks do not exist. They certainly do. But under the logic of Risk Society, the more the ordinary adult’s faculties are diminished, so the greater the risk they are exposed to appears to be, and so the greater the imperative for the government to intervene becomes.

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