Ben Pile

Science and Anti-Science. Again.

Posted by Ben Pile on January 20, 2014
Jan 202014

Michael Mann is denying the debate again, arguing in the New York Times, ‘If You See Something, Say Something‘.

THE overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.

Judith Curry has responded to the article, and other of Mann’s statements:

Well, I do like the title of Mann’s op-ed. Here is what I see. I see a scientist (Michael Mann) making an accusation against another scientist (me) that I am ‘anti-science,’ with respect to my EPW testimony. This is a serious accusation, particularly since my testimony is part of the Congressional record.
If Mann is a responsible scientist, he will respond to my challenge:
JC challenge to MM: Since you have publicly accused my Congressional testimony of being ‘anti-science,’ I expect you to (publicly) document and rebut any statement in my testimony that is factually inaccurate or where my conclusions are not supported by the evidence that I provide.

Scientist and non-scientist alike have, throughout the climate debate, struggled to identify precisely what it is they object to about counter-positions. This, it seems obvious to say, is because of the incoherence of their own proposition.

As I point out, the ‘scientific consensus on climate change’ turns out, in most instances to be a ‘consensus without an object’. Which is to say that most arguments for political action to mitigate climate don’t actually proceed from the science at all, and in many cases make up the content — i.e. ‘object’ — of the consensus to suit the argument. The claim, which Mann himself uses in the NYT, for example, that 97% of scientists agree that ‘climate change is real’ and that ‘we must respond to the dangers of a warming planet’ isn’t borne out by a reading of the survey, which was itself imprecise about its own definitions, and captures the perspectives Mann has himself dismissed as ‘anti-science’: sceptics are part of the putative ’97 per cent’. Few sceptics argue that ‘climate change is not real’.

It follows then, that their own argument being incoherent, the likes of Mann will misconceive challenges to it. Unless, that is, Mann’s rhetoric is strategic: to not let out of the bag the ‘it’s more complicated than it-is-or-it-is-not-happening’ cat. It might well be true that ‘climate change is real’. But it might not be a problem. It might well be a problem, but it might not be a problem, as it is framed, of survival vs apocalypse. It might not even be a problem that necessarily leads even to a single mortality. It might just be a big inconvenience, that drags on for centuries, but which takes nobody by surprise.

The refusal to admit questions of degree into the climate debate is a sure sign that the debate is neither as clearly divided as Mann claims, nor that science can resolve it simply. The division of the debate into binary, opposing categories is strategic, political. He might as well say it divides between goodies and baddies. He fails to accurately describe the debate he is taking a position in. And that is an even more interesting phenomenon than the discussion about who is taking which position with respect to the question ‘is climate change happening’.

Mann divides the debate into ‘science’ and ‘anti-science’. This has been tried many times. But the debate is not so easily characterised. And here’s why.

This is an ‘anti-science’ argument:

Knowledge about the world cannot be achieved through the systematic formulation and testing of hypotheses through observation and experimentation.

Here’s another:

All scientific enquiry is a sin against God.

This argument is wrong, but not anti-science:

There is no such thing as cancer.

The object of the claim is cancer, not the science which determined its existence. Taking issue with the object or finding of a scientific investigation is not the same thing as taking issue with science.

Even if someone were to claim, as Mann seems to believe is being claimed…

There is no such thing as climate change.

… it would not be ‘anti-science’. It’s not a denial of the scientific method, even if it seems to be a denial of what the scientific method has produced. Most sceptic positions in fact attempt to use, not deny, the value of science.

The mis-characterisation of the argument, however, is a denial of the scientific method. Mann believes he can rule out any objection to his argument, not by reference to either his own scientific argument, or to the argument which seemingly contradicts it, but by reference to the weight of opinion that seemingly supports it.

The argument is about authority, not about facts pertaining to the material world. If the argument were about facts about the material world — i.e. objects — the scientific consensus invoked by Mann, would have an object. Mann and his detractors would be divided over a proposition. They aren’t. Many sceptics agree that ‘climate change is real’. And many of them, and other people who have attracted the epithet ‘denier’ are scientists, doing science. Hence, Mann pretends first that the debate divides on the meaningless proposition, ‘climate change is real’, and then that it is a matter of science vs anti science.

What Mann and many others confuse is the difference between science as a process, and science as an institution.

As Curry explained recently, “Skepticism is one of the norms of science”. To deny criticism, and to refuse even to admit to the debate parameters that might let debate occur is to deny the scientific method. Mann, in attacking his detractors not through argument about the science, but by questioning their obedience to the orthodoxy, makes science a religion, like clerics accusing lesser holy men of heresy or infidelity — the claim only has gravity by virtue of science as an institution — the weight of numbers, and their affiliations — not by virtue of the claims and counter-claims having been tested.

Curry calls Mann’s bluff — he should make plain what is the scientific claim which is in dispute, but which shouldn’t be, and which are the claims in general that sceptics seemingly deny.

He won’t ever commit, however, because he can only commit to hollow propositions like ‘climate change is real’.

Countless arguments across the web and in public life fail ever to make it plain what it is they are actually about, precisely because such esteemed scientists as Mann — who want to influence politics — have not made any progress in identifying their own argument, either. More than 20 years of effort have not led to presidents or prime ministers — nor even their climate change ministers — making factually accurate statements about climate change, and especially the link between climate change and extreme weather events. The misrepresentation of the debate continues, repeated by the media, politicians, and scientists, each hiding behind the authority of institutional science.

Away from the debate that only exists in Mann et al’s heads — of one side representing the proposition ‘climate change is real’, and the other side denying it — it seems that there is a widespread view that planet has warmed, slightly. But that warmth is not as much as was expected, and a hunt has begun to find the ‘missing heat’ in the deep oceans. Moreover, attributing that warmth to human society has been harder than was expected. Furthermore, the consequences of that warmth for natural processes have been harder to establish than was expected. Even worse, the effect of those consequences on human society have not been identified at all, in spite of claims to the contrary. And finally, the effectiveness of policies intended to mitigate those non-existent effects has not been established, nor survived a robust cost-benefit analysis, much less won democratic support. Even in this very (over-) simplified view of the climate debate, these are at least five questions of degree, each of which contingent on the magnitude of the previous, but which are routinely waved away by claims that ‘climate change is real’, and that ‘the majority of scientists’ agree with the proposition, and that those who disagree are ‘anti-science’. Anyone invoking the consensus in debates about climate change are thus separated from reality by at least five degrees.

Mann urges us ‘if you see something, say something’. So we say what it is we have seen, and the reply is that what we have seen is the result of being anti-science. But science is about reconciling different perspectives, not excluding those perspectives which do not fit the political agenda that institutional science has attached itself to. If ‘seeing something’ obliges the seer to ‘say something’, it must oblige the seer to discuss it with those who see it differently, not to merely shout louder in an attempt to drown out the other perspective. Any failure to do so reveals that what the seer sees is not the product of science.

What the other perspectives variously urge, either directly or by implication, is a more thorough interrogation of the perspective that Mann et al offer. Mann wants to argue that what he sees is hard, cold, objective fact — a reading of the world as it is, uncontaminated by the fragility of the human perspective. But it’s not enough to say ‘climate change is real’. We have to agree on what climate change is, and what its consequences are. But as this blog argues, ‘climate change ‘ means many different things to many different people.

For some climate change means only some form of socialism can rescue the human race from extinction. For others it means the construction of supranational institutions to monitor and regulate global productive activity. For some it means opportunities for ‘clean tech’ venture capitalists. Whatever the material basis of Mann’s claims is, a look at the human world and the arguments about climate change should demonstrate that there is nothing simple about the ideas about society’s relationship with the natural world that are in currency, and that thus a great deal is expected of science, and is presupposed in scientific investigations of the natural world. Mann is saying more than that we can observe a rise in temperature and attribute it to anthropogenic CO2; like many others, he’s saying that there are consequences for other natural processes and for human society.

A cascade of presuppositions emerges when we try to unpack claims like Mann’s about the urgency of what they have ‘seen’. He resists criticism of those claims by lumping them in with the — uncontested, unquantified — claim that ‘climate change is real’, and by belittling his critics. The presuppositions of the claims he makes need unpacking, and they need debate as much as they need to be taken seriously by science.

By excluding other perspectives, Mann is left only with his own. If science is the process of reconciling different perspectives, such that the fragility of perspective is excluded, then by excluding perspectives, the product of Mann’s science — what the likes of Mann see — is an image of himself, passed off as a picture of the world. An angry, censorious and arrogant scientist reveals much about the prejudices that form the environmental perspective, and just as much about the politics that has invested so much in him.

Buy a Newspaper, or the Planet Dies…

Posted by Ben Pile on January 18, 2014
Jan 182014

Over at the Guardian, Professor of Journalism and former editor of the Daily Mirror, Roy Greenslade observes that…

The Independent is up for sale. The paper’s founder, and current chairman of its publishing company, Andreas Whittam Smith, has been authorised to seek out a buyer.

The owners, Alexander Lebedev and his son, Evgeny, have been indicating for some time that they would be happy to dispose of the paper and its sister titles, i, and the Independent on Sunday.

They have made various cryptic statements over the last six months about their willingness to offload loss-making papers that they see no prospect of turning into profit.

The decline of the Independent’s circulation was something observed on this blog back in 2009.

The post was moved by comments around this particularly alarmist headline, which epitomised the Independent’s coverage of the climate story. (With a couple of exceptions).

As alluded to in the blog post, three years earlier an article on the BBC about ‘climate porn’ by none other than Richard Black, had interrogated, albeit sympathetically, the Independent’s deputy editor on the noisy line the newspaper had taken with respect to climate change. The answers were candid, to say the least:

No British newspaper has taken climate change to its core agenda quite like the Independent, which regularly publishes graphic-laden front pages threatening global meltdown, with articles inside continuing the theme.

A recent leader, commenting on the heatwave then affecting Britain, said: “Climate change is an 18-rated horror film. This is its PG-rated trailer.

“The awesome truth is that we are the last generation to enjoy the kind of climate that allowed civilisation to germinate, grow and flourish since the start of settled agriculture 11,000 years ago.”

Ian Birrell, the newspaper’s deputy editor, said climate change was serious enough to merit this kind of linguistic treatment.

“The Independent led the way on campaigning on climate change and global warming because clearly it’s a crucial issue facing the world,” he said.

“You can see the success of our campaign in the way that the issue has risen up the political agenda.”

“If our readers thought we put climate change on our front pages for the same reason that porn mags put naked women on their front pages, they would stop reading us.

“And I disagree that there’s an implicit ‘counsel of despair’, because while we’re campaigning on big issues such as ice caps, we also do a large amount on how people can change their own lives, through cycling, installing energy-efficient lighting, recycling, food miles; we’ve been equally committed on these issues.”

But it seemed, even then, that the Independent’s readers really did think that the editors were using catastrophic images to titillate an audience. Hence, I argued, the decline in the newspaper’s readership figures, 2006 to 2009.

Thus, the newspaper would go into ‘negative circulation in Summer 2018′:

I thought I’d update my graphs. It seems things haven’t got any better for the poor old Independent.

And things aren’t getting any better for the Guardian, either.

There are of course a number of reasons for the decline of ‘dead tree media’, one of which is the rise of Internet-based media. However, the internet had been around for a decade before the series above begins, during which time sales were stable, or possibly even showed an improvement.

However, I prefer a different explanation. All newspapers have lost sales. But the Independent and Guardian have suffered more than average, and I don’t believe their catastrophism is coincidental.

This blog has long observed that the more an institution embraces the climate issue, the surer we can be that the embrace signifies a crisis of some kind, analogous to an existential or identity crisis. Political parties, trade unions, and even giant corporations have sought to attach themselves to the image of planet-saving.  The newspaper resorts to climate catastrophism, not simply as some kind of pornography in order to sell copies, but to attempt to identify itself in a world it has trouble making sense of. (That’s why people buy newspapers, after all.)

This is demonstrated by taking a look back at Ian Birrell’s words. In 2006, his brief history of… erm… history was that a benign climate had ‘allowed civilisation to germinate, grow and flourish since the start of settled agriculture 11,000 years ago’, which we would be the last generation to enjoy. Equally blandly, the world might be repaired by ‘cycling, installing energy-efficient lighting, recycling’. The allusion to Nature’s Providence rules out humans as the agents in their own development: civilisation only exists because the weather was nice. The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite: civilisation exists because nature is indifferent to our discomfort, thus humans worked together to improve their condition.

Vapid accounts of human history and the forces which shape it underpin vapid accounts of the contemporary world. Such analyses become less convincing. Hence the newspapers remain on the shelf.

The shrill histrionics that pass as ‘journalism’ today reflect the authors’ own inner experiences, not a sharp focus on the world. Birrel’s naturalistic account of the world is an internal monologue, shared only by a small number of people, most of whom work in institutions that suffer the same kind of crisis. The newspaper epitomises that ideology. It is read by an increasing narrow class of people, whose ideas are shared by fewer and fewer people. The crises this causes appears to them as the End of the World, not as their own inability to make sense of it.


Environmentalists are keen on projections and predictions based on existing trends. In 2009, I ‘projected’ that, on the basis of the trend seen in the decline of the Independent’s circulation, it would reach only a negative number of people by 2018. What does the new data say about when the Independent and Guardian will close?

According to the linear trend, I may have been a little pessimistic about the Independent’s future.

However, the fit isn’t very neat. The polynomial trend suggests a different future…

Of course, this is fun, not science. The Guardian and Independent are no more obliged to projections based on polynomial trend lines than they are obliged to follow the Climate Resistance blog’s advice that they should relax their alarmist outlooks.

Re-Writing Mission History?

Posted by Ben Pile on January 7, 2014
Jan 072014

Stephan Lewnadowsky has an article at The Conversation, saying that sceptics are wrong, in their pointing and mocking of the failed Spirit of Mawson expedition.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and by now you might have seen dramatic images of passengers on stranded icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy being rescued by helicopter last Friday after becoming lodged in Antarctica sea ice on Christmas Eve.

Lewandowsky is, of course, the defender of the environmental narrative. Key to his argument that the sceptics are wrong is a page on the expedition’s website, which seems to claim that the mission anticipated the ‘fast ice’ which came to surround them:

If one goes to the expedition’s website, their first three scientific goals (there are nine altogether) are as follows:

  • gain new insights into the circulation of the Southern Ocean and its impact on the global carbon cycle
  • explore changes in ocean circulation caused by the growth of extensive fast ice and its impact on life in Commonwealth Bay
  • use the subantarctic islands as thermometers of climatic change by using trees, peats and lakes to explore the past

Says Lewandowsky:

In other words, the expedition is experiencing the very conditions it set out to study — namely the various kinds of sea ice that scientists know are increasing around Antarctica, while the icecaps on Antarctica are known to melt.

However, there is no mention of ‘fast ice’ on the site’s ‘expeidtion aims’ page in July last year, according the wayback machine.

Now the expedition’s aims are outlined under a page called ‘Science Case‘, which indeed contains the reference to ‘fast ice’. But according to the Wayback machine, this didn’t appear until November, but the page in question wasn’t captured until January 2.

A Google search for the passage ‘explore changes in ocean circulation caused by the growth of extensive fast ice’ in November yields zero results:

A search for the same expression in December 2013 reveals no links that contain the passage before the vessel got trapped in said ‘fast ice’.

Lewandowsky would no doubt reject this as a ‘conspiracy theory’, but it seems to me that there is no evidence that the reference to ‘fast ice’ on which his argument rests existed before the fast ice engulfed the expedition. It is possible, of course, that my limited web-detective skills and the tools available aren’t equal to the task of proving it, one way or another.

However, further searches in various time-frames for ‘Spirit of Mawson” and “fast ice” reveal very little discussion along the lines of Lewandowsky’s claims. What little there is, contradicts it…

Days 10-18 – 17 to 24 December 2013
Commonwealth Bay And East Antarctic Coastline

We hope to arrive at the fast ice edge in Commonwealth Bay on 17 December and commence our science work and over-ice approach to Mawsons Huts in earnest. Of course our progress will be dominated by weather considerations, but ideally we would moor the vessel against the fast ice edge so that ice and ocean studies can begin and we can send our airborne drone out to view the route towards Cape Dennison and Mawsons Huts. Once a route is determined we believe we will need to use our over-ice vehicles ( Argos) to mark a route then commence transporting scientists and passengers to the coastline as weather and ice conditions allow and the route is safe.

We also expect to move the vessel along the coast to other sites in the region such as Cape Jules, Port Martin and perhaps the French station of Dumont D’Urville.

The Spirit of Mawson’s expedition aims didn’t make the fast ice an object of study as much as it made it a mere port. Who knew that the port would become the storm? Not the Spirit of Mawson team.

Lewandowsky seems to be making stuff up again.

Science, Advocacy, Politics, Technocracy

Posted by Ben Pile on January 4, 2014
Jan 042014

Judith Curry and Brigitte Nerlich have been focussing on some interesting questions about scientists and advocacy. Judith Curry has quite a series on the subject, but the two posts linked to seem to have been provoked in part by Kevin Anderson’s comments urging scientists to be ‘advocates’ in some sense, but that not ‘speaking out’ is ‘more political’ than speaking out: to speak out is to be an ‘advocate of the status quo’. Here’s Kevin Anderson.

(Transcript etc here).

Anderson’s argument is not helped by the fact that the Tyndall Centre, where he deputy director and leader of the energy and climate change research programme, recently held a conference on ‘radical emissions reduction’, the content of which seems to be overtly political, to say the least. Here is one presentation at the conference, by Andrew Simms, who is famous for declaring that there were just 100 months left to save the planet (now there are just 35).

Andrew Simms, NEF/Global Witness, ‘A Green New Deal: historical precedent and current potential’ from tyndallcentre on Vimeo.

A problem for Anderson is that Simms’s argument is more than just ‘advocacy’. It is political. Certainly, he wants to talk about ways to respond to climate change. But Simms really wants to comprehensively reorganise the entire productive economy, to say how much each of us should have, and so on. There are many problems with Simms’s arguments. But what concerns me most is that ideas like Simms’s — such as the ‘Green New Deal’, for instance — get smuggled in under cover of “science”.

The politics on show at the Tyndall Centre’s conference has certain characteristics. First, the urgency of the climate issue is used to cement the foundations of new political institutions, like the Tyndall Centre, which place putative expertise close to policy-making. The problem should be obvious — nobody who disagrees with that compact between the academy and the state seems to have been invited to the conference. Second, the public is conceived of by the likes of Simms as an object which needs to be managed, and its behaviour and values engineered. The exclusion and objectification of the public represents a further departure from democratic politics. Rather than being advanced by popular movements, achieving their aims through the democratic process, we see influence for ideas like Simms’s being sought by an academic elite and by politicians and political institutions, outside of democratic oversight, insulated from criticism by deliberate exclusion.

Anderson is no less political:

As it stands, policy makers are either running scared of the perceived wrath of the electorate or are choosing to listen to the sceptics’ appealing messages of inaction rather than responding to the implications of the science. Similarly, business leaders fear both the ire of their shareholders and the unchecked forces of competition destroying any firm daring to go beyond incremental change. And as for the scientists, certainly there are a few brave heads raised above the parapet, candidly translating their analysis into the everyday language of politics and lifestyles. But most of us are remiss in this respect. Whilst over post-conference dinner drinks the atmosphere is of resigned melancholy, put us anywhere near a minister, CEO or journalist’s microphone and we’ll typically mutter platitudes of technological optimism and green growth.


As the religious doctrine of the Catholic Church impeded the progress of heliocentrism, so the competitive market dogma of contemporary politics constrains the free expression of academics today.

If Anderson wants to argue that it is imperative for scientists to speak out, he must at least deal with the problem that, to the rest of us, it seems obvious that the putative climate crisis is a vehicle for political agendas, for activists like him and Simms, and of course, for governments and political parties who find it difficult to connect with the public, and routinely seek ways to circumvent their own problems of legitimacy. He says that governments resist ‘the implications of the science’, but in reality, politicians saw opportunity in the climate crisis, hence they have sought to champion it. Leaving aside the technical questions around climate change, advocates of climate policy seem to be advocates of a certain forms of politics — forms of politics which we have seen before, and which have been attempted around different ecological issues in very recent history.

To put it very bluntly indeed, the eugenicists of mid 20th Century Europe and America had a moral responsibility, it would seem, to warn of the dangers of the contamination of superior races by inferior blood, through inter-racial marriages. Similarly, the Neomalthusians of the 1960s and ’70s, who are today awarded honours by the Royal Society, were compelled to warn of a world overrun by hungry black and brown people — their science told them it would happen. The results of their computer modelling were indubitable. Global institutions and global policies were needed to ensure that the individual choices made by millions upon millions of unwashed, uneducated, uncultured people from non-white races didn’t swarm and swamp the civilised nations. Science — the scientific consensus — said it was better that abject poverty persists, allowing nature to take its course, keeping otherwise uncontrollable populations in check. Policymakers dutifully obeyed. They seemed only superficially reluctant.

Whether or not ‘climate change is happening’, and ‘the implications of the science’ are as Anderson claims, isn’t it possible that the climate crisis is in fact, first and foremost, a political crisis, born out of the prejudices of that form of politics? Isn’t it possible that the role and functioning of science has changed as the relationship between the public and political institutions has changed? Isn’t it possible that science’s advocates are caught up in that change, without having formed a clear understanding of it, and the context of their own research? Indeed, isn’t it possible that the political crisis can appear to the likes of Simms and Anderson as an environmental crisis?

The context of the climate debate seems to me to have been missed out by those reflecting on the scientist-vs-advocate problem. I don’t mean it to say, ‘oh, look, science was wrong about race, population, resource-use and limits-to-growth, therefore…’, but it does seem obvious that the history of attempts to understand –and control — human society from a naturalistic perspective is not a very nice one. We can’t talk about the need to organise global productive economy around the issue of climate change until we have discussed the same order of claims that were made, in living memory, about population, resources, and race. Scratch the surface of arguments for ‘radical’ action on climate change, and you find the Neomalthusian’s arguments buried only slightly beneath. Scratch further, and find a great deal more of rank misanthropy. ‘Stop scratching’, say the environmentalists, ‘or the world will end’.

Brigitte Nerlich hints at the problem:

These recent debates make public some of the dilemmas at the heart of making science public. These are particularly problematic in the context of climate change, where speaking up, from whatever perspective and position, can lead to being shouted down, but where speaking up is increasingly demanded of scientists in particular by people in high office, such as the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport. The complex relationship between science, communication and policy (which is not as linear as some might think or wish it to be) and the complex relationship between science, advocacy and silence is however little understood (and quite easily misunderstood) and needs much more research. This also holds for the relationship between science and noise of course, but that’s another story.

All these recent episodes demonstrate that every act of speech and every act of silence opens up a space for interpretation and misinterpretation leading to further speech and further silence. These acts of speech and silence also open up spaces for power struggles over who should speak (for whom), who has the right to speak (about what), how to deliberate about science and politics, what the outcomes of these deliberations should be, and so on. How we use our individual and collective acts of speech and silence to negotiate common (global, national, local) goals relating to the world we live in and want to live in, still remains a deep democratic conundrum.

Meanwhile, Judith Curry works from Roger Pielke Jr’s schematic outlined in The Honest Broker:

While Jasanoff argues that Pielke’s representation is over simplified, I think it serves well to clarify this particular debate. Below is my take on [Tamsin Edwards vs Gavin Schmidt vs Judith Curry vs Kevin Anderson] in this debate:

Kevin Anderson seems to view only one role for scientists – the Advocate – whether scientists choose to engage or be silent.
Gavin Schmidt sees the choice between Pure Scientist and Advocate, whereby anyone who engages has values and is therefore an Advocate.
Tamsin Edwards is a proponent of engagement but not of advocacy, putting her squarely in Science Arbiter box.
As for moi, I engage and get involved in policy discussions but do not advocate, putting me further towards the Honest Broker box than is Tamsin.
To make it explicit and clarify, my involvement in policy discussions related to climate change is:

* open up space for public discussion and argumentation
* question the efficacy of proposed policies at achieving desired outcomes and pointing out potential unintended consequences
* disclosing the limits of scientific information and the extent of uncertainty
* As summarized in my NPR interview:

“All we can do is be as objective as we can about the evidence and help the politicians evaluate proposed solutions”

This is different from advocacy (although i recall reading somewhere that hotwhopper regarded my activities as advocacy against mitigation). While advocacy is somewhat elusive to define, the Wikipedia definition serves well:

Advocacy is a political process by an individual or group which aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions. Advocacy can include many activities that a person or organization undertakes including media campaigns, public speaking, commissioning and publishing research or polls or the filing of an amicus brief.


Back to my original recommendation that scientists should steer clear of advocacy unless they are prepared to make sure that their advocacy is not irresponsible (see my previous post (Ir)responsible advocacy). And if scientists are hoping that their advocacy will be effective, then they are advised to become educated about the policy process, politics, and the relevant science and technology studies research.

The roles of Science Arbiter and Honest Broker of Policy Options are ways for scientists to engage with the public and in the policy process without being an Issue Advocate.

JC also quotes Pielke Jr’s definition of advocacy:

I argue that “stealth issue advocacy” occurs when scientists claim to be focusing on science but are really seeking to advance a political agenda. When such claims are made, the authority of science is used to hide a political agenda, under an assumption that science commands that which politics does not. However, when stealth issue advocacy takes place, it threatens the legitimacy of scientific advice, as people will see it simply as politics, and lose sight of the value that science does offer policy making.

This blog has long argued, a la Pielke, that scientific claims belie political arguments. However, the problem for the concept of ‘stealth advocacy’ might be that stealth advocacy is so very very stealthy that it is extremely hard to explain to the likes of (for instance) Anderson and Simms that they are advocates of politics/ideology/policies. It’s obvious to me (and perhaps you) that Simms’s argument is political. But perhaps it isn’t so obvious to Simms himself.

I find it hard to fault Pielke, Nerlich or Curry’s thinking on most things. But I wonder what use there is in an endless taxonomy of agents in the climate debate, and ideas about configuring effective relationships between science and governance.

Would even an honest broker have ever been able to resist eugenics and neomalthusianism? Could being objective about the evidence, and helping politicians consider the evidence have stopped the ‘limits to growth’ thesis from developing its toxic hold over (and against) the development agenda? Could public engagement have stopped 20th Century scientific racism?

The following may sound shrill, and lean towards a reductio-ad-Hitlerum argument. But notice that, even though we all now know that the racial science of the early 20th Century was political, not even the Royal Society is so aware of the difference between science and ‘ideology’ that it recognises mid 20th Century malthusianism as a racist doctrine and Paul Ehrlich as a nasty racist. The Royal Society gives Ehrlich awards instead, salvages his failed prophecies, and re-animates them to increase their own leverage in political debates about the environment. The task in front of the honest broker is bigger than he realises: it’s him versus some serious institutional muscle.

What if the racists and neomalthusians really did have the best available evidence, but, for whatever reason, that evidence was inadequate, or simply wrong? Is it good enough to be wrong for the right reasons? What if the business of collecting the objective evidence was — as we now know it was — utterly contaminated by ‘ideology’? Being objective is no guarantee of objectivity. What appears to us as objective is often subjective. If this simple fact was not true, science would neither be possible nor necessary; we would see things as they are.

What is the importance of things like climate and race to the ‘future of mankind’ that causes so much hand-wringing, such that billionaires donate huge sums of money to research institutions like the Smith School and Martin School at Oxford, The Grantham Institute, amongst a number of others, including the Tyndall Centre, to answer such questions? (Wasn’t it the same compact between uber-wealthy ‘philanthropists’ and academic scientists that led to the Club of Rome and its Limits to Growth?)

It’s obviously the case that, if we expect scientists to ‘inform’ policymaking, we create both an imperative for them to speak out, and we direct their researches, and we make the direction of that research vulnerable to vested interests and political agendas. Take, for instance, the Oxford Martin School’s mission statement:

The School’s research is helping to better anticipate the consequences of our collective actions, and influence policy and behaviour accordingly. We aim to develop new approaches to some of the most intractable questions. In fact, to be funded by the School, scholars must demonstrate that their research will have an impact beyond academia and will make a tangible difference to any of today’s significant global challenges.

Similarly, the Smith School at the same University:

The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment is a leading international academic programme focused upon teaching, research, and engagement with enterprise on climate change and long-term environmental sustainability. It works with social enterprises, corporations, and governments; it seeks to encourage innovative solutions to the apparent challenges facing humanity over the coming decades; its strengths lie in environmental economics and policy, enterprise management, and financial markets and investment.

The Oxford Martin School (OMS) wants to ‘influence’ not only policy, but also behaviour. As is discussed above, one of the presuppositions — for better or worse — of the democratic tradition produced by the Enlightenment is the idea of autonomous moral agents participating in public decision-making, and being free to make decisions regarding their own lives in the private sphere. The public is sovereign, and can hold power to account. We can see in the newly-emerging relationships between supranational organisations, businesses, the academy and the state, an institutional shift away from those ideals. That’s not to overstate the existing influence of the Martin and Smith schools, (though it should also not be underestimated, as was recently revealed by David Rose). The point is to demonstrate the direction of travel — the form of politics which is developing, right under (or high above) our noses.

It’s also worth noting that this idea isn’t entirely new. Take a look, for example, at this journal produced by Techncracy Inc in 1937.

Technocracy is the science of social engineering, the scientific operation of the entire social mechanism to produce and distribute goods and services to the entire population of this continent. For the first time in human history it will be done as a scientific, technical, engineering problem. There will be no place for Politics or Politicians, Finance or Financeers, Rackets or Racketeers.

Technocracy states that this method of operating the social mechanism of the North American Continent is now mandatory because we have passed from a state of actual scarcity into the present status of potential abundance in which we are now held to an artificial scarcity forced upon us in order to continue a Price System which can distribute goods only by means of a medium of exchange. Technocracy states that price and abundance are incompatible; the greater the abundance the smaller the price. In a real abundance there can be no price at all. Only by abandoning the interfering price control and substituting a scientific method of production and distribution can an abundance be achieved. Technocracy will distribute by means of a certificate of distribution available to every citizen from birth to death.

The Technate will encompass the entire American Continent from Panama to the North Pole because the natural resources and the natural boundaries of this area make it an independent, self-sustaining geographical unit. Technocracy’s blue-prints have been designed for this continent and for no other. It is an American Plan for the American continent. No imported political philosophies including Democracy, are in any way applicable.

But science wasn’t quite the antidote to the excesses of ideology that it was hoped to be. And this is shown by the transformation of its advocates’ vision. The ambition of Technocracy Inc. in the 1930s was the optimal management of the productive economy. Today, the justification of technocracies is conceived of somewhat differently. In 1937, advocates of technocracy believed that scarcity had been abolished, thereby making economics redundant, whereas the basis for technocracies in 2013 is the idea that in spite of almost another century of economic, industrial and scientific development, scarcity, either in the form of substance, i.e. resources, or as natural processes such as the sequestration of atmospheric CO2, persists. At least in 1937 technocrats believed in abundance for all. Today’s miserable technocrats conceive of economics as merely insufficient to mitigate against scarcity. Science does not transcend its historical context quite as efficiently as its adherents claim, indeed, in many senses, it more precisely reflects the prejudices of political elites — the ‘Politics or Politicians, Finance or Financeers, Rackets or Racketeers’ — than even the politicians, financeers do themselves.

In our heads, we all want a technocracy to abolish politics and economics. Right, Left, or Centre, we all believe that ours is the most efficient way of organising public life and productive activity, which, free from obstacles would deliver the best of all possible worlds. We should therefore not rule out the technocrat’s fantasy of efficient management too hastily. What we should criticise is the technocrat’s desire for political organisation – that society can be managed according to a single, uncontested and uncontestable design.  Advocates of ideas about how society should be organised should be committed first to the idea that those ideas should win influence, stand up to hostile criticism, and be made legitimate by popular assent.

In other words, a technocracy might well be legitimate, just as long as we all wanted it. (But then, of course, it wouldn’t really be a technocracy). Consider this…

Technocracy, Inc., realizes only too well that no political government on this Continent has either the courage or the structural facility to institute a Continental Health and Medical Service as proposed in the blueprint of The Technate of America, which includes in part, compulsory physical examinations of all citizens every six months; the application of preventative as well as curative medicine in diseases, etc.

A compulsory physical examination, every six months… It would be a wonderful thing if there were sufficient resources (i.e. we were all rich) for medical examinations every six months. But I deny completely that it would be a Good Thing if we did it, either voluntarily or by force. For the majority of us, it’s simply not necessary. Such frequent and unnecessary interventions might, moreover, be damaging, physically, as well as psychologically, since such regular contact and monitoring would provoke anxiety and passivity about our own health. The price of deference to expertise is a bloated technocrat and the subjugation of autonomy. The idea of compulsory medical examinations gives the game away: it sounds like a great idea that will promote health, but it means you don’t own your own body. Never mind debates about private property and its institutions; Technocracy Inc. wants to own you, body and soul.

The appeal of technocracy is, of course, only that it does away with politics. That is a desire shared by thinkers across the political spectrum. But science as the negation of politics denies the virtue at the heart of both.

But neither science nor politics proceed by excluding different perspectives. Both exist and proceed because of, not in spite of, different perspectives. Were it otherwise, science and politics would neither be necessary nor possible. But technocracy abolishes competing accounts of the world: it says that hoi-polloi is not competent, either to form a view of the world, or to make decisions about their own lives or public matters; and as the climate debate shows, unofficial interpretations of The Science are waved away as so much ‘motivated reasoning’ and the such like. In short: the desire to eschew politics and to replace it with science makes science political. It is ideological. It is as ideological as any “ideology” ever was. The result is the actual negation — denial — of science, the process of discovery. The purpose of science becomes instead efficient management.

And this is what Anderson is really driving at with his concerns that ‘the competitive market dogma of contemporary politics constrains the free expression of academics’. It’s BS, of course — academics have rarely ever been so free (and the electorate rarely so disengaged), yet he privileges ‘academic expression’ over the democratic expression of the wider public, who he frames in terms of their slavish obedience/lust for the promises of the market. Moreover, academics have rarely ever been so sought by political power to legitimise it. What seems to be bothering Anderson is that this transformation of politics has not been total enough. We should see this transformation reflected in the difference between the claims made by technocrats in the 1930s and their descendants today: whereas the earlier technocrats declared the era of scarcity to be over, today’s technocrats promise only to deliver us from doom. Technocrats could not persuade anyone with promises of the most efficiently organised society, so technocratic ideas formed instead around the necessity of technocracy. Whereas the critics of capitalism in the 1930s promised more than capitalism (albeit without freedom), Anderson can only articulate an alternative to what he perceives as free-market capitalism (it isn’t) in terms of disaster, catastrophe, Armageddon. Climate change can’t just be a problem that could be managed within any number of political systems — it has to be a total, encompassing, terminal crisis, that mandates a particular response: political environmentalism.

And this is what is missed in attempts to define a proper public role for scientists in public life. A bit like asking where the banjo player should sit in a chamber orchestra. Or worse… A kazoo player. It would be obvious to anyone with an ear that they are out of place. That’s not to say that there is no place for banjos, kazoos — or scientists — in public life (though I cannot think what they might be), but that the idea of them being essential is one ultimately borne out of the immediate problems of politics, not out of the necessity of public policy. This is not to say that expertise has no business in politics. Parliaments and other public institutions have always been able to call on expertise for information, evidence and advice. It is to suggest, however, that debates about the anatomy of honest brokerage, or to devise codes of ethics for scientists, may miss the point. There is insufficient reflection in debates about the climate about the scientisation of politics.

The rebuttal, of course, from the technocrats is that the world will end without them, and that anyone who argues otherwise argues with the whole of science (or at least the consensus). But this argument takes its premise as its conclusion: that the world is this hostile place, which demands optimal management. It is from this ideological premise that a lot science is advanced. The notion of the Earth as a collection of systems in fragile equilibrium on which society is closely dependent, for instance,  forms the basis of a great deal of policy as well as research into ‘climate impacts’. This in turn encourages the idea that any changes in natural processes are in fact destruction, attributable to human economic and industrial development. Yet as hard as scientists have searched, no ‘tipping point’ has been established, and no optimums identified — they are instead presupposed to exist.

It should be obvious that Kevin Anderson, and many others, whether he knows it or nor, is doing more than science, and that the Tyndall Centre — amongst many other research organisations — has a political agenda, in spite of claiming to be working objectively.

So, rather than asking for a more clearly defined function for science, might it not be more productive, to admit to the debate the idea that science without politics is, for the moment at least, an impossibility, and that our understanding of the natural world is soaked through with political ideas, and has been to a greater or lesser extent since classical antiquity. Rather than excluding the objects of ‘advocacy’ from expert scientific advice to politics, might it be better to argue in the first instance for scientists to say that the questions and expectations of it need closer scrutiny.

In order to understand ‘what science says’, we need to be clear about what it has been told. Scientists are not going to stop being advocates, and the expectation of scientists to transcend advocacy, ideology, or politics is an expectation of science that it has demonstrated WRIT LARGE that is not yet equal to. However, we can interrogate the values, claims and ambitions of expert and lay environmentalists, independently of the science. Take for example, this nasty little piece in today’s Guardian by Alex White:

Should Australian newspapers publish climate change denialist opinion pieces?
Should Australian newspapers, like Fairfax, publish opinion pieces that deny or seek to cast doubt on man-made global warming?

One of the arguments that I have seen against the notion that climate denialists should be given a media platform is that without it, there would be no “balance” in reports on climate change.

However, surely newspapers should aim for objectivity rather than balance, especially if one “side” is just plain inaccurate.

After all, what appears on newspaper opinion pages is a decision made by editors. Newspaper editors decide every day what merits inclusion in those pages; completely fanciful views are effectively banned through the decision not to publish rubbish.

Is the responsibility of major media publishers on honesty, accuracy and objectivity?

That seems to be the view of the L.A. Times, and of Reddit.

Does Fairfax have the same responsibility? Should it have published the McLean opinion piece?

White poses censorious statements as questions. And behind those statements are implications about individuals’ capacities to make decisions about what they read for themselves, and the freedom that they should be entitled to, to form opinions for themselves, even if they end up contradicting ‘science’. All of which makes White’s desire for censorship more extraordinary, given his profile at the same paper:

Alex White is a leader in progressive campaign strategy, communications and social marketing, with over a decade of experience with unions and non-profits.

When did ‘progressives’ become so, erm, ‘liberal’ with the notion of press freedom? In the past, progressive movements were perhaps the loudest critics of appeals to putative objectivity in public matters, and fought against the regulation of the press. It was widely understood that seemingly objective claims about the material world were often, at best, premature. But now ‘science’ is being used to make arguments to limit what newspapers may publish, by left wing and environmental activists like White. We could wait for the honest brokers to say “but that isn’t science”, and that all the scientific evidence in the world cannot tell you about the rights and wrongs of limiting the freedom of the press. Or we could make the observation ourselves.

Too much emphasis on science is, in many respects, the problem. If it isn’t science, it doesn’t need a scientist to point it out. If scientists are advocates, then the debate is predominantly political, not scientific, and honest brokers may find themselves with very little to say. We might learn more from looking more closely at the descent of White and his kind from ‘progressive’ to authoritarian than we might from looking at charts depicting the extent of sea ice in the poles.

What is Science?

Posted by Ben Pile on November 6, 2013
Nov 062013

The previous post here made the point that the IPCC serves much less to inform debate than as a vehicle for any number of political ambitions or prejudices, few of which can be justified on the basis of the IPCC’s reports — assessments of what ‘science says’.

The publication of the IPCC’s reports is a ritual. Its report’s are like ceremonial talismans, which bestow whoever wields them with divine (aka ‘scientific’) right. Unless the IPCC can robustly and quickly respond to the torrent of self-serving hyperbole that is uttered by it’s self-appointed proxies, it will remain merely a cult of weird monks, who are wheeled out for ceremonial purposes, but who are otherwise ignored.

This is a hard point to explain to people who are convinced by the usual arguments about locating the best evidence, and then hoping that policymakers/politicians will make the best of it. Some recent events create an opportunity to further demonstrate the problems with the fashionable emphasis on science.

There is probably some kind of law, somewhere, which states that as a comedian’s product becomes less funny, the more likely he or she will be to attempt some kind of political posturing. NB: I do not mean political satire here. I mean comedians, seemingly eschewing comedy, to use their profile to instead tell the world how it ought to be. The previous post mentioned two such comedians — Stewart Lee and Robin Ince (who is discussed again shortly) — who were perhaps funny in the 1990s, but have been reduced to grumpy old men, ranting at the world about how stupid it is. Ince and Lee follow in the wake of two other has-been stand-ups that have chosen to save the planet rather than make people laugh: Marcus Brigstoke and Rob Newman.

Here’s Brigstocke, from 2007.

And here’s Rob Newman from the same year.

And let’s not forget David Mitchell… (Who was only ever funny in Peep Show, which someone else wrote).

There are enough of these tired one-time funny men, who have re-branded themselves as environmental Saviours, to say that this is a phenomenon rather than a coincidence. Green is the colour of re-invention, after all. Or is it the colour of an insidious mould? Nearly seven years on, and Brigstocke’s global warming continues in its stalling mode and Newman’s peak oil theory has been busted by oceans of new hydrocarbon discoveries. Neither has prompted much reflection.

The latest to join the ranks of these jokers is Russell Brand, who has been appointed guest editor of the New Statesman. This appointment, and his discussion with Jeremy Paxman has been causing a fair bit of discussion…

“Who are you to edit a political magazine”, asks Paxman.

“Well I suppose like a person who’s been politely asked by an attractive woman”, explains Brand. And it doesn’t get much deeper than that. As has been widely pointed out, Brand’s flowery vocabulary — his trademark — belies a bland and incoherent vision of a ‘revolution’. There are a couple of references to the environment — as we might expect. But I’ll leave these for the moment, and may return to them in a later post.

Brand has been appointed as guest editor of the New Statesmen to attempt to revive the publication whose circulation is fewer than 25,000. The hope, of course, is that someone with the profile of Brand might add to these figures, which, Guido points out, seem to imply that the magazine loses a whopping £1.35 a copy. In a similar stunt last year, the dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei took the chair now filled by Brand. “We chose him because of his prominence, his art, his global significance and his activism and bravery”, explained NS features editor Sophie Elmhirst. The choice of Brand, who shot to fame after presenting one of the Big Brother reality TV show franchises suggests that prominence is perhaps the most important factor in the selection process. Bravery, it would seem, is too fickle a concept, if the magazine’s statements on on climate change are anything to go by:

Denying climate change is worse than spreading the usual kind of conspiracy theory: it costs lives“, wrote former Political Editor, Mehdi Hasan, whose lefty-liberal street-credentials enjoyed a short lived boost last month when he layed into Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre on BBC TV. But Hasan’s stock plummeted shortly after, when it was revealed that just a few years ago he had written a letter to Dacre asking for a job, which had praised the newspaper’s social conservatism. Green cant is enduring: newspapers are pariahs… when they wont give you a job. And ‘bravery’ only consists of reproducing — rather than challenging — orthodox thinking.

“What I don’t want, or need, is balance between those who argue climate change is a problem, and those who argue it isn’t”, wrote staff writer, Alex Hern. The New Statesman’s editorial policy is clear. Climate change deniers are not welcome. But any old tosh from Bob Ward is.

As has been pointed out on this blog before, it seems that publications that face an existential crisis tends to perceive that crisis as something external to itself. The New Statesman, like the Independent and the Guardian have haemorrhaged readership over the years — more so than most dead tree media. Might environmental alarmism be a response to a weakened grip on the public sphere? In other words, it seems obvious that as an organisation’s (or individual’s) ability to make sense of the world diminishes, so the consequences are that fewer people will turn to it as an authority on the world, and that the search for ways to explain the world will grow ever more desperate. This naturally manifests as alarmism and as contempt for people who don’t share the increasingly shrill view of the world.

The growing hostility of many public institutions — not just the press — to the wider public is most visible in their preference for supranational politics: the EU, the UN, and of course the IPCC/UNFCCC. This in turn reflect’s the political establishment’s similar preferences for elite forms of politics. The only reason environmental correspondents at the Guardian will find to criticise politicians or the government, for instance, is because environmental policies haven’t progressed fast enough towards goals set by international agreements. Barely a word is uttered about those policies or political institutions that seemingly mandated them lacking democratic legitimacy. And public opinion matters on the view that such writers offer only to the extent that it is an opportunity to blame climate change deniers for the lack of progress. Pesky democracy! Pesky public!

Whether ‘climate change is happening’ or not, it has become an opportunity for individuals and organisations who are past their sell-by date, and who struggle to sustain an understanding of the world, to sustain their leverage in the public sphere. Every dying movement, every atrophying public institution, every vapid political party, and every hollow-headed hack has closed ranks on the issue of climate change, to form a rearguard action against their own decline.

However, Brand has not joined the ranks of Lee, Ince, Newman and Brigstocke, to become an incoherent, shouty doom-sayer as someone whose product no longer sells. Brand’s brand is still current, as his millions of twitter followers are testament to. But those followers want reality TV, goofy pop trivia, and naughty phone pranks, not a manifesto. Brand is editor of the current edition of the New Statesman to revive it, rather than himself. The spectacle is absurd.

Here’s brand introducing the line-up of stale public intellectuals in his edition…

‘The revolution’, a poet once claimed, ‘will not be televised’. But it seems the revolution does need a TV celebrity to sell its magazine.

‘Naomi Klein, she’s a journalist or summink… What’s really required is a revolution in consciousness…’ Hmmm.

Naomi Klein’s piece in the New Statesman is called “How science is telling us all to revolt“, in which she argues,

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.

It’s in Klein’s words that I think we find the nub of the problem.

Put simply — and perhaps too simply — critics of capitalism in the past were concerned in the main with its social consequences — that it pitched classes against each other. Change was sought by engaging those who seemed to lose out in the status quo, to mobilise them as a political force, to seek a more equitable arrangement. But the doyens of today’s ‘global left’ such as Klein express their ideas very differently.

First, there is the growth scepticism: ‘our relentless quest for economic growth’. Why should people who claim to be interested in ‘social justice’ be so hostile to ‘growth’? We should contrast Klein with, for example, the words of the late Marshall Berman, whose obituary in an edition of last month’s Guardian contained the following passage:

In his last book, On the Town, Berman described the awe and excitement he felt in Times Square, as a committed socialist bathing in the pulsating neon light of pure, concentrated capitalist advertisement. He saw in the way people used the space, gathering, wandering, gazing, and the way in which the lights and signs danced around them, as glimpses of a playful future that would always be constrained by capitalism. Socialism, he argues, will mean more – more neon, more cities, more skyscrapers, more people, more production, this time controlled and used consciously, rather than for the enrichment of a small group. It is a vision we would do well to remember.

It’s a shame that the Guardian doesn’t more reflect the view of the author of Berman’s obit — Owen Hatherley — than it reflects Klein’s asceticism. The ‘relentless quest for economic growth’ is a bedtime story, which belies reality, and is hostile to the interests of its would-be beneficiaries. You don’t need to be either a socialist or a capitalist to realise that growth, in just the last decades, has not merely transformed lives, but made them possible. Klein instead prefers the story that there is sufficient wealth, but that evil robber barons keep it from those who need it — a childish ‘zero sum game’ view of wealth and inequality.

But worse, Klein’s story is that the problem with robber barons is that they’re ‘killing the planet’. And this represents a departure from the view that people’s own understanding of their own interests should motivate them to organise change. Instead, Klein defers to ‘science’: ‘climate scientists have seen the data’ and have determined that ‘our relentless quest for economic growth’ is ‘killing the planet’. We don’t get to choose what to do, ‘science is telling us all to revolt’. The masses cannot think for themselves. Even worse, Klein doesn’t really have anything better to offer them.

Klein’s story starts:

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco.

Scene set…

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

In essence, then, Klein knows that ‘the earth is fucked’ because a man with pink hair told her so at a conference in San Francisco. She doesn’t understand why, but it’s good enough for her that someone claiming expertise in ‘complexity theory’ tells her that capitalism is wrong.

There’s so much wrong with this.

First, and aside from the fact that somebody with pink hair isn’t asking to be taken seriously as an authority on global matters… This is one scientist, in a novel field of questionable quality, with one unpublished, un-peer-reviewed, argument. It’s not ‘science’ telling us anything. It’s not even a scientific institution. Werner’s argument should, at the least have been published before Klein took it to mean so much.

Second, science has no business — indeed it cannot — saying that capitalism is wrong. One cannot work out from basic physics, chemistry or biology, an argument that capitalism or its alternatives are better or worse than each other. Many have tried. All have failed. And all attempts to bully people about politics by recourse to science such as this should be rejected. Yet it is science alone that seems to justify Klein’s call for a ‘revolution’:

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Are computer simulations of direction action better or worse than climate models, or models of the interactions between CO2 and the cryosphere? I argue that they cannot be, that they must necessarily be worse. And given the dismal history of such computer-based prognostications about society’s future, it seems obvious that Werner’s models are likely the weakest ever produced.

A great deal of ideology hides behind ‘complexity’ at the best of times. My favourite example being quantum physics as the fig leaf for all sorts of silly supernatural ideas, such as telepathy, ghosts, healing and homoeopathy. That’s not to rule out quantum mechanics for the woo-woo that hides behind it, of course. But ‘complexity theory’, as it is represented by Werner, is making the kind of grand claims that were made, for instance, by cybernetics in the 1970s: the promise that humanity’s relationships with the natural world could be understood through a systems perspective, and a date for the Apocalypse printed off by a daisywheel printer, watched by team of global doom-sayers. All of them dressed appropriately, in white coats. Then, as now, they were led by a showman, Paul Ehrlich.

But rather than producing insight, the field of cybernetics had more utility to politics. Over the course of the grim 1970s and the cold war, the promise of science unleashing potential to liberate mankind gave way to mere promises to save us from certain destruction. Klein continues:

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

There is, of course, no possibility of a comparison between occupy and the abolition movement. The abolition movement states its intention from the outset — abolition. The occupy movement, however, was characterised not just by an inability to set out its manifesto, but a refusal to. The other thing that characterised occupy — like many contemporary green protest ‘movements’ — was its failure to be a movement at all. Few people are interested, because the ‘movement’ — such as it is — fails to articulate anything to share. Klein flatters herself — and the occupy movement — with such comparisons. Whatever… the point was not the rights and wrongs of Occupying, but of modelling occupy. Let’s put it simply. Occupy’s effect on the course of the climate is zero — a very easy thing to model.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012, Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Klein, who is, let’s remember, constructing an argument that ‘science says’ capitalism is wrong, begins by saying that ‘scientists have been moved by their research…’ does not summon up the name of a scientist who has led at the ‘forefront of movements’. She instead chooses a capitalist, of all kinds of people, to make her point that ‘this is the crisis of our species’. And not just any old capitalist, either… Klein, in her argument against capitalism chooses to use the words of a multi-multi-multi millionaire! Albeit a green millionaire. The irony is surely lost on Klein.

Klein goes on to refer to James Hansen, ‘the godfather of modern climate science’. But the godfather himself has a bad religion. Hansen’s predictions of doom have not manifested. And worse for Klein’s apparent appeal to scientific authority, Hansen’s remaining projections are further away from the scientific consensus on climate change than many deniers’. So much for science, then.

Klein’s argument gets no better. Indeed it gets worse. As much as I would enjoy a line-by-line dissection, I don’t have the time, and it would be a distraction from the point I’m trying to make.

Away from Klein, and from Brand and the New Statesman, a video popped up on Youtube this week from a debate in April.

Geoff Whelan is joined by Jeff Forshaw, Helen Czerski, Robin Ince and Brendan O’Neill to debate the question “Is Science the New Religion?” at this particularly lively session from QED 2013.

Ince, you will remember, is discussed above, and in the previous post. And it is Ince who is determined to prevent discussion throughout the event, by throwing childish tantrums at O’Neill, who suggests that the relationship between science and politics is complex. Ince is reduced to shouting at O’Neill throughout, seemingly to defend science, but missing O’Neill’s argument entirely.

Ince’s rage needs some explanation, further to what is offered above. It’s hard to understand, firstly because O’Neill is alone in the room in criticising the existing relationship between science and the state (and the arguments for its expansion), and two far more qualified individuals sit to his left. Yet Ince is apoplectic throughout the discussion, as though O’Neill himself was the only thing in the world holding back the progress he wanted to see. This demonstrates in microcosm the problem: the Angry Ince won’t even let the scientists — to whom he is asking us to defer — speak. Thus making one of O’Neill’s points for him: that debates about public matters that science might seemingly be able to shed some light on are nonetheless drenched in politics. O’Neill:

That relationship is one where politicians frequently call on science to justify an agenda or policy they want to push forward. Scientists have been sucked into that over a long period of time. … Scientists should wriggle free from those expectations… [Interruption] They should cut loose those relationships with politicians. I think they should refuse to go along with that.

Jeff Forshaw isn’t that much better than Ince:

They’re quite hard to read those papers sometimes. You’re saying that scientists should produce their peer-reviewed papers and then not talk to any politicians to explain the content of them?

The question is also a statement that the relationship between science and the state consists of no more than scientists and politicians talking to each other, perhaps as they passed each other in the street occasionally. It’s as if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had not been summoned into existence by a political need for a scientific consensus, the substance of which had already been determined. It’s as if research funding protocols did not put emphasis on the relevance of research to policy. It’s as if university departments had not been established to inform particular policy agendas. If Forshaw’s answer is sincere, it is hopelessly naive.

But worse than simple nativity about the substance of relations between institutional science and the state, Forshaw is ignorant about what it is that scientific institutions are tasked with under the compact which self-evidently exists, and which is qualitatively different to relationships between science and the state in the past. Some insight into this is unwittingly given by Ince a moment or so later.

This world we currently live in is built on technology and science. The Western world at the moment… If you look out that window there and look at the swirling fucking madness there… all of these things… So we can’t just go there’s politics and there’s science, because within politics… In the same way… I’m sorry… It just… This thing where… The world… When you talk about the Ancient Greeks… The world now is incredibly complex. The level of understanding… No one… Many scientists have said this before… You can… If you’re lucky you can maybe be an expert on one tiny thing. We can’t have these wonderful polymath politicians who’ll be able to understand everything. And we certainly aren’t [???] them now.

Ince, — a man whose stock-in-trade is words and their delivery — seems to be struggling to set out his manifesto. It’s as if he’d never had to think about what he is asking for, and wants to convince people of. And yet he is asking for a particular form of political organisation, which you, I, and everyone must be subject to.

His argument is that the world is complex. Thus it needs technical expertise to serve as managers of public life. He criticises O’Neill for a historical perspective that encompassed Ancient Greece, but has forgotten Plato’s Philosopher Kings — the administrators not even of a ‘swirling fucking madness’, the Western World, but merely a city state.

Far away from Plato’s Republic, in Manchester and in San Francisco, Ince and Werner invoke, not love of knowledge, but ‘complexity’ as a basis for their political treatises. But all that is revealed by invoking something so nebulous is that Ince is an inarticulate oaf, Werner is a pseud with a pseudo science, and Klein is a fool. It should be obvious that anyone appealing to ‘complexity’ in this way is admitting their own inability to understand the world. Klein and Ince admit it. Klein defers to the charlatan, who claims to be able to make sense of it by recourse to deterministic models of soap-dodging activists, and Ince merely to ‘science’.

But ‘complexity’ too needs unpacking further. What does it mean to say ‘the world is complex’? What index of complexity exists, to say that the 21st century is so much more complicated than the 20th, 19th… such that it requires a radically new form of political organisation?

Is the world really more complex? There are fewer wars. People live longer lives, and they are healthier and wealthier than at any point in history. There are more sciences, specialisms and industries, which would seem to make things more complex. But these in general make life easier. The increased complexity of contemporary life doesn’t seem to be a problem. Indeed, it seems to be a solution to our problems.

Let’s call this Ince’s Paradox. On the one hand, Ince claims that the world is complex because of the possibilities that science has created. But this complexity is a problem that conventional forms of democratic government cannot cope with. Only scientists can deal with the mess — ‘the swirling fucking madness’ — they seem to have created.

We’ve seen this before.

‘Giving society cheap abundant energy is like giving an idiot child a machine gun’ — Paul Ehrlich.

Similarly, the former president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees has, since his presidency traded on the notion that the 21st Century may well be humanity’s last. Here he is, explaining to Stewart Brand, his prediction that by the year 2020, either ‘bio error or bio-terror’ will have caused the deaths of over a million people.

The paradox deepens. Advocates of science are in fact terrified of it. It unleashes such power that in the wrong hands that might either accidentally or deliberately kill us all. Progress is terminal. It inexorably increases risk. It turns every random nut-job into a potential Hitler. And the implication is twofold: it seems that access to science must be restricted, and that risks it creates can only be mitigated by a transformation of politics.

Sounds familiar.

Risk, of course, is the predominant political concept. The prevailing ‘ideology’ is the notion that the mitigation of risk is the first order of government. Although ‘defence of the realm’ and ‘law and order’ have always been at the top of official priorities — for better or worse — the government’s role as protector has expanded in two respects. First, whereas defence and policing deal with tangible threats (albeit ones which historically have been and are overstated for political ends), the state now seeks us to protect us from a constellation of merely theoretical risks, many of which we expose ourselves to as ‘lifestyle choices’. As pointed out before on this blog, even our private, emotional lives are not beyond the reach of the state, which has grown attached to the ‘happiness agenda’ — the idea that a government’s performance is better measured by a measurement of ‘subjective sense of well-being’ rather than economic indices such as GDP. (Give me the money instead, thanks very much.) Unhappiness being a risk factor, of course. In other words, the state has identified ourselves as a risk factor to ourselves. With no ‘clear and present danger’ across our borders, the vapid state’s resources are directed against its own population.

Second, from such important things as telling us what to (and what not to) eat, drink, smoke, and when, and how much exercise to have, how to be happy and find fulfilling relationships, how to behave in public, how much time to spend online, when to go for a walk near some trees, (and the rest), there are the broader theoretical risks that governments now seek to protect us from, but which we cannot understand (complexity again): environmental change of so many kinds, and terrorism being the two most prominent. At the domestic level, this has created a new role for public institutions intended to deliver protection from risk. And of course, at the international level, this has created similar organisations, even further away from democratic oversight, in accordance with the maxim ‘global problems {i.e. ‘risks’) need global solutions’. Both of these, of course, are technocracies, and populated by or informed by putative experts in their respective fields, who are invariably drawn from academic science.

Rees, Ince, and the rest won’t admit it, but risk is a highly politically-loaded concept. There is a desire to see risk at face value. But what belies the emphasis on risk is much less extant threats than a distrust of people — a loss of faith in the idea that people can manage their own risks to themselves, to others, and can made decisions about how they are governed. The ‘swirling fucking madness’ that bothers Ince is just a mass of people he does not trust. Science — “Science” — is thus not, in Ince’s hands, a way of discovering the material world; it is a way of regulating the human world according to Ince’s own prejudices.

Putative fans of science often wax lyrical about the wonders it can reveal. But not so far behind this wide-eyed poetry is a desire to turn it from discovery into a petty-minded bureaucracy. Science reveals the mechanisms of our bodies functioning — amazing stuff. But then it seemingly says we must eat so many portions of this or that kind of food a day, and regulate fizzy drinks and burgers. Science identifies the mechanisms of our planet, but then is employed to enforce the optimum and most efficient ways of managing public affairs, in spite of people’s wants and needs, rather than overcoming what appear as boundaries and limits. Worse still, it seems that the scientists didn’t even realise that the notion of optimums, efficiencies, boundaries and limits are not scientific discoveries, but ideological prejudices they bought to their investigation.

So what is science? A point made here a lot is that there is a routine confusion between science as a process (the scientific method), and science as an institution. Ince, Klein, and the rest aren’t merely seeking authority for their arguments in science, i.e. as a source of some kind of unimpeachable objective truth or facts. They are seeking authority in a very real sense, for the sake of having an authority. It’s not a search to explain the world, but to create order within it.

Science as an institution is as mutable as any of those other institutions in this story: the press, political parties, radical movements, public organisations, and even stand up comedy, which each seem to have undergone their own, troubled transformations. Radical left organisations no longer have theoretical foundations, which inspire popular movements, but are instead led by celebrities and followed by almost nobody. Even those nominated as the left’s ‘public intellectuals’ uncritically defer to scientists… with pink hair… and multi-millionaires. And comedians themselves, who used to be middle-aged white working class men, were replaced by young Oxbridge graduates. But they grew up to be the bigots they had disparaged and displaced. They shouted at the stupid, stupid world, which refused to conform to their wishes. They penned angry rants in newspapers, which in turn struggled to connect with a readership. The newspaper, once an important part of public life, now struggles to identify its role, and is bloated by its attempts to find new audiences, and to survive in the shadow of the Internet. And political parties and politicians, like journalists, comedians and seemingly radical intellectuals, seem to be no better at making sense of the ‘swirling fucking madness’ than the next man.

It would be a mistake to say that science (or scientific institutions) was ever one thing, which is its proper function, which has been corrupted. Robin Zubrin’s Merchants of Dispair, for instance, describes a long history of science being used to legitimise some of the most appalling acts in history. Is it a history that Ince and Klein have forgotten? No doubt that they would rightly point to the ‘ideology’ behind the ‘science’ of racial hygiene, but they would forget the fact of the contemporaneous scientific consensus failing to observe it as pseudo-science. At the time, much as Malthusianism before (and again, after it), race was the encompassing framework, that could explain all of society’s moral, political and economic problems, from crime, through drunkenness, war, poverty, to recession. Now we see the same with climate. But the role that science plays, evidently does change. For example, as ‘risk’ has become the dominant political idea, and as global institutions have been established to identify and mitigate them, so we see scientific research reflecting those priorities, whereas in the past, scientific political arguments emphasised the ethno-nationalism that dominated political ideas post-Darwin.

Science doesn’t have a way of seeing the way it is itself used, or its relationship with society changes. When its champions — angry comedians — are confronted with accounts of its function, they typically respond, at high volume and high pitch about ‘ideology’ or politics as some kind of arbitrary, irrational thing. When it is suggested that science does have a relationship with politics, ‘I don’t understand. This is why I never go on fucking Question Time’, says Ince. But without the perspective that scientism seems to eschew, it’s not possible to see ideology reflected in science. It’s not possible to see it being put to political or ideological ends. Moreover, it’s not possible to interrogate that ideology, much less propose ways that science can be put to use to do real good in the world.

Notice that the climate debate descends to science — it is not elevated by it. Venture criticism of the proposal that a global scientific panel should determine the parameters of domestic energy, climate, and economic policies, and rather than being offered a defence of such a form of political organisation, you will be accused of ‘denying the science’, and you will have scientific papers waved in your face. You will be accused of being ‘ideologically-motivated’, as though the design of this form of politics was not itself every bit as ideological as eugenics, as Malthus, or less alarmingly, the promises of jet-packs, flying cars and ‘energy too cheap to meter’. ‘Climate change is happening’, you will be told. ‘Science says so’. But science has done a poor job of identifying environmental alarmism. Global scientific institutions have done zero to stop world leaders and global NGOs talking nonsense about the looming apocalypse. Even in this era, in which politics is suffering widespread cynicism and science is celebrated, scientists have not been effective in challenging the amplification of minute, theoretical risks becoming the basis of intrusive and often far-reaching policies, transforming the relationship between the state and individuals. Many scientists and their institutions have been complicit. Perhaps science isn’t so great, after all.

What is the IPCC?

Posted by Ben Pile on October 13, 2013
Oct 132013

Apparently some scientists have written some kind of ‘Assessment Report’. There’s lots of comment about it all over the web, media, and politics, and this probably the last climate blog to comment on the story. But perhaps there has not been as much comment as there was six or so years ago. The content of WGI’s SPM is mostly ‘scientific’ insofar as it purports to examine the ‘physical science basis’, and this blog isn’t about climate science as such. However, many things seem to be being said about the science presented in the AR5 WGI SPM which I think demonstrate that science and politics are harder to separate than anyone admits. After all, its authors are drawn from the sciences, but it is the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. A relationship between science and politics exists before the panel has been assembled, much less cast its collective eye over the scientific literature. Moreover, the IPCC was initiated by a political process. There was a need for a consensus.

It was the previous IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers which prompted this blog, the first post of which began:

April 2007. Since its release in February, the IPCC’s AR4 (Working Group I) Summary for Policymakers has been uncritically reported in the mainstream media, and its findings often exaggerated. Because of a perception that the public mood demands action to mitigate climate change, the UK government has used the IPCC findings to justify committing the country to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Like much environmental policy, this has gone largely unchallenged by opposition parties.

We believe that an unfounded sense of crisis – and therefore urgency – dominates public discussion of environmental issues. Thus, demands for urgent action to mitigate climate change thrive at the expense of genuine, illuminating, nuanced debate.

The last six and a half years have shown that there never has been a ‘perception that the public mood demands action to mitigate climate change’. Pretty quickly, we learned that political ambitions to establish international and domestic climate polices owed nothing to extant public opinion. Instead, politicians’s embrace of environmentalism more reflected their own ambitions, environmental issues seemingly being a vehicle for them. At a time when professional politicians from indistinct political parties struggled to connect with ordinary people, an overweening global crisis like the end of the planet presented politicians with a way of overcoming their own, more mundane problems. Meanwhile, environmentalists have struggled to understand the public’s unwillingness to respond to imperatives issued in breathless, urgent and shrill pronouncements — why the public were not mobilised by fear, as both green organisations and politicians had expected. Thus it would seem that the public (at least in Britain) would tolerate so much grandstanding from politicians and public organisations, but not so much the intrusion into daily life that they demanded was necessary.

At best, climate and energy policies were drafted in the hope that the public would follow — an inversion of normal politics, in which policy-making reflects the priorities expressed by the public in a contest of ideas. But climate and energy policies were not just drafted in spite of public opinion; there is another sense of ‘because of’, which makes public opinion a driver of them. It is precisely because politicians cannot connect with the public that they sought a mandate from elsewhere: from above, rather than from the hoi polloi.

However, organisations that sit above sovereign governments naturally raise questions about the legitimacy of such a configuration. The accretion of political power above democratic control is therefore typically justified on the basis of their mitigating ‘global’ risks. Indeed, sovereignty itself is seen as an obstacle to ‘human development‘ — which, not coincidentally, is defined not by humans who want for development, but typically by the selfsame and self-appointed advocates of depriving people of sovereignty and democracy. The body which aims to dictate climate policy to the world’s population, then, is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which hosts annual farces — Committee of Parties (COP) meetings — that fail to deliver, in spite of being a meeting that excludes critical opposition. Much more could be said, of course, but this is the context of the IPCC.

The IPCC is much more about ritual than scientific investigation. Every six years, it issues three reports, each with dozens of chapters and sub-sections, each dealing with a separate aspect of the climate issue. Many hundreds of lines of evidence are considered.

And then they are thrown away:

It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.

In the IPCC’s language, ‘extremely likely’ means 95%. Hence, what headlines across the world have been reporting is that scientists are 95% sure of man made climate change. This estimate has also been upgraded from the previous IPCC report, from just 90%. Hence, headlines have reported that scientists are more sure than ever of man made climate change.

Unpacking these statements reveals not very much when it is considered that the warming between 1951 and 2010 amounts to 0.6 degrees centigrade. ‘More than half’ means as much as 0.299999 degrees of that warming may well have been due to natural change. Moreover, the increased estimate of confidence could correspond to less warming than had previously been attributed to ‘anthropogenic forcings’.

“Climate change”, however, means many different things to many different people. Once the claim that scientists were 95% confident in climate change was made, climate change advocates let their imaginations run away. ‘Climate change’ can mean anything you want it to mean.

Dana Nuccitelli, the Guardian’s new hyper-prolific end-is-nigh merchant was one of the first to re-interpret the IPCC’s latest report. Rather than being 95% sure about ‘more than half’ of the warming since 1951, Nuccitelli claimed that ‘100 percent of the global warming over the past 60 years is human-caused, according to the IPCC’s latest report‘. The 2007 report focussed on greenhouse gasses, he said, whereas the 2013 report included all ‘anthropogenic forcings’, including ‘the cooling effect from human aerosol emissions’.

Put it all together, and the IPCC is 95 percent confident that humans have caused most of the observed global surface warming over the past 60 years. Their best estimate is that humans have caused 100 percent of that global warming.

But it’s not what the IPCC says. And if such a concatenation of assumptions were sound, it would have been done by the IPCC itself. For example, under the ranges stated by the IPCC, the world might well have cooled 0.1 degrees over the six decades —  greenhouses gasses could have produced 0.5 degrees of warming and aerosols -0.6 degrees — and Nuccitelli would still be worrying about global warming. We might add on to that another 0.1 degrees of possible cooling, giving us -0.2 degrees, yet leaving the alarmist story intact. And conversely, the IPCC claim that greenhouse gasses may have caused as much as 1.3 degrees of warming, and that aerosols and natural variability could cause as much as 0.1 degree more each, giving us 1.5 degrees of warming since 1951. So Nuccitelli omits the range of -0.2 to 1.5 degrees — a span of 1.7 degrees, against an observed change of just 0.6 — in order to shift the reader’s understanding of the IPCC’s statement away from its actual content. But what he unwittingly reveals to any sensible numerical perspective is the ambiguity of the IPCC’s statement, and the alarmist’s tendency to make stuff up when the science doesn’t do what he wants it to do.

‘Climate change’ meaning many different things to many different people, we see different anxieties expressed not just about what ‘science says’, but about allowing the expression of voices that dissent from its edicts. While pseudo-scientific number-play suits those who pretend that the IPCC’s authority comes from science proper, other reflections are more transparently a search for authority in misery. Robin Ince — one of those alleged ‘comedians’ who have sought to make science entertaining — for example, worries about his ‘Grandchildren Spitting on My Grave, before eating me out of necessity‘.

This is not a post of facts and evidence, just an emotional one concerning my confusion over our reaction to climate change science. How can something so possibly devastating for human life be played with as if its just a parlour game for contrarians vent dummies popping out of the silk pockets of CEOs? Why is this the science that is more doubtful than most despite an impressive body of evidence? Instinctually, it seems it is because it is currently the branch of evidence based thinking that most urgently calls for a change in our consumerism and others’ profits.

Is Slavoj Žižek right that it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a change in global capitalism?

Climate change means different things to different people. For Ince, who has eschewed facts and evidence, climate change can’t just be a problem, it has to be ‘devastating for human life’. The agents that bring about Armageddon in his fantasy are that familiar villain: profit-seeking CEOs, the rest of us in thrall to global capitalism, made slaves to it by our material desires. These are the base, crude coordinates of Ince’s shallow moral universe. And then Zizek… The full quote is this…

Think about the strangeness of today’s situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.

It’s interesting to see what Ince has taken from Zizek, or more precisely, what he has left out. Zizek prompts Ince to wonder, ‘Are we losing our anticipatory animal instincts that made us what we are?’ and, ‘Are we toddlers with hand grenades?’ But Zizek’s point is surely that the contemporary left finds it easier to imagine the end of the world precisely because it cannot imagine an alternative to capitalism. Hence, the cartoonish anti-capitalism of Ince, with its comedy evil CEOs, asks us to rebel against our material instincts and our masters, not towards a better future, but merely to avoid Thermageddon. Ince talks of toddlers, but it is his own infantile perspective that causes his inability to understand the difference between failing to assert his will on the world and the end of the world. In the interests of left-right balance, however, it is worth pointing out that there are plenty of (equally nominative) conservative who have sought to use green narratives to rescue capitalism.

Staying with alleged comedians, Stewart Lee attempts a surreal satire of the IPCC report’s lack of impact

The end of the world is nigh … anyone out there interested?
A planet-destroying space god has no chance in the news schedules against someone’s dad being called a communist

Last Monday the International Panel on Planet-Threatening Demi-Gods presented the most peer-reviewed scientific paper in all human history, giving unarguable evidence that Earth will be destroyed by a malevolent super-being called Malignos at teatime (GMT) next Tuesday. I was on tour, sitting in Belfast airport departure lounge, when I read about it in the Guardian. It seemed like an important story, but I noticed other passengers skipping it in their papers in favour, for example, of a charming Daily Mail centre-spread of Photo-shopped pictures of tiny people in a world made of massive vegetables. There was some giant broccoli that a bike had crashed into and a little white man was standing next to it looking at the buckled wheel, scratching his head in astonishment. He simply couldn’t believe it. He had driven his bike straight into some giant broccoli!

Along the way, we encounter the hate figures that populate most of Lee’s ‘comedy’ narratives: people who read the wrong newspapers, The Daily Mail, Top Gear presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, common people, and people in general. And of course, people who don’t take climate change quite as seriously as Stewart Lee does. Like Ince, climate change cannot be just a problem, of degree, with a range of solutions at various timescales. It is total, and immediate. And a failure to comprehend the total-ness and immediate-ness of the problem means… “We’re fucked. We’re absolutely fucked.”

It’s been said before. In fact, nearly every year for six decades. But those prognostications, which each identified trends in the environment that pointed inevitably towards our species’ immanent demise, never materialised.

There is a link between the misanthropy expressed by Lee and the belief that, “We’re fucked. We’re absolutely fucked.” It follows that if you think the population are, as Lee and Ince have it, fecund and feckless, unchecked human nature will tip humanity towards doom, like some kind of Hieronymous Bosch painting.

Bosch, however, does a better line in surrealism than Lee. It’s hard to resist accounting for this as Bosch’s deeper reflection (than Lee is capable of) on circumstances experienced by his contemporaries. Life could be pretty tough in the fifteenth century. Yet in spite of the vast majority of the human race being Lee’s inferiors, it is not possible to compare fifteenth century life with twenty-first century life in NW Europe. Ince and Lee worry about the end of the world. Science says they should. But their anxieties are really the expression of crisis of less material origin. Whereas the Netherlandish painting reflects a nascent humanism, the smug, self-righteous and cynical comedian(!) represents that movement’s terminal moment.

Lee and Ince’s anxieties are not about the planet, but about other people. The desire to control society’s relationship with the planet belies a desire to control people. It is no accident that Ince and Lee cannot conceal their contempt for the consuming, unthinking masses. Being the arbiters of human fertility, consumption and production — the check on human nature — Lee and Ince can only imagine so many mouths to feed, which each want more and more and more. It can only end in The End.

Enough with the comedians. The avoidance of The End necessitates the construction of institutions that will check human nature. As is discussed at length on this blog, the institutions that will deliver us from climate Apocalypse are invariably global, and established above democratic control, as is discussed above. On the contemporary view, ‘democracy’ is merely an expression of consumer preference. Just as humans on the misanthrope’s view want more, more more, democracy is too easily subverted by material impulses to allow it to be the check on power. The ritual of IPCC reports replace the pomp and circumstance that used to accompany expressions of power in the past.

Take these words, for example, from Christiana Figueres, in a UNFCC press release.

“The report shows that there is more clarity about human-generated climate change than ever before. We know that the total effort to limit warming does not add up to what is needed to bend the emissions curve. To steer humanity out of the high danger zone, governments must step up immediate climate action and craft an agreement in 2015 that helps to scale up and speed up the global response,” Executive Secretary Figueres said from the United States, during her mission to the current UN General Assembly in New York.

Governments under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. They have also agreed to assess the adequacy of this limit and progress towards this goal using the best science, including this IPCC report. This formally agreed international review will conclude in
2015 in Paris, at the same time as the new, universal climate agreement. “As the results from the latest and best available science become clearer, the challenge becomes more daunting, but simultaneously the solutions become more apparent. These opportunities need to be grasped across society in mutually reinforcing ways by governments at all levels, by corporations, by civil society and by individuals,” said Ms. Figueres.

“Thankfully, momentum to fight climate change is building. We know that success is possible. We have the technology, funding and ability to respond. The many successes at domestic, international
and private sector levels to build a low-carbon society shine light on the way forward, but we do need to quickly go to scale,” she added.

Here is Figueres, announcing the IPCC report…

She says,

For me this week in New York has actually strengthened my conviction that humanity must, can and will, work together to avoid the worst effects of climate change. [...] This report constitutes an alarm clock moment for the world, because this report will tell us again that everything we knew about climate change has actually been underestimated. The effects of climate change will actually be upon us faster and in a more intense fashion than we had thought. Sothe question then is of course what are governments doing to address this.

It’s just not true. The IPCC does not paint a more alarming picture of the world. Indeed, the SREX report issued just last year revealed that many of the effects of climate change had in fact been overstated.

But facts, such as they are when produced by the IPCC, do not matter. What matters is the narrative of a worsening and deepening crisis. Figueres’s words fly in the face of the IPCC, to reinvent its position, to manufacture legitimacy for the UNFCCC, which instructs governments on what they should do, no matter what the wishes of the populations represented by those governments are. Yet she claims to speak with its authority.

It would be so much harder to call this out as a transparent attempt to accumulate power away from democracy if Figueres didn’t seem to be so pig ignorant. But we see here at the top level of climate bureaucracy, a shameless and groundless lie, told by an unelected and unaccountable technocrat to service her own personal ambition.

More lowly figures than Figueres respond in a similar way — disregarding the content of the IPCC, to claim, by virtue of its headline, whatever they want to claim. Ed Davey, UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary of State said in a missive,

The message of this report is clear – the Earth’s climate has warmed over the last century and man-made greenhouse gases have caused much of that global warming. The gases emitted now are accumulating in the atmosphere and so the solutions must be set in motion today. The risks and costs of doing nothing today are so great, only a deeply irresponsible government would be so negligent.

Without urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions this warming will continue, with potentially dangerous impacts upon our societies and economy. This strengthens the case for international leaders to work for an ambitious, legally binding global agreement in 2015 to cut carbon emissions.

This report is the most authoritative , credible analysis of climate change science ever. It represents a huge amount of work by over 250 unpaid scientific experts drawn from universities and research institutes in 39 different countries around the world. We owe them our gratitude because this report makes clear what is at stake if we don’t act.

What truth there is in Davey’s message is trivial. But the judgement which develops from the appeal to scientific authority is far-reaching. Content-free science — ‘science says’ — seems to give the government a mandate to act in a certain way. To do otherwise would be ‘irresponsible’, says Davey. But is it not also irresponsible to allow debate about what looks like a disastrous range of climate and energy policies — policies which have pushed up the price of energy, leaving people poorer, in colder homes, and causing other economic effects, none of which are good? And isn’t it deeply irresponsible to deny debate about what the IPCC actually says, and its provenance? Instead, Davey expects us to take the content of the IPCC report and his government’s interpretation of it for granted.

Similarly, the IPCC report as a ritual — rather than as an evaluation of the science — allowed climate policy advocates to call for the censorship of any voice that might want to challenge the shallow interpretation of the report. Complaining about Bob Carter’s appearance on BBC Radio, director or campaigning organisation E3G, John Ashton, said, ‘By the most generous standards it is a serious lapse if not a betrayal of the editorial professionalism on which the BBC’s reputation has been built over generations’. As if one story in the same paper wasn’t enough, Fiona Harvey drew from Ashton’s words,

On Friday the IPCC, which represents the world’s leading climate scientists, produced a landmark report on the state of knowledge of global warming.

The IPCC said it was unequivocal that warming was occurring and that the dominant force behind it was human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.

The report, the first from the UN-convened body since 2007, and only the fifth since 1988, was the starkest warning yet of the dangers of climate change.

But in the BBC’s coverage of the report’s release in Stockholm, which was attended by several BBC science journalists, the voice of climate-change sceptics, who do not accept the IPCC’s core findings, got considerable airtime.

The chorus of whinges about who gets airtime continued. Bob Ward in the Guardian complained:

Global warming sceptics using media campaign to discredit IPCC
Lord Lawson’s group Global Warming Policy Foundation is attempting to distort media debate on climate change

The past seven days have shown clearly how Lord Lawson and a small clique of other climate change sceptics are able to use their political and media networks, as well as family ties, to distort so effectively the UK public debate.

Meanwhile, the Independent reported Energy and Climate minister, Greg Barker’s words:

“In the case of the BBC they have a very clear statutory responsibility. It’s in the original charter to inform. I think we need the BBC to look very hard, particularly at whether or not they are getting the balance right. I don’t think they are,” Mr Barker said.

He added: “I think there is too much focus on trying to stimulate an increasingly sterile debate on the science, given the overwhelming body of opinion that there is now in favour of the science, and perhaps if they are wanting to have an active debate they should be talking about the policy responses to that science, rather than the science itself,” he said.

“I’m not trying to ban all dissenting voices but we are doing the public a disservice by treating them as equal, which is not the case,” he told the committee.

Barker may not be ‘trying to ban all dissenting voices’ as such. But he is trying to prevent criticism of his government’s interpretation of the IPCC report, and the policies he claims are the result of an appraisal of the science. Just as with Davey, his appeals to the scientific consensus are appeals to a consensus without an object. “The overwhelming body of opinion” is used to shut down debate without any discussion about what it refers to. And what follows that denial of debate is invariably an attack on the moral character and motivations of anyone who dissents from it.

So the IPCC’s assessment reports mean nothing. They are ignored the moment they are published. In their place, people with influence and power improvise the substance of the consensus, to make it mean whatever suits their argument at the time.

In the past, rituals that cemented authority and power were wrapped in pomp and circumstance, smells, bells and mysticism. The rituals of today’s political order are wrapped in ‘science’.

Here, for example, Angel Gurria, the secretary general of the OECD, created an argument for world leaders to ignore the wants and needs of the people they represent, and to put problems like unemployment, poverty, and economic hardship to one side… To put the political establishment’s needs first, and to cement power away from democratic oversight. Who cares if people are unemployed, cold, hungry, ill, or want for more, right? Won’t somebody think of the ‘future generations’?

The IPCC seemingly investigates the role of anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere and its likely effects on the planet’s systems, and for human life. But soon, the limitations of that study are forgotten. The content of the IPCC’s reports is barely discussed. Instead, the IPCC’s WGI AR5 SPM is used to make arguments about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to appear on the TV and Radio. It is used to diminish dissenters, and to belittle ordinary people. It is used to justify the accretion of power. And it is used to transform the priorities of politics and all kinds of public organisations. The publication of the IPCC’s reports is a ritual. Its report’s are like ceremonial talismans, which bestow whoever wields them with divine (aka ‘scientific’) right. Unless the IPCC can robustly and quickly respond to the torrent of self-serving hyperbole that is uttered by it’s self-appointed proxies, it will remain merely a cult of weird monks, who are wheeled out for ceremonial purposes, but who are otherwise ignored.

Battling the Environment

Posted by Ben Pile on October 11, 2013
Oct 112013

The Institute of Ideas’ annual Battle of Ideas meets again next weekend, at the Barbican Centre in London.

On the Sunday, I’ll be discussing ‘What is Environmentalism’ with Mark Lynas, Joe Smith, and Caspar Hewett, and with Timandra Harkness in the chair.

What is ‘new environmentalism’?
Sunday 20 October, 3.30pm until 4.45pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

Like most ideologies or political movements, environmentalism has always contained different strands and shades of opinion. But in recent years, there has been increasing debate within the movement about what its core values are, which issues it should pursue and how. Since Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the founders of the US-based Breakthrough Institute, wrote their influential 2004 essay, ‘The Death of Environmentalism’, many attempts have been made to redefine the environmental perspective. Most significantly, a growing number of environmentalists now make arguments in favour of nuclear power, GM technology and even fracking, and have questioned the policies designed to protect the climate and natural environment. Accordingly, some environmental organisations are now criticised by people who could be found supporting them just a few years ago. This fresh dimension to the green perspective and reflection on environmentalism’s failures has been dubbed ‘new environmentalism’.

But what has driven this change? Have new environmentalists responded to criticism from without the environmental movement, or to scientific developments and political failures? What possibilities exist for new environmentalism to make a difference and what institutions does it need? More profoundly, what might that change look like – what do new environmentalists think constitutes the Good Life, and how does this compare to the way of life imagined by environmentalists previously?

The full timetable is outlined here —

As you can see, there’s something for everyone. However, readers may be particularly interested in the following:

The crisis of innovation: Dude, where’s my flying car?
Saturday 19 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 1 Battle for technological progress

The 20th century saw great leaps forward in technology and innovation – from the mass production of cars to nuclear power to moon landings – and ended on something of a high with the internet. Can we expect even more from this century or have we reached a technological plateau? Were those breakthroughs just ‘low hanging-fruit’, as economist Tyler Cowen has argued, and are we going to have to work a lot harder to get ahead from now on? Certainly we have been waiting a good twenty years for long-heralded leaps forward in growth and productivity. Are there prototype innovations that just don’t reach a mass market because the costs are prohibitive? Would innovation be liberated if it was freed from the necessity of making a profit or, conversely, do we need the discipline of the market to weed out the mad inventors and pipe-dreamers and reward the genuine entrepreneur? Is the state be standing in the way of innovation, suffocating it with too much red tape and regulation and stifling dynamism with rules about health and safety or minimum wages? Do we need to free the market before it can deliver the goods?

Technology and sustainability: kill or cure?
Saturday 19 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 1 Battle for technological progress

When we think about technology it is usually as a promise. New advances in medicine, say, that will cure a killer disease. New breakthroughs in engineering that might make planes lighter, faster and more economical. New developments in computing that will let us roll up electronic newspapers or ‘think’ an email. Some may protest that they don’t want the benefits of these new technologies or deny that they represent any kind of progress. Most, however, would concede that these are good things even if they are not things they want.

But what about technology that promises what we want but threatens other things we want as well? The controversial technique of fracking has created an energy glut in America that has destroyed the market in renewable energy, which was such an important part of the vision for a sustainable economy. But cheap energy is at least good for economic growth and for household bills. What about GM crops? They hold out the promise of an end to starvation and of prosperity for poor farmers; but they also threaten what has been called ‘seed slavery’ and unquantifiable harms to natural ecosystems. Even the internet is a double-edged sword. Some see the rise of online purchasing where everything is just a click away as driving levels of consumerism and debt that we simply cannot pay back. But others argue the internet has enabled collaboration between small-scale producers and even individuals (crowd sourcing) that allows them to compete with massive corporations.

Computer modelling: all about the image?
Sunday 20 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

Computer modelling is magic that turns empirical observations into our imaginary future. How many of us will need pensions, artificial hips, or houses in 2050? How much will sea levels rise or incomes fall? Plug enough data into a computer model, and out pour figures and graphs. But from pensions to climate, the line between projecting a trend and predicting the future is often blurred. What assumptions went into constructing the model of reality that underlies the mathematical model? Any projection assumes a host of factors will stay the same, or change predictably. In the real world, things are less consistent.

We need some kind of guide to how the future will probably turn out, if we are to plan anything that takes a few years to bring to fruition. Building power stations, for example, or training doctors. But we also need a good idea of how closely to trust that guide. The precision of graphs and numbers can stamp complex, informed speculation with undue scientific authority. So what are the limitations of mathematical modelling? Should we be more sceptical of its authority? And how much does it matter if some of the details are wrong?

Science journalism: the tyranny of evidence?
Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

When the Independent gave front-page coverage to the discredited scientist Andrew Wakefield’s suggestion that government policy was responsible for a recent measles outbreak in Swansea, the paper was roundly condemned as irresponsible. Similarly, energy secretary Ed Davey has attacked some sections of the press for giving ‘an uncritical campaigning platform’ to anyone sceptical of the consensus view on climate change. Meanwhile, the media are often accused of misinterpreting studies, overstating casual links, inappropriately extrapolating from research results and failing to report details such as sample size or the institution carrying out the study. And eminent scientists have called for supporters of homeopathy and ‘obesity deniers’ to be deprived of the oxygen of publicity. Science reporting is mentioned a number of times in the Leveson report, which recommends a set of guidelines to ensure scientific accuracy, with penalties for reporting that is not up to a required standard.

Whither ‘Extreme Weather’…

Posted by Ben Pile on October 3, 2013
Oct 032013

David Whitehouse and I have produced a few films for the GWPF on the subject of ‘extreme weather’.

There are two versions — one shorter, a second longer with more detail.

Short version:

Longer version:

The videos centre around interviews between David Whitehouse, and Jennifer Francis and Roger Pielke Jr.

Unedited versions of the interviews are also online.

Jennifer Francis:

Roger Pielke:

Sep 222013

In today’s Observer, Robin McKie channels scientists

Climate change: IPCC issues stark warning over global warming
Call to ‘stop dithering about fossil fuel cuts’ as expert panel warns entire globe is affected

This is now part of the ritual established by the Guardian whenever the routine, scheduled, planned, expected, and timetabled publishing of IPCC assessment reports or UNFCCC COP meetings occur. These events are in every case presented as always new, more comprehensive, deeper, and more ‘stark’ than previous pronouncements on climate change, even when the reports say very little or nothing at all that is new, and even suggest that things aren’t as bad ‘as previously thought’. McKie continues…

Scientists will this week issue their starkest warning yet about the mounting dangers of global warming. In a report to be handed to political leaders in Stockholm on Monday, they will say that the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have now led to a warming of the entire globe, including land surfaces, oceans and the atmosphere.

The starkest warning yet? How can he know, when it has not yet been published — indeed, it is still being written.

The scientists’ warning – the most comprehensive and convincing yet produced by climate scientists – comes at a time when growing numbers of people are doubting the reality of global warming. Last week, the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) published a survey showing that the proportion of British people who do not think the world’s climate is changing has almost quadrupled since 2005.

The most comprehensive and convincing [warning] yet produced by climate scientists…? What evidence is there of scientists escalating their warning? McKie should be more cautious. After all, if he is worried about the rising proportion of British people who do not think the world’s climate is changing he might want to think about why some people might — on his view — stick their heads in the sand.

The Guardian’s regular coverage of the climate debate is notable for two reasons. One: its attempts to sustain the climate change narrative is unremittingly alarmist and increasingly shrill. Two: it polarises the debate into binary, opposing categories of scientist versus denier, truth verses falsehood, good vs bad, thus excluding any nuance, complexity or middle ground from the debate.

These two tendencies together explain why scepticism of climate change may be increasing. The problem for the Guardian is that, when you divide and polarise the debate as it does, when the alarmist story you tell turns out to be nonsense, you force people with the sense or intuition to see it as nonsense to the other, opposing camp. In other words, if you do not let people assent to the climate story by degree, you alienate yourself in an attempt to alienate ‘denial’. And the view that the climate has not warmed for over a decade and a half is no longer controversial — only people assembled at the Guardian argue otherwise, albeit they argue the point with (far too much) vehemence. The Guardian’s ire is too much for science to sustain, even if there are plausible hypotheses about where the warming is going. Those who are making the argument that the non-warming of the surface of the planet is not a problem for the climate narrative of 2006 — the ‘travesty’, to use the word of the most vocal proponent of the ocean warming theory of the missing heat — are simply shifting the goalposts, and the whole world can see them being hoist by their own noxious petards: bogus surveys intended to shine a light into the mechanisms of the sceptical mind, to measure the consensus, and to ‘frame’ the debate in such a way as to gently coerce non-believers into ‘behaviour change’ and ‘attitudinal adjustment’. They don’t recognise themselves as the cause of so much climate scepticism. They don’t understand that it is words like McKies…

But as the IPCC report underlines, scientists are becoming more and more certain that climate change poses a real danger to the planet.

… which prompt the reader to reflect on his intransigence, and the continued framing of the debate by the climate change establishment…

Many believe the disconnection between popular belief and scientific analysis has been engineered by “deniers” explicitly opposed to the lifestyle changes – including restrictions on fossil fuel burning – that might be introduced in the near future. “There are attempts by some politicians and lobbyists to confuse and mislead the public about the scientific evidence that human activities are driving climate change and creating huge risks,” said Stern.

Stern’s conspiracy theory, is not new, of course. But it looks like an increasingly desperate move when seen in the light of mainstream scientists scratching their heads about the global warming hiatus, and the non-manifest problems that climate change orthodoxy of yesteryear promised we should be expecting by today. There has been no warming. There is no observable increase in the frequency, intensity or longevity of storms. There has been no detectable increase in the number of floods and droughts. There are not tens of millions of climate change refugees escaping worsening conditions. There has been no increase in the prevalence of diseases allegedly attributable to global warming. There is no widespread loss of agricultural land. And of course, the objections raised by climate sceptics are not attempts to ‘confuse and mislead the public’, but are attempts to point out that that is precisely what Stern and writers at the Guardian have done.

Here are some previous headlines from The Guardian’s archive, where they have issued warnings seemingly on behalf of science, but are much more owed to their own misunderstanding — to put it charitably.

Scientists warn growing acidity of oceans will kill reefs
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 4 February 2005 10.20 GMT

Scientists have given warning of a newly discovered threat to mankind, which will wipe out coral and many species of fish and other sea life.

Climate scientists issue dire warning
David Adam, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 28 February 2006

The Earth’s temperature could rise under the impact of global warming to levels far higher than previously predicted, according to the United Nations’ team of climate experts.

Global warming study warns of vanishing climates
· Scientists warn of disaster in biodiversity hotspots
· Species ‘must evolve or migrate’ to survive
James Randerson, science correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 27 March 2007

By the end of the century up to two fifths of the land surface of the Earth will have a hotter climate unlike anything that currently exists, according to a study that predicts the effects of global warming on local and regional climates. And in the worst case scenario, the climatic conditions on another 48% of the land surface will no longer exist on the planet at all.

UN scientists warn time is running out to tackle global warming
· Scientists say eight years left to avoid worst effects
· Panel urges governments to act immediately
David Adam, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Saturday 5 May 2007

Governments are running out of time to address climate change and to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures, an influential UN panel warned yesterday.

Scientists warn on climate tipping points
Alok Jha
The Guardian, Thursday 16 August 2007

Some tipping points for climate change could be closer than previously thought. Scientists are predicting that the loss of the massive Greenland ice sheet may now be unstoppable and lead to catastrophic sea-level rises around the world.

‘False optimism’ climate warning
James Randerson, science correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 30 May 2008

Climate scientists have warned that a “false optimism” has infused international climate talks and that governments must work quickly to set tough targets for global carbon emissions or risk profound consequences for the planet.

Scientists to issue stark warning over dramatic new sea level figures
Rising sea levels pose a far bigger eco threat than previously thought. This week’s climate change conference in Copenhagen will sound an alarm over new floodings – enough to swamp Bangladesh, Florida, the Norfolk Broads and the Thames estuary
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 8 March 2009

Scientists will warn this week that rising sea levels, triggered by global warming, pose a far greater danger to the planet than previously estimated. There is now a major risk that many coastal areas around the world will be inundated by the end of the century because Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are melting faster than previously estimated.

Climate change warning: ‘We’re sick of having our messages lost in political noise’
David Adam reports scientists’ exasperation at the climate change conference
David Adam, environment correspondent, Friday 13 March 2009 09.39 GMT

Blind date with disaster
We are constantly warned by scientists that our planet is in big trouble, so why can’t we change direction? David Suzuki, one of the world’s leading ecologists, on how humans have lost the vital skill of foresight
David Suzuki
The Guardian, Wednesday 12 March 2008

As I approach my 72nd birthday, I have reluctantly achieved the position of elder, and it is mindboggling to reflect on the changes that have occurred in my lifetime. The population of the world has tripled, while technology has exploded from early radio, telephones and propeller planes to the telecommunication revolution, computers, space travel, genetic engineering and oral contraceptives. And stuff! My biggest challenge is to staunch the flow of stuff into my life. But these great successes – economic growth, technology, consumer goods – have come at enormous cost: the degradation of our very life support systems – air, water, soil, energy and biodiversity.

Scientists warn carbon dioxide may soon make coral reefs extinct
Alok Jha
The Guardian, Monday 6 July 2009 19.22 BST

David Attenborough joined scientists today to warn that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already above the level which condemns coral reefs to extinction, with catastrophic effects for the oceans and the people who depend upon them.

Climate scientists warn of wild weather in the year ahead as El Niño begins
El Niño expected to increase drought, floods and other extreme events, and cause a hot summer in the UK
John Vidal, environment editor, Monday 13 July 2009 16.30 BST

Climate scientists have warned of wild weather in the year ahead as the start of the global “El Niño” climate phenomenon exacerbates the impacts of global warming. As well as droughts, floods and other extreme events, the next few years are also likely to be the hottest on record, scientists say.

Climate change scientists warn of 4C global temperature rise
Team of experts say such an increase would cause severe droughts and see millions of migrants seeking refuge
Damian Carrington
The Guardian, Monday 29 November 2010

A hellish vision of a world warmed by 4C within a lifetime has been set out by an international team of scientists, who say the agonisingly slow progress of the global climate change talks that restart in Mexico today makes the so-called safe limit of 2C impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet’s temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.

Extreme weather will strike as climate change takes hold, IPCC warns
Heavier rainfall, storms and droughts could wipe billions off economies and destroy lives, says report by 220 scientists
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 18 November 2011 13.38 GMT

Heavier rainfall, fiercer storms and intensifying droughts are likely to strike the world in the coming decades as climate change takes effect, the world’s leading climate scientists said on Friday.

Agriculture needs massive investment to avoid hunger, scientists warn
Group of leading scientists urge investment in sustainable agriculture to solve hunger crisis and reduce global warming
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, Wednesday 16 November 2011 13.30 GMT

Billions more investment is needed in agriculture and food distribution systems around the world in the next few years, if widespread hunger is to be avoided, according to a group of leading scientists.

Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists
Water scarcity’s effect on food production means radical steps will be needed to feed population expected to reach 9bn by 2050
John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian, Sunday 26 August 2012 19.00 BST

Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.

These are just a random selection — the first results from a quick Google search. But in each case the story is the same — scientific opinion of variable provenance — has been uncritically reproduced, or wildly exaggerated, often to the point of actually contradicting the science, or to be later contradicted by scientists. Guardian writers use ‘science’ as a puppet to act out morality plays, in which their own fantasies are seemingly given authority by the invoking of ‘stark’ or ‘dire’ — typically, the ‘starkest’ or ‘direst’ yet — ‘warnings’ that things are ‘worse than previously thought’.

But that’s not how things have turned out. And it doesn’t look to any sensible perspective that things are going to turn out to be ‘worst than expected’.

The question that remains then, is, how come all this emphasis on ‘science’ — calls to put ‘science’ at the heart of policy-making and information provided to the public — hasn’t been able to change the quality of the pronouncements made by the likes of Stern and the Guardian? Why hasn’t it been able to challenge alarmist memes finding their way into cheap and shrill Guardian copy? And why is pointing out that the climate change pudding has been over-egged is still dismissed as ‘denial’ by the climate Great and Good? The reason the public switch off is that it is by now completely obvious that there is more to the climate debate than science vs denial, and anyone claiming otherwise is pulling your leg. The only people who don’t understand this are writing for the Guardian.

Sep 062013

Over at the new-format Spiked, Rob Lyons has a short piece on the Australian elections.

One of the biggest issues in Saturday’s Australian election will be the ‘carbon tax’. Coalition leader Tony Abbott said this week: ‘If the Coalition wins the election on Saturday, the carbon tax will go. No ifs, no buts, it is gone… We will do whatever is necessary to abolish the carbon tax.’ He has declared the election to be a ‘referendum on the carbon tax’, which Labor has pledged to retain if it hangs on to power.

Lyons confidently predicts that Labor are going to be ‘getting a kicking over carbon’.

Climate policies suffer from a democratic deficit. If the Australian elections are, as Abbott has called it, a referendum on the Carbon Tax, this is perhaps the first attempt to measure the public’s appetite for climate policies in the Anglosphere. Canada, of course, fell out with the UNFCCC process last year, though not after a test of the public mood. In response to the withdrawal, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said,

“Whether or not Canada is a Party to the Kyoto Protocol, it has a legal obligation under the Convention to reduce its emissions, and a moral obligation to itself and future generations to lead in the global effort,” she said. “Industrialized countries, whose emissions have risen significantly since 1990, as is the case for Canada, remain in a weaker position to call on developing countries to limit their emissions.”

But who is Figueres to tell Canadians what their priorities should be? After all, nobody voted for her. And nobody voted for the UNFCCC process. Climate politics were all about establishing political power above democracy.

This has led to the situation in which Labor are going to be ‘getting a kicking’. But let’s not be hasty…

There has been an obvious attempt to turn the climate debate into an issue of Left vs Right (in terms of party politics). In the UK, Australia and USA, it is the putative Left that has sought to champion the climate agenda. But the Right has been, at best, supine. In fact, in the UK, the Conservative Party argued for stronger climate targets than the then Labour-led government. When Julia Gillard back-tracked on her promise that there would be no climate tax, UK Conservative Party Leader and PM, David Cameron praised the move, saying,

I was delighted to hear of the ambitious package of climate change policy measures you announced on 10 July and wanted to congratulate you on taking this bold step.

Yep, lying to the public is certainly a ‘bold step’, alright. At opposite ends of the planet, unpopular leaders of weak political parties — parties not strong enough to form governments by themselves — slapped each other on the back, from across the political spectrum. What better demonstration of the contempt for the public and for democracy could there be?

In the USA, the Republican Party didn’t create as robust a response to climate politics as many wanted, or as the US Left claimed — a fact discussed in Marc Morano’s interview with Topher Field for the the 50-to-1 project. It has taken a long time for the problems caused by environmental policies to develop into an issue that really can divide politics on party lines.

But only just. And there might not be much else to celebrate about Left/Right party politics in the Anglosphere — which is probably why the climate issue somehow came to dominate, and cross-party consensuses formed, albeit by default.

It would be a good thing if the Australian result sent a message to other climate champions throughout the world that, if they want to be green, they must really seek the public’s consent before they press ahead with far-reaching and expensive policies. But an indication of what is more likely to happen is given in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald… (H/t Paul S.)

How human psychology is holding back climate change action
Behavioral scientists have emphasized that in their private lives, people sometimes display a form of myopia. They may neglect the future, seeing it as a kind of foreign country, one they may not ever visit.

For this reason, they might fail to save for retirement, or they might engage in risk-taking behavior (such as smoking or unhealthy eating) that will harm their future selves.

In a political context, citizens might demand protection against a risk that threatens them today, tomorrow or next month.

But if they perceive climate change as mostly a threat to future generations – if significant sea-level rises seem to be decades away – they are unlikely to have a sense of urgency.

Climate change lacks other characteristics that spur public concern about risks. It is gradual rather than sudden. The idea of warmer climates doesn’t produce anger, revulsion or disgust.

Psychologists, much more than climate scientists, are going to be the experts that politicians consult to establish a basis for their policies and power.

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